Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting Boys Excited About Reading: Ideas & Resources

Well-known Australian writer Paul Jennings was asked by a grandmother one day at a signing to write something in it for her grandson "...that will make him want to read the book". He wrote "When you finish this book your grandmother will give you $20!" This isn't my perferred strategy but Paul felt it would work! There are other ways.

We've known for years that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 30 years the gap between the literacy achievements of boys and girls has widened in favour of girls. Professor William G. Brozo who is co-author of the book 'Bright beginnings for boys' shared this summary of boys' literacy achievements (primarily American data) at an American Literacy conference in October 2008:
  • By grade 4 an average boy is two years behind an average girl in reading and writing
  • Boys make up 70% of special education classes
  • Boys are four times more likely to have ADHD
  • Boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls
  • Boys are three times more likely to be placed in a reading disability or learning class
So we know we have a problem, but what do we do about it?

Helping boys to become readers

Before sharing a list of specific hints, here is what I see as four fundamental building blocks to get boys reading:

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when the books and the reading events (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things (see my previous post on this topic here).

2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with their sons. Reading to and with boys is often different. You sometimes have to work harder to make it enjoyable. It mustn't be boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).


At a more basic level:
  • Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help your sons choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.
  • Fathers have a special role to play in encouraging boys to see reading as a worthwhile pursuit. Fathers who read will have sons who read. Fathers need to read to and with their sons. A good way to do this with older boys who struggle is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction. Boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in. Try books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind (see previous post here). There are varied paths into reading (see previous post here).
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, cartoons, poetry and silly rhymes (see my post on this here).
  • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading. But don’t forget that it is the quality of the story that will ultimately motivate boys to want to read and so quality literature is important to develop long-term readers (see previous post here).
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
I hope I haven't given the impression above that only fathers can motivate boys to read. Let's face it, more often than not it is mothers who read more stories to their younger children. But there is an important place for men reading books to and with boys, and research evidence shows that fathers have a key role to play with boys' literacy and learning (see my previous post on this here).

Some sure fire starters for young boys


If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn this around:

1. Read a book dramatically that lends itself to lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

2. Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. For example:

The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

3. A simpler version of the above is just to change the odd word. Boys (and girls) love listening for the words you change. They will roar 'Hey, you changed it from dog to frog'! To which you reply, 'Did I?' Even a story with some limitations will suddenly become more interesting.

4. Get out some dress-up clothes and get them involved in acting out the story. Try to involve all members of the family and have lots of fun. You can sacrifice the accuracy of the story in favour of having a great time. Creative and dramatic play based on stories can be a great motivator for story.

Some Great Books for Boys 

I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 21 wonderful books to read to and enjoy with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'The One and Only Ivan' by Katherine Applegate (2012)
'Dragonkeeper' by Carole Wilkinson (2003) [And other books in the Dragonkeeper series]
'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'A Monster Calls' illustrated by Jim Kay and written by Patrick Ness (2012) 
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'My Father's Dragon' by Ruth Stiles Gannett
'Crow Country' by Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett (2004)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'The Iron Man' by Ted Hughes (1968, new edition 2010)
'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)
'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie (2011)

A final comment on literature

As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

Some reference books about Boys and reading

Some of the following books offer good general advice about boys and reading

'Bright beginnings for boys: Engaging young boys in active literacy', Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo, International Literacy Association
'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys', Pam Allyn which I reviewed here
'The trouble with boys', Peg Tyre
'Best books for boys: A resource for educators', Matthew D. Zbaracki
'Raising bookworms: Getting kids reading for pleasure and empowerment', Emma Hamilton
'The Reading Bug', Paul Jennings

Other Resources


All my posts on boys and education (here)
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
'Guys Read Website' - I don't like the design of this site but it has a great set of links to authors who write books that boys might like.
The UK Literacy Trust has a great list of resource links dealing with boys and literacy (here).
The Hamilton Public Library in Canada has a useful site with some good booklists and advice (here)
Max Elliot Anderson's blog 'Books for Boys' has some very useful material and links (here)
You can read all of my posts on boys (here) and boys education (here) using these links.
Family Action Centre at Newcastle University has an Excellent Fatherhood Network and many programs (here)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Corporal Punishment in Schools: Can it be Justified?

