Category Archives: Language and literacy

Thinking and language are intimately connected. “How can I know what I mean until I hear what I say?” Fluent reading and writing grow out of spoken language, and the richer that foundation is, the better we become at both reading and writing.

TRUGS and what it means to “teach reading”?

If I gave you a list of foreign words, taught you the generally applicable rules for decoding those words, then invented a game to let you practice this decoding, would you be able to read a novel written in that language?

Would I have taught you how to read in that language?

How about these words? I’ll teach you how to pronounce every one, then give you a poem written in this language:

noll, fyra, femte, atta, tjugoforsta, tjugo, tolv, arton, tack, hejsan, kvall, nej … and so on

Could you read it?

Or could you just ‘word call’ it – make every word sound just right but have no idea what the piece was about?

In other words, is learning to pronounce single words correctly, without any syntactic or semantic, context really reading?

Of course not!

Reading is about making meaning and without any syntactic or semantic cues individual words have wavering, shifting meanings, and sometimes no meaning at all.

So why is it that a card game that helps children to decode individual words, devoid of meaning or context, called ‘Teaching Reading Using Games’ or TRUGS?

Quite simply it is NOT a reading game. It’s a coding game. And reading is about far more than coding and decoding.

The game is fine, and the ability to decode words through phonemic analysis and the application of grapho-phonic rules is an important skill, but let’s not pretend that playing the game is the same as teaching reading.

In an article in The New Yorker of June 3, 2013, Adam Alter writes:

“These studies suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.”

Names are powerful. The change the way we think.

So please, let’s not call this game TRUGS.

It doesn’t teach reading.

It is a great decoding game.

How about calling it Teaching Decoding Using Games  instead? TDUGS?

You can read more about this here:

http://www.thisisdevon.co.uk/Joanna-sees-passion-reading-royal-seal-approval/story-16716955-detail/story.html#axzz2jPMlX0Wm

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Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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Filed under Classroom practice, Language and literacy, Teacher education, technology, Thinking

Babies and Bath Water

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. I strongly recommend it. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the differences between ‘deep reading’ and the kind of interconnected, hyperlink driven reading that we engage with when we read on the internet.

Deep reading is the thoughtful, internalized reading we engage on when we read a book from cover to cover, when we engage with it at a deep level and contemplate the characters or the ideas contained within it. It is essentially linear – we start at the beginning and go on to the end.

Internet based reading is a different animal. It is filled with distractions and opportunities to be sidetracked that take up working memory as we decide whether to ignore them or follow their seductive paths. Carr is afraid that this kind of reading – and it is fast becoming the predominate form of reading – will lead to superficial thinking.

In a recent conversation with a university professor friend I heard her bemoaning the kind of ‘gist thinking’ that she felt was becoming far too commonplace among her students. “They think they understand, but they are satisfied with just the gist of the idea”. This, I think, is exactly what Carr is writing about.

But when something new comes along we are naive to think it will simply replace what has gone on before. Every new medium does not mark the previous media for obsolescence. People feared that TV would bankrupt cinemas. It has done no such thing and multiplexes thrive and continue to grow. We thought TV might destroy live theatre, but it has not. Certainly the CD led to the demise of the cassette tape, but that was because the CD did exactly the same thing as the cassette tape – only better.

Internet reading, with its interconnected, networked nature involves a very different kind of thinking from the deep, linear thinking that a good book offers. They both have us thinking in different ways, and both ways are powerful.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to teach our kids how to navigate the rich, interconnected world of the internet. We need to encourage them to make connections, to link old knowledge with new discoveries, to create networks in their understandings than are essentially horizontal, broad and integrating. But we also need to make sure they see the value of deep reading, of mining at depth a rich seam of knowledge. There is a place for ‘gist’ thinking, but it doesn’t replace deep thinking.

 

 

 

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Real Men Read

http://www.essentialkids.com.au/preschoolers/preschooler-education/keeping-boys-reading-20130611-2o1uj.html#utm_source=FD&utm_medium=lifeandstylepuff&utm_campaign=boysreading

At my school in the USA I introduced a program that I had also promoted in Australia. It was called “Real Men Read”. Aware of the research that is described in this article in Essential Kids, I had pondered why it was that boys seem to turn off reading. A series of questions pretty much answered it for me.

When do our lifelong habits start to form? When we are very young.

Who most frequently reads the bedtime story or stories throughout the day? Mum.

