The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important : September 30, 2012
The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer.
In the world of the 2012 Ofsted framework very few schools are going to quibble with the prominence being given to the teaching of literacy but I’m far from concerned that we’re clear on precisely why teaching literacy is so important beyond the fact that Big Brother is watching you: running scared of Wilshaw is not enough.
I saw the fantastic Geoff Barton deliver a presentation called Don’t Call it Literacy at the Wellington Education Festival last year and his insightful thinking made a tremendous impression on me. Geoff very generously links to all his presentations on his website here. The first thing I did after witnessing this tour-de-force performance was read Daniel Rigney’s excellent book The Matthew Effect. His message is stark and having read it there’s no going back. As teachers we need to know that if we’re not explicitly addressing the needs of ‘have nots’, then the gap between the word-rich and word-poor will get ever wider.
Rigney tells us that, “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” Who can argue with that? Few people persevere with something they find difficult and uncomfortable. No one wants to feel stupid, and struggling to read is guaranteed to make you look thick. What happens is that “students who begin with high verbal aptitudes find themselves in verbally enriched social environments and have a double advantage.” If you’re literate you will gravitate towards literate friends. It comes as no surprise that “good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments”. And these friendships make a difference. The more we interact with the word rich, the deeper our own pool of words will be. Because, as Myhill and Fisher point out, “spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress”. So, if our spoken language isn’t up to snuff nothing else will be either.
Here’s the principle in action:
Poor literacy results in some shocking statistics:
- One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children, with the rest struggling to read to their children due to fatigue and busy lifestyles
- One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. This means their literacy is below the level expected of an eleven year old
- Seven million adults in England cannot locate the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Page
- 1-in-16 adults cannot identify a concert venue on a poster that contains name of band, price, date, time and venue
- More than half of British motorists cannot interpret road signs properly.
If the problem starts with poor reading skills then so must the solution. Robert MacFarlane asserts that “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write” and conversely every hour spent avoiding reading causes the word-poor to get poorer. And this is only going to get worse. As the EU High Level Report on Literacy points out, “the digital world is centred around the written word”. Those who struggle to read and write are at a catastrophic disadvantage.
So whose fault is it?
Well, apportioning blame never really helps but it’s interesting to note that at age 7 children in the top quartile have 7100 words while children in the lowest quartile have less than 3000. At this age we could argue that the main influence is parents. But one study shows that at 16 1 in 12 children have a ‘working vocabulary of around 800 words. Whose fault is that? I can’t help but hear George Sampson’s call to arms ringing in my ears: “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English”. Whether you agree with this is now irrelevant as the principle’s been enshrined in the revised Teaching Standards.
We are responsible if not to blame. No one else can or will help the word-poor so it’s up to us. But are we up to the task?
Anecdotally, I hear that many teachers struggle with their own literacy and obviously, this will be a barrier in their roles as teachers of English. So, what to do? Well, obviously we have a duty as professionals to do something about our own literacy. And clearly schools have a duty to provide training which helps address this problem. Ofsted note in Removing barriers to Literacy that “…in the secondary schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects, as well as in English.” So this is about self-interest as much as anything else.
They also say:
[S]chools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects if standards of reading and writing are to be improved. Even with effective teaching in English lessons, progress will be limited if this good practice is not consolidated in the 26 out of 30 lessons each week in a secondary school that are typically lessons other than English or the 70% or so of lessons in primary schools that do not focus on English. This debate is, of course, long established and formed a central point of the Bullock report on English published in 1975. Previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended at best to have a short-term impact. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education recently reported that “schools should be developing cross-departmental strategies to develop literacy” and recommended that Ofsted should look “more closely at this”.
Moving English Forward (2012)
So, here are some cross departmental strategies for developing literacy
As Geoff Barton says, “the secret to literacy is making the implicit explicit”. As members of what he calls The Literacy Club, we implicitly understand how to read and write skilfully. The mistake often made by teachers is to assume that students share this implicit understanding. Some do but most don’t. Those that don’t need this process to be made explicit if they’re to have a chance of doing what we find easy.
