Category Archives: literacy skills

Poetry and a three year old


Recently, I carefully packed the Christopher Robin books of my childhood into my suitcase when I went to visit my granddaughters.  The older one is three and a half so I though it might be time to introduce her to one of my favorite authors.  Was it a good idea?  I don’t know yet.

I realised very quickly that she wasn’t ready for the stories so I thought I would try the poetry book, When We Were Very Young.  These were very hasty thoughts because, as I have learned from teaching and parenting, a child’s attention must be caught within a minute of proposing something or you will lose their interest and find yourself playing School, Going to Montreal on the Bus or even Lying on the Floor Waving Your Legs in the Air.

So, at random mainly because I was in a hurry and the poem had illustrations of small child hopping, I chose Hoppity.  I read it to my small grand-daughter, interrupting myself to ask her if she could hop.  She happily obliged and with each chorus, she went flying around the room hoppity hopping.  After a couple of minutes she joined in with the rest of the verses (confession: I did coach a bit).  As I listened to us I realised how much of the enchantment was the combination of the rhythm and the apparently simple plot.

Hoppity

Christopher Robin goes
Hoppity, hoppity,
Hoppity, hoppity, hop.
Whenever I tell him
Politely to stop it, he
Says he can’t possibly stop.

If he stopped hopping,
He couldn’t go anywhere,
Poor little Christopher
Couldn’t go anywhere…
That’s why he always goes
Hoppity, hoppity,
Hoppity,
Hoppity,
Hop.

IMG_0128

Ready for Hopping

Alan Alexander Milne

She especially remembered the line:  Poor little Christopher
Couldn’t go anywhere..
.  When she chanted with me there was a hint of sarcasm in that three-year old voice.  A few weeks later, she still remembered the chorus.

I realised as I said this poem over and over with her that this was where I learned to write – from A. A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame and Rudyard Kipling.  My father read aloud to me on a daily basis – and I was also expected to properly recite poetry to my parents regularly.  Good writing starts with the ear, a pleasure in the “mot juste” and the clever construction that hints at an understory.

Even three-year olds are capable of intuiting the back story in good writing.  We should honour that by reading good writing to them.  I started grade one at the age of five, excited to be on the verge of learning to read.  When the first book they gave me was Dick and Jane – I kid you not – I was seriously disappointed.  I knew crap writing when I read it and this was in no way as good as the stuff my father read to me.

Next time I spend time with my granddaughter I am going to teach her Disobedience.  It starts out:

 

James James MorrisonMorrisonWeatherby GeorgeDupreeTookgreatCare of his Mother,Though he was only three.

James James Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down

to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.

 

I anticipate with delight the giggling we will indulge in about a three-year old telling his mother how to behave.  If she doesn’t get the joke that the title is about the mother, she will some day and that will be another giggle.

How We Read Words


I am reading The Neural basis of Reading and currently reading the chapter called The Functional Neuroanatomy of Reading.(Cornelissen 2010)

The author, Nicola Brunswick, asserts that there are two routes to reading single words and that this is borne out in neurological research.  I am not going to go into the neurology in this post as I think that the theory is probably of more interest to educators.  Besides, I don’t feel that I fully understand the neurology.  No surprise, as I am only eighty pages into the book.  When I do understand, I will write a post on the topic.

Whole language and Hooked on Phonics

Do you remember the Whole Language versus the Hooked on Phonics debate?  When I started teaching[1] in the eighties it seemed that the teaching community was polarised by the split between the two methods.  At the time I didn’t feel that I had a strong grasp on the whole language concept even though I was told my own approach to teaching reflected that perspective.

What is Whole Language?

The Whole English Language

The Whole English Language (Photo credit: Jason DeRusha)

Reading

Whole language teachers engage their students in the use of language and teach the structures of spelling, grammar and writing as the issue arises during the students’ learning.  In my classroom, I read to the children and the children read on their own.  For my students who couldn’t yet read independently, I created tapes of stories they could listen to on headphones as they looked at the book itself.  I made sure to tell them when to turn the page.  Students were encouraged to guess at words they couldn’t figure out rather than interrupt the flow of the text.  These were educated guesses based on context or graphics such as pictures or diagrams.