Kevin Donnelly, the co-chair of the Australian Federal Government's national curriculum review has backed the use of corporal punishment for ill-disciplined children in schools as long as the local school and community supports it. Not surprisingly, there has been widespread comment in Australian media.

I'm old enough to have experienced 'corporal punishment' in the school. In fact as a young child I had been caned 39 times by the time I reached 3rd grade. I have interesting memories of it. First, my most vivid recollection is of the keen rivalry I had with another boy who was caned almost as much as me (he was the school principal's son!). I saw each episode as another increase to my tally. Second, I recall that it had very little impact on my behaviour.

My behaviour began to change in grade 4 when I had a male teacher who took an interest in me as a person. He saw a child with potential beneath the grubby appearance and belligerent attitude. He set about engaging me as a learner. He made me the monitor for all sorts of jobs like being the incinerator operator (couldn't do that with health and safety rules today). But eventually he tried to engage me as a learner. He knew I could read, was good at spelling and found maths easy but he also knew I was a great underachiever and when distracted was a pain in the neck.


When the school purchased an aquarium and tropical fish that were placed in our classroom. I can still recall Mr Campbell handing me a book on tropical fish one day and saying, "I'd like you to study the book, and when you're finished come back and give the class a talk on tropical fish". This was my first public presentation and the beginning of a deep interest in creatures of the waterways and oceans.

I was caned once that year, late one day when the principal was wandering down the verandah and spotted me through the window as we packed up to go home for the day. I was jumping about and messing around with his son as we waited to file. He pulled us out and caned us both in front of the class. I think this was the last time I was ever caned, but it wasn't fear of the cane that changed me, it was Mr Campbell seeing potential in me and engaging me as a learner.

I'm thankful that corporal punishment had no long-term impact on me. Other children have not been as fortunate.

Above: Awaba Public School where I taught in the 1970s when it was a one-teacher school
When I grew up I became a teacher and I think my childhood experiences helped to me make me a better teacher. One of the life lessons I carried into the classroom was that no discipline should ever be done in anger. Anger always needs to be kept under control. But more than this, if you need to use physical punishment with a child you have probably lost the battle to teach them self control. Just as important as this, you may have lost your ability to nurture and engage them. I didn't use physical punishment with children. I'm glad that receiving it myself as a child helped me to see that is was less helpful and effective than my teachers and parents imagined. By the 1980s and 90s in Australia it was no longer allowed in any form in classrooms within public schools. The major exceptions to this are that independent schools in many states are still allowed to impose corporal punishment with the approval of parents, and in the Northern Territory there are no restrictions.

I think Kevin Donnelly has it wrong.  Good teachers change children as they develop love and respect for their students and want the best for them. It seems to me that this is the starting point for effective teaching and parenting not corporal punishment.

You can read more and listen to Kevin Donnelly's comments HERE

Thursday, July 10, 2014

20 Great Travel Games for Children (& Adults)

I've done posts on travel games for children before and now seems a good time for another. In Australia most schools are closed for a short winter break and in the Northern Hemisphere it's the long summer break. There is a good chance that many readers will find themselves in cars or buses with children at some stage.

While these days we have videos in cars, ipods for personalized music and varied tablets that allow children to play games individually, no trip would be complete without some group games. Don't avoid them! They're fun and they teach!

Above: Photo courtesy of the Australian Newspaper

In this post I feature some excellent language games that can be easily played in the car on long (or short) journeys. Many of them could also be played in a bus, or in some cases, a train. I've tried to keep the ideas simple and adaptable for use with children of varied ages. They are fun and teach as well. 

I've included a number of games that we played with our children in the car when they were young, some I used when teaching and a few new ones that I'd love to play with my grandchildren. Most of the new ones are adaptations of some activities from a great resource published by Usborne Children's books, '50 things to do on a journey' (here). This great resource has a range of written and verbal activities that cover literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. One thing to note about these games is that you don't have to play every one of them competitively. If you do, you might need to handicap older children.