Who reads the stories at the day care centre? Women.

Who teaches in the first grades of school when children are learning how to read? Mostly women.

So it dawned on me that perhaps boys think reading is really some kind of “secret women’s business” and not really for them.

It was then that I decided to bring men into my school to read books to the kids and to tell them how important reading was to them.

We had policemen, athletes, the mayor, fire fighters, members of the clergy, builders, politicians, school board members, all sorts of men.

It’s eight years since I left that school district and I understand that the program has continued. In fact I was surprised a few years ago to discover that someone was making money out of it. They had turned it into a commercial success, of course with no reference to the person who started it all. Another good educational idea turned for profit!

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The Power of Metaphor

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in his fascinating book “The Telltale Brain” describes the uniquely human capacity to create metaphors. It requires a sophisticated ability to juxtapose two seemingly unrelated concepts because they have some point of similarity at a deeper cognitive level.
An unopened bud is an evocative metaphor for a baby. Not because babies are green and grow on bushes, but because as babies grow they open up and reveal themselves, often revealing unexpected delights and great beauty.
To create or appreciate a metaphor we need to get below the obvious and the literal. We need to think in depth and to integrate our understanding and create links between previously disconnected bits of information.
In McREL’S ‘Classroom Instruction That Works’ we explore the powerful learning strategy of looking for similarities and differences. When we sort through new information and compare and classify it, we are making sense of what we are learning and finding sensible ways to connect this new knowledge with what we already know about the world.

The interpretation and, even more powerfully, the creation of metaphors, takes thinking to a different level of abstraction. It encourages students to look beyond the literal, to become more subtle and nuanced thinkers, There in lies the power of the metaphor in learning.
Which brings me back to an earlier blog about poets and about Einstein.
Where is our richest store of metaphor? In poetry. And how prominent is poetry in your curriculum? Is the focus on informational text relegating poetry to an optional extra?

Poetry has been a common thread running through the heart of every enlightened society. Not only because through poetry we are often able to touch the otherwise ineffable, sense the fleeting, more insubstantial but nonetheless essential aspects of lives. Poetry is the means by which we can learn to think beyond the literal and dig deeper into experience and our conceptual understanding of the world.

We deny our children much if we fail to foster their understanding of and love for poetry and metaphor.

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Pass, Fail, Practice

Oh the power of words.

“I’m sorry. You tried and you failed.”

How many times do our kids hear or read these damning, undermining words?

Every time they hand in a paper to be graded, every time they sit a test, every time they raise their hands to answer a question, they are leaving themselves open to either a direct or an implied pass or fail judgment.

Let’s change the culture in the class room.

Let’s make it absolutely clear that we are here to learn, that learning requires risk taking and risk takers are a lot more interested in practicing things, in getting better and better at them, and not so interested in passing or failing.

What would this look like in a classroom?

Teachers ask a lot of questions.

Scenario 1

Teacher asks a question, lots of hands go up.

Student A answers and the teacher says “Thanks John, that’s right.”

What happens here is that student A knows he has ‘passed’, as does everyone else. Everyone else can now stop thinking.

Scenario 2

Teacher asks a question, lots of hands go up.

Student B answers and the teacher says “No, Lizzy, that’s wrong. Does anyone have a different idea?”

What happens here is that Lizzy knows she has failed and has to deal with this and everyone else knows that failure is an option so the risks involved in answering just got higher unless you are sure you are right.

Scenario 3

Teacher asks a question, lots of hands go up.

Student C answers and the teacher says “Thanks Alan. Who else has an idea?”

No judgment. No closing down of thinking because no doors have been closed. No fear of being wrong. Thinking continues.

If the teacher asks a question and withholds judgment, either positive or negative, the thinking will continue and risk taking will continue. Learning has a much better chance of continuing too.

Students do a lot of writing and teachers read what they write.

Grade two have been working hard on spelling patterns. They have been exploring the ‘ph’ digraph and looking for words that contain it. In a writing passage one child spells elephant like this ‘ellephant’.

Scenario 1

The teacher draws a red line through the word, indicating it is incorrectly spelled. The child has failed.

Scenario 2

The teacher places a series of small check marks above the e, the second e, the ph, the a, the n and the t. The teacher circles the ll. The child knows she got six things right but needs to work on one thing. She needs more practice. it’s not a matter of right or wrong, of pass or fail.

Share some of the practices in your classroom that change the culture from a pass/fail culture to a culture of practice.