Writing, grammar and style

My students also wrote daily, starting with a journal, but also using writing in all kinds of forms including reports on classroom experiments, their own stories and scripts for advertising. I read the journals daily and responded to the content.  This was not the place to correct grammar or spelling.  I did note problems with spelling and grammar and addressed the most common ones with the class.  When I had the opportunity, I also privately talked to some students about errors I didn’t deal with in class.

Almost every product except for the journals was expected to be correctly spelt and written.  This was done through drafts and conferences with the students on their work.  They talked to each other about their work as well as discussing it with me.  The Writing Conference Centre was actively used.

Using handwriting to teach spelling, punctuation and poetry

I was expected to teach handwriting.  Setting up practice was rather dreary but I

Handwriting

Handwriting (Photo credit: Mot)

used it as an opportunity to teach spelling, too.  For example, in setting up practices in the joining of w and e and h and e, I would include such bugbears as were, wear, we’re and where and explain the differences.  In later work, there might be sentences to show the difference in usages: “Where were you?” “We’re going to dye our underwear green.”  “We were wearing out the pencil sharpener.”

Later, when we had gone through all the permutations, I put up poetry to be

English: A scene from "", by Lewis C...

English: A scene from “”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

copied as a writing exercise.  I first used The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Each day they copied a stanza.  Through the exercise, they learned the difference between a stanza and a verse, the technical aspects of writing out lines of poetry and some new vocabulary.  The writing morphed into learning how to read poetry, most importantly not to pause at the end of the line unless there was punctuation there to tell you to do so.  They also learned the purpose of punctuation and how it helped the reader to understand.

Phonics and whole language

I didn’t ignore phonics or the teaching of spelling, I just taught phonics when and where it was useful to learn it.  We did do spelling tests.  The list of words was drawn from my observations of the students’ difficulties and the vocabulary they were trying to use.  I always added an eleventh very difficult word such as chrysanthemum or fuchsia[2] that didn’t count in marking the tests; it was only for fun.  Sometimes students learnt the tough word better than the others.  I didn’t plan it that way, but now I realise that it also taught students that there are a number of words in English that break orthographic rules.  You can’t entirely rely on phonics.

Hooked on Phonics

Hooked on phonics

Hooked on phonics (Photo credit: daveonkels)

Phonics in this context refers to teaching the correlation between sound and letters.  This allows unfamiliar words to be sounded out by the reader.  For example, if you know that g followed by an i or an e will be given the soft pronunciation of g i.e. “j”, you can decipher the pronunciation of words such as gorge, gamete and gelid.  It won’t be much help with geisha or gecko, which is why experience is important in learning English.

Stress, pronunciation, meaning and spelling

However, a multisyllabic word that follows the rules of standard phonics may still stymie the reader in pronouncing it.  Pronunciation includes stress; without knowing which syllable is stressed, one can pronounce the word and be misunderstood. There are also a handful of common words in English that change their meaning depending on their pronunciation.  How would you pronounce object in the following two sentences?  “I object to your use of such vulgar language”; “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time…” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado)

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) ...