1. Sound word categories

You start this game by agreeing on 3-5 categories (depending on the age of the children and their vocabularies) for which people will have to be able to think of words that belong to them; for example, an insect, flower, person, country, girl's name, action word. Someone chooses a letter (maybe Mum or Dad to make sure that it isn't too hard) that has to be used by everyone and is applied to each category. The fastest person to quickly name their words earns 3 points, the second gets 2 and the third 1. So for the letter 'f' and the three categories insect, country and girl's name you could say fly, France and Fiona. A parent usually acts as the timer.

2. Top 6 (or 10 if your children get to be good at it)

This activity is a variation on the previous 'Sound Word Categories'. You vary it by choosing a category and then seeing if someone can list 6-10 words that fit the category. For example, think of 10 car names, dogs, books, insects, snakes, footballers etc. The person who thinks of the most words in a category wins.

3. Rhyming words

Pick a word that is easy to rhyme with other real words. Each person takes a turn. The winner is the person who is the last one to think of a rhyming word. For example, heat, seat, meat, bleat, sleet, neat, pleat..... If the children are older they can write the words down simultaneously.

4. Don't say yes

This is a slightly harder game but lots of fun. One person has to answer questions and the others get to ask them questions to which the answer is obviously 'yes', but they must answer every question truthfully without saying 'yes'. If they do say 'yes', or can't answer, the turn ends and the person asking the question earns a point. For example, Karen is asked, "Do you like ice-cream"? To which she might answer, "Most people like milk-based products that are cold." The next person in the car asks a question, but it mustn't be simply the same question. For example, they could ask, "Do you like milk-based products in cones?" To which the reply might be, "Some I like to eat in a wafer case."

5. Spotto......

One of our family's favourite games in the car was 'Spotto windmill'. We lived in the country and often drove for 5-6 hours towards the coast. In key areas there were lots of windmills pumping water for stock. But you don't have to use windmills; you can spot billboards, bridges, trees, birds, and animals, almost anything that is common. The game can be concluded in various ways, such as the first to 30, ending it at a specific landmark or just stopping when you're tired of it or you run out of windmills (or whatever).

6. What's your job

This game starts with someone thinking of a job. Others then guess by trying to find out details about what the person does, where they work, they use tools, what skills you need etc. The skill is in asking just the right questions. Does this person work outdoors? Do they drive something? Do they use special tools? Can they work alone? etc. The aim is to see who can get it right. Every person in the car takes it in turns to ask a question and you keep rotating until someone gets it right. That person gets to pick the next job and it all starts over again.

7. Guess my song

Someone picks a song and they have to hum the first line. Everyone in the car has one guess then the person hums an extra line if no-one gets it after the first round. This continues until someone gets the song.

8. Guess the person

One person in the car thinks of a person everyone knows (e.g. a family member, TV star, book character, teacher, cartoon character, famous person), and then everyone takes turns to ask a question about them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they young or old? Does she have black hair? Does he wear glasses? Is she famous?

9. I Spy..

This is a well-known game. It can be varied for young children by simply asking for categories rather than insisting on letter names or sounds. So the variations can include: "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with" 'p' (letter name) or 'p' (sound name) or even, "that is green". The last variation is a good way to involve very young children and the categories can be very varied. "I spy with my little eye a thing that ...." is black...or, a little thing that bites... or, a person who likes coffee... or, a thing the car has to stop at etc.

10. Back to back words

People think of words that begin the way the last word ends. You will need to demonstrate this a few times and it isn't that suitable for children under 6 years. It might go like this: pot, tree, egg, goat, top, pot, turtle, elf, fog, goldfish. You can make the game harder for older children if you like by asking for the words to fit specific single categories like animals, names, places.


11. Who lives there?

This is a great game. Wait till you stop at traffic lights or you are travelling slowly enough to see a house long enough to remember some details. People take turns adding details to describe who might live there. This can be very creative or an accurate set of predictions. Each player builds (plausibly) on the previous person's clues. For example, first person says, "a mother lives there with her three children". The next person says, "the children are aged 3, 7 and 16". The next person says, "their names are, Sue, Pickle and Wobble.". The next says, "Wobble is named after his Dad (Bobble) who is on a round the world yacht trip" etc. When people run out of ideas you start again. You could vary this by choosing a car. The first person might say, "That car has a family of three children and their parents heading for the seaside".

