Saturday, April 23, 2016

Introducing Young Children to Shakespeare in the 400th Anniversary of his Death

I've written relatively recently on the value of Shakespeare for children of all ages, even primary school children (HERE). On this the 400th anniversary of his death I thought I'd post it again. There is no better tome to rediscover Shakespeare.

I had little chance as a child to be introduced to Shakespeare until forced to read it at High School. What a terrible way to meet some of the world's greatest literature.  English classes boring and seemingly unrelated to my life.  Shakespeare's plays seemed remote and of little interest. And yet later in life I began to appreciate and love Shakespeare's work.

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.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Helping Young Children to make Reading & Writing Breakthroughs: Eight Simple Steps to Literacy

While the groundwork for the creation of young writers takes years, the point of take-off can occur in as a little as 30 minutes. This post is an illustration of how this can occur. In fact, in this single post you will see how one five year-old goes from a 'non-reader' with some early knowledge of sounds to a reader and writer in one week.

The example is drawn from observations of one of my grandchildren, but I have seen it many times in classrooms throughout my teaching and research career. As a five year-old she had just commenced formal schooling in Australia in Kindergarten (Grade 1 in most countries). She had attended two years of preschool (for 2 half days per week as a three year old, and then three days per week as a four year old). She had been read to before school, mostly at bedtime, had begun to play with sound, writing and matching games on an iPad as a 4 year old, and she liked completing some basic prereading booklets. She had also shown interest when she saw her brother (three years older than her) being taught to read at home. As a result, she began asking him to read to her.

When she started Kindergarten her teacher had begun introducing letters and their sounds and as reading and writing exercises. After about seven weeks the teacher had introduced about 15 sounds (2-3 per week), all single consonants and vowels. With each one Evie had to complete an activity sheet that required her to copy the letter, write (copy) a word, and then draw a picture (see an example below).

Above: One of Evie's School Worksheets

Like many preschool children she also enjoyed drawing and liked to embellish them with numbers, sometimes letters and print-like scribble. However, she had not tried to write words or represent meaning with more than scribble or drawings. The only exception to this was the copying of the single words that matched the letters that her teacher had been systematically teaching.

One weekend just 8 weeks into the school year her grandmother was doing some creative oral story making using Lego as part of the process (this is a common strategy we have used in the past, see my recent post HERE). They were acting out a shopping episode, and my granddaughter was acting as the customer. As she came and asked for items (which were Lego shop items with food pictures on them) her grandmother said to her, 'You need a list.' To which she replied, Yes'! And she began to do some text-like scribble on paper and handed it to her grandmother in exchange for the 'goods'.

Because her grandmother had seen her school workbook she said, 'Why don't you write some words on the paper?' My granddaughter grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 'egg' and 'fish' on the paper (two of her school words), which matched two of the Lego pieces. She exclaimed, 'I didn't know I could do that'! Her grandmother praised her, showed her grandfather (me) and we told her how clever she was.

Above: Her first two words written from memory

She dropped the game, got more paper and proceeded to try her hand at more writing. At first she was using her store of words that she had seen at school, writing each from memory without her school book. Within about 30 minutes Evie had written many words and then began to push the boundaries as she extended her writing from school words, to new words, then phrases, sentences and finally short stories.

I explained to her that she needed to have spaces between words and showed her how to use finger spaces between them. We provided more paper, her grandmother gave her a blank book, and she was away. Before the hour was out Evie had achieved the following milestones:

Step 1 - She had written her first words from memory (above)
Step 2 - She begun to string known words together from memory with loose associations (see above larger text)
Step 3 - She began to try to write words that she didn't know (see her attempt at 'bowl' and 'horse' below).

Above: Her first 'invented' spellings for 'bowl' & 'horse'

When she wrote the above words she said, 'I wrote some new words Grandad. Do you know what they are?' I answered, 'Yes, bowl and horse'. Pointing to the second word she asked, 'Does this really say horse'? I answered, 'Well I could tell that you meant them to be horse and bowl, even though there are some letters missing'. I showed her the missing letters, and then she moved on to her next piece of writing.

Step 4 - She sat down with her new blank book and tried to string together a number of words in the form of a simple sentence, trying to spell the unknown words using her limited knowledge of phonics.

Above: 'My pet dog is the best'

Step 5 - She repeated the text and experiments with images and other textual forms. Attempting multimodal texts already.