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) and Geraldine St. Maur (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To learn how to pronounce difficult words check out the two sites below.  I especially like Forvo as it usually gives both the British and American pronunciations and even states the gender and origin of the speaker.

http://www.howjsay.com/

http://www.forvo.com/

And to find the eight words whose meaning depends on the right stress, check out

http://www.espressoenglish.net/one-word-two-pronunciations-two-meanings/

So phonics is a useful tool in in figuring out the pronunciation and spelling of words, but thanks to the many languages from which we have adopted words and the development of English from a more ancient language, one would flounder in the orthographies of English without experience of all the many exceptions.

sept15classroom 001

sept15classroom 001 (Photo credit: mrstg)

What about Balanced Literacy?

visualliteracy

visualliteracy (Photo credit: alisonkeller)

Initially, the words were a description of a holistic approach to teaching language in which teachers use their personal professional knowledge to select their methods.  As professionals they are free to choose and use the materials they deemed appropriate.  Neither phonics nor whole language is an issue as the selection reflects what the students need to learn about language at this stage in their development, how they learn and their interests. What Balanced Literacy now means is a whole different kettle of fish and a considerable money earner for academic publishers.  But that is a topic for another post.

So what are the two routes to learning reading?

The first route, according to Brunswick, is called the grapho-phonological route.  The progression in this route is from recognition of individual letters to the conversion of those letters to sounds.  You probably recognise this route as very closely related to teaching phonics.

The second route is called the lexico-semantic route. The reader recognises words and proceeds from there to deduce the rules of spelling and acquire a knowledge of irregular spellings.

Which route is more effective?

The author doesn’t comment directly.  What she does say is that the grapho-phonological route is more useful in languages with shallow orthography.  What she means is languages where there is almost always a direct correspondence between letters and sounds.

Unfortunately, English is a deep orthographic language.  That means that not only can a grapheme (linguist speak for a letter or bunch of letters that make one sound) make several different sounds but different graphemes can make the same sound.

Think of the f sound.  It can be made by f or ph or gh as in food, phonics and laugh.  And gh can sound like f or p or, with an ou sound preceding it, sound like ow or o: laugh, plough, hiccough and thorough. (Cornelissen 2010) What is a poor speller to do?

You can see that to be proficient in decoding English words, you definitely need both routes to reading.  Neither route is more effective, but together they allow readers to acquire a good command of spelling in English.

Bibliography

Cornelissen, P. L. H., Peter C.:  Kringlebach, Morten L.; Pugh, Ken., Ed. (2010). The Neural Basis of Reading. New York, New York, Oxford University Press.


[1] My first class was a grade three/four split.  My second was a grade two/three split.  This was a particularly interesting class as most of the second grade was behind in language and several of the grade threes were advanced.  You will notice that my approach could also have been called Balanced Literacy except that the term wasn’t being used at that time.

[2] I prefer to use words that students can understand or might even have heard frequently:  necessary, definitely, conscientiously, onomatopoeia, pneumonia, asthma, psychology.  My personal bugbear is accommodation.  For more information go to:  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/TestsFrame.htm

It has been a long time since I last posted – too long!


IMG_5504I  have been busy because I have decided to write a book on education.  My subject is research-based education and does it exist?  Here in Ontario we are big on research based or brain based education.  I am always a bit dubious about this as there are at least three things that need considering in implementing education based on research.

The first is the reliability of the research For readers like me who don’t always remember the difference between those two important pillars of good science, reliability and validity, I will explain.

Reliability refers to whether an experiment can be done more than once and by other researchers and still get the same result.  If your dog eats a tablespoon of peanut butter and then lies down and rolls over twice, can you get the same effect the next day when you feed him peanut butter?  If you can, can your friend in the next city get her dog of a different age to lie down and roll over twice after he has eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter?  Will it work with different breeds or only black dogs weighing more than 60 lb.?   The more often replications of the experiment end up with the same result, the more likely it is to be reliable.

The second pillar of research is validity.  This is not as simple a concept to explain.  Validity requires that the thesis and experiment make sense i.e. they are designed using both logic and fact.  The conclusions must be interpreted logically, too.  As the saying goes: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

One mistake we often make is confusing correlation and causation: a classic example is the woman who believed that it was the sign “deer crossing” that caused deer to cross at that particular spot on the road.  She thought this was very dangerous as she had hit a deer three times just after passing the spot.  Her solution was to move the crossing.

