Thursday, March 19, 2015

Eight ways early writing reinforces reading

The desire to write starts early!
This is a revised version of a post that I did in 2013. I thought that I'd revisit it.


Children begin to write early - very early! In fact, they begin to make marks on their world as soon as they can dip fingers into food, water and dirt. Once they can hold a pencil or crayon they are ready to 'compose'! It is important that in the first two years of life that children are given the chance to experience writing. By this, I don't mean structured learning activities, I simply mean an encouragement to try to make marks that might just represent meaning. Very early on children will scribble or make marks and attribute meaning to it.

There are many simple ways to encourage children to write:



a) Provide them with varied writing implements and materials to write on.
b) Encourage them to try to write letters and words.
c) Let them see you writing words and letters.
d) Encourage them to write their name, numbers and letters.
e) Let them see you writing and reading words at the same time.

Rich experiences of early writing have an impact on language and learning generally, and certainly reading.   Offering rich early experiences for writing are as important as reading to and with your children. As well, children who have rich early reading experiences will often be more precocious as writers.  To illustrate the interrelatedness of all aspects of language and meaning making, I want to suggest eight ways that early writing reinforces reading.

Photo from TTALL Literacy Project
1. Being read to and reading oneself offers us a rich experience of story - I've written in other posts about the importance of story to life and learning (e.g. here). Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives...make up the fabric of our lives...'.  Jerome Bruner and others have gone further to suggest that story is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.' And of course, story is fuel for writing.

2. Reading offers models for writing - Reading also introduces us to varied ways to share a story, and how to start a story and end it. It helps us to learn how to develop a character, the art of description, humour, rhyme and rhythm. Dr Seuss is a master at such lessons.

3.  Reading teaches us about 'readership' -When children begin to have books read to them, and later begin to read for themselves, they realize that these stories have been written for them, the reader. Good writing requires a sense of audience, and stories read teach this. When children begin receiving letters, cards, or simply being shown print in their world, they begin to grasp that language isn't just to be received, but can also be created and shared with others as a writer.  They also learn that if you write for readers, and receive responses, that this is enjoyable and strengthens relationships.

An early letter from Elsie

4. Reading enriches language - There is no doubt that reading feeds children's writing. It introduces children to new words, novel use for old words, and the very important need to 'play' with language if you are to be a successful writer. Robert Ingpen's book 'The Idle Bear' demonstrates this well. It is essentially a conversation between two bears but it is rich in language and metaphor. He starts this way:

"What kind of bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy." 
Later in the story a very confused bear asks:

"Where do you come from, Ted?"
"From an idea," said Ted definitely.
"But ideas are not real, they are only made-up," said Teddy. "You have to come from somewhere real to have realitives."
"Not realitives, relatives!" said Ted trying to hide his confusion.

Elsie's TV instructions
5. Reading introduces us to varied written genres - While children experience story from a very young age, reading also introduces them to the fact that language can be represented in different genres. Through reading at home and within their immediate world, children quickly discover that people write and read lists, notes, labels on objects, poems, jokes, instructions, maps and so on. Parents read and point out these varied text forms and eventually children try to use them.

My granddaughter Elsie's 'TV Instructions' (left), written aged five years, is a priceless set of instructions that she wrote for her Nanna just before she went to bed, so that Nanna could watch her favourite programs while babysitting.

6. Reading helps us to understand the power of words - Stories and other texts quickly teach children that words can have power. Signs give clear instructions in powerful ways - 'STOP', 'BEWARE OF THE DOG', 'CHILDREN CROSSING', 'KEEP OUT'. But well-chosen words express emotions too - "I love you", "It was dark and scary". Children also discover that words can do other things. With help they will enjoy discovering language forms like onomatopoeia, e.g. atishoo, croak, woof, miaow, sizzle, rustle etc.