As my daughter said to me this morning “I never fail, I just practice a lot. Sometimes I didn’t know I was practicing until later!”

 

 

 

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It’s Happening Australia!

I spotted this at the local shopping centre a couple of days ago.

IMG_0180

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where we are heading Australia, if we continue to follow the GERM model of blanket standardized high stakes testing.

Mums and Dads will be buying these test preparation kits for their kids.

As we watch the  transformation of our kids from learners into data sources, the pressures of school will be extended to the home.

Is this really what we want our parents to buy to support their children s’ learning?

Wouldn’t a BOOK be better?

 

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OK. It’s Finland again.

 

The more I read about the successes of the Finnish school system the more convinced I become that the key is in its teachers. You can check it out here.

http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/

In Finland the length of the school day is shorter – that’s because great teachers know how to make the most of every minute. Many studies have revealed the enormous amount of time devoted to non-learning tasks in the classroom. Good teachers know how to organize a school day and a group of kids so that time is never wasted.

Time is provided in the school day for professional learning. Good teachers understand they are lifelong learners and are eager to build on their skills. They are committed to learning in their own lives.

There is no strict curriculum, no pacing guides, just broad outlines of areas to be covered. This is because the community and the authorities know they can trust teachers to do what is best. They believe they have the knowledge, the training and the intellectual discipline needed to make the best choices about what kids need to learn and when they need to learn it.

There is no ‘payment by results’ because there is a proven belief that all the teachers are good teachers. They do not gain entry to the profession until they have demonstrated that.

Children have around 75 minutes of free play each day because teachers understand that ‘the work of childhood is play’ and they understand how to integrate the things children learn in the playground with the things going on in the classroom.

Teacher candidates are selected from the top 10% of high school graduates. No one becomes a teacher in Finland because they couldn’t get into another course and because of good pay or long  holidays.

The profession is held in high regard and much is expected of teachers. It is more difficult to enter university to become a primary teacher in Finland than it is to enter medical school in some universities.

There is no whole scale testing of children until they are 16. Teachers are trusted to know what is needed and then to provided it.

30% of primary school aged children receive some form of additional learning support as soon as their teachers deem it necessary. Learning problems are addressed as they are revealed and noticed by highly skilled teachers.

93.2% of students graduate from high school in Finland compared with 76.82% in the USA. And in the USA we need to keep in mind the reality that this percentage is inflated by the “credit recovery’ programs that allow for a D graduation after the completion of a short summer course for failing students. Finnish students stay at school and succeed because they have had a history of quality teaching.

In other words the quality of the Finnish education system rests on the quality of the teachers.

The quality of the teachers is ensured by a demanding initial selection system and a lengthy period of professional preparation during which the ongoing suitability for teaching is constantly monitored.

You don’t get into a classroom in Finland if you are anything other than a highly skilled teacher.

 

Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) has commented that all over the world nations are tinkering with education. Mostly they look at rewriting standards and curriculum and then they work at designing tests.

What they fail to do, and the single thing that they MUST do, is look at the teachers.

Finland began reforming its education in the 1960s.

There are no magic bullets.

There are no short cuts.

If we don’t begin the hard work now, when will we?

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Teacher education, Testing, Thinking

International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand January 2013

Please join me at the International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand January 2013 where I will be speaking on the relationship between language and thinking.

This is an opportunity to hear from cutting edge thinkers, researchers and practitioners who are drawn from such fields as education, health sciences, the arts, sciences, sports, government and business.

The Conference themes of ‘Future survival’, ‘Future society’ and ‘Personal futures’ impact on everyone, from all disciplines.

Over the five days of the conference you can participate in full day master classes run by invited speakers. Listen to the world leading keynote and featured presenters and participate in a stimulating program of over 250 presentations and workshops. Combine this with a magical ‘tour’ program, artistic performances, two receptions, a conference gala dinner, and you are sure to have an unforgettable experience.

Check out the conference here
http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=4ac5b170022f98e9de26c12f4&id=6748c307f2


Supported by Massey University of New Zealand

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Why is PISA getting such a bad rap lately?

I have been reading a great deal of educational comment recently questioning what is described as an obsession with PISA scores. PISA is the OECD’s three year survey of educational achievement of  15 year olds in science, mathematics and reading. Let’s get one thing clear from the start.

The criticisms have more to do with us and how we are using PISA, than it has to with the PISA assessments and data themselves.