The mistake this woman made was to mistake the correlation of a deer crossing sign and the deer crossing the road with the sign causing the deer to cross the road.   Some careful thinking about the nature of deer and their abilities would have brought the realisation that deer can’t read or follow traffic rules.  The deer’s preference for crossing the road at that point was the reason the sign was posted, not the other way around.

We can laugh at this person’s logic, but how often do we see similar thinking in

World Health Organization building from the So...

World Health Organization building from the South-East, Geneva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our lives.  Think of your friend who won’t get her child vaccinated because she believes that vaccinations kill children.  The World Health Organization (WHO)

clearly outlines the faulty logic as it applies to the DPT i.e. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping-cough) and polio:

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine And Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have recently been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.

If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given.

In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS. The Institute of Medicine reported that “all controlled studies that have compared immunized versus non-immunized children have found either no association . . . or a decreased risk . . . of SIDS among immunized children” and concluded that “the evidence does not indicate a causal relation between [DTP] vaccine and SIDS.”

Looking at risk alone is not enough however – you must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program in the United States, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information on vaccines and childhood illnesses go to Global Vaccine Safety:

Six common misconceptions about immunization.  This is a much more serious case of correlation = causation than the Deer Lady’s confusion.

The sample used should be a reasonable size and reflect the population in question.  How many samples, people, classrooms or animals are needed can’t be defined theoretically, but scientists and most sensible people should know when the sample is not enough.   For example if one wants to know the death rate from measles, the best sample would be all the reported cases of measles in an area or all the confirmed cases of measles.  The latter would be better, unless one can safely assume that doctors are generally accurate in diagnosing measles and therefore their reports won’t skew the data.

One of the cruellest results of poor research is the myth that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine causes autism .  The research was published in 1988 and retracted by the eminent medical journal, Lancet in 2012.  Not only was the research retracted but the author was also reprimanded by Britain’s General Medical Council and stripped of the right to practice medicine in Britain.

The doctor used only 12 children for his research, taking the blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.  There were other flaws in his work; for more information see the sites below.

After his results were published in 1988, some British parents refused to get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine and the incidence of all three diseases increased.  Measles is highly contagious and can lead to more serious illnesses or death.  For example: one in twenty will develop pneumonia (a common cause of death from measles) and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, putting them at risk for convulsions, deafness, mental retardation or death.  By 2008 there were enough measles cases in Britain to declare it an epidemic.  See web sites in the bibliography below for a discussion of MMR vaccination from at least two opposing perspectives.

Even when research is well done, there are two more pits for the unwary: drawing conclusions and applying the results correctly. If your dog rolls over repeatedly after eating peanut butter, is it to please you in order to get more peanut butter or does peanut butter put his belly in such agony that he needs to roll over more than once to relieve it?  One might argue that the dog’s motivation doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the dog rolls over.  It does, however, make a difference to dogs and to dog lovers.  They care whether pain or delight is causing the new tricks.  This is another case where the researcher will have to explore the connection between the incidents in order to do good science.

Research intent on testing the results of other studies is not glamorous and doesn’t get the headlines (or the grants, sometimes) but it is as important as the initial work.  In fact, without it, we would have more drugs with disastrous side effects, more collapsing structures and poorer educational systems.

The third thing that needs considering, besides reliability and validity and the conclusions draw by the researcher, is the interpretation of research by the layman – or woman.  It is easy to misunderstand research if we don’t read the work or summaries without a critical eye.  I find myself increasingly wondering who did the original research, how valid and reliable it was, if the researcher had a bias towards the results and what other research has been done. Education needs good research to inform good teaching practices and teachers need to know how to read the research, question it and implement what has been learned.

I have not covered everything you need to know about scientific methods and the methods of science.  My intention here is to draw attention to the layman’s need to understand scientific thinking and reflect critically on research before applying it in the field.  For a more thorough analysis, go to:  The Scientific Method vs. Real Science at http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.  It does require some thoughtful reading but it is worth the effort.

