Thursday, November 20, 2014

Using imaginative storytelling with young children

From a very early age, children begin in varied play situations to experiment with story using the springboard of literature, song, film or even real-life accounts. My youngest granddaughter Lydia has been fascinated by story since her first year of life. At dinner this evening she wrapped a piece of lettuce around her fork and the newly created 'butterfly' was having a long conversation with her knife. She was oblivious to others at the table as she was lost in her storytelling. It seems that they were in fact two butterflies sharing just one set of wings. She has just turned three and imaginative story creation is now a big part of her everyday play. She uses dolls, plastic animals, Thomas trains, toys and objects of all kinds (like her knife & fork!) to tell stories. Not all of her stories are retellings of known stories, in fact many are original innovative stories that she crafts using stimuli in her environment. Story for Lydia can also be stimulated by television (e.g. 'Everything's Rosie', 'Charlie and Lola', 'In the Night Garden'), books and all of life's everyday experiences.

Imaginative play and storytelling are essential parts of learning. In previous posts I've called this re-creation (i.e. the reconstruction, presentation or retelling of a story in new ways), but it takes many forms.

Story in its own right is critical to learning, communication and well-being. This is something that I've written about many times (for example HERE & HERE). For children, the re-creation or reliving of a story is a critical part of their growing knowledge of narrative as well as a way to gain knowledge.

Young children often quite naturally use imaginative storytelling to support and play with known stories or varied life situations and experiences:
  • Changing rhymes and songs, e.g. 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' to 'Baa Baa White Sheep' as Lydia does often.
    Acting out 'Little Red Riding Hood' with the resources of the dress-up box and some friends.
  • Dramatizing a well-known children's song from television or CD or a children's picture book.
  • Using art or drawing to imagine a story character, mythical creature or story setting. 
  • Using Lego (or other toys, props and objects) to re-imagine story alone or with others.
  • Creating something new that grows out of an experience of story.

Storytelling and imaginative re-creation are powerful learning strategies for children that stretches them as language users and learners. Below are a few examples of how this can be encouraged ate varied ages.

Examples of Imaginative Re-creation by Age Group

a) Toddlers (1-3 years)

  • Being encouraged to be a wild thing as the story 'Where the Wild Things Are' reaches the critical moment when Max declares 'Let the wild rumpus start'.
  • Finger Plays and rhymes ('This Little Piggy', 'Incy Wincy', 'Round and Round the Garden')
  • Retelling Thomas the Tank Engine stories using the various engines that feature in the story.
  • Using dolls or soft toys to act out domestic scenarios.
    Using dress-up clothes in association with well-known stories.
  • Creating a story using toy soldiers, Polly Pocket toys, magnetic boards with characters, fuzzy felt and so on.
  • Joining in the television dramatization of a well-known story on a program like 'Playschool'.

b) Early years (4-6 years)

  • Many of the better story apps for iPad or android devices are an innovative way for multiple re-created experiences of stories (see my recent post on this HERE).
  • Drawing maps, key characters (dragons, people) or scenes.
  • Acting out stories with a group of children or with adult family members.
  • Creating an adapted text to re-create part of a story (e.g. poetry, a character interview, telling the story from a different point of view).
  • Using puppets to re-create a story.
  • Using modelling clay or craft materials to create characters to re-create and retell a story.
Creating knights for storytelling

c) Later childhood (7-12 years)

  • More elaborate dramatization, with involvement in making props and costumes.
  • Simple animations using one of the programs readily available (see my previous post on animation HERE).
  • Using materials like Lego to re-imagine a well-known story.
  • Creating a board game that recreates the plot or a specific part of a story (as Sam did).
  • Creating a complex map or plot summary as a device for others to use.
  • Create a script to be acted for a specific part of a story.
  • Write a newspaper report based on an event within a story.
  • Use a variety of written genres to create a new text ('The Jolly Postman' and 'The Jolly Pocket Postman' are published examples of this).
These are just some of the ways that storytelling and imaginative re-creation can stimulate learning and language.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Raising Chickens: The Power of Experience for Learning

The benefit of 'hands on'!
I have written previously about the 'The Language Experience Approach' (LEA) to literacy on this blog (here) and how direct and personal experience is a key method for rich learning to take place (here).

Some of my grandchildren are experiencing this in a very special way right now as they raise four chickens. There are four children in the family and four chickens. Every day brings new observations, discoveries, investigation and research as they feed, hold and simply watch their development day by day. Questions are asked constantly as changes occur in the chickens. "Hey this one seems to have five toes?". "Is that possible, don't they have four?" "What is the tuft of feathers on that one's head?" Of to search the internet for some answers. "Hey, I think this one is a Silkie not a Pekin"! 

LEA is a term known primarily by teachers and educators, and probably had its genesis in the creative activities of many teachers who drew on children’s firsthand experiences when structuring early literacy. Typically, these were teachers of young children who grasped just how powerful real life experience is to the stimulation of children's language and learning:

  • The squelch of mud between toes on a wet day in the back yard
  • Running on a sandy beach for the first time
  • Watching a worm wiggle in the palm of a small hand
  • Building a cubby house from boxes in the back yard
  • Watching a bird build its nest in a tree in the playground in spring
  • Doing hand painting
  • Observing chickens as they grow bigger day by day

Watching them eating, sleeping and at play

One early advocate of this approach was Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) who wrote a book called Teacher (New York: Bantam Books). In it she outlined her "organic" approach to teaching based on the recognition of what she saw as the opposing human forces of destructiveness and creativity. A second significant person in the development of the LEA was Roach Van Allen whose research and teaching led him to develop similar approaches in the early 1960s.