3 x reading strategies (skimming, scanning and independent research)
3 x writing strategies (long & short sentences, varied sentence starts, varied connectives)
3 x spelling strategies (what words look like, sound like and other connections e.g. mnemonics)
It’s easy to get confused about the difference between skimming and scanning: skimming is about quickly getting an overview of what a text is about whilst scanning is about retrieving specific information. Expert readers do these things unthinkingly. Poor readers just see acres of text and give up. We need to make it clear to students what we’re doing when we read. We need to explain that the first sentence of a paragraph is often a topic sentence which summarises what the rest of the paragraph will be about. We need to explain that some words are more important and contain meaning while some words can be safely ignored. Try showing students a page of text for 5 seconds. Ask them if they knew what it was about. Ask them how they knew. This is excellent practice for being able to decipher pages of text.
Expert readers implicitly understand how exam questions relate to passages of text. The answer to the first question will be near the beginning and the answers to later questions will be located logically throughout the text. Many students don’t know this and given a list of questions have literally no idea idea how to find the information they need. It seems obvious to members of the Literacy Club that the key points in a text will either be in the first or last paragraph – we need to explain this to to the word-poor students we teach.
Independent learning is great, right? Well, no. Often it’s not. In the worst cases independent research is simply FOFO (fuck off and find out) and results in students make all manner of terrible mistakes from plagiarism to basic lack of understanding of my the internet should be used. If you give a students a homework task to ‘research the life of Martin Luther King’ what are they going to do? Obviously they’ll type it straight into Google. The unwary may well end up clicking on a link like this:
What they pop in the homework will not be what you were expecting and it won’t really be their fault. Students benefit from knowing that they should look at at least 3 sources to get a range of opinion. They should also be taught about how to develop a thesis to narrow the focus of their research and make their task more manageable.
Long and short sentences
English teachers waste a lot of valuable time banging on about compound and complex sentences. These things are worth knowing but across the curriculum, students will benefit from the clear and simple expectation that their writing should contain a mix of long and short sentences. That is all.
Varied sentence starts
Too much of the writing students produce can be mind numbingly tedious. This is not a good thing. Try banning the use of articles (a, the) to start sentences. Encourage them to begin some sentences with words that end in -ly (adverbs) -ing (present participles) and -ed (past participles). That way we will get stuff like, “Hungrily, I wolfed my dinner”, “Laughing, I walked over to my friends” and “Shocked, she notice her phone was missing.”
Connectives are dead easy to teach and they make you look clever. Point them out in a text and ask students what job they’re doing. They get them to connect their own sentences and paragraphs using a help sheet like the one below:
Hey presto! thinking becomes more structured and writing becomes more coherent. For some more ideas on improving writing, take a look at my Slow Writing post below.
I have a theory that people who are ‘good at spelling’ are simply implicitly aware of various spelling tricks. I cannot correctly spell receive with recalling ‘i before e except after c’ and need to sound out Feb-ru-ary to have a chance of getting it right. But these processes are invisible to students: they just see the awesome spelling machine I have trained myself to be.
I really like these three symbols for prompting students how to approach spelling:
Next time someone asks you how to spell a word instead of simply giving them the answer and making them dependent on you for answers help them work out a strategy for remembering how to spell it in the future. One of my favourites is my strategy for the word ‘rhythm’. I could never remember this and always had to look it up before writing it on the board (English teachers use this more than you might imagine) until a student point out that Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move. Genius.
These strategies are not a panacea and are just a beginning. They will however give all teachers some simple too use teaching techniques which students will then have reinforced in all their lessons. It’s the start of a what for many will be a long and uncomfortable journey, but as Einstein said to Socrates, ‘A journey begins with a single step.’
Geoff Barton’s essential presentation Don’t Call it Literacy
Some thoughts on silent reading : July 1, 2012
“And Johnny, what makes you think that is suitable for silent reading?”