So, I am writing a book about the relationship between education and what we really know about the brain and relevant psychology.  I am still in the research stage.  Instead of doing my own original research, I am reviewing other peoples’ studies to understand the results and their relevance to education.

My blog will probably have a different flavour, as it is likely to reflect my thoughts and discoveries as I learn.  I hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

Bibliography

Donna, The Deer Lady

http://www.webpronews.com/donna-the-deer-lady-learns-what-deer-crossing-signs-are-for-2012-10

The MMR Vaccine Discussion.

Autism-vaccine study retracted Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 10:08 PM ET CBC News  http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2010/02/02/autism-mmr-lancet-wakefield.html

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/index.html

http://www.infection-research.de/infectious_diseases/measles/

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/why-do-pediatricians-deny-obvious

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/measles-united-kingdom-wakefield-factor

http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/

 

Scientific Method:

http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.

Summertime and the Camps are Expensive: How to Keep our Kids Thinking and Learning on a Dime …


Kids playing in a lake at a church camp

Kids playing in a lake at a church camp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We bemoan the summer holidays as a time when students forget everything they learned in school and then need to spend September reviewing.  Research, and I can’t remember which and with the summer haze in my brain am too lazy to look up, suggests that middle class children don’t lose too much through the long summer holidays.  These kids go to camp, visit relatives, take classes and generally keep their brains ticking over.  If they aren’t precisely reviewing what they have already learned, they are at least adding to it.

Who is really hurt by the long summer holidays?

On the other hand, kids with lower socio-economic status do lose out.  Their parents are likely to both be working and are hard pressed to find care for their children, much less something stimulating.  If a parent is at home, then money to do anything extra is unavailable.  When these kids return to school, they are behind the eight ball.  They have not just forgotten over the long holidays, but they have not had any enrichment to enhance what they have already learned.  What to do?

The thing is that if you are reading this, you may be poor but you are unlikely to be lower SES.  Graduate, medical and law students may have very low incomes, the economic part of the SES, but their social status is high.  Even people who have gone off the grid or simply work the streets to help the homeless may have a minimal income but high status socially.  Even on a low income it is possible to afford a computer, second-hand or refurbished – or access one at the local library.

On the other hand, drug dealers may be rolling in dough but low in social status, although that may depend on the society they are mixing with.  They may have a computer, even a high end one with all the bells and whistles, but I doubt they are reading my blog or this post.

It is those folks who have minimal incomes and minimal status who are less likely to be able to provide camps and classes and stimulating activities for their kids.  It isn’t impossible but it is difficult.  I’m going to offer advice here, but how many people who need it, will read it?

Free Camps, Lessons and Stimulating Activities:

The best place to find a free summer camp is at a church.  They aren’t sleepover camps, they are usually half days and some do push their religion.  However, your children will learn something about Christianity, which will be an enormous aid as they study English literature.  It will also give them some insights into Judaism, Islam and even Mormonism.

My daughter went to one themed on Paul.  One day we were chatting about Paul as I walked her home from camp.  I confessed that I was not a fan of Paul as he was a bit of a misogynist.  After I explained that a misogynist was someone who didn’t like women, my daughter was quiet for a bit.  Then she pointed out that no one except Christ was perfect.  Perhaps misogyny was Paul’s flaw.  After all he did have other wise things to say.  My jaw dropped.  As I said, it is an opportunity to learn a bit and stimulate some thought.

Scouts and guides are another place for almost free camping and lessons.  One of my sons got a lot out of scouts including a couple of long camping trips.  He learned the usual skills and benefitted from the guidance of adults who weren’t parents or teachers.

Some camps will trade a child’s camping fees for a parent’s skills.  It won’t work with every camp, but it is worth trying with alternative or church over night camps.  If you can cook, do office work or general maintenance, ask.  Ask your local Y about groups that help send kids to camps or have programs for families to go to camp.