The method draws on children’s firsthand experiences that are either naturally occurring or are planned by the teacher or parent. The experience becomes a focus for discussion and exploration and eventually is recorded as a written text in some way. Some people see this as a method suitable only for young children but nothing could be further from the truth. Any adult who has done or seen things for the first time will attest to the power of a significant new experience - seeing new places, doing things for the first time, tasting new food, finding yourself immersed in a significant event - new experiences have a major impact on learning and our use of language to describe these events. Such experiences teach us new things and move us to use language to make sense of the experience and tell others about it.

The approach in a nutshell

This approach to learning has four main elements:
  • Sharing an experience
  • Talking about the experience
  • Making some record of the experience (words, pictures, photographs)
  • Finally, using the recorded experience for further reading, discussion and the stimulation of further writing

More details for teachers or homeschoolers

I thought it might help to see as a typical language experience for each of two age levels. The second example is centred on raising chickens.

A Preschool Example - 'Hunting for creatures in the yard'

a) The experience

Collecting insects in the back yard
One of the favourite activities at our house when children visit is hunting for insects or other living things in the back yard. If you live in an apartment you'll have to walk to the closest park or open space where there are gardens, trees and grass. If you have a magnifying glass all the better and perhaps a couple of bottles (or a bug catcher) and a couple of used ice cream or margarine containers.

As a parent or teacher you do need to exercise great care with this activity. Know about any dangerous insects in your area and be able to recognise them. If you don't know enough, have someone else with you who does. Worms, snails, slaters, ants and slugs are easy and safe. If you don't like the thought of holding a worm then there are lots of other insects to see in any yard. Look at the bark on any tree, lift a rock in the garden (with care if there are spiders where you live - use a stick), lift a pile of mulch, turn a sod of moist soil, look closely at the leaves on a tree, search the flowers and so on.

b) Talk about it

You can't help but talk about an experience like this, your child or children will be talking incessantly - "look at this", "ooo - it's moving", "watch out!", "what is it?", "it smells", "it jumped" etc. Ask questions as you share the experience (see my post on questioning here), extend their language - "yes, it's slithering", "smells like mummy's curry", "that's its stinger, don't touch it".

c) Making a record of the experience

A composite drawing of creatures observed
One qualifier is that we shouldn't turn every great experience into a formal school activity, don't make your children draw or write about everything. But often, your children will want to remember the experience or write something so that they can tell others about it (siblings, a parent, friends, grandparents etc).

For very young children a drawing will be a wonderful way to record and communicate the experience and this is the beginning of writing (see my post on beginning writing here). Older children will label their drawings and maybe write a sentence or two, list some words that say how they felt or what they saw, or write elaborate text to go with the illustration (see my 7 year old grandson Jacob's illustration of a Blue Tongue lizard observed in his yard). You can also record photographs or videos (cell phones make this easy) as a record of what you've seen.

d) Telling others about the experience

It is important with experiences of this kind to give opportunities to share the experience with others - mum or dad, grandparents, other siblings, classmates. Not always, but often. This can involve showing the writing or drawing to others, hanging the product on a wall, the fridge etc, sharing it in any way that is appropriate to the product or record of the experience. Jacob gave my wife and I the picture above that he drew and told us all about the experience.

The sharing of the experience can lead to other experiences: a video on insects, the reading of a related book. Literature can also be an important end to a wonderful experience together: Eric Carle's 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', and Bruce Whatley's 'Looking for Crabs' immediately come to mind as books I'd want to share.

2. A Primary School Example (children aged 5-12 years) - 'Raising Chickens'
a) The experience

This example can work for preschool children as well, but my notes below assume primary aged children. Raising creatures of any kind is one of the most wonderful experiences children can have. This can include silk worms, earth worms, an ant farm, tadpoles (this may be illegal in some countries due to environmental issues), chickens, ducks, birds, rabbits, fish, tortoises, guinea pigs or hamsters.

The above cage was rented by the chicken supplier

Raising chickens is one of the best examples that I've used or observed others using. You can buy chickens quite easily, even in the city. If doing this for a whole class I'd suggest buying enough to allow one chicken to a group of 4 children. In families, you might have one chicken per child. This will allow closer observation and an opportunity for all children to be involved in the care of the chicks. You will need a good cage with a wire bottom and a safe coop on the end that can be moved outside onto grass or dirt and then moved into a shed or weather shed for safety. If raising them from the first week of life you'll need a special cage with heat lamps and special feeders (see the image above). You can hire these from chicken suppliers. As well, you need an exit strategy! Schools might build an outdoor pen, families might do the same. There are many commercial versions at major hardware stores. What will we do with the chickens when they become hens and roosters. Knowing someone with a farm would be a good fall back.

