Category Archives: risk taking

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)

What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four


Attention is arguably the most important ingredient in learning.  In order to map a skill, a concept or a new way of doing things, a child must work with it attentively the first few times.  Attention happens when we are engaged in a struggle to do or understand; Emma’s fierce concentration as she climbs on to the baby gym demonstrates her attention.

To retain what the child has learned, she needs to practice it next.  It is not sufficient to understand or do; the newly learnt word, concept or skill must be worked regularly so it goes from the explicit memory into implicit memory.

Children initiate much of their learning. Parents and teachers who are aware of that and ready to support it will also support the child’s enthusiasm for learning.  Children delight in novelty so will often respond to being taught new things if they are ready to learn them.  They will also learn things that their parents and teachers insist on, assuming the new skill is within their abilities and taught carefully.

“…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development”    

(Vygotsky 1934/1986)

When Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, stated that learning really takes place in advance of development he meant the area where a child can learn if supported by a more knowledgeable peer or teacher.  He called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD.  Climbing up is Emma’s achievement; climbing down safely was in Emma’s ZPD.  The support (in this case provided by her parents) is also known as scaffolding. There are lots of academics running around defining it and publishers selling books to hapless teachers about it.  I prefer to think of scaffolding as spotting with appropriate instruction as needed.

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers...

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers anymore (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Do you remember gym class when you were doing tricks on a trampoline, trying to do a handstand or vault over a horse?  There was always someone there to spot you, with a hand ready to put under your back to stop you from falling awkwardly and doing serious damage.  The trampoline required several spotters holding both hands palm outwards in case they had to push the jumper back.

This, to me, is probably the best example of scaffolding; the athlete is not protected from scrapes and bruises but is protected from a broken neck so she can take the risks necessary increase her skill.  She may fail many times, and that’s fine, because if it is a matter of technique, the instructor will come by to correct her.  If it is just a matter of training the muscles, her classmates will call out the occasional word of encouragement as they spot her and await their turn.

This is what a more knowledgeable person can do for a child in her ZPD.  It does require teaching a child to deal with failure.  I see that word on the page and I realise how stomach clenching it is.  Failure.  For most, the connotations are unpleasant: failing a grade, a business failing, a person who is a failure.  We need to put that stigma aside and think of a child learning to walk.  How often does he end up on his well-padded bottom after a few steps?  He has failed to walk, but do we think of it as failure?  No, because we believe that within the year he will be walking and running.  Plumping down to a startled sit is just part of the process.

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933 (Photo credit: sean dreilinger)

If we allow failure, we develop children who persist. They will regard mistakes as part of the learning process.  These children will ask for help, figure out what went wrong and then move forward.  They will be comfortable with struggling on occasion with new ideas.  Eventually they will become that current cliché, but truly important ideal, an independent learner.

If a student is not learning in their ZPD, they are not moving ahead.  They may be moving sideways, collecting more information, but they are not learning new skills, new concepts or new patterns.  They may be reinforcing their learning so it moves into implicit memory. Students need to spend time consolidating new learning and building on it.  Teachers need to be conscious of which kind of learning is going on.

In practical terms, when you teach multiplication or three-digit division to students, you are not done when they grasp the concept and the time allotted for the unit is over.  Your goal is to get them to the point where they can do the work automatically without stopping to think about how to do it.  This requires practice, drills, homework, games or whatever it takes to keep them practicing until the skill is in implicit memory.  Some will argue it is more important for children to understand mathematical theory than memorise arithmetic and they would be right.  They do not say, however, that the children should not be able to do the arithmetic, and that requires practice.

How would this apply to history? Teaching the war of 1759, I would use overheads to show how the French lost the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 and how Wolfe successfully repeated the tactics a year later in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham at Quebec.  Then I would ask the students to hand-draw both battlefields, the surrounding geography, the troop movements and gun emplacements.  Why? The physical act of drawing and labelling practices and reviews the material. I would not allow students to trace diagrams, because tracing would not focus student attention on the locations of fortifications, cliffs, homes and cannon.