Learning New Skills

Can’t afford lessons?  Canvas other families in the same situations.  Maybe among you there are a few experts such as knitters, musicians (singers or drummers are ideal), dancers, artists (they don’t have to be famous or sell their work), woodworkers or bakers.  Arrange to have lessons for the children in your group of families.  Your kids will learn a new skill and learn to appreciate another adult.  You will get to know some other children well.

Seeing and Stimulation

            On the street where you live

Learning and stimulation are often right at your feet or your children’s feet.  Get in the habit of going for walks with your kids.  Teach them how to walk safely

Wabush Manhole Cover IV

Wabush Manhole Cover IV (Photo credit: ManHole.ca)

in their neighbourhood.  Go at their pace. They will get you seeing things you haven’t really looked at before.  The obvious things are construction sites and big trucks.  It’s always amazing how many workers don’t mind taking a couple of minutes to explain what they are doing.  My kids found manholes fascinating, too.  They were a great place to practice reading.  I also learned a bit of local history when I realised that the same foundry that made the manhole covers, made stoves in our area.

Those walks are also good exercise and an opportunity for you to continue street-proofing your children. Point out street signs, landmarks, public building and telephones. Get them to tell you how to get home.  Children who have wandered their neighbourhoods on their own by the age of ten will have a better directional sense and more confidence.  People who walk with confidence are less likely to be victimized.

            It’s a walk in the park

Having fun!

Having fun! (Photo credit: ucumari)

Of course, parks are a great place in the summer.  You take your kids to play on the playground or splash pads or swim but as a by-the-way you can get them in the habit of observing the life around them.  Try going to different parks and point out different plants and trees, birds and animals.  You don’t have

Observing

Observing (Photo credit: Adalberto Gonzaga)

to know what they are.  Keep a sketchpad or camera tucked in your bag to record what they see and make notes. Jot down their observations or if they are old enough, give them their own note pad and encourage them to keep

their own notes.  Show them how to just write down the minimum number of words necessary to remind them. When you get home, you can look them up or take another trip to the library.

            Go shopping, but leave your wallet at home

Shopping streets can be full of information.  Why do stores have big windows?  Which way do doors open?  Why?  Which colours do they see most in

a child

a child (Photo credit: sogni_hal)

store windows?  Which store windows are the prettiest?  Most dramatic?  Most interesting?  Why are there people sitting on the sidewalk asking for money?  Depending on your city, the street and the person, your child might want to talk to them.  It’s an opportunity to learn that people are people no matter how they live.

If you visit a small store when it is quiet, you could talk to the proprietor about what it is like to run a business, where his wares come from and why he decided to open a store.  You could get your children to keep track of the different kind of stores on different streets.

            Museums

Museums are most wonderful when they are free.  If they are free in your town, pop in with the kids for only half an hour at a time.  Even if they aren’t free,

Young hands

Young hands (Photo credit: jepoirrier)

there is usually one day a week when they are, so that is the day to drop by.  Do a little research; sometimes there are tiny museums that are free.  Sometimes there are amazing little stores that are almost as good as museum, but first you must carefully train your children to look only with their eyes.

The best museum for kids is a science and technology museum.  Get them pushing the museum’s buttons instead of yours.  If you don’t have a zoo, the next best is an art gallery but pick the exhibit carefully.  Children enjoy bright energetic abstracts or meticulously realistic art to start with.  Let them ask the questions and make the comments before you get helpful.  You can borrow books about art from your library if you

Russell Coates Art Gallery Bournemouth

Russell Coates Art Gallery Bournemouth (Photo credit: Martin Beek)

don’t have the answers. When they get home they might want to try the kind of art they have seen.

An Exhibition

Your children might want to go around their home to pick out art and oddments worthy of display.  They can create cards explaining what each thing is and why it is so special.  Perhaps your network of teaching and learning families could add a demonstration of the skills the kids have learned over the summer.  Of course, that will call for an exhibition to which they can invite their friends, family and neighbours.