I don't have the space to go into great detail, but here are just some of the dimensions to this rich experience:
  • The first day or two is always very exciting, simply let the children observe, handle (carefully) in groups (close observation by the teacher is important at first - do it a group at a time) talk about the chickens, draw them etc.
  • Establish a routine for how the class will observe and care for the chickens - feeding, observing, talking about, writing about etc.
  • Structured observation is another great extension to this experience - examining the food, weighing the food (and graphing over time), weighing the chickens, measuring their height, wingspan (a teacher job usually), looking at specific parts (feet, comb, beak, tail, wings...).
  • Observing behaviour - eating, activity, communal actions, 'personality....

b) Talking about it

You won't be able to stop children talking about the chickens. Allow the children to talk while they observe (this won't be a quiet activity), at times structure or direct the talk with careful questions (e.g. "Can anyone see the tail feathers?" "Do chickens have teeth?" "How have the feet changed from last week?" "How do they drink?" "How do chickens sleep?").

As well as group talk, there will be wonderful opportunities to have children do prepared talks in their groups, to the class, to visitors to the class, or to other classes. The talk can be factual, imaginative or even dramatic based on their observations. For the latter, children can even invent dialogue between their chickens, give them identities etc.

You can also make good use of literature and other non-fiction to stimulate other discussion and learning about chickens. 'Hector and Maggie' by Andrew & Janet McLean and Colin Thiele's 'Farmer Shulz's Ducks' are just two books that come to mind that could enrich the experiences and stimulate new types of creativity.

It is in talking about their experiences that children can talk their way to new insights and understandings. Language and learning are intertwined (I'll blog on this on another occasion).

c) Making a record of the experience

The observation of chickens is an activity that has to be recorded in some way. Here are a few ideas:
  • Keep a daily log or journal (these could be individual, group or class based - probably all three).
  • Do regular drawings - a single chicken, chickens in groups doing different things, detailed drawings parts of the chicken (head, feet, wings, beak etc). Compare drawings over time etc.
  • Record food and water quantities (and maybe graph this).
  • Record and graph the chicken's weight and size.
  • Attempt some creative writing - 'The battle of the chickens'.
  • Produce a video of the chickens behaviour, key observations etc.

d) Telling others about the experience

Such a rich experience needs to be shared with others. This can be done in many ways:
  • Display student writing and drawing on walls
  • Have the children take home their journals to share with their families
  • Have class presentations at school assemblies (present information, stories, pictures, videos, or just teach the chicken dance!)
  • Create a class blog on chickens - different class members could blog each day, pictures and photos could be uploaded, video clips shared
  • Prepare a dramatic presentation for another class
Sharing one's work and observations is important

The benefits of a Language Experience Approach

As I wrote in my last post there are many benefits for language and learning. These include:
  • New knowledge
  • Increased language proficiency
  • New vocabulary (specialist and general)
  • Literacy learning - for the young this will include simple concepts of print, new words, and a growing grasp of sentence structure etc; whereas for the older child this can extend to knowledge of new written genres, writing for new audiences, growing reading and research skills.
  • A stimulus to creativity
  • Increased interest in learning
The LEA is not just a technique just for young children, older children also benefit from firsthand experience as a significant vehicle for language and learning. I'd be keen to hear from parents and teachers of experiences that have worked well with your children.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reading to children: Why & How to do it well?

Listening to your child reading is more complex, and important than people think. While I've written previously on reading to your child (here) and listening to them (here) back in 2008, I wanted to revisit these two topics in the one post. It's easy to do it badly, but not so easy to do well. In this post I'll comment on three things:

  • The value of reading out loud
  • Some DOs and DON'Ts for listeners
  • A couple of specific read aloud strategies

1. Some general comments on the value of oral reading

As an instructional strategy oral reading has some clear advantages:
  • Anyone can do it
  • It ensures that the child reads a specific number of words each day
  • For the skilled listener (usually a trained teacher) it acts as a 'window on the reading process' allowing us to understand what strategies children are using, misusing, not using, what help they need, etc (more on this later)
  • It's an opportunity to build confidence and self esteem
But there are potential disadvantages:
  • It is slower than silent reading
  • The proficient reader does most reading silently, so this is the key reading skill we're working towards, with the exception that skilled audience reading does have a place. I comment on this in other posts. So reading out loud shouldn't be a total replacement for silent reading
  • It is teacher or parent intensive compared to silent reading (oral reading is mostly one-to-one or in small groups rather than individual)
  • It can be a source of frustration for the child and can lead to a loss of confidence and self esteem if the listener is unskilled

2. Some DOs and DON'Ts

Here is my outline of what to do and NOT to do.

Some DON'Ts
  • Don't make unfavourable comparisons between the child you're listening to and another child. Avoid statements like "How come Jason can read that word but you can't?"
  • Don't feel that you need to correct every error, or teach every sound that your child seems to struggle with. Listening to your child is not just an accuracy test. Besides, if your child struggles on more than 5 words on a page then the book is too hard for them (see below).
  • Don't ridicule your child as they read.
  • Don't make the sessions too long (10-15 minutes is ideal). It's better to have two short sessions than one that is too long.
Some DOs

DO Relax - try to make it fun and enjoyable for you and the child. The experience should strengthen your relationship, not weaken it.
DO choose a good time & place - choose a good time when your child is fresh and you are feeling patient and perhaps less stressed. If it has to be after school give your child something to eat and drink and let them relax or play for a while first. And make sure you choose a quiet place without distractions.
DO select books carefully - choose the books well. Hopefully the book will be at the right level, and the child will enjoy it. If the books are boring speak to the child's teacher and try to substitute another book. For help on getting the level right see the "5 finger test" below.
DO encourage your child and praise them - the purpose of the session is to help, encourage and build confidence, not test, frustrate and shatter confidence.