Most of the criticism of PISA seems to be coming from the USA where there is an epidemic of standardized testing that has swept across the country, causing a significant malaise in education. In the USA we are looking at PISA as if it is yet another high stakes test. Viewed this way the stakes are indeed very high, because it is the nation’s education system that is been assessed – and found wanting. In Australia there is similar criticism, perhaps because although the nation’s 15 year olds still perform well above the OECD average, their edge is slipping.

I guess it is understandable that when you see a test is not treating you well, the first thing you want to do is find fault in the test. The problem is that we are focusing on the wrong things.

Finland has been lauded internationally for some time now because of its student achievement levels on all three PISA measurements – science, mathematics and reading. I listened recently to Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a life-long educator who was traveling in Australia earlier this year. He is currently the General Director of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, Finland and previously he was a Senior Education Specialist with the World Bank as well as the Director of the Centre for School Development, Helsinki.

Finland, it seems has a very different attitude to PISA and, in fact, to all forms of standardized testing. PISA testing just happens to be something that they do. It is not viewed with anything like the significance that countries caught up in the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) give it. In Finland students do not take any externalized standardized tests until they have finished high school – at around 18 years of age. They do not judge the quality of their education using PISA data, but they do acknowledge that PISA data reinforces what they already knew about their education – that they had excellent teachers and successful schools.

And they knew all this without ever having resorted to widespread standardized testing.

The problem with our way of looking at PISA is that we focus on the numbers (are we above or below the OECD average?) and the ranking (who is beating us?). Our efforts then are directed towards trying to improving the score, competing with the others and moving up the ranks (the Prime Minister of Australia is determined to have Australia back in the top 5% of PISA by 2025). We start asking questions about how to tighten and standardize the curriculum, how to ensure that everyone is teaching the things that are going to be tested, how to give our students the test taking skills they will need to be successful in the tests.

But PISA is far more than ranking tables and scores. If only we would take the time to examine the data we would learn much more about how to improve our education systems. We would discover that we will achieve nothing if we continue to focus on accountability and standardizing curriculum.

We know from PISA  that in the 2006 round of testing less than 10% of the variation in student performance was explained by student background in five of the seven countries with the highest mean science scores of above 530 points. PISA demonstrates that equity and performance are highly related. In Finland, equity is considered more important than excellence. Dr Sahlberg tells us that “we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done.”

What are we doing to ensure that all our young people have access to the same quality of education regardless of socio-economic circumstances? In Finland it is illegal to charge fees for any education program that leads to a qualification, because education is deemed to be a right for all its citizens. There are no private schools in Finland. If we only looked more closely at the PISA data we would see that equity, not accountability or curriculum, is foundational to high achievement.

In Finland it is virtually impossible for a ‘bad’ teacher to enter the profession. The demand for teacher training positions is so high that last year 2,500 people competed for 120 positions and the selection panel was able to cherry pick the best of the best. Teachers are not paid dramatically high salaries, but they are highly respected. According to Dr Sahlberg “it’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine.”

We could also learn much about student attitudes towards specific curriculum areas as well as their views on the world. For example, a majority of students reported in PISA 2006 that they were motivated to learn science, but only a minority reported interest in a career involving science. This information needs to be fleshed out if we are hoping to create a nation of innovation and creative development in the immediate future. Why is it that one significant feature of a student’s background in terms of science achievement was whether they had a parent in a science-related career? What is the significance of the fact that PISA reveals USA 15 year olds did not do well in mathematics and yet they feel very confident in their mathematical abilities?

It is disturbing to discover that there is some degree of pessimism among the students about the future of the natural environment. On average across OECD countries, only 21% of students reported that they believed the problems associated with energy shortages would improve over the next 20 years. Are we taking this into account when we review our educational priorities?

PISA is a powerful resource if we would dig more deeply and use it to do something more than hijack the ranking tables to justify a test taking industry that is capitalizing on our failure to think below the surface. In New York, Pearson Education currently has a five-year, $32 million contract to administer state tests and it creates and sells education programs seamlessly aligned with the high stakes standardized tests for students and teacher assessments they are also selling. Pearson reported revenues of approximately $9 billion in 2010. This is big business.

What a tragedy if the most tangible outcome of a comprehensive review such as the OECD’s PISA was to be the creation of a multi-billion dollar industry rather than a successfully educated generation of our nations’ children.

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