“Because Sir, you really would not want me to read it out loud”
Jim Smith, The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook
Apparently silent reading hasn’t been around as long as you might think. The 4th Century church leader Saint Ambrose’s reading habits were unusual enough for Saint Augustine to note in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions that:
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
Why is this important? Well, ever since I learned to internalise my reading I’ve been devouring books and developing my interior world. This is a private and mysterious place in which all sorts of surprising things happen. I consider myself to be highly articulate and able to vocalise my thoughts in a way that less articulate folk cannot. My vocabulary allows me to conceptualise abstract thoughts because I’m not groping for the words needed to express myself; they’re there, waiting. But the swirl of thought beneath this is numinous and liminal (I’m just showing off now.) This process is going on (I think) inside everyone, but only those with sufficient words can dip into it and pull out something useful which can be expressed and shared.
The point is that I value silent reading very much. I am, however, not a fan of silent reading in the classroom.
Doing a sopt of research lead my this list of reasons why silent reading should be undertaken in the classroom. I have no issue with any of these points. My concern is that silence may not not conducive to understanding. I’m a member of what Geoff Barton refers to as The Literacy Club. I’m capable of deft and subtle understanding of a text and am able to absorb information rapidly. Others don’t share this advantage.
The problem for non-members is described by the Matthew effect: the word rich become richer while the word poor become poorer. Students who are good readers experience more success which makes them want to read more. As they read more, they become even more successful at reading. Their vocabulary and comprehension grows. Hey presto! a virtuous circle. Readers who struggle with decoding or who have poor vocabularies are unlikely to want to expose these weaknesses by picking up a book. They get much less practice and the gap opens up and widens. Silent reading is a lovely experience for the word rich: they can pick up their current read and crack on. For the word poor it becomes an exercise in trying disguise the fact that you’r holding the book upside down. The role of the teacher becomes that of Reading Police, penalising poor readers for non-compliance.
Maybe I’ve been damaged by my experience of reading lessons coupled with Accelerated Reader. This is a computer program which tests students’ reading ability and categorises books into levels of difficulty. Children are expected to read books within their ‘reading range’ and then take a multiple choice quiz to prove they’re read the damn thing. They then get points equal to the value of the perceived difficulty of the book. And you know what points mean? Now if, as Kenny says, “all you want is to look into a classroom and see a class full of wee kids reading then Accelerated Reader is your man.” But, if you’re interested in developing lifelong readers it ain’t gonna work any more than any other system of extrinsic rewards will affect behaviour beyond the immediate to short term.
The best ways of getting all students to read involve having conversations about reading and books. I love Kenny Pieper’s use of Reading Journals and can see the very real benefit to students of interacting with their teacher in this way. But the bit that makes it work isn’t the silence. It’s the conversation. Kenny’s a big fan of silent reading and starts lessons with 10 minutes of it. Now, I respect Kenny and know that he is a sincere and reflective practitioner so there’s no way I’d want to dismiss his experience. I think the key element in what he does isn’t necessarily about silence, it’s about his commitment to and value of personal reading. He says that we must be involved in students’ reading and I agree. But should this involvement happen in silence?
We all agree that getting students reading is a good thing and there’s loads of well-meaning approaches designed to make this happen Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) and Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) to name but two. The problem with these programmes is that if we want kids to read lots we need to teach them to read well. This means we have to make implicit reading skills explicit. Silent reading looks like a good idea because it gives students the time and space needed to read. What it doesn’t do is help poor readers become more fluent and is therefore doomed to failure.
Communication is, I believe, the key to the successful teaching of reading. EB Hirsch Jr says ,”If children are brought to speak and understand speech well in the early years, their reading future is bright.” He suggests that “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class.” So, high quality speaking & listening that develop students’ control of language and broaden their vocabulary is the key to reading.