5 more specific DOs

DO talk about the book first - read the title, look at the book, ask if he or she has read it before, ask what they think it's about etc. Maybe even read the first page for your child.
DO let the child hold the book (it's more natural and gives them a sense of being in charge).
DO talk about the book after reading (not as a test, just as a chat).
DO show patience, progress can be slow.
DO help them as they read but don't labour any teaching moment. If they can't get the sound "oar" give them the word after a few attempts and read on. You can come back to this sound on another occasion. Remember that fluency is important for your child to gain meaning from what they are reading and for building confidence. Teachers can give more support as part of oral reading because they're trained to know what to look for and how to offer many different forms of support. For parents, if you're in doubt give them the word and read on.

3. Some associated strategies

(i) The 5 Finger Technique

This is a basic way to make sure the reading material is at the right level. This is how it is done:
  • Choose the book your child will read (or have them choose one from a range of books).
  • Choose a typical page towards the middle of the book (with lots of words and not too many pictures).
  • Begin to read and each time your child comes to a word that they don't know, hold up one finger.
  • If you end up with five fingers before the end of the page stop reading the book and choose another one.
  • If you have no fingers up by the end of the page then it’s probably too easy, if you have one or two then it’s probably the right level.

 (ii) Pause-Prompt-Praise

This is a strategy I suggest for parents and untrained listeners (like older reading buddies). As a general rule, oral reading should privilege fluency, with errors only being corrected when they break down the meaning. If your child makes errors based on problems with lack of phonic skills or due to poor word recognition skills, it is best to note the problem and come back to them at the end of the story. You might also like to keep a record of such problems in an exercise book; not as a record of failure, but to note areas that need help, to plot your child's progress and as a means to offer encouragement when they overcome problems after practice.

With Pause-Prompt-Praise the only mistakes corrected during the reading are those that get in the way of meaning.

If your child makes a mistake use this simple technique:

PAUSE - after your child makes a mistake for about 3 seconds and say nothing, they may self-correct.

PROMPT - If you child doesn't self-correct either give them the word or offer a prompt (e.g. give them the sound that they are struggling with; help them to sound it out; get them to re-read the sentence)

PRAISE - Encourage your child by praising the fact that they have finished the page, had a go at a difficult word, had no or few errors, read fluently, and seemed to understand what it was about.

(iii) Miscue Analysis

Professor Ken Goodman at the University of Arizona developed Miscue Analysis. It was later refined with his wife Professor Yetta Goodman. Ken Goodman discovered that if you analyse reading errors (he prefers the term "miscue") that they provide a 'window' into the reading process. I share it here as a reminder for teachers and as an insight into the complexity of the reading process for parents. Goodman found that when you analyse miscues carefully you could come to understand what strategies children are using (in their heads) to read. These he found fall into three main categories:
  • word-based strategies (identifying the word by sight, using phonic strategies to sound out words);
  • syntax or grammar (predicting the next word based on the logical grammar or flow of the sentence);
  • semantics (meaning-based strategies; does the word make sense in this sentence or passage?).
He also noticed that at times readers over or under use specific strategies or fail to 'orchestrate' these key language strategies. For example, they might over-use prior words and not read ahead (so it makes sense or is grammatically correct with what precedes the word, but not what follows it), or they might over or under use one of the three key strategies. Here's a simple example of a bit of text and three miscues to illustrate.

Original Text - Bill ran across the road to get the ball
  • Reading 1 - Bill runned over the road to get the ball (a problem primarily of syntax showing itself in the addition of a suffix)
  • Reading 2 - Bill can over the road to get the ball (a problem with word recognition and a failure to use syntax)
  • Reading 3 - Bill ran across the toad to get the ball (a problem with under-use of semantics as well as a miscue on the initial consonant of road)
What the above examples would show if repeated by your child is the misuse of different reading strategies. Such miscues are only problems if there are recurrent patterns of this type. Some of these miscues will only become apparent when the child is put under pressure as a reader. If it's too much pressure you should first go back to some more suitable material before jumping to too many conclusions. I need to stress that Miscue Analysis is too complex for untrained listeners to use as a tool, even busy teachers find it hard to apply in the classroom. In fact it is a much more complex than I have described above (this is Prep 101 Miscue Analysis). However, there is a simpler technique - "Running Records" - that teachers find easier to use.

(iv) Running Records

Running records is a simpler technique developed by Dame Marie Clay who was a New Zealand educator who developed the Reading Recovery program. It is still primarily a tool for teachers to use to make sense of mistakes that readers make during reading. Because of its use as part of Reading Recovery the technique tends to have been used in three main ways: to assess an appropriate starting level for instruction; as a way to assess a child's strengths and weaknesses as a reader; as a tool integral to the teaching process. I may do a post on the technique later but I've provided a couple of useful links below that should help.

Final Comments

Oral reading can be a wonderful tool for encouraging reading development and a positive way for parents to help their children. It can also be a way to reinforce failure and frustration. Use it carefully. One final comment. Remember that oral reading should rarely be used as a test by teachers and virtually never should be used in this way by parents. It's a way to provide practice, feedback and encouragement. Make sure that you choose books wisely (the Five Finger Technique should help). Don't provide material that is too hard (this will breed failure and frustration) and don't use material that is too easy (this won't help them to learn new things).