As the students work over their diagrams, questions will come up.  The ensuing discussion is another form of reinforcement.  I might show an excerpt from a Hornblower movie (Napoleonic wars – 40 years later but similar issues) to show the importance of shore guns in keeping harbours safe – or isolated, depending on whose guns they were.  I might play music from the era when the students grow weary.  The students might choose to compete in the accuracy and neatness of their diagrams.

Depending on earlier training, drawing and labelling accurate diagrams might be the ZPD for most students. Drawing troop movements and understanding what that would look like in real life or vice versa is very likely to be within their ZPD.  As a combined history and phys ed class, it would be a great opportunity to take students into the schoolyard to deploy their troops and see the translation of plans to real life.

Freehand drawing seems a very old fashioned way of learning and yet it is an excellent way to use visual and kinaesthetic intelligences to learn in a discipline which is far too often taught only through reading, writing and lecturing. (Gardner 1983)

If attention is the most important ingredient in learning what does it say our classrooms and study areas should be like?  Think about what distracts you and then ask yourself if you could work in your classroom or wherever your child does homework.

A quiet hum of activity is acceptable, but unnecessary movement, music, raised voices and interruptions through phone calls and announcements are disruptive.  When I couldn’t persuade our office to leave messages or send emails, I took the classroom phone off the hook when the students needed to pay careful attention.

Should classrooms be papered with bright visuals demanding the attention of the children as our administrators encourage?  It certainly looks charming, but is it conducive to children paying attention well enough to learn?  Instead, should classroom walls be painted in soothing colours only occasionally punctuated with a helpful poster?  Should there be plenty of study carrels or nooks where students can wrestle with ideas?  Should the group work area be strategically placed so the gentle murmur of discussion doesn’t disturb the other scholars?  Should a primary goal be to teach children consideration of each other’s learning environments?  Should we teach our children how to pay attention?

In some homes all the kids do homework at the dining room table.  For some children that works, especially if a parent is available to keep everyone on task.  It doesn’t work for all.  Figure out what works and put that in place. Many students complain homework takes too long.  When I asked questions, I realised many were texting, chatting on line, receiving phone calls on their cells, listening to music and being interrupted by younger siblings and sometimes parents – all while they were ostensibly doing homework.  None of this was conducive to any but the most mindless and useless of homework.  As I don’t assign that kind of homework, I was not surprised they were taking so long to get it done.

What about students with learning disabilities?  We sometimes think that accommodations mean letting them learn less.  Would they do better if we first worked to improve their ability to pay attention?  They could start with one minute and keep adding as they succeeded.  We could also work to improve their areas of weakness. If the brain changes naturally in response to attentive learning followed by practice, what couldn’t we do for our students who learn differently?

To sum up, a student begins to learn when he is paying attention.  The initial learning is mapping in the brain.  That mapping is not sufficient; practice is needed to ensure the mapping remains. It is like walking through a field; it takes a lot of walking over the same line before there is a trail that will last a month, more to last a year and so on.

How to do mapping and reinforcement is another story, but it is a normal part of a teacher’s repertoire. Reconsider the organisation of your classroom and the structure of the day, but the actual techniques are at most teachers’ fingertips.  It may be necessary to stand back while your students wrestle with their understanding of a concept but you will be rewarded with triumphant smiles as they eventually master it. While your administrator talks brain-based education, you will actually walk it.

Bibliography

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

Negotiating Learning: how do you get to Carnegie Hall part three


Emma’s parents are clearly in charge but they give her opportunities to make her own decisions.  They love to introduce her to new things: lambs, flying above her daddy’s head, swings, carrots, croissants and sandy beaches.  They are careful to keep the first contact with a new experience brief and pleasant. Should Emma show real signs of distress, they distract her with something else and remove the new experience.  They do, however, give her time to figure out what she thinks.  A first grimace does not mean distaste or fear.

Emma approaches most new things with enthusiastic caution.  At first contact, her face remains solemn as she assesses the taste or the experience.  Her expression upon her first taste of potato was comical. She remained serious as she ate most of it but she wasn’t unhappy.

Soon after first contact with a new experience, Emma usually starts to smile.  The potato didn’t rate a smile but it wasn’t rejected, either.  When Emma becomes comfortable with new activities, she often chuckles, sometimes in anticipation.