12. Twenty questions

This starts with someone choosing an object, person, place, country etc that others have to identify. The others in the car have a chance to ask questions (maximum of 20 for each thing chosen). The questions are answered with a 'yes' or a 'no'. When someone thinks they know it they can guess. You can score this different ways (or not all). The person whose word is not guessed can score points as can the person who guesses correctly.

13. Memory game

There are many memory games, but a common one involves thinking of things that are in the car (or the boot/trunk), an imaginary backpack, suitcase, the kitchen at home, the beach where you'll visit. The people in the car add an item to a list and the next person must repeat previous details and add their own. People are eliminated when they forget an item. So it could start like this: "In the car we have a radio", to which someone says, "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel", which could become "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel, plus a pesky sister.....". A parent might write them down as you progress to avoid disputes.

14. Never-ending story

This game has two main forms, a single word version and a sentence version. In the word version people in the car take turns adding to a story one word at a time. It might go like this: "It", "was", "the", "first", "day", "of", "the", "monster's", "summer", "camp"....and so on. The members of the game try to make it impossible to add to the story because the last word is pretty much the last word.

The sentence version is slightly more complex but just as much fun.

15. Word association

This game is a bit trickier but can be handled by children 6+. Someone starts with a word and the next person has to add a word that has an association. Using just nouns and verbs is easiest. The game ends when a word is repeated or someone is stuck. You can have winners and losers if you want but it isn't necessary. Here's how it might go. "Dogs", "bark", "bones", "kennel", "growl", "fleas", "wag", "tail", "scratch" etc.

16. Who am I?

The first player thinks of the name of someone who everyone will know then gives a clue about their identity, for example, Big Bird, a relative, a cartoon character etc. The people in the car then take turns trying to guess who it is. If they get it then they have a turn at choosing the identity. For example, if the player chose 'Bob the Builder' they might start like this: "I fix things".

17. Oh no!

This is a great idea for 3-4 people in a car. Someone starts a story with the words "Oh no!" followed by a simple statement. They might say, "Oh no! There's a spider in my pocket." People then take it in turns to add to the story using "but" as their first word to turn a serious circumstance into a not so serious one, and vice versa. They might add, "But it is only plastic". To which someone might say, "but it has dynamite in it". This continues until the players get sick of it or until everyone agrees that an appropriate ending has been found.

18. Special choices
 

This game requires people to choose between two options and give their reasons. Someone has to come up with the choice. For example, "If I had to choose between snakes or caterpillars" might receive the responses" "I'd choose caterpillars because I'm a robin", or "I'd choose a snake to surprise my teacher" and so on.


Above: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

19. Twenty-Five
 
The first person chooses a letter or sound at random. Each person then needs to write down (or say) 25 things inside or outside the car that begin with the letter. The game ends either by at the end of set time (say 3 minutes) and the points are tallied. You can score many ways, such as 1 point for every correct word or 1 for each word and 3-5 for each unique word.


20. Teapot 

This game starts with one player picking a verb (action/doing word). The other players in the car then have to ask questions about the verb, but they replace it with the word "teapot." For example, if the word is "swim", the first question asked might be, "Do cars teapot?" Of the course the answer is "No." Players keep asking questions until someone guesses the verb.
'50 Things to do on a journey', Usborne Activity Cards.

'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'.

'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 1

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 2

Friday, July 4, 2014

Experiencing Poetry Rather Than 'Torturing' It!

