Monday, September 25, 2017

Early Childhood Literacy Learning: FREE Resources to Download

I'm proud to share the details of a brand new resource for parents and carers, for which I am one of the authors. 'Little People's Literacy Learning: A Guide for Engaging Parents & Carers' (Anita Ayre & Trevor Cairney) is now available FREE to download. My co-author Anita Ayre conceived the need for a book for new parents, while trying to help her son and daughter-in-law with their first child. They were keen to tap Anita's knowledge of early childhood learning. Part way through the development of the resource, representatives of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association approached me and asked whether I might team up with Anita on this project. After meeting with Anita, and realizing that we shared a common passion for early childhood learning, I agreed to be part of the project.

Initially it was to be a resource book, but ALEA suggested that it might have wider coverage as a downloadable free resource for parents presented in bite sized chunks. In all, 18 of the 26 modules are already available free to download HERE.

Module 1: Learning the names of body parts
Module 2: Exploring Fine Motor Development
Module 3: Similarities and Differences
Module 4: Orientation
Module 5: Relationships between Objects
Module 6: Speaking
Module 7: Reading and Learning
Module 8: Writing
Module 9: Spelling
Module 10: Organisation
Module 11: Gross Motor Development
Module 12: Listening
Module 13: Reading
Module 14: Learning about Books
Module 15: Visual Discrimination
Module 16: Developing Memory
Module 17: Word Recognition
Module 18: Rhythm 
The resource is designed to be dipped into as parents see the need to explore specific topics. Please note: More modules have been written and will be released progressively as the designers complete them.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Childrens' Book Council Award Winners 2017

The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) winners and honour books for 2017 have just been announced and are reviewed below. As usual, the announcement has coincided with Children's Book Week. The CBCA also publishes a number of lists (by age) of 'Notable' books each year which can be found HERE.

1. Picture book


'Home in the Rain' by Bob Graham (Walker Books)

Bob Graham has been one of my favourite Australian author/illustrators for over 30 years. His work has been widely acknowledged and awarded, including the award of the Kate Greenaway Medal for his picture book 'Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child' (Walker Books).

He has the ability to create novel, engaging and inspiring picture books that move children of all ages. 'Home in the Rain' is the story of a family awaiting the birth of a child, with a storm pouring down outside.

As Francie and her Mum drive along a highway at night, they are buffeted by a violent storm. They park by the highway to wait it out. The wait inspires a name for an unborn baby sister in a tender, exquisitely observed tale.

A sister is coming soon, and as they wait in their car in a picnic area for the rain to ease, Francie wonders, what will they call her? When the windows fog up, Francie spells out Dad, Mum, and her own name with her finger.

What else might she write on it?  Perhaps the name of Francie’s soon-to-arrive baby sister. The rain stops and they head back to the highway again. Francie and her mum ponder the name, as they head along the road and stop for fuel. What will it be?

Bob Graham has a habit of taking the things of daily life, and telling stories that are laced with deeper meanings. And yet, he tells his tales with utter simplicity, adorned by his wonderful images. This book will be loved by children aged 6+ as well as their parents. It is a worthy winner of the CBCA award for picture book of the year.

Honour books                 

Mechanica, by Lance Balchin (Five Mile Press)

Welcome to future Earth. Despite repeated warnings, the environment has become polluted to such an extent that many areas of the globe have become uninhabitable, and wildlife is now extinct. From the ashes, a new style of ‘wildlife’ is created. Wildlife that will not remain harnessed by humankind.
Welcome to the world of Mechanica.

This is a stunning book, that has been created by Lance Balchin. It is an encyclopedia of Mechanica creatures with a fictional narrative.
The Patchwork Bike, by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd (Lothian)

When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That's when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

This is a wonderful story by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke, that is beautifully illustrated in a unique style for a picture book by street artist Van T Rudd.

 2. Early childhood Winner

Go Home, Cheeky Animals! by Johanna Bell, and illustrated by Dion Beasley (Allen & Unwin)  

The winner this year of the Early Childhood category is 'Go Home, Cheeky Animals!' It has been written by Johanna Bell and illustrated by Dion Beasley, an artist with multiple disabilities. 

It is a sequel to their highly acclaimed 'Too Many Cheeky Dogs', which was published in 2013, and given to Princess Charlotte as a present. It is a wonderful book that children will find engaging and fun.

At Canteen Creek where we live, there are cheeky dogs everywhere. But when the cheeky goats, donkeys, buffaloes and camels make mischief in the camp, the dogs just lie there - until those pesky animals really go too far. Then the cheeky camp dogs roar into action!

This is a very funny story that will make anyone laugh. It speaks of home, family and our connection to place. The author Johanna Bell lives in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia (NT), and is a storyteller who contributes to many projects as a creative producer and writer. Dion Beasley is well known for his Cheeky Dogs brand. He lives in remote Tennant Creek (NT).

At Canteen Creek where we live, there are cheeky dogs everywhere. But when the cheeky goats, donkeys, buffaloes and camels make mischief in the camp, the dogs just lie there - until those pesky animals really go too far. Then the cheeky camp dogs roar into action!