The local playground is designed for young children.  It has tough rubber flooring, many gentle angles and slopes, steps that are wide and go quite high, different kinds of slides and different challenges for the climbers including big nets.  There are lots of physical challenges but some for the imagination as well.  The gate opens into a large grassy field that is also toddler friendly.  Emma visits it nearly every day and here she has a lot of freedom to determine her own agenda.  For the most part, her parents follow her, reserving the right to exercise a veto.  The veto is seldom employed because usually they can negotiate a solution as they did with the swing.

Emma knew she wasn’t ready to swing solo but she does like the feeling of independence of being on the swing by herself. She isn’t ready to get on the swing and she doesn’t try but she is happy to sit on the swing with Mum’s help.  She gets to feel what it is like to be on a big-girl swing with the independence of holding on and balancing.  On the other hand, she is not anxious about falling, as she trusts her mum.

When she does fall in the course of her experiments, Emma rarely cries.  She looks up with surprise and the parent in charge usually calmly comments “That was a good bump, wasn’t it?” or “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” and they laugh together.  If a bump causes tears, then Emma gets picked up and comforted while her parent casually inspects the bump to see if needs more treatment than a kiss.  Eventually, Emma wiggles to get down and goes back to what she was doing.

Letting Emma fall is part of her education in consequences; taking risks can result in a delightful new experience or a bump.  She has to assess where the dividing line is.  Since her parents don’t intervene unless she is likely to get really hurt, she gets lots of practice in making that assessment.

So Emma often pushes herself to learn new things, but her parents also expose her to new experiences.  They support her ventures. They don’t fuss over a bit of dirt or a skinned knee.  Emma and her clothes are washable.  Emma’s scrapes and bruises heal quickly and are forgotten quickly. Usually Emma is the one who determines the pace at which she learns to do things, although, like most parents, hers can’t resist the temptation to occasionally coax her into trying something.  Who hasn’t tried to persuade a baby to take a step?

Wisely, her parents also teach her how to do things important for her own safety, such as getting down from a perch. Theirs is an approach of “if you are going to climb, you need to know how to get down safely.”  Her parents taught her to turn around and get down feet first.  When she first started climbing, they would have physically put her in the position to climb down.  Later, she heard a lot of

Turn around, Emma.  That’s it.  Now get down.”

Later comments were:

That’s not safe, please move… Thank you”

Or

Remember what happened last time you did that?”

Climbing, with the exception of climbing on cabinets and the computer desk, is not discouraged.  Her parents have always spotted Emma’s early climbs, even if she wasn’t aware of it.  However, potentially dangerous antics such as crossing the bouncing bridge require a parent holding her hand.  Since her parents don’t restrict most adventures, she accedes more readily to having her hand held.  Emma practices her balance on the bridge, but safely.

Today Emma climbs steps, kitchen chairs and other furniture with the same confidence as she walks.  While her eyes glint with mischief when she is admonished not to do something dangerous, she understands perfectly both the request and that she might get hurt doing it.  She might continue once or twice to tease her parent, but she is usually obedient. In this family, the toddler’s growth is a pragmatic and joyous negotiation between her and her parents.

The negotiation between Emma and her parents and their willingness to let her take some risks have brought her to the point where she wants to climb on the baby gym.  The task requires concentration, strength, balance, some risk-taking and confidence; she has enough of each.

Currently, the estimate of what goes into Emma’s growth would be roughly 40% nature, 60% environment or what we used to call nurture. Emma was unusually active even before she was born.  How would she have developed if her parents had not been active themselves?  Would they have responded to her need for physical activity or would she have become a little less active – or would they have met in the middle?

You often hear parents comment that their child sleeps better if they have a walk in the afternoon – or they need some quiet time after their bath and before bed to settle down to sleep.  Most parents are pretty good at figuring out what their babies need.  Most parents figure it out without thinking too much about it, too, and manage to negotiate something that works both for them and their child.  When you think about it, this isn’t really a surprise.  Parent and child is the oldest human relationship and they have been working it out for a long time.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Part One


How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, Practice, Practice … goes the old joke.

We think of violinists and pianists, but every toddler is performing the same miracle of intensity and practice right under our noses. We are accustomed to it and fooled by the small laughing faces smeared with sweet potato and any dirt they can find. Let’s follow Emma to her ta da! moment at eighteen months and then we’ll explore the neurology behind it, her negotiations with her parents and the implications for teachers and parents.