I've written before about the power of poetry (HERE) and regularly review good poetry books on this blog. Poetry is to be read, listened to, experienced and enjoyed. It can amuse, entertain, challenge, teach and change us. Our aim as teachers and parents should be to seek to share good poetry often, and help children to 'experience' poems as significant literary and life events. Ariel Sacks recently wrote a great post in which she reminded us of this simple truth. In response to the post one of her readers in turn reminded us of Billy Collins great poem on poetry (William Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003). In it he challenges us to avoid the temptation to beat a poem to death rather than experiencing and enjoying it.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, 1988

If you are looking for some good poetry for children aged 5-12 years here is an excellent recent list Some would suit older readers, and 'Wayling' is certainly for older readers. The Centre for Excellence in Primary Education (CLPE) has an annual award for poetry written for children.  This UK charity promotes the effective teaching of children’s literacy and emphasises the importance of children’s literature. The award is presented annually, usually in July, for a book of poetry published in the preceding year. Here is the excellent shortlist.

Poems to Perform, Julia Donaldson (editor), illustrated by Clare Melinsky (Macmillan)

This is a careful selection of poems, both familiar and new, that lend themselves to being performed in a range of collaborative ways. Progress through the book is subtly themed: gliding through poems about school, football, food and many other matters. It offers succinct suggestions for how they could be presented both verbally and dramatically at the back, leaving plenty of scope for teachers and pupils to make their interpretations. The judges felt that the poems in the anthology had been really carefully chosen and selected to reflect the best of poems to perform across a broad range of time, poets and styles. The poems range from classics by Edward Lear, W H Auden, and Eleanor Farjeon, to contemporary work by Michael Rosen, John Agard, and Clare Bevan. It is illustrated throughout with exquisite, expressive lino-cuts, this is a book for teachers, parents and children; in fact anyone who loves great poetry. I bought this to use with children myself! The descriptions are edited versions of the judge's comments on each book.

The Dragon with a Big Nose, by Kathy Henderson (Frances Lincoln)

This collection was chosen because the judges particularly liked the city poems and how these really captured the feel and vibrancy of urban life. These are odes to the urban environment - its buildings, its transport, the people and creatures that inhabit it and the effects of weather on it. The dragon on the cover disguises the contents although fantasy and reality converge in poems like ‘Under the Stairs’ and many of them describe wonder in the apparently ordinary. The child’s eye viewpoint is foremost and this contributes to this being that rare commodity – a single poet collection for younger children. The poet’s own illustrations work wonderfully with the text.

Bookside Down, by Joanne Limburg (Salt Publishing)

This is Joanne Limburg’s first collection for children. It has a unique and contemporary feel, catching the voice and ear of the intended audience providing thoughtful observations of modern childhood. What happens if you read a book while standing on your head? Dare to discover the answer within these poems that provide a fresh take on school and family life, complete with computapets and a Wii with a Mii channel. Take a prefix lesson that doesn’t deal with grammar too seriously while requiring some understanding to get the joke. Sample the mouth-watering potatoes Dad cooks, tantalising all your senses ‘for truly they are epic’. Don’t lose your temper or you may find important things are lost too.


Wayland. The Tale of the Smith from the Far North, by Tony Mitton, illustrated by John Lawrence (David Fickling Books)

'Wayland' was chosen by the judges for the mastery of the form, its epic nature and the beauty of it as a complete piece of art, poetry and legend. This verse retells the legend of a master blacksmith who fashions such ‘wonderful ware’ that he is captured by a king. It is a tour de force. Readers are quickly drawn into this 'story' set in a landscape of forests and mountains depicted in John Lawrence’s extraordinary engravings. The whole work is stunningly sustained in rhyming four line stanzas. There is lust and violence at the centre of this saga and neither poet nor illustrator shirk from portraying these – so this is definitely a publication for older children. There is the love of Wayland for his Swan-Maiden and beauty in the way words and pictures reunite them.