I like the idea of reading lessons in which excitement about books is the focus. We want children to enjoy reading not suffer it in silence, so let’s celebrate it. Let’s make it exciting and interactive. Let’s read aloud and then stop at a cliffhanger. Let’s put on literary festivals. Let’s call it something silly like Loud Reading or Noisy Reading. Let’s be imaginative and do stuff which might not work but which stands a better chance than doing something which definitely won’t work for the silent legions of word poor.
What to know: the importance of cultural capital : April 4, 2012
Let’s face it, we need to know to stuff if we’re going to have anything resembling a successful life. But what is it we need to know? As an English teacher I have a fair bit of fairly arcane knowledge that few others outside my profession and subject specialism would see as useful. Doctors know all kinds of stuff, and they save lives. Surely everything they know is vitally important? Well, if it is I’ve muddled along without knowing the vast majority of it. The same goes for anyone from green grocers to figure skaters to lion tamers: the knowledge we have is, largely, only important to us.
But what about cultural capital? The idea that some knowledge is important for everyone to know? Pierre Bourdieu extended the idea of capital to encompass knowledge of culture. He argued that while we all occupy a position within society, we are not defined only by membership of a social class. More important is the ‘capital’ we can amass through social relations. Needless to say, this can, and often does, result in inequality.
I read this today on Daisy Christodoulou’s blog;
The sort of ‘cultural capital’ I am talking about is not some kind of elitist scam designed to protect access to institutions. Correct spelling, punctuation and grammar have value because they allow people to communicate clearly. Shakespeare’s plays have value because they display great insight into the human condition. Trigonometry has value because it allows us to construct buildings which don’t collapse. The germ theory of disease has value because it allows us to cure terrible illnesses. These categories of knowledge have value because they are valuable. Other categories of knowledge are less valuable.
Obviously, you’d expect me to know a fair bit about spelling, punctuation, grammar and Shakespeare, and I do. Without doubt, my knowledge and understanding of language rules helps me navigate the written word with a fair degree of facility. And that in turn means that I can communicate effectively with ‘the establishment’. But Shakespeare? From memory I can recite chunks from about 5 plays and have a solid working knowledge of another 6 or 7, but, as far as I’m aware, this has given me relatively little insight into the human condition. Knowledge of the cannon enables you to ‘get’ references made by others and to take your seat amongst smug backslappers but I really don’t think it’s valuable per se. Certainly Shakespeare’s plays are no more insightful than say, Marlowe’s; it’s just that more people have heard of them. Sharing the same cultural knowledge base means that we can converse with a greater fund of shared reference points. So, my knowledge of Henry V is far more useful than my knowledge of Edward II. Most folk will be able to locate “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” but will struggle to place “But what are kings, when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” But which of these reveal more about the human condition? And does it matter?
I know little about the germ theory of disease beyond the fact that disease are transmitted by germs and that washing my hands is a good thing. This may help prevent me from catching or passing on an illness, but it’s not going to have much impact on my ability to cure such illnesses. As with so much else in the modern world I’m just grateful that someone knows it. And as for trigonometry, I’m afraid I’m with Sam Cooke: I’m not even sure what a slide ruler’s for. (This is a an example of a joke which you will only get if you share my cultural references. Even then it isn’t very funny.)
Without question, curing disease and making sure buildings stay up is important stuff and I in no way want to trivialise these things. It’s just that I don’t need to know them. My life, and everyone else’s, continues without any undue concern at my ignorance. This suggests, to me at least, that the idea that there is a particular body of knowledge that we should all know is dubious.
Outside of teaching, there really aren’t that many things about which I need to know stuff on a regular basis. I know a lot about cooking and have memorised huge quantities of recipes; I know how to drive and have internalised this knowledge to such an extent that I can do it without thinking, and I know a fair bit about how to find stuff out. Of course I know loads of other stuff but that comes under the heading of trivia. It’s trivial. That is to say, it’s not that important.