7. Reading offers us knowledge - Children also discover that reading offers us knowledge that can feed writing. Without content there won't be writing. Books can captivate children and offer new areas of learning and interest. As they are read books, they also learn about their world. For example, they might discover that trees don't just have green leaves, but sometimes these leaves change colour, fall off and create a habitat for many creatures. Trees drop seeds which animals eat, offer shelter for animals, material to build homes and so on. But they are also homes for elves and animals that talk, places where strange lands appear regularly, and where a lost dragon might rest. Reading feeds writing with knowledge as raw material for writing.


8. Reading helps us to imagine and think - As children are introduced to varied literary genres and traditions, imaginations are awakened to the realms of fantasy, time travel, recreation of life in other times, the perils of travel through space. But at a more realistic level, reading can help young writers to imagine childhood in other places and times, 'within' the bodies of other people and with varied life roles. Through reading, children are given the examples and the fuel to imagine and write about themselves in the shoes of others, sharing their life circumstances as well as their challenges, fears and hopes.

  You can read all my other posts on writing HERE

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Questions, Exploration & Learning

Children ask lots of questions. Sometimes their questions don’t move beyond repetitive “Why?” questions that can be annoying. But as well as helping them to learn, children's questions can also teach us a great deal about them and their learning. 

  • Children’s questions usually show us how keen they are to learn – We see that there are gaps in their knowledge, new areas of interest, & things that puzzle them.
  • Questions offer us a window into children’s learning – We discover what they are interested in, their learning styles, and how well they learn best.
  • Questions are also one way that children try to take control of their own learning - As they ask questions they try to set an agenda and focus for their learning.
  • Questions are a way for children to test their existing knowledge - They assess what they know and test their own hypotheses.
In short, questioning is a critical tool for children’s learning, and needs to be encouraged.


Above: One of my grandchildren discovers a pistol shrimp. This stimulated lots of questions!

1. How can I ask better questions to stimulate learning?

Questioning is a vital tool for parents and teachers. As well as answering questions, we should also try to ask a variety of questions, but NOT just to test learning. The best use of questions is when they are used to stimulate curiosity, problem solving, imagination, a quest for knowledge and as a result, learning. A good tool for asking better questions is a simple taxonomy. There are many ways to classify questions but Bloom's Taxonomy is still one of the most useful frameworks for helping us to get better at it. These include:

  • Questions that test knowledge or seek basic recall of knowledge – “Why might the pistol shrimp have one claw larger than the other?” “What did the first pig build his house from?
  • Questions that seek some level of interpretation – “If it was a sick or damaged claw how could we test this"? "How come Max's food was still hot when he went back to bed? (Where the Wild Things Are)"? “Why was Pinocchio sad?”
  • Questions that require application of knowledge or problem solving – “Okay, we've found three pistol shrimps with one big claw, what might the claw be for?" Why didn’t the stepmother let Cinderella go to the ball?
  • Questions that require analysis – “Where did we find the pistol shrimps? Why might they be living there"?Why do you think the 3rd little pig got up before the time he told the wolf?” “Was Fern’s father mean to want to kill Wilbur?
  • Questions that require synthesis of knowledge – "We've notice the clicking noise the pistol shrimp makes. What could this be for"? "So which animal sank the boat and how do you know (from 'Who Sank the Boat')?” “What do you think is going to happen when the 3rd Billy Goat crosses the bridge?
  • Questions that require some type of evaluation  (opinion, values, critique, judgement) – "Let's find some information on the pistol shrimp and test our answers to the last question. What is the claw all about and is their a link with where it lives?“ Was Max naughty"? "Should his mother have sent him to his room?
You can find a more detailed overview of Bloom's categories here.

2. How can I encourage children to ask questions? 
As I have already said above, it is important for children to make good use of questions. To help them learn what good questions are you can model questioning for them. There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

  • Ask questions of children that encourage learning and thinking
  • Avoid over-using questions that just test learning, or that simply channel learning in directions that you want it to go.
  • Try to give honest answers to children’s questions.
  • Don’t be frightened to say “I don’t know”, but use this to demonstrate that not knowing the answer should lead to further learning “Let’s try to find out…
  •  
In Australia we have a very funny advertisement for an Internet company that has a sequence of exchanges between a boy and his Dad. In one the boy is doing some research for school on China. He asks his Dad, “Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?