Cosmic Disco, by Grace Nichols, illustrated by Alice Wright (Frances Lincoln)

This is a collection of poetry with beautiful rhythms, language and imagery that Grace Nichols always captures with such mastery. This collection whirls us out into the cosmos to dance ‘in the endless El Dorado of stars stars stars’ and back again to ‘that little old blue ball spinning in the corner over yonder’. Nature is personified in many guises. Lady Winter raps out a warning and chastises a cheeky robin. Autumn is a knight with ‘cape of rustling ochre, gold and brown’ and ‘spurs made of sprigs’ and ‘medals made of conkers’. Colours speak, giving persuasive arguments why the artist should choose each one of them. Venus is addressed majestically and a ‘star that time forgot’ given a new name.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why dialogue is important to comprehension development

This is a reprise of a post I wrote in 2011, which was based on an idea I first devised in the 1980s. Back then I was challenging teachers to consider the importance of what I called 'Text Talk'. I wrote about it at the time in a number of publications, including my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work' (Continuum). I was trying to challenge teachers to consider using more than just the classic IRE form of questioning. The Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) approach is probably the most common approach to comprehension. Typically, the teacher leads a discussions and asks questions to which a response is elicited and then evaluated by the teacher (and sometimes students). It is useful to test factual knowledge, or recall. It can also be used to attempt higher order questioning, but it rarely seems to in classrooms. I've written other posts on questioning (see HERE) that you might consider. But in this post I simply want to remind teachers and parents that testing comprehension doesn't do much to enhance or improve comprehension.

What do I mean by 'Text Talk'?

Above: Reading to my grandchildren. Lot's of Text Talk here
'Text Talk' means more than the teacher or parent talking to children about books, or asking them questions designed to elicit information. Rather, Text Talk requires the teacher or parent and children to have dialogue or conversation about reader understanding or meanings as they share a book, watch a film, observe some event and so on. It is used to tease out the knowledge and meaning that a text, image, movie or event offers. It's about tussling with, interpreting and even critiquing what the creator of the book or film has sought to communicate. 

Text Talk as an alternative to IRE questioning offers more space for children to share ideas and meanings, and offers them opportunities to grow understanding beyond a single idea or focus. The role is varied, but in essence, still simple and if led by the teacher involves:

a) Providing background information if necessary and appropriate.
b) Eliciting responses from readers to the text.
c) Suggesting alternative strategies for making meaning.
d) Sharing insights about reading and language.
e) Supporting and assessing student efforts to construct meaning.
g) Asking questions that expand knowledge and insight, rather than simply testing it. 
g) Introducing new forms of language and alternative purposes for reading.

Of course, while such discussions often need a facilitator, there is a place for students to fill this role. In this way different voices and ideas are sometimes heard and more students tend to engage rather than the most vocal few.

When teachers try to support comprehension, they can assume varying roles, ranging from some which are heavily teacher-centred and text dependent, to those that are child-centred and reader dependent. At times teachers will adopt a questioning role, but at other times they will provide support in the form of knowledge, alternative strategies etc. These roles are not mutually exclusive, nor is one approach right and the other wrong (although implementation of both can be good and poor). What is needed is balance and, above all, true conversation about books.

How should teachers talk to students about text?

One illustration of 'text talk' in action that I've used a lot is actually to be found in a children's novel 'The Great Gilly Hopkins' (Paterson, 1978). This story revolves around Gilly's struggles to adjust to life in yet another foster home, come to greater understanding of herself, and experience love for the first time. Within the story there is a delightful exchange between Gilly, Mrs Trotter (foster mother), Mr Randolph (a blind man who lives next door) and William Ernest, a younger mildly disabled foster child who lives also with Mrs Trotter.

After dinner one evening Mr Randolph asks Gilly to read some of Wordsworth's poetry to him. She reluctantly agrees, and finishes William Wordsworth's 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood'. She sits down lost in her own inner anger and frustration. But Mr Randolph interrupts her thought:
'Well, what do you think of Mr Wordsworth, Miss Gilly?' asked Mr Randolph interrupting her angry thoughts.
'Stupid,' she said.....................A look of pain crossed his face. 'I suppose,' he said in his pinched, polite voice, 'in just one reading, one might....'
'Like here' - Gilly now felt forced to justify an opinion which she didn't in the least hold - 'like here at the end, "the meanest flower that blows". What in hell - what's that supposed to mean? Whoever heard of a "mean flower"?
Mr Randolph relaxed. 'The word mean has more than one definition, Miss Gilly. Here the poet is talking about humility, lowliness, not' - he laughed softly - 'not bad nature.'
Gilly flushed. 'I never saw a flower blow, either.'
'Dandelions.' They all turned to look at William Ernest, not only startled by the seldom-heard sound of his voice, but by the fact that all three had forgotten that he was even in the room. There he sat, cross-legged on the floor at the end of the couch, a near-sighted guru, blinking behind glasses.
'You hear that?' Trotter's voice boomed with triumph.
'Dandelions? Ain't that the smartest thing you ever heard? Ain't it?' W.E. ducked his head behind the cover of the couch arm.
'That is probably exactly the flower that Mr Wordsworth meant,' Mr Randolph said. 'Surely it is the lowliest flower of all.'
'Meanest flower there is,' agreed Trotter happily. 'And they sure do blow, just like William Ernest says. They blow all over the place.'