I am going to do it ALL

You aren’t going to do all of these things.  Just writing about it exhausts me.  It is a frame of mind that says there is a world of learning and fellowship and fun and excitement out there free if I open my eyes and my mind and my heart that is important.  I don’t have to be rich or educated to give my child a summer she will enjoy and will keep her mind ticking over.  I can send her back to school ready to continue learning.  It just takes some thought, imagination and planning on my part.  And maybe a little help from my friends.

Parenting

Parenting (Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov)

Ideas, lessons and units currently available on for Teaching Outside the Box http://teachingideasoutsidethebox.wordpress.com/


6. TEN BOOK REPORTS IN A YEAR: THE PACKAGE

This unit is aimed at getting twelve year olds to read in quantity and quality.  It could be adapted for other grades and might need to be adapted for other marking systems.  The list in number 5 was originally written to go with this unit.

5.         Have You Read?

A list of books aimed at academically talented grade seven and eight students with the intention of broadening their usual tastes in reading and pushing them to try something new or a bit more challenging.

4.  Finding the Poetry

A lesson aimed at teaching the important parts of writing poetry: words and feelings.

3.  Learning to Love Teaching Poetry

It’s tough teaching poetry well.  This is a suggestion for a unit used for grades two, three and four using The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Tyger.

2.  Lessons in Perspective (Art, Empathy, Math, Literature)

A unit that combines lessons in perspective in art, empathy and mathematics.  Can be expanded to include literature and writing. Can be adapted K-12

1. Using the Internet to teach and teaching students how to use the Internet

Ideas on teaching research skills to all grade levels, including appropriate use of Internet, identification of bias, Boolean logic, using indexes, encyclopaedias and other resources.

Technology and Education


Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?


Struggling to Read with Comprehension


There are two kinds of people who decide to enter the teaching profession: those who were good at the game of school and those who weren’t.  Those who weren’t nurse a hope that one day they might make a difference to someone else who isn’t good at the game.

I was mainly the latter although I was pegged as someone who Could Do Better if only I worked/did my homework/ was motivated/ wasn’t so lazy.  I was very good at reading so as a teacher and even though I knew better, I never really got the concept that a child could read words with some fluency and yet haven’t a clue what they had just read.  Never, that is, until I started studying Chinese in September.

I am a motivated student, prepared to work hard.  Most days I spend between three-quarters of an hour and an hour and a half studying, using every tool that comes to hand in addition to doing the assigned homework.  I wasn’t able to start the course until a couple of weeks into it and it was another four weeks before the textbook and workbook were available.  I used Internet sites and my notes to study for the first couple of quizzes.  My wrists and thumbs hurt from writing characters in pencil on paper and on the pad on my computer.  I remember why written work was such hell for me in school.

My average is probably an A- or B+ in spite of those difficulties and I would be proud of myself except that I rarely understand the professor when she speaks to us in Chinese. I stumble over the simplest replies. I read sentences with the halting lack of expression of a very early reader and worst of all even if I had recognised every character with ease, I still wouldn’t have a clue what I had read.

In short I am that reader I didn’t understand: the one who can read the words without understanding the sentence.  I am beginning to understand how they can get by for so long and even do well in school!

For a start, textbooks and readers today are packed with full colour pictures, diagrams, maps, charts and other supplementary information about the topic at hand.  The non-reader can garner a lot of information from the visual aids on the page.  In fact, students are encouraged to do just that as part of their reading strategies; the illustrations provide a legitimate means of giving readers information about the topic and a chance to anticipate where the text is going.  The non-reader will rely heavily on the information, not just use it a supplement to the reading material.

Secondly, students are often tipped off by the phrasing of a question as to what answer is expected.   “Do you think Goldilocks should have gone into the cottage?” is a fairly clear indication that the questioner thinks not.  It is not easy to create a question to elicit answers that will indicate how well a student understood the story; that is an art in itself.  I have often spent time before class jotting down ideas for effective questions or rephrasing the ones I had.