This is Emma playing under her wooden baby gym. She is ignoring the toys as she works on turning over. In one short year things will change dramatically.

At eighteen months old, Emma is active for her age and persistent in teaching herself things she wants to learn. Emma is fortunate in her parents.

They are not only active themselves, but her mother is a former competitive athlete and her father loves to cycle and hike. He once cycled across four provinces, including British Columbia. Her parents don’t discourage her from most of her experiments in action so she keeps busy and keeps them busy.

You will notice that in the picture above, Emma has her leg up on what is the bottom step of a climbing structure. The toe in the left side of the picture is her mother’s. In the next picture (on another day), you can see Emma as she reaches the top of these steps. She has made it clear to her parents that she does not need help so an unseen hand, ready to grab an arm, a shirt or the back of her overalls hovers discretely behind.

There are all sorts of activities at the top of the steps but what she wanted was the bridge in the pictures below. As you can see, Emma is having great fun charging across this bridge made with wooden slats and her mother is having only slightly less fun trying to keep up. She wouldn’t have held her mother’s hand but for her mother’s insistence.

Emma sometimes decides that she wants to learn how to do something and then persists until she learns it to her satisfaction. It isn’t always obvious to anyone except her why she wants to learn something.The goosestep she appears to be doing in this picture is not that at all. She is not throwing her leg forward but executing a sidekick every few walking steps. It was quite deliberate and unusually well executed for a toddler. What made her decide to do it puzzled observers. Why she was doing it was a puzzle but that she was doing it must have both strengthened the muscles in her leg and hip and maintained if not increased the flexibility that allowed Emma to swing her leg up on the step in the second photo. I have no expertise in toddler fitness so I am speculating here, based on having raised three children of my own.

It is characteristic of her parents’ style that they are unobtrusive but present to stop any major falls. Otherwise Emma is allowed to experiment with pretty well anything she thinks she can do. Emma’s first ideas about how to get down from the sofa were not good ones. Only the pillows on the floor and her mother’s firm grip of her leg stopped it from being a painful experiment.

Emma experiments with going up the slide. Her parents made a point of teaching her how to get down from places where she has climbed up. The photo below shows how they have taught Emma to turn around so she can lower her feet first.

Sometimes Emma climbs where her parents don’t want her to go. They deal with this much the same way they deal with headfirst descents: they make it clear to Emma that climbing on the computer desk is not acceptable and they remove her. But first, of course, a photograph is in order! By contrast, the couch is an acceptable climbing spot so long as she doesn’t get on the back because that is too high.

Emma likes to try new things and her parents encourage her. Swings are a good example of how her parents introduce and encourage her in trying new things. First there was the baby swing with Dad in front pushing the swing. Emma could see her dad and they shared a smile of delight. Next she sat on her daddy’s lap while he went back and forth on the grown up swing. Later when she went again to the playground, shewanted to sit on the swing by herself. Her mother put her on, made sure she understood she had to keep her hands firmly wrapped around the chains and gently pushed from behind.

It was possible that Emma might fall but highly unlikely. Her mother was right there and Emma is a sturdy child with a good sense of balance.

These months of practicing climbing and balance, building strength and derring-do have led to this moment caught on a parent’s camera. The baby who lay under the baby gym, just a short year ago, trying to turn over, is now climbing on it.

How did she get there?

Next Post:  Emma’ s Brain.

NATURE AND NURTURE

THUMP, SCREAM, SPLASH: SAFETY Part three of Camping with Kids


The very first thing that keeps a child safe is the child’s competence in her environment and her ability to stay calm and think.  What is important is that your children learn not to panic, to rescue themselves first and help others without putting themselves in danger.

for the rest of this article go to:  http://www.canoecampingottawa.ca/

What is Education?


Education is what happens when you are challenged.

Desmond Morton on CBC radio one

I see the ball! There it is! Look! Look!

Laugh all you like, you Mister too-big-and-scared-to-jump-in the -water-and-get-it-yourself!

Ta Da!!!

How do I climb this thing?  Stop laughing. Becky Mason says you are not really pushing yourself if you never tip your canoe

I don't canoe either.

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.