His Dad suggests, “That was during the reign of Emperor Nasi Goreng - to keep the rabbits out – too many rabbits in China”.

I'll say it again, we should never be afraid to say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it and let you know” (view the video HERE).


3. Here are 4 strategies to help children ask better questions
 
I wrote a whole book about comprehension strategies some years ago ('Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work') but here are just four question strategies that can be adapted for use with children of varied ages. In these examples, I'm assuming a grade 5 (10-11 year-olds).


a) Question frameworks


Make a chart that has a simple framework for questing complete with examples. The one above based on Bloom's Taxonomy is an example. An even simpler example is one developed by Nila Banton Smith and has proven helpful for many teachers:

Literal - These ask for details or facts you can find in the text, e.g. 'What was the rat's name in Charlotte's Web?'
Interpretive - These require the reader to supply meaning not directly stated, e.g. 'Why did Fern's father want to kill the runt pig?'
Critical - These require the reader to evaluate something, e.g. 'Do you think Templeton was honest?'
Creative - These require readers to go beyond the text, to express new ideas, solve a problem etc, e.g. 'What other words might Charlotte have used in her web to save Wilbur?'

Use the chart to discuss the varied type of questions we can ask about stories, use the categories at times when asking questions of the class, model the varied forms in group work, and use them for some set work. I offer further information on the above questioning strategy in my book 'Balancing the Basics'.

b) Visual Comprehension

You can use images, cartoons or a short video segment to stimulate and model questioning. The example below shows how a simple template for group work can be used to direct attention at images and generate good questions and insights (see my post on 'Visual Comprehension' HERE). The grade 4 students were looking at a series of newspaper images.
  
c) Talk-to-the-author
 
I developed this strategy many years ago and wrote about it in 'Teaching Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work'. It is a very simple strategy designed to get young readers thinking about the implied author and meaning that is beyond the literal. The technique is applied like this:

Step 1 - prepare some passages of 300-1000 words in length (from magazines, school readers, newspapers etc), or identify a passage in a class reader or book.
Step 2 - demonstrate the technique using a smartboard and explain that the idea of this technique is to encourage us to ask questions that we might ask if we had the author in the room.
Step 3 - have your class help you with a second passage on the smartboard.  
Step 4 - provide a passage and ask them to read, making note of at least 6 questions they might ask of the author and also at least 4 comments they might offer.

d) Character Interview

I developed this strategy while working with gifted children, but it can be used in any primary classroom. It requires readers to select a character from a book and interview them. You can do this in several ways. The simplest, and perhaps the best way to start this strategy, is to ask children in pairs to come up with ten questions that they would ask of a character in a story if they had the chance. They can then act this out with one being the interviewer and the other the character.
An alternative to the above is to have one student prepare a series of questions to which another student, filling the role of the character, has to answer. Once again, it is helpful to give some guidance about the need to ask varied questions that include interpretive, critical and creative questions, not just literal ones.

Other posts on comprehension

You might like to have a look at the following posts on comprehension:

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five' (HERE)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Non-fiction for Younger Readers: Five New Titles to Explore

I've reviewed lots of non-fiction books on this blog over the years. In this post I feature five books (three by the same author) for younger readers. All have some unique qualities.

1. 'Before After' by Anne-Margot Ramstein & Matthias Arégui (Walker Books)

Everyone knows that a tiny acorn grows into a mighty oak and a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. But in this clever, visually simple and yet stunning hardcover book, French artists Ramstein and Arégui do much more than offer a simple book of word concepts. They offer visual springboards to problem solving and imagination. The authors play with numerous hidden dimensions of one's view of the world. A view of a great mountain across fields can leave the fields as simple foreground, but what if the view of the mountain is from within the foliage that covers the ground? A rocket waiting on the launch pad is positioned next to a moonscape and offers a visual point of view across the moon's surface. A landscape that displays human footprints against a backdrop of a familiar distant planet. 