Other resources

For a more detailed outline of ways to support the beginning reader beyond just listening to them you can consult my website here.

Teachers can find a good introduction to Running Records here and a more detailed teachers description of the technique here.

For a more detailed description of Miscue Analysis click here and Ken Goodman's work here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

10 Great New Non-Fiction Books for Younger Readers

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

This delightful book is a companion to 'Funny Bums' and 'Funny Homes'. The faces of some animals might look 'funny' to us but their eyes, ears, noses and mouths are what these animals need to survive. Dr Norman is Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria where he leads the large and active natural sciences research team. The books have wonderful photographs of different animals and clear and relatively simple text to explain why these creatures have these special features. The Tarsier, which is the cover image, has large eyes for hunting spiders and grasshoppers at night. The Fennec Fox has huge ears so that it can hunt well at night listening for the tiny scratching noises of insects moving around. And more of course!
This is a beautiful book that readers aged 5-7 will enjoy, while learning a lot about animals.

2. 'Emu' by Claire Saxby & illustrated by Grahame Byrne (Walker Books)

This wonderful narrative non-fiction book is the next in a series by the author and illustrator. This time it features the large and famous Australian flightless bird, the emu. Graham Byrne's illustrations are stunning! The text as you'd expect from Claire Saxby is also excellent. On each wonderful double page spread, Saxby provides a narrative account on one side - where details of the Emu are woven into a story about a family of emus - and facts about emus on the other. This is a clever way to present information in two forms that allow parallel reading, or a selective one. Young readers aged 6-8 will enjoy reading this book, or just having it read to them.

You can also download some excellent lesson ideas HERE.

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

While this isn't a typical piece of non-fiction, it is a moving and powerful story about the meaning of Remembrance Day drawing on the ANZAC and Turkish battle at Gallipoli. So while it is based on true events, it is written in a way that encourages the reader to imagine sprinting up the beach in Gallipoli in 1915 with the fierce fighting Diggers. You are 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. Surprisingly, I found one that depicts the engineering, physics and impact of a bullet, to be quite dramatic and challenging.

Readers aged 7-10 will enjoy this book.

 4. 'Catch That Plane' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Sylvie Currin Korankova (Walker Books)

This is another of Sally Sutton's wonderful rhyming texts with the unique and zany illustrations of Sylvie Currin Korankova. It is a great follow-up to Sally's last effort, the successful book 'Demolition' reviewed previously on this blog. This book turns the simple task of getting onto a plane an exciting adventure.

Rushing to the airport,
what do I see?
Plane at the gate,
a-ready and a-steady.
I hope it's going to wait.
We're late as late can be!

Readers aged 3-6 will enjoy this book about the excitement of taking a plane flight.

5. 'The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Opera House and Beyond' by Patrick Dillon & illustrated by Stephen Beasty (Walker Books).

Stephen Beasty is in a class of his own with his incredible cross section books. While the book takes a narrative form, no-one can 'read' any Beasty book without learning many things. The author Patrick Dillon explains that a building is much more than a place to shelter. If we would just look at each one closely, we would gain insights into technology, design, politics and human ambition. He uses narrative to encourage the reader to imagine life and how people lived along a timeline. What made the people who built these structures make the choices that they did. The book covers many civilisations across thousands of years. This is a fascinating book that can be revisited many times without exhausting the reader's capacity to learn new things each time. Readers aged 7-12 years will love this book.

6. 'Nancy Bird Walton' by Grace Atwood and illustrated by Harry Slaghekke (Random House)

This book is part of a picture book series about the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia's history, including Australia's first female commercial pilot, Nancy Bird Walton. This book tells how Nancy Bird Walton began her career as Australia's first commercial pilot. Nancy was an inspiring woman who in the 1930s achieved new things for women. The book covers her life from age 17 when she began flying lessons. It is a wonderful biography that children aged 6-8 will enjoy both for the quality of the story and the wonderful illustrations from Slaghekke.

7. 'Come Count with Me!' by Marika Wilson (Allen & Unwin)

This is a delightful picture counting book from first-time author and illustrator Marika Wilson who produced the book with the assistance of the 'Emerging Indigenous Picture Book Mentoring Project'. It is a counting book in narrative form supported by simple line and wash illustrations that offer slightly exaggerated images of a chick and her nanna.
Nana! Nana!
Come count with me!
I can count.
Look! Look! 1, 2 and 3.
Well little chicky,
now let me try,
1, 2 and 7 , 8 and 9?
There are many counting books but this one is delightfully quirky and uses humour to great effect. The warmth of the relationship between a little chick and her nanna offers a playful way to learn about numbers while enjoying a story.

Readers aged 3-6 will love to listen to this book, join in, and later, read it themselves.

8. 'Found and Made: The Art of Upcycling' by Lisa Hölzl (Walker Books)

This is a fabulous book! Anyone who has children aged 6-11, or who teaches some, will find countless hours of fun and creative activities that will be stimulated by this book. This book is not about recycling discarded items, it's about 'upcycling' them! Turning them into things that are more wonderful that the bits and pieces that are used to make them. Girls in particular will love the ideas in this book. You can find out how to build your own art kit, then get started. Make an art book, create your own box of secret things, create a 3D bird, a fantasy montage, a painting with paper, a self-portrait in string, puppets, a musical instrument and more. And if that's not enough you can find lots of great associated classroom ideas HERE at Classroom Walker.