These readers in difficulty are unlikely to volunteer answers unless they are sure their answer is correct.  While you don’t want to embarrass them, you do want to know how good their comprehension is and you do want to engage them in discussion.  A teacher who intermittently chooses volunteers and those sitting on their hands to answer will prepare all the students for being called on when they aren’t sure.  This will be especially true if the pattern is random so students will not be able to predict who is next. Following up an error with tactful questions to the student or the class as a whole can be the beginning of using mistakes as a learning experience.  Comments more widely directed such as “that’s a different way of looking at it.  How would you support this argument?” can help the class as a whole consider less conventional ideas instead of embarrassing the student who didn’t understand the work.

“Interesting thought, Jenny.  Can you tell us what made you think of that?” will work once the student is confident enough to think on her feet.  This gives her a chance to refer to the text (struggling readers don’t miss everything) or bring in other experiences or texts, strategies encouraged in all readers.

If the struggling reader avoids participating in discussions of stories and other texts, she has many ways of faking it on paper.  Many adults have told me that they just listened to class discussions and used the information as a basis for answering questions.  If the teacher uses multiple choice or fill in the blank type exercises, then the work has just got easier.  Usually a child who is paying attention can figure out which choices or words are the best candidates for right answer.  Then he makes a guess.  If there are, as usual, four choices and the student guesses wildly, he has a 25% chance of getting the answer right.  If he correctly narrows the answer down to three or two choices and then guesses, he improves his odds to 33% or 50%.  If he actually figures out a right answer or two, he may pass.

This all assumes he does not cheat or receive a little help from his friends.  It also assumes that he does not employ bafflegab in writing answers.  This is the fine art of confusing the reader with such convoluted language or grammar and oversized words that it is unclear what the writer intended to say.  A good dose of if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-then-the-answer-is-automatically-wrong usually cures it.  However most teachers do give the student the benefit of the doubt a time or two before lowering the boom.

In other words, the struggling reader can often do a good job of faking it, especially if he is reasonably bright.  When he declines to read in front of the class or stumbles on his words he will allow the world to assume that he is just shy.  He will announce that he hates reading and then no one will know for sure unless they explore in depth.

Why won’t the teacher be concerned?  If the child is generally well behaved, is scraping through in reading and passing in the other parts of Language Arts and the other subjects, that’s good enough.  Many teachers have the attitude that reading is not part of other subjects so don’t support weak students with new vocabulary or more sophisticated grammar in subjects like history or science.  They may believe that they need to accommodate the child in learning the material, not in means of learning the material.  What they forget is that reading and writing are fundamental to academic success.              The language and thought of each subject needs to be learned along with the subject matter itself.

In addition, the teacher will have a handful of students who are working below grade level and others who have been identified as needing support.  The teacher will have her hands full doing the paperwork for those students and planning for them as well as the normal workload for her class.  A brief interview with the parents of the struggling reader and a suggestion that they read with her at home may be all she has time for.  She could suggest educational and psychological testing but she knows that the child will be low on the list and children with more serious needs will regularly be popped in ahead of their student.  In the end the child would be placed in a regular classroom with support, where she is now.

A child whose timed reading comprehension is in the 7th percentile will not get help, in fact, no one will suggest testing if she has a C average (high level 2).  Most teachers will not even suspect that she is anything more than lazy or dislikes reading

So what are the struggling reader and I to do?  I know what I will do.  Classes have finished and I have my final exam on Saturday, December 18 from 7 p. m. to 10:00 p. m.  I am going to start by spending a chunk of my studying time listening to a pod cast teaching oral Chinese and practising saying the sentences I hear.  I will still spend time every day practising writing characters and listening to sounds and writing the characters, pinyin and tones I am hearing.  With luck and hard work, by the 18th I will be able to read a simple sentence of Chinese characters and understand the meaning at the same time.  If it gives me insights into how to help the struggling reader, I will let you know.