Turn a page and cooking ingredients sit next to a well decorated cake, and as we turn the page we encounter a mountain field complete with cow adjacent to a bottle of milk. The next double spread returns to the mountain field, but this time in the foreground we have an easel with a painting of the scene and the cow.

So the 'reader' is invited to contemplate how a cow can result in both a bottle of milk and a painting, an ape in a jungle may become an urban King Kong, a many-tiered cake is both created and eaten, a quill pen sits beside a typewriter, a pack of cards can transform into a pyramid and so on. These simple, graphic illustrations, gently tinted with pastel colours, will appeal to readers of all ages and will make them think and contemplate their world. This is a book that doesn't just explore the concepts of 'before' and 'after' it invites the 'reader' to reflect on time, perspective and reality. Readers aged 3 to 8 will be fascinated by this book.


2. 'Funny Faces' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)

Dr Norman is Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria where he leads the large and active natural sciences research team. He studies octopuses, squid, cuttlefishes and nautiluses (the cephalopods). He is also a trained teacher, an educational display designer and an experienced underwater cinematographer. His research and projects with documentary makers including BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel has covered giant squid, poisonous blue-ringed octopuses, huge aggregations of southern giant cuttlefish and diving surveys of remote Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

He has published a series of simple factual picture books framed by the word 'funny'. His first was 'Funny Bums' published in 2013. 'Funny Faces' is the second in the series. From oversized noses to bulging eyes, elaborate beaks to gigantic ears - the faces of some animals may look funny to us, but their peculiar features are exactly what those animals need to survive. Find out "Why the funny face?"

3. 'Funny Homes' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)

As with the first two books in this series Dr Norman  considers the complexity and beauty of the natural world, while at the same time considering its 'strangeness'. With his customary scientifically accurate and informative text, and stunning photographs, he invites us to explore aspects of the world around us. You see, some creatures live in funny places - prickly cactuses, dark caves, high treetops. These are strange places where humans would not survive for five minutes. Just why do these animals have such strange homes?




4. 'Funny Families' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)

The fourth book in Mark Norman's series has just been released in recent weeks, 'Funny Families'.

If you think your family is funny, imagine being a baby alligator carried around in its mother's mouth! Find out why some families of the animal world are so funny.

Inquisitive children and lovers of wildlife will enjoy this new title just as much as previous ones. As with the other titles they are suitable for readers aged 5-8 years.





 5. 'Australian Writers of Influence' by Bernadette Kelly (Black Dog Books)

Bernadette Kelly loves writing non-fiction and in this book she writes about writers. But not ordinary writers, she writes about some of our pioneers of poetry, plays and novels. They are all great names that many of us know by reputation and the odd work, but just how much do we know about these greats who have made their mark on our literary culture. These are the writers of the 19th century who influenced our grandparents and great grandparents.

With 200-400 word descriptions, beautiful illustrations and historic photographs and paintings, she makes us want to explore the great works of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Banjo Paterson, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis, Mary Gilmore, May Gibbs and more. This book will be enjoyed by children aged 10 to 13 years. Suited ideally for use in classrooms, it will be a valuable resource and a good individual read for children who love literature.

The work has no doubt been a labour of love for Bernadette Kelly. In her words:

"Researching this book was a joy, and I learnt a lot in the process. The writers, poets and journalists of colonial and post-federation days in this country were a tough lot and they shared my love of words and stories. So it’s out there now. May it find its way into the hands of Australian history lovers and learners."


Monday, February 23, 2015

8 Wonderful New Books with the Theme of War

The theme of 'war' is a very common one whether in adult books or those for children and young adults. Typically, these books focus on the impact of war on children's lives and families. As many nations around the world remember various key centenary dates relating to World War I there seem to be many new and varied books addressing this theme for children. What I like about the collection of books that have come across my desk in recent months is the complexity of the stories that a told and the effort to apply new lenses to an old theme. I have reviewed them below in appropriate age order. The novels are particularly rich and challenging.