There are countless hours of fun, learning and content-based reading in this great book.

9. 'Bugged: How Insects Changed History' by Sarah Albee and illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury)

There are millions of insects in the world, and believe it or not, some have changed the course of human history. People have had to learn to live with insects - insects change things! As Sarah Albee says, "once you begin to look at world history through fly-specked glasses, you begin to see the mark of these minute life forms at every turn. Beneficial bugs have built empires. Bad bugs have toppled them."

But of course 'Bugged' is not your normal history book, it is a combination of world and social history, science, medicine, and conservation, all wrapped up in 168 page book that can be read almost like a novel, dipped into like a reference book to check some facts or learn some new things. Every page has remarkable insects and crazy images (as the cover suggests) to engage readers and capture their imagination. But there are quirky mini-stories as well, like the biblical plagues of Egypt, germ warfare, and how the explorer Captain Drake's final journey ended (and why).

From the author and illustrator team behind kid-favourite Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, this book will be enjoyed by readers aged 10-13, particularly if they enjoy history and science.

10. '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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Six Good Reasons Why Family Conversation is Still Important

Have you noticed how when people under the age of 35 eat out, they usually do so with their smart phones on the table or in their hands, with sideways glances to share posts, funny videos, pictures and so on. While there's talk going on it's quite different. Conversation happens, but it is mediated by smart phones.

More worrying than the above scenario is that when families eat out often the adults talk and the kids play with the smart phones. While I know adults need to talk without kids, when families get together over a meal it's a precious times for lots of things to occur.

Above: Not all families look like the Waltons but...meals are important

Social research indicates that the family dinner is increasingly a curious practice from an earlier age. Reports suggest that as many as 10% to 20% of families never eat together, and most rarely eat together as a unit without a wide range of distractions such as television, eating standing up, at the kitchen bench and so on. Does this matter? I think it does. Not because I think all families should resemble the Waltons, but because I think we're losing the ability to listen to, ask questions of, and show genuine interest in the lives of other people. Our children are also missing out on many life lessons and key social practices that are vital for any community.

Let me offer 6 good reasons why a shared meal is something to protect:

1. The dining table is one of the few places that families sit down together and share things about their lives. The dining room table is a place where family members can let their guard down, and where previously unknown facts about school, friends, worries, hopes and frustrations can come to the surface.

2. The shared meal is also a place and time where children learn basic lessons about sharing, turn taking, avoiding gluttony, showing thoughtfulness, kindness to the one preparing the meal, nutrition and even food science. There will be challenges - tears about food not eaten, parents feeling like nags at times, the hard work of persisting with basic manners and so on - but they will learn many things that will help to shape their character.

3. Children learn how to ask questions of one another, and how to listen to the answers of others with patience, respect and kindness. Virtually all societies throughout the centuries have relied on the sharing of a meal as a key way to form children and build shared communities of varied kinds.

4. The dining table also trains children to listen and comprehend the conversations of others. At times a vibrant dinner table conversation will require children to keep in mind the comments of several people before framing their own responses. It also helps them to learn how to structure an argument, offer a point of view with politeness and humility, learn how to disagree calmly, and so on.

5. The dining room table also helps children to learn how to negotiate turn taking, how to be patient in conversations, when to speak and when to be quiet. They also learn what it means to be tactful and what others think it means to be rude and inconsiderate.

6. Finally, it is a place where relationships can be strained and strengthened. To be honest whether the conversation goes in a positive, or a negative direction, there is much to be learned about life.

Some quick suggestions for dining together

1. Try to remove all distractions other than people - switch the TV off, don't allow children to read at the table, switch off devices, let phones go to message banks and so on. While none of us can manage this all the time, and there can be wonderful dinner conversations over the sharing of a newspaper, a book, a YouTube video and so on, in families I think this should be avoided as much as possible for at least some evening meals each week.

2. If you're a parent think about some things to share and maybe make sure that everyone has a turn to share something about their day. Don't force this all the time, sometimes richer conversation can emerge without structure.

3. Be deliberate at times in the way you try to teach your children some basic social graces around turn taking, listening well, avoiding ridicule, showing kindness and so on.

4. Vary the way you share meals together and aim for a minimum number of meals together. Eat out together if you can afford it in places where talking is easy, or maybe just eat outdoors (BBQs, picnics etc). Invite guests to share meals with you, a visitor changes everything and can enrich the experience as well as introducing complexities that children need to learn to handle.

The reality is that in our fast paced world this isn't easy. You might need to set modest goals for eating together. For most families breakfast is an impossibility (and let's face it most teenagers can't communicate before 10.00am), and lunch through the week is at work and school. This leaves dinners and a few more options at weekend. At best most families will struggle to have more than a few meals together each week, but it's important to try. family meals can be challenging and yet they are rich and important times of learning and sharing.   

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How do I know if my preschool child is ready for school?

This is a revised version of a post I wrote last year.