It becomes important when I read. My extensive vocabulary and general knowledge enable me to comprehend texts which might baffle those who know less about the world. Reading is the best way to learn new things. But those who are, perhaps, most in need of knowledge are the least able to obtain it. Joseph Heller wrote a book about this (another cultural reference there!)
My point is that cultural capital is important. It enables us to access society in a way which would be impossible if we didn’t know any of this trivia. But it’s only important because other people know it and it’s useful to show that we share values. And that being the case, it really is “some kind of elitist scam designed to protect access to institutions”. To that end I have just bought This Will Make You Smarter in the hope of increasing my cultural capital.
Is this a bad thing? Maybe. It is, however, the world we live in. Short of rioting, the only way to affect change is from within. Janet Street Porter mocked the idea of stakeholder society this week in The Independent. She said,
In gambling, a passive third party holds the stakes – they are not involved in the game. That’s exactly what’s wrong with the idea of a stakeholder society. Stakeholders who have not paid money, or who have no responsibility for their shares, have no impetus to work to behave well or maximise their investment. If citizens are stakeholders in society, where’s our contract? What’s expected of us in return for our stake?
So, ante up, learn to speak the language of the ruling elite and tear down the walls from the inside.
Related postsHow should we teach reading? Is grammar glamorous? Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?
How should we teach reading? : February 29, 2012
A few months ago I posted a piece in which Roy Blatchford (founder of The National Education Trust) outlined his manifesto for ensuring that every child gets at least a C grade in English. But, reading is complex.
So how exactly should we teach children to read? This vexing question is utmost in many teachers’ minds and is tangled up in three separate issues:
- Decoding – the process of turning symbols into sounds – generally taught using synthetic phonics
- Understanding – actually comprehending what’s been read after it’s been decoded
- Enjoyment – it’s World Book Day tomorrow and getting kids to enjoy reading is something close to every English teacher’s heart. Whatever else we do it’s really bloody important not to put students off reading.
This week I have mostly been reading The Knowledge Deficit by ED Hirsch. This is, apparently the text upon which Gove has built his understanding of how education should work and as such I approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. It’s actually much more plausible than I was expecting. In it Hirsch argues that the reason attempts to raise the standards of reading in American schools has failed is because they’ve focused on teaching transferable reading skills rather than on giving students the background knowledge necessary to understand a wide range of texts.
Now, this comes as something of a blow. Particularly in light of the fact that at my school we have recently relaunched the Reading Strategies as a way of boosting students’ ability to comprehend what they’re reading. Is this possibly a huge waste of time?
One of the points Hirsch makes which I found especially interesting is the way he equates reading with listening and speaking with writing. He says,”If children are brought to speak and understand speech well in the early years, their reading future is bright.” He suggests that “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class.” Now, that’s interesting. Could getting students to focus on speaking & listening be the key to improving their reading ability?
The other string to Hirsch’s bow is that we need to teach students knowledge. It wasn’t all that long ago that I had a heart-felt (but knee-jerk) opposition to this premise, but Hirsch explains that much of our thinking about education and children’s development stems from Romanticism. The Romantics believed that education should be ‘natural’ and that studnets should be allowed to ‘grow’. These words have since become synonymous with ‘good’. The problem comes from the belief that children will become better at say, reading, if they are allowed to develop naturally. After all, they learn to speak without much interference, don’t they? Well, yest they do. But as EB points out, reading is a deeply unnatural thing to do; there is very little chance that a child will learn to read without help.
Here’s an example of how a lack of knowledge can make your ability to decode meaningless:
A manifold, contained in an intuition which I call mine, is represented, by means of the synthesis of the understanding, as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness; and this is effected by means of the category.
What is the main idea of this passage?
- Without a manifold, one cannot call an intuition ‘mine.’
- Intuition must precede understanding
- Intuition must occur through a category.