1. 'Anzac Ted' by Belinda Landsberry (Exisle Publishing)

'Anzac Ted's a scary bear
and I can tell you why.
He's missing bits, his tummy splits,
he only has one eye'

That's how this beautifully illustrated book begins. A battered old teddy, that never wins a prize in the best toy competitions at school and frightens all the kids. But this bear has a secret. No one 'knows my Anzac's woes or just how brave he is.' Like the narrator's Grandpa, Anzac Ted is very old (100 this year in fact) and he made it through two wars as a mascot.

This is a lovely picture book for children aged 4-6 years that will allow very young children to access just as little of the Anzac legend.

2. 'One Minute's Silence' by David Metzenthen & illustrated by Michael Camilleri (Allen & Unwin)

This non-fiction, it is a moving and powerful story about the meaning of Remembrance Day drawing on the ANZAC and Turkish battle at Gallipoli. It is based on true events, but is written in a way that encourages the reader to imagine sprinting up the beach in Gallipoli in 1915 with the fierce fighting Diggers. The reader is also encouraged to imagine standing beside the brave battling Turks as they defended their homeland from the cliffs above.

In the silence that follows a war long gone, the hope is that you might see what the soldiers saw, and feel a little of what the soldiers felt. And if you try, you might just be able to imagine the enemy, and see that he was not so different from 'his' enemy. The purpose is to challenge us to imagine, remember and honour soldiers on both sides of the conflict. All are heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives for their countries.

This is a very moving and powerful reflection on the meaning of Remembrance Day, which is brought to life by Michael Camilleri's incredible pencil drawings. Each double page spread is wonderful. One of my favourites is one that depicts the engineering, physics and impact of a bullet. I found this to be quite dramatic and challenging.

Readers aged 7-10 will enjoy this book.


3. 'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)

'The Afghanistan Pup' is book 4 in the Children in War Quartet by fabulous author and illustrator Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.

The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.

Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.

4. 'War Brothers: The Graphic Novel' by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance (Walker)

This graphic novel has been adapted from the book 'War Brothers' written by Sharon McKay and published by Puffin in Canada in 2008. In its earlier form as a novel, it won the Arthur Ellis award for Juvenile fiction. This is a different kind of war. It is an evil war in the name of religion. It is not faith that drives these rebels; it is ideology and a quest for power. This is a fictional story based on real interviews in Uganda. While the graphic novel tells of unimaginable cruelty and violence, it is also a message of hope, courage, family and friendship. This is a war where rebels steal boys and girls from farms in Uganda driven by a militant named Joseph Kony who has terrorised parts of central Africa for almost 20 years. Young boys are forced to kill or be killed, and girls serve as slaves and 'wives'.

While the book is in a form that readers as young as 10-12 could read, its content is confronting means that for me, it is a piece of adolescent fiction. The illustrations are very effective. The darkly washed watercolours seem appropriate for an equally dark tale. It is a difficult story to read, but it offers an important caution against the excesses of ideology and religious extremism, and the failure of governments and nations to act quickly in the face of this type of evil. Suitable for readers 12+.

5. 'Emilio' by Sophie Masson (Allen & Unwin)

This is the fourth book in the popular 'Through My Eyes' series of adolescent fiction. It is a moving novel about one child's life in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. This of course is a different kind of war. Not a war fought over territory in the traditional sense but one that centres on control of places and the trafficking of drugs.

The central character, Emilio Garcia Lopez, starts out on an ordinary school day. That evening a knock on the door changes everything. The arrival of his police-officer cousin Juanita, flanked by a tall man in the uniform of the Federal Police, turns his normal day into the beginning of a long nightmare. Unidentified criminals, who appear to know a great deal about her and have mistaken her for a wealthy businesswoman, have kidnapped Emilio's mother in broad daylight from a hotel carpark. This is a dark novel that is engaging and challenging. Suitable for mature readers aged 13+.