I am asked constantly by parents of preschool children how they will know if their preschool children are ready for school. At back of this is their concerns about what they should do before they start school. People ask, should I:

"Make sure they know their sounds before schools?"
"Teach them the letter names?"
"Teach them to write their name?"
"Make sure they can write neatly?"
"Teach them to read some simple words?"
"Teach them about numbers?"
While the above are genuine questions about knowledge children will eventually need, most overlook the real 'basics' in the preschool years that will have a big impact on school success and later learning. If you want your child to succeed at school and in the workplace, become lifelong learners, be creative people able to solve problems and adapt to varied situations, who have varied life interests and a love of knowledge, then here are the things you want them to be able to do when they are five.

Enjoy playing with language - know unusual words, enjoy finding out new ones, play with rhyme and rhythm in language, love telling stories, jokes and talking with other people.

Creative story making with skills established early
Enjoy new stories with others in all their forms - stories you tell them of your life, stories read to them, stories watched together with others in the form of film and on television.

Have an interest in numbers, letters and words - wanting to learn about them (e.g. "Show me what a thousand is Mum"), trying to write them, including them in their creative play and drawing.

Be able to sit still for up to 30 minutes - being able to play alone or with others, complete a task they're interested in, listen to stories, engage in a play situation etc.

Have an expanding vocabulary - learning new words, trying to invent their own, asking you about words and what they mean.
Learning from experience

Enjoy knowledge and the gaining of it - being curious about some area of interest (e.g. insects, dragons, horses, pets) and having a desire to know more and share it ("Did you know Mum that a stick insect is called a Phasmid, and there are lots of types").

Have a love of books - while I've already mentioned stories above, there is a particular place for the love of books, I'd want my children to see books as some of their most special possessions because of the knowledge, stories and wonder that they hold.

Have an emerging knowledge of words, letters and the sounds associated with them - a five-year-old doesn't need to be able to read before school, but I'd want them to have some knowledge of letter names, some concepts of print and an interest in knowing how to read and write.

Show an interest in technology - not just to play games, or sit for hours transfixed in front of a TV, but a desire to explore their world with computers, an interest in the knowledge and learning that technology can deliver and how it can expand our world.

An ability to be creative and inventive - drawing and making things inspired by a story, TV show, movie or experience. Wanting to dress up and act out characters and experiences. Making shops, cubbies under the table, giving names and characters to their dolls and toys, using toys and other objects for creative story telling or recreation.

Creative play in action, the foundation of imagination & problem solving

Have an interest in problem solving - working out a way to spread the sheet over the table and hold it there for the cubby, trying to see how things work, trying to fix things that are broken, coming up with ideas for how the problems of his or her world can be solved ("Mum, if we could knock off three palings on the fence I could make a gate to Cheryl's house").

Have the ability to listen to, learn and comprehend - stories, lifestyle programs, movies, television shows, stories you tell them, recipes and how they are structured, instructions (spoken or pictorial). 

The above are the real basics that children need to know to succeed at school. The problem with them is that you can't cram in the year before school to develop them. These basics are things that take time and effort by parents and preschool teachers. Each requires knowledge of the child, an interest in their learning and interests and the ability to observe our children to scaffold their learning.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

10 Great New Picture Books for Younger Readers

It has been about four months since I did a review of the latest picture books to land on my desk. I have so many wonderful books piling up I thought it was time to give the first of several updates. In this post I've chosen 10 books that have been published in 2014 that are worth reading to and with children.

1. 'Vanilla Ice Cream' written and illustrated by Bob Graham (Walker Books)

Bob Graham is one of Australia's finest authors and illustrators of picture books. With the familiar sharp lines, watercolour and simple yet very expressive characters he follows a wild sparrow’s journey. A single sparrow stows away in a truck and then a ship that crosses the sea and sets in motion a toddler’s latest experience of vanilla ice cream!

The sparrow journeys south from the lush rice paddies of India, across the rough sea, and all the way into a dazzling new city. As the sun rises, he finds Edie Irvine at a Café Botanica with her grandma and granddad. Their worlds meet in an unusual way.

Readers aged 0-5 will love this delightful book.

2. 'Emus Under the Bed' written and illustrated by Leann J. Edwards (Allen & Unwin)

This book is beautifully and uniquely illustrated, and tells an authentic story about a little Indigenous girl and the fun she has at her Auntie Dollo's house. This is a story that celebrates and honours culture and the experiences of family.

The author and illustrator Leann J Edwards, was born in 1962 at Robinvale, Victoria, She is a descendant of the Mara tribe from the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the Wiradjuri tribe from central New South Wales. The book was produced through the Emerging Indigenous Picture Book Mentoring Project, which is a joint initiative between 'The Little Big Book Club' and Allen & Unwin, assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

Children aged 0-6 will enjoy the story and the vibrant images that help to tell the tale.

3. 'So Many Wonderfuls' written and illustrated by Tina Matthews (Walker Books)

This simple story is told in rhyming verse takes you on a journey through a single town, and the many wonderful experiences the people who live there, experience. It is a celebration of the simple things of life.
Wonderful town 
It's a good place to stay 
So don t hurry by Hold your horses - Slow down! 
Tina Matthews is a wonderful illustrator and author who has used varied artistic styles. Previously I have reviewed 'Waiting For Later' (here).  In this book Tina combines sepia ink and digital media to create some stunning images. Children aged 2-6 will enjoy this book.