This extract provides a perfect example of people talking about text and in the process increasing shared knowledge of the world, and their grasp of language.  As well, it creates interest and appreciation of an unfamiliar and more complex work than they could encounter and understand alone. Within it we see:
  • Mr Randolph providing access to a text beyond Gilly's experience.
  • How interaction and dialogue between individual people can facilitate learning.
  • How a 'teacher' can exercise quiet control through questioning and comment without stifling other voices and views (or just testing knowledge).
  • That the 'teacher' is not the only person with knowledge, and that insight can come from unlikely places (William Ernest).
  • Mr Randolph providing new knowledge in response to the Gilly's questions.
  • The excitement of Trotter as she witnesses the insight of William Ernest, and her affirmation of support for him as a person and a learner.
Text Talk and a more dialogic approach to reading comprehension, results when a teacher or parent has the sensitivity and insight to spot the teachable moment, to grapple for the right question, to know just when to provide new knowledge, or when to probe and prompt children to grasp new things.It can be used incidentally, or as the focus for whole lessons or group activities.

Related Posts

'Guiding Children's Learning' HERE
 Other posts on comprehension HERE

Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Children of All Ages Excited About Shakespeare

I've written previously on this blog about the value of Shakespeare for children of all ages, even primary school children (HERE). I grew up in a home where books weren't read to or with me, so reading was not a pleasurable pursuit at home. So there was little chance that I was ever going to meet Shakespeare until forced to read it at High School. What a terrible way to be introduced to some of the world's greatest literature.  I found English classes boring and seemingly unrelated to my life.  Not surprisingly, I found Shakespeare's plays remote and of little interest. And yet later in life I began to appreciate and love Shakespeare's work.

But is it possible to make Shakespeare accessible for children as young as seven or eight years? Yes, I think it is! A good place to start is either with an abridged version of the great plays or using some of the wonderful prose versions of his work. A company in Sydney has even begun to present live Shakespeare to primary schools.

Bell Shakespeare has set itself the task of introducing primary aged children to Shakespeare's plays, with a plan to teach Shakespeare's work to children as young as six. The company wants to inspire a new generation to love the work. The company sees the program as a form or 'early intervention' where children will be helped to appreciate the complex and rich language of the great epic stories that are the foundation of Shakespeare's work.

Sixty- Minute Shakespeare

I have no doubt that in classrooms where children learn to love words, language and narrative, that they will find Shakespeare exciting, challenging and enriching. There are many resources that will help you. Recently, I had a look at Cass Foster's abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays. The 'Sixty-Minute Shakespeare' series is an ideal alternative for those who lack the time to tackle the unabridged versions. Professor Foster has carefully condensed (without modernizing) the rich poetic language of each play so that it can be completed in about 60 minutes. The abridged versions offer the excitement of Shakespeare's tales, as well as the wonderful imagery in the prose and verse.

Each edition also comes with detailed footnotes on nearly every page explaining the more arcane words and phrases to help the reader better understand and appreciate each play. You will also find practical suggestions for staging, pacing, and thematic exploration very useful. Each script is approximately 70 pages.

'Shakespeare's Hamlet' staged on the page by Nicki Greenberg

This is a remarkable and ambitious work from Nicki Greenberg for high school children. This imaginative and epic 415-page graphic novel will excite many teenage readers. Hamlet has become an expressive black inkblot whose form changes shape according to his circumstances and mood. This is not a kid's picture book! Rather, it is one more attempt to present Shakespeare in new forms. Not just to make it more accessible (for some might find some other word-only attempts less challenging) but to tell it afresh.