6. 'Zafir' by Prue Mason (Allen & Unwin)

This is the sixth book in the 'Through My Eyes' series from Allen & Unwin that once again challenges adolescent readers to consider the struggles of people living in contemporary conflict zones. Zafir moves from Dubai to a comfortable life in Homs, Syria, where things are different. One day when he sees a body thrown from a moving car and no-one stops, he knows that things have changed in this country. He hears his parents arguing over the future of the nation and one day his father, a doctor, is arrested for helping a protester who was campaigning for revolution. His mother heads to Damascus to try to find out where his father is being held, Zafir stays with his grandmother - until her house is bombed.

With his father in prison, his mother absent, his grandmother ill and not a friend left in the city, Zafir must stay with his Uncle Ghazi. But that too becomes dangerous as the city becomes more and more besieged. This challenging book about a boy trapped in the middle of a civil war in Syria, draws the reader in as we contemplate with Zafir the possibility that he might not survive long enough to be reunited with his parents. This is an excellent end to a wonderful series of books. Suitable for readers aged 12+.

7. 'To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War' by David McRobbie (Allen & Unwin)

This is another gripping tale from one of my favourite authors of historical fiction.  It is the story of a teenager who ends up as a deck boy on navy ships, learning the ropes, fitting in with the crew, and facing wartime action in World War II.

The boys had been trained for emergencies. They had to know how to launch a lifeboat and to know where the life jackets were stored. But they were hardly prepared for the horrors before them. What an exploding torpedo do? And how will the ship and its crew behave when it sinks under you. No-one was able to prepare them for the blackness of night, or the horror of battle.

It is 1940, war rages and there is nothing to keep Adam Chisholm aged 15 years at home. So he joins Britain's Merchant Navy. His first ship takes him on a stormy Atlantic convoy where he faces seasickness, submarines, and shipwreck. In his remarkable sea journeys, Adam meets enemies face to face, and makes friends—some for a lifetime. The book includes a seven-page glossary of nautical terms and features WWII memorabilia throughout.

This is a very readable book that will keep readers aged 12+ engaged. It is beautifully written as with all of McRobbie's books.  It tells the story of war time battles that shows how men of honour and courage experience war. The book describes life at sea with great detail. This feature of McRobbie's books invites the reader to 'become' part of the action and adventure. A great read.

8. 'Hope in a Ballet Show: Orphaned By War, Saved by Ballet' by Michaela & Elaine DePrince (Faber & Faber)

This is the true story of a young girl who grows up in war-torn Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince.  She witnesses atrocities that no child ever should. Rebels kill her father and her mother dies of famine. She is then sent to an orphanage, is mistreated and witnesses the brutal murder of her favourite teacher. But her life takes a turn for the better when after raising five children of her own Elaine DePrince travels to Sierra Leone to adopt an orphan living in a difficult place.

For Michaela her dream of being a ballet dancer was implanted in her when one day a wind blew a magazine through the orphanage that she was living in. Michaela picks it up and sees a beautiful image of a young woman dancing. She thinks to herself, one day I want to be that happy. And so a dream is born.
Elaine DePrince and her husband adopt Michaela and her best friend and Michaela is able to take dance lessons for the first time. But her life in the USA isn't without its problems. The world of ballet that she finds is a racist one, and Michaela has to fight for a place amongst the ballet elite, hearing the words "America's not ready for a black girl ballerina".

Today, Michaela is an international ballet star, dancing for The Dutch National Ballet at the age of 19. This is a heart-breaking and yet inspiring autobiography by a teenager who shows us, that there is always hope where there is a dream, and the means and love to support you as you search for it.


Other relevant links

The Power and Place of Historical Narrative (HERE)
Historical fiction (HERE)





Thursday, February 12, 2015

Making Homework More Relevant and Useful for Learning

The vexed question 'Is homework useful?' is never far from conversations between parents about school, or between teachers when discussing parents. Like every teacher I have felt the pressure of parents wanting their children to do more homework. In spite of this I have never been a fan of most of the homework I see in the primary years of schooling (age 5 to 12 years). Yes, homework does have a place, but not the exalted place that many parents want to give it.