- Self-consciousness is necessary to understanding
Comprehension depends on constructing a mental model that makes the elements fall into place and, equally important, enables the listener or reader to supply essential information that is not explicitly stated. In language use, there is always a great deal that is left unsaid and must be inferred. This means that communication depends on both sides, writer and reader, sharing a basis of unspoken knowledge. This large dimension of tacit knowledge is precisely what is not being taught adequately in our schools.Hirsch 2009
So back to my list of what we need to teach:
1. Decoding. We’ve become pretty good at this (or at least, primary teachers have.) As long as kids pick this up in Year 1 or 2, they’ll be fine. Problems arise if they arrive a secondary school without being able to do this with much facility as most of us secondary trained English teachers lack the training or time to do much about it.
2. Understanding. Hirsch’s claims that “There is every scientific reason to predict that an intensive and well-focused effort to enhance language and knowledge … will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it will help to narrow the gap between social groups.” Bold words. And when you consider that we need to understand at least 90% of the vocabulary in a text beofre you can process it, let alone enjoy it then maybe expanding students’ background knowledge doesn’t seem so daft. I’m inclined to give it a go, especially as it fits snugly with Daniel Willingham’s views in Why Don’t Students Like School?
And just because these ideas can be tarred with a right wing brush doesn’t mean that they have to be dull or badly taught. As Phil Beadle says, students “deserve you to be brilliant”. And teaching reading maybe required more brilliance than anything else.
3. Enjoyment. The idea of more speaking & listening as the solution to improving reading and writing certainly sounds fun. But will it give students a love of literature? This is something that English teachers still need to pout their hearts into and we need to make sure that we’re exposing to out students to as broad a range of wonderful books as we can in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they’ll like one of them.
Reading List : February 16, 2012
Am in the process of trying to digest a number of education texts at the moment. Here is my current stack of reading courtesy of the lovely people at Crown House:
My thoughts so far:
The Little Book of Music in the Classroom by Nina Jackson
The effect of music on students isn’t something I’ve put much thought into before. Yes, I know playing Bach is meant to be good for brainwaves or something, but to my shame, this is an area of my practice which has been sadly neglected. A colleague of mine makes a point of playing deliberately cheesy, upbeat ‘chunes’ for her students and I have to be honest, a little bit of Reach for the Stars always manages to put a smile on my world weary face.
Not only has Nina (@MusicMind) done loads of research on the neuroscience of all this, she’s also compiled handy lists of tracks to use to affect our students’ moods. In fact she’s made it so simply that I have no excuse for not trying it. Roll on Monday! Am so far enjoying the straightforward style – makes it very easy to understand al the complicated bits.
The Buzz by David Hodgson (@DavidHitl)
This one’s subtitled ‘A practical confidence builder for teenagers’. If begins with lists of preferred means of interacting with the world. You have to make 4 sets of choices before being presented with an animal which represents your personality type. I, apparently, am a clownfish! These are the clownfish’s strengths:
- Can get things done at the last minute – check
- Can work on a number of things at once – hmmm?
- Can adapt and change plans – actually I’m bad at this
- Are full of enthusiasm – check
- Can persuade others – normally
- Can solve problems using imagination and improvisation – check
- Are interested in the idea behind the job, particularly how it affects people – yes
- Enjoy learning new skills – yup
- Can enjoy variety and action – yes indeed.
It’s engagingly written, but I’m probably the wrong audience. This feels like a book aimed more at students than at teachers and as such I’m not precisely sure how it would be used. Maybe I should share some of the information with my classes? I probably need to delve a bit deeper.
Both of these books came highly recommended and I was looking forward to geting my teeth into them. ITIL is all about getting teachers to shut up so that kids can take centre stage. As a former primary head, Will is dealing with the experience of inspiring younger children and it’s clear that the job is different in the secondary sector. There’s a lot of stuff on assessing the PLTS which I am very wary of. Need to persevere a bit more with this one. The leadership one has only been skimmed so far, but there’s some impressive looking diagrams which I’m looking forward to.
Am looking forward to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children by E. D., Jr. Hirsch arriving shortly – Hirsch is Gove’s Go To Guy so should make interesting reading.