There is no doubt that Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique. At 400+ pages it is hardly an easy 'read'. But might it not help the young uninitiated reader of Shakespeare to see new things? Only readers 13+ will be able to help us to answer this question.

The language of Shakespeare is given new emphasis as the play is performed on paper. This is a play 'staged' in a book as the title suggests.  It is a very interesting book but I can't help but feel that a retelling like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories (see below) is not a better way in. It is hardly stuff for the poor reader, but more likely the gifted who wants to experience Shakespeare with new depth and relevance. It might just do this for some.

Joint winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year 2011

Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Prose Forms for Young Children

You don't need a theatre company to help you to introduce Shakespeare to young children. One of the easiest ways to get young children interested in Shakespeare's work is to read some of his plays in adapted prose form. While there are some pretty awful attempts to do this, the collections written by Leon Garfield are superb. His first collection 'Shakespeare Stories' was illustrated by Michael Foreman and published by Gollancz in 1984. It features 12 of Shakespeare's best-known works, including 'Twelfth Night', 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth'. Garfield is a brilliant writer of children's fiction and so if anyone was to tackle this project, he would surely be the most likely to succeed in presenting the plays with as much complete dialogue as possible but with adaptations that make the works more accessible without detracting from the language, plots and characterisation of each play. This is how Garfield begins 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':
Hermia, who was small, dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair and tearful, loved Demetrius.
But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermia...who did not love him. What could have been worse than that? 
Garfield's adaptations are engaging and faithful to the plays and if read well to children as young as 7 or 8 will capture their attention. I have used them with children or varied ages and they love to hear Garfield's versions of Shakespeare's work and they want to pick them up and read them. My daughter has also found the Garfield collections wonderful to use with her children aged 6-10.  She has written about this on her own blog (HERE).

A shorter collection, 'Six Shakespeare Stories' was published by Heinemann in 1994 and 'Six More Shakespeare Stories' in 1996.

Other resources

There are a number of other helpful resources and sites for teachers who want to try Shakespeare with children aged 6-12 years.

'Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare' was written by Edith Nesbit in 1907 and is still available in more recent editions (HERE)

A good BBC resource that offers children a simple introduction to Shakespeare and his work (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare 4 Kidz' site is worth a look. Their tag is "Bringing the world of Shakespeare to the young people of the world" (HERE)

'Shakespeare is Elementary' is a great little site developed by an elementary school (Crighton Park) in Novia Scotia Canada. It has some great ideas for getting started (HERE)

You can buy some scripts adapted for young children but I haven't personally tested them (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare for Kids' site also has some helpful advice for teachers using Shakespeare with primary/elementary school children (HERE)

Read more about the Bell Shakespeare work in Sydney HERE

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Britain's Top 10 Children's Books

While lists of great books, let alone 'best-loved' books, are fraught with problems, they do serve to remind us of books we might just have forgotten.  Yes, what we love will vary from adult to adult, and also from child to child, but this recently promoted list of 'Britain's best-loved children's books' is interesting as much for what isn't in it, as what did actually make the top 10. Interestingly, only one book in the top 10 was published in the last 25 years. I'd want to add a number of more recent books to my top 10. I suspect that 'Winnie The Pooh' wouldn't be number 1 in the US, but it might be in the top three in Australia. I have included a link to Lorna Bradbury's list of 100 top books below, which makes for interesting reading. I've also added some links at the end of the post to a number of sites that feature the choices made by children which tend to have a much more recent bias. I'd love to hear about books you'd like to see in the top 10.

1. Winnie The Pooh - AA Milne (1926)
2. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (1865)
3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle (1969)
4. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien (1937)
5. The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson (1999)
6. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (1964)
7. Black Beauty - Anna Sewell (1877)
8. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
9. The BFG - Roald Dahl (1982)
10. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (1950)

Lorna Bradbury's Top 100 Books for Children and Young Adults 
US Children's Book Council 'Children's Choices 2014' 
Young Australians Best Book Awards (YABBA)