4. 'Our Village in the Sky' by Janeen Brian and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas (Allen & Unwin)

This is a wonderful book that tells a simple yet a lyrical story of the daily life of children during a typical day in a remote Himalayan village. It is a day or work and play as children seek fun, adventure and excitement in the midst of the mundane and difficult tasks that are essential to family life in this place.

Janeen Brian's evocative poetic narrative is beautifully illustrated by Anne Spudvilas. Together they reveal how the vital work of children in a remote village can be transformed through the imagination into joyful play. The children are vital to the running of the village, but like children everywhere, if given a job to do, they can still manage to turn it into fun.

Children aged 3-7 will enjoy this excellent book that offers a unique insight into the universality of childhood.

5. 'What Happens Next?' written and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit (Walker Books)

This is a delightful tale of imagination, storytelling and play between a grandmother and a small child Ellie. Grandma and Ellie head out for the day and the toddler asks, "Can you tell me a story, Granny?" She immediately launches her tale:

"Deep in the woods, not far from here, lives Grandma Bear. Whenever Little Bear visits her, they go on a fun trip together". Any parent or grandparent will immediately recognise the context and the imaginative wonder of co-creating stories with young children in the 'everdayness' of life.

The gorgeous pen and watercolour drawings and the simple and warm text will be enjoyed again and again by children aged 1-5. This would be a great read aloud book.

Tull Suwannakit is relatively new author and illustrator who is originally from Thailand and now lives in Australia. He received a Bachelor in Fine Arts specializing in animation from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004, He has worked as an animation studio sculptor and set designer in New York. He has been writing and illustrating children's picture books since 2006, first in Thailand and now in Australia through this his first book in English. He teaches at a preschool when not writing and illustrating.

6. 'Hey Dad, You're Great' written and illustrated by Corinne Fenton (Black Dog Books)

This is a simple and wonderful story about the confidence that comes from knowing that your Dad 'is always there'. The wonderfully simply and warm verse is supported by photographs of animal fathers and their young. Children aged 0-4 will love the images and enjoy being read this simple book that speaks of security, love and confidence in your Dad.

Corinne Fenton is the author of 25 books for children but her passion is picture books about social history. Her classic picture book 'Queenie: One Elephant's Story', illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe, which I have reviewed previously HERE, was an Honour Book in the 2007 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards. Corinne has also published many educational books, some translated into other languages.

7. 'The Skunk With No Funk' by Rebecca Young and illustrated by Leila Rudge (Walker Books)

Woody the skunk has a problem; he is born without the ability to make a smell. Well, it wasn't his problem but his parents. How will he survive the swoop of the Great Horned Owls with no stink?! This is a funny picture book from Rebecca Young with the quirky art of illustrator Leila Rudge. Leila's uses cartoon-like images with fine line and pastel, with a dash of pattern, text used as a creative way to render parts of the images.

While Woody isn't quite what the family (especially his mother) expected, he surprises them all with a wonderful twist at the tale end of the story (pun intended!).

Children aged 2-6 will enjoy immensely this very funny story.

8. 'The Swap' by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (Little Hare)

This wonderful picture book from Jan Ormerod and Andrew Joyner, won the Children's Book Council of Australia's award for an early childhood book in 2014 (see my review HERE).

When Caroline Crocodile's baby brother is born, he's smelly and dribbles. He's no fun at all, but he manages to capture Mum's attention. Caroline decides to swap him for another baby. The Baby Shop assistant provides her with varied babies, but none turn out to be suitable! This funny story, reflecting the real life experiences of many big brothers and sisters, will be enjoyed by all.

Children aged 3-6 years will love this book.

9. 'The Croc and the Platypus' by Jackie Hosking and illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall (Walker Books)

This is an Australian reinterpretation of Edward Lear's nonsense poem 'The Owl and the Pussycat'. In this version a croc and the platypus trundle " in a rusty old Holden ute." They take some damper and "...tea in a hamper and bundled it up in the boot" (US readers think 'trunk'). Join Croc and Platypus for an Australian outback hullabaloo!

This is a wonderful Aussie larrikin twist on a well-loved poem. It would be perfect to read aloud for and with children. Teacher will have fun with this one in any country. An ideal book for children aged 3-6.

10. 'The Lost Girl' by Ambelin Kwaymullina and illustrated by Leanne Tobin (Walker Books)

This is a wonderful story about an Aboriginal girl who has lost her way. She has wandered away from the Mothers, the Aunties and the Grandmothers, from the Fathers, Uncles and the Grandfathers. Who will show her the way home? This is a story that works at the simple narrative level as the lost girl wanders through the beautiful outback countryside, but there is a deeper metaphor here that speaks to those Indigenous children who disconnect from their elders who give them wisdom, sustenance, love and guidance.

The simple but lovely story is given richness by the gorgeous pastel illustrations from Leanne Tobin with the full richness of the outback colour palette.
Ambelin Kwaymullina comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. When not writing or reading, she works in cultural heritage, illustrates picture books and hangs out with her dogs. She has previously written a number of children's books, both alone and with other members of her family.

Leanne Tobin has worked as an artist for more than three decades. She is of Dharug descent, the traditional Aboriginal people of Greater Western Sydney. Leanne is a primary teacher but works as an educator within the community and runs creative workshops with a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations, teaching local Dharug histories, stories and land care to the public.

Children aged 3-7 years will enjoy this wonderful book.

You can find some of my other posts on picture books HERE