Why you might ask? 


1. Because the vast majority of homework is banal and features drill of things that contribute little to the areas in which we want children to learn. Memorising spelling lists is a case in point (see my previous post HERE) with little contribution being made to the ability to write well.

2. Because school homework is often a substitute for things that are more critical to children's development. For example, play (posts HERE), discovery learning and problem solving (posts HERE), creative expression in varied forms and (dare I say it, rest at day's end), conversation with adults and other children.

3. Because it allows society at large to fill the school day with other things that parents have failed to teach their children and simply shift curriculum work to the category of homework, which has to be packaged in bundles that children can complete largely undirected (see #1).

4. Because it reinforces narrow definitions of learning, curriculum and assessment. Homework ends up being a type of test of that which should be learned at school, and this in the name of practice.

In short, school becomes squeezed by the imperative to test children's learning for public assessment (see related posts HERE), and the hours after school end up being used for largely non-directed and repetitive tasks that help children to pass tests delivered at school.

Is there an alternative? Yes!

Step 1 - Ensure that any after school time whether at home with a parent or carer or in after school care is spent well. Set high standards.

Step 2 - Control access to the things that distract children from rich learning and exploration. I'm thinking of course about 'screen' time (limit daily screen time), computers, gaming and television. But you may need to limit other things (that have merit and are useful) and become obsessive and shut out other options for learning.

Above: Screen time needs to be controlled, but it can also be a key tool for learning

Step 3 - Apply some simple tests for any after school 'homework'. Does it develop new knowledge and skills? Does it expand repertoires for learning - discovery, imaginative recreation, dialogue, observation etc? Is it enjoyable and challenging?

Step 4 - Make sure that you know what your children are doing, that you monitor it, and that you show genuine interest in what they are doing. 

What might post school time look like?

Hopefully time after school will have a level of planning (kids you need to do X, Y, & Z). Make sure that set agendas like sporting practice, music etc don't shut out everything else.

Start with down time - let them rest, talk to other people about their day, feed them, let them have some time to choose what they do (within predetermined limits).

Incorporate varied activities - some time outside to run around in an unstructured self-directed way; a time for exploration and discovery (this can include reading, viewing, hands on activities like craft drawing, construction etc); a time for school directed homework (I'd limit this in the primary years to no more than five times their age, i.e. thirty minutes aged 6, fifty minutes aged 10 etc); self-directed reading (e.g. HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE); family down time to chat and hang out.

Above: A different type of 'homework'

I understand that the complexity and varied nature of family life will always make after school time 'messy'. But we need to ask ourselves, how messy is it? What negative impact is the messiness having on family life and learning? What can I do to change things?

One thing I am certain of, the solution to the messiness isn't simply to ask schools to set more banal tasks, disconnected from 'real' learning which we police with minimal supervision.

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Other posts

Other posts that address creativity, imagination and play (HERE)

Other posts that address homework alternatives (HERE)


Monday, February 2, 2015

Oral & Repeated Reading is Important and Can be Fun

1. Oral reading is important. Why? 
  • It's an important skill for life
  • It helps teachers and parents to observe and make 'visible' children's reading processes
  • It helps to develop reading fluency and support vocabulary development
  • It can help us to assess reading progress and diagnose difficulties
I've written about oral reading before covering a variety of topics, including:

How to listen to children reading (HERE & HERE),
The importance of reading to and with children (HERE), and
Readers' Theatre (HERE).

Teachers have known for a long time that oral reading can be a valuable instructional method, but sadly, for many children reading around the group (or worse still the class) kills interest and motivation. But we know from research that 'repeated readings' can improve fluency and ability (e.g. Stoddart & others 1993, Rasinski 1990, Rasinski & Hoffman 2003). So how can we move beyond 'round robin' reading and embrace more creative and enjoyable approaches to oral reading?