Also, am assured that High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools and Learning to Learn in Practice: The L2 Approach by Alistair Smith (and Mark Lovatt) are on their way.
Creativity, analysis and comparison : February 11, 2012
English teachers have a tough gig. We need to constantly hone the hard-edged skill of analysis whilst simultaneously encouraging the fluffy stuff of creativity. There’s a lot said and written about creativity these days, much of it by Sir Ken Robinson. Basically, Ken’s argument goes along these lines: schools should value the Arts more highly and find ways to foster creativity in those subjects where it doesn’t necessarily appear naturally. We should do this because creativity (the ability to have new ideas which have value) is increasingly important in a world where jobs that don’t require creativity have disappeared or been outsourced to other countries where people will do them more cheaply.
While there maybe disagreement about whether you can actually teach creativity as a skill, we can certainly expose young people to it, encourage them to use it and we can absolutely give them knowledge of the ‘rules’ of whatever area we wish them to be creative in. Having a thorough grounding in these rules gives one the ability to know when to break them, which is one (if not Sir Ken’s) definition of creativity. This means, amongst other things, that grammar needs to be explicitly taught. More on this here.
Now, I might be in danger of over simplifying things here, but the skill of writing is all about creatively putting together words and sentences whilst the skill of reading is firmly rooted in the ability to analyse. No one would, I hope, suggest that reading and writing should be taught in isolation; each builds upon the other. For the same reasons neither should creativity and analysis be seen as discrete entities.
There’s little joy in analysing poetry without having a stab at writing some. And it’s dangerously negligent to get students to unpick the work of professional writers without then giving students the opportunity to use some of these tricks and techniques in writing of their own. This is, of course, the thinking behind the teaching sequence for writing: first you read it (analysis), then you write it (creativity).
English teaching should, I think, strive to be a balance of these two components and to make them explicit. For every topic you intend to cover and every lesson you plan to teach take time to consider:
- where can I get students to analyse?
- how can I get them being creative?
Once you start thinking in this way, English teaching opens up a stunning vista of possibilities and your lessons will always be varied and challenging.
It’s not enough for us to simply say, “Now then boys and girls, today we are going to learning about similes.” A reasonable response to this statement might be to ask what’s the point of learning about similes? Or apostrophes? Or Shakespearean comedy? If the best we’ve got to offer is “Because I said so,” or “Because it’s in the exam,” then we’re making our lives much more difficult then they need be. Two buzzy acronyms that have been bandied about to the extent that even Ofsted have heard of them are WIIFM and CITV. These are not educational radio and TV stations but reminders that we ought to be offering kids are decent reason for learning the things we’re insisting they learn. Respectively they stand for What’s In It For Me and Connect Into Their Values.
Let’s say I want to convince my class that there’s a reason for knowing what a simile is and how to use one. I will first need to give some thought to the real reasons why writers use them and then allow students to discover for themselves how a well chosen simile can transform a piece of writing.
So how about trying this? Stride purposefully into the room and, without a word, begin drawing a face on the board. Draw an arrow next to the head and write, “Head like an egg”. Turn to the class to see the reaction. Offer them the pen. Don’t worry if they don’t get it yet, continue by labelling the eye with, “Eye like a crater”. Sooner or later they will begin to join in and end up sputtering with delighted laughter at all the hilarious comparisons they make.
How much better is this than waltzing in with the question, “So, can anyone tell me what a simile is?” Anyone inclined to dismiss discovery learning as nonsense need look no further. The power of students discovering for themselves the point of a simile (or apostrophe, or subordinate clause or whatever) is much more likely to be memorable than their teacher just telling them.
Not convinced? Whatever we want students to learn about can be effectively taught by showing them what it’s absence looks like. What’s the point of puntuation? Let’s compare two version of the same text, one with, one without punctuation. Can’t see the point in rhetorical questions? Try removing them all from this text. What effect do they achieve? Which version is better? Why?