Step 6 - Her sentences became more complex, and her satisfaction was obvious! She shared her work.

Step 7 - She tried further experimentation with tough words and concepts. Her next text was much more complex in syntax, vocabulary and meaning. It had been written just one hour after she wrote her first words from memory and without assistance!

Above: A story with greater complexity

Step 8 - The next morning with her mother's help and advice on some words, she made herself a book and began to write her first 'novel' - 'My Cat'! 

In the week following this series of events my granddaughter also decided, with new confidence, that it was time to start reading herself at night. She asked me could she read herself in bed, her mother gave her one of the Level 1 Ladybird 'Read it Yourself' books. The video below shows a snippet of her reading 'The Little Red Hen' largely unaided without having tried to read the book before.

Summing Up

This post hasn't set out to offer a recipe for how you can teach your child to write in in a few days. Rather, what I have tried to do is show an example of how fast progress can be for young readers and writers, if they have had rich literacy experiences in the preschool years, and when we seize on key teachable moments. In the day-to-day life of the home and school we need to look for opportunities to 'prod' children forward to take risks as learners. Once children do take such risks and experience success and encouragement, progress can be quite remarkable.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Place of Picture Books for Readers of All Ages

This is a revised version of a post that I wrote a couple of years ago but the message is still in need of repeating. I want to pick up on my previous comment that many parents move their children on from picture books far too quickly. Even many teachers encourage their children to 'move on' to chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. I've always felt that this was a bad idea, for a range of reasons, that all stem from four myths that drive this well-motivated error.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier reading than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary, syntax and visual images & devices.  For example, Nicki Greenberg's graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is in effect a print-based staging of Hamlet's struggles with truth, meaning, morality and action. She brings the play to life in a riot of colour and visual acrobatics that makes 'Hamlet' accessible to new teenage and adult readers. And the text of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore', which I've reviewed previously (here), are taking this to a completely new level.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and they reduce the need to read the words'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can use 'stripped down' language that allows greater use of images, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! Pick up any Shaun Tan book and you might at first read think, "Wow, is this a book for adults?" 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', 'The Arrival', 'The Lost Thing', in fact any of his books, have a depth and richness that can 'stretch' and challenge any child or adult. My first reading of his more recent book, 'Rules of Summer', left me perplexed and with so many questions I had to read it again, and again to grasp the depth of this deceptively simple story about the relationship between two boys (one older and more dominant than the other). This is a story about rules and power with Tan's characteristic images prodding your imagination at every turn of the page. Like all quality picture books it can be entered by readers of all ages and leave them enriched in different ways.

While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

So what do Picture books do for older readers?

Picture books communicate complex truths in relevant and economical ways - 'Harry and Hopper' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood helps readers of any age to have a light shone on the challenge of accepting and dealing with death so that life for those left behind can move on, even though death changes things in big ways.

Picture books offer special pathways to deal with deep emotional challenges and springboards for discussion - 'Dandelion' by Calvin Scott Davis (illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro) allows the inner pain of bullying and the fears it brings, to be visited and opened for reflection and growth.

Picture books also enliven and reintroduce wonderful classic short stories - Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' is made fresh and relevant again through the illustrated picture book of Ritva Voutila. This tale of forgiveness is enriched by Voutila's contribution. So too Ted Hughes classic 'The Iron Man' is enriched with the illustrations of Laura Carlin and the graphic and paper craft design. 

Picture books bring the power of image and graphic layout to words in ways that add layers of meaning that would take thousands of words to communicate - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks work 'The Dream of the Thylacine' shows this with great power when Brooks surreal images of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger have embedded within them grainy black and white photographs of the last miserable creature caged in a Tasmanian zoo in the 1930s.

Picture books can achieve things at times which the novel cannot - Irene Kobald & Freya Blackwood's brilliant picture book 'Two Blankets' manages to offer insights into the inner struggles of a girl who arrives from a war-torn nation to he strangeness of a new land. It is primarily through the metaphorical use of an object - a blanket - that the author and illustrator jointly communicate a significant story about the strangeness of language and place in a unique way.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading, but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.

I would love to hear of your own favourite examples that cross the ages.
Other reading

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emergent Comprehension' HERE

All my posts on picture books HERE