In this post I want to offer some suggestions for how teachers and parents can make oral reading more effective, as well as enjoyable and even fun!





2. Making it fun and enjoyable

Above: Bec reads to her day-old sister
How can we make repeated or oral reading fun? Here are some key elements to help achieve this.

1. Choose appropriate material for your children - use graded material at varied levels; favourite passages from books the class has heard or read (e.g. Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss books work); jokes & riddles; poetry or songs that they know; speeches and famous quotes.
2. Ensure that students are reading at their appropriate level.
3. Use varied strategies and avoid simply reading around the group.

3. Some alternative strategies

Most of the ideas that follow can be found in a great article by Mary Ann Cahill and Anne E. Gregory published in 'The Reading Teacher' a couple of years ago. Here is their description of oral reading in a US 2nd grade classroom they had worked in:

'One pair is rolling dice and using different voices to read; a small group is reading to small, plastic animals on their desks; three students are wearing masks while reading; and another pair is using little, red-beamed flashlights to shine on each word as they read.'
What are some simple novel ways to help children remain motivated and enjoy oral reading?

Above: Evie reads to her pet cat
1. Read to prepare for performance - By this I mean, putting exciting material in children's hands, letting them practice and then asking them to share it with a group or the class (e.g. read a favourite section from a book, read a song, silly poem etc).
2. Try Readers' Theatre - I've written about this before (HERE). Obtain some free scripts and let your children have fun reading together in small groups to present the scripts to others.
3. Read to someone or something - This might seem strange, but some teachers get their children to read not to other people but to other 'things'. A number of classes in the UK and the US have had children read regularly to a school dog (read more HERE) with great success and benefits. Some creative teachers have had their children read to plastic dinosaurs (!), a favourite doll etc.
4. Some turn it into a game such as 'Reading Dice' - This involves getting children to discuss the different voices a character could have for a reading extract; they then write 6 of them on the board and giving them the numbers 1-6. They then have children work in pairs or groups to take turns, roll the dice and use the voice that matches the number.
5. Newsreader or media presenter - Teachers have a microphone (it can be a fake one) and ask children in pairs to conduct an interview for an appropriate extract.
6. Reading Masks - the children practice reading passages using the voice and persona of the mask they are wearing (these can be animals, super heroes etc).
7. Use songs for reading - The use of songs has the added advantage that the rhythm, sound repetition, melody etc can be used to support reading (see my recent post on this topic HERE)

Summing up

Oral reading is a valuable instructional tool and has been neglected of late. It has also been misused for many years with the effect that some children have found it less than rewarding. But it can and should be enjoyable and fun. I'd love to hear of your own experiences with oral reading. Do you have any great ideas? Post a comment. 

A useful reference

Mary Ann Cahill & Anne E. Gregory (2011). Putting the fun back into fluency instruction, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp 127-131.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Starting School: Is there a perfect age?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic in January 2014 when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia most of our schools are returning next week and many children will start school for the first time.  I can't remember my first day at school, but I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our two daughters off for their first day of formal schooling (this was some time ago).

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing.

In other countries we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain five and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

So is there a best starting age? If there is, few education systems seem to agree on what it is. "Should my child start school at five even though... (fill the blank)?" is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. The short answer I give is "it all depends". Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but variations from four and a half to six years don’t seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement.

It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school. In reality, we need to make individual assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

Is my child physically ready? 
  • Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro! And Kindergarten teachers are good at it anyway). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
  • Can they feed themselves and will they cope with a new degree of independence?
  • How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
  • Are they toilet trained and independent in many areas of self care?
Is my child emotionally ready?
  • Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
  • Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
  • If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
  • Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
  • Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, engage in 10 minutes  of screen time without being easily distracted, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
  • Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
  • Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
  • Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
Ultimately, parents need to make this decision based on what they know about their child. There are some other things worth considering:
  • What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
  • What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
  • What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
  • What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are only four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start reading until they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that Finland that does well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys. It was second in the latest rankings for reading, and yet, the starting age in Finland is seven!