Another (much less important) reason to make comparisons is to find a suitable entry point to greet young minds. We’ve all encountered the moaning and beating of chests when it’s announced that the next topic will be a Shakespeare play, or poetry (or anything else considered to be ‘hard‘. “What’s the point?” they wail. “When will I ever need this stuff?” And they’ve got a point. A lot of what we want students to read and enjoy can seem irrelevant. Especially the old stuff. The trick is to make it seem less alien and more approachable and beautiful for its own sake.
There’s lots been bemoaned about students’ unwillingness to read Dickens in the past week. With the exception of A Christmas Carol and Lionel Bart’s Oliver! I never encountered any of Chuck’s classics until long after I left school. Since then I have read and enjoyed several and would count Great Expectations as amongst my favourite works of literature. I have used it several times to get students to produce work on pre 1914 prose and always to good effect. But, I’ve never tried to read the whole thing in class. I don’t have the time, and what would be the point? I want them to have enjoyed the bits we’ve done and not to scar them with an unreasoned hatred for Victorian novels (I still suffer from this type of knee-jerk response to Hardy.) How have I got kids to enjoy Dickens? My making connections and comparisons to what they already know.
It’s very easy to be sniffy about what kids are interested in and know about. But if we can make meaningful connections between the pop twaddle they’re so passionate about and the high culture we want them to fall in love with (or at least consent to sit still and learn about) then we’re so much more likely to achieve our ends.
And the accusation that this is dumbing down, that ‘kids like these’ can only be brought to engage with something difficult if it’s presented in the format of a graphic novel (see this from Toby Young)? Well, frankly, I despair. It seems as if some folk will only be content when 11 year olds are expected to comprehend degree level material with no contextualisation from their teacher. What guff! Academic rigour should not, of course, be sacrificed to enjoyment and relevance: it should only be enhanced by these things. It’s a sad fact that the pressures of exams make it impossible to wade through the entirety of a Victorian novel. The trick is to inspire them to go away and read it themselves. At home.
Hence the need for useful points of comparison.
Zooming in and out : July 11, 2011
For some years now I have been using what I call The Grade Ladder with students to help them understand the skills required to perform at different grades. THis isn’t particulalry original and has been around for quite while. I first encountered the terms ‘evaluate’, ‘analyse’, ‘explore’, ‘explain’ and ‘identify’ in GCSE English specifications but it’s obvious at even a cursory glance that these skills are underpinned by Bloom’s Taxonomy.
So, to IDENTIFY, students had to be able to give an opinion and support it with textual evidence; to EXPLAIN they had to show they understood the relationship between their point and their evidence. It is important to specifically teach the use of the word ‘because’ to ensure this happens. Students could demonstrate their ability to EXPLORE by giving alternative explanations – tentative language becomes important here (it could mean this, but it might also suggest this…) In order to ANALYSE students have to make links and connections with specific details. I encourage them to focus on a word or phrase and try to show what it makes them think about or feel. Finally, to EVALUATE students have to say how and why a particular technique is effective.
Easy enough, I thought and gamely plodded on with the trusty grade ladder for next year or so feeling very pleased with myself. However, after conducting some student voice on its effectiveness I was dismayed to discover that students complained that they still didn’t fully understand some of the terms: analyse and evaluate in particular.
Calamity! What to do? In my gropings for some way to shore up a crumbling edifice I came up with ZOOMING IN & OUT. I asked students to think about camera shots and how films are put together. They easily grasped that analysing was like using an extreme close up and that evaluating was like using a wide or establishing shot. When film makers zoom in they get us to focus on tiny details and when they zoom out they reveal the big picture. Hey presto! Everyone’s confidence (not least mine) is buoyed up and everyone’s happy.
The presentation below on using Zooming In and Out to write about Of Mice and Men might help illustrate anything which seems unclear.
James Theobold has written a great post on how GCSE markschemes also intersect neatly with the SOLO taxonomy.