Honour books 

Nannie Loves, by Kylie Dunstan (Working Title Press)

Nannie lives on a farm with rolling hills, a muddy creek, and lots of animals. But what Nannie loves most is when her family comes to stay.

This is a delightful story with minimal text, that is related closely to the images. It tells us about Nannie, and the things she likes - Sunday lunch, Grandpa, Sunday lunch with her family. Then of course her dog, chooks, and even the sheep when they get into her vegetable patch. Kylie Dunstan's delightful 'soft' images offer a rich representation of the characters and life. Children will enjoy this simply story that will engage them at many levels.

Gary, Leila Rudge (Walker Books)

Gary the pigeon can't fly. When his racing pigeon friends head off in their travel basket, Gary stays at home. He organises his scrapbook of travel mementos and dreams about the adventures the other pigeons are having. But when Gary accidentally ends up a very long way from home, he discovers that flying is not the only way to have adventures.

Like most great picture books this simple tale (at one level) manages to deal with varied issues while telling a page-turning story.  Gary the racing pigeon needs to overcome some fears. Instead of heading off in races like other pigeons, Gary doesn't. He 'can't' fly! Instead, he stays at home to record other pigeon's journeys in his scrapbook. But one day Gary falls into a travel basket, and suddenly ends up a long way from home. By good fortune he has his scrapbook (it fell in too), and this helps him to plot his way back. It's his brain rather than his flying skill that gets him home.

The story and Rudge's delicately drawn illustrations work together brilliantly to create a memorable picture book that children will want to revisit. This is a book that has it all - it's funny, it has a challenging story, and it speaks into the hidden desires and fears of many children.

3. Younger readers 


'Rockhopping' (Trace Balla, A&U)

This is the story of an eventful hike in Gariwerd (the Grampians), from the creator of the multi-award-winning 'Rivertime'.  Trace Balla uses traditional Indigenous names and common names for places as well as referring to aspects of Aboriginal culture throughout the book.

This book is a celebration of Australia's Indigenous heritage, their land, its animals and their life. Clancy and Uncle Egg take us on quite a journey. I just love the simple line and watercolour images in this book that children will look at again and again.


'Dragonfly Song' (Wendy Orr, A&U)

Abandoned by the priestess of the island at birth, Aissa is an outcast, surviving by her wits - until she joins the acrobatic bull dancers who are sent away to compete on the island of the Bull King. A gripping and powerful adventure by acclaimed author Wendy Orr.

Wendy Orr, the author of Nim's Island, introduces a resourceful and resilient heroine for slightly older readers. Inspired by an archeological trip to the island of Crete, where frescoes show figures leaping over the backs of bulls, Orr weaves an intriguing mythological portrayal of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization. Lyrically written and refreshingly unpredictable, Dragonfly Song suggests a fascinating origin for the legend of the Minotaur and his dark tribute. (Publisher)

This book feels a little old for junior readers, suitable for readers aged 11-13 years.

'Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade' (Kate Temple, Jol Temple & John Foye, A&U)

Jimmy Cook is finding History Week a bit boring until Ms Fennel starts banging on about Captain Cook. Then - bingo! Turns out he and Captain Cook have a lot in common. Here are three of the big ones: they are both named James Cook; they are both great explorers; and they both look great in a tricorn hat. Funny fiction for those who love Tom Gates and Timmy Failure.

Suitable for readers 7-11 years

4. Older readers 


'One Would Think the Deep' (Claire Zorn, UQP)

This title comes from award-winning author Claire Zorn of  who gave us 'The Protected' and 'The Sky So Heavy'. It is a ground-breaking young adult story about lost young men. It is available in paperback or as an e-book.

Sam stared at the picture of the boy about to be tipped off the edge of the world: the crushing weight of water about to pummel him. Sam knew that moment exactly, the disbelief that what was about to happen could even be possible. The intake of breath before the flood.

This is a book that deals with issues of grief and belonging. It is set in 1997, and the main character Sam is mourning the loss of his mother. With not much more than his skateboard and a garbage bag of belongings, Sam heads off to live with people who his Mum had severed her ties with 7 years before, his Aunty Lorraine and his two cousins Shane & Minty. He joins them in their surfing passion, and some ghosts from his past reappear. How will he cope with this? What is the path that he will take?

This is a Young Adult book suitable for readers aged 16+ years.

Honour books

'Words in Deep Blue' (Cath Crowley, Macmillan)

This is a beautiful, vivid and deeply moving story about a refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre. This novel reminds us all of the importance of freedom, hope, and the power of a story to speak for anyone who’s ever struggled to find a safe home.

'The Bone Sparrow' by Fraillon Zana

Subhi's imagination is as big as the ocean and wide as the sky, but his world is much smaller: he's spent his whole life in an immigration detention centre. 'The Bone Sparrow' is a powerful, heartbreaking, sometimes funny and ultimately uplifting hymn to freedom and love.

5. Eve Pownall Award for Information Books

'Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks' (Gina M Newton, NLA Publishing)

With its enticing and colourful design and its fascinating information, this is a book that children will want to pore over-either at home, in the classroom or on a road trip. This book brings together 55 national parks, selected across all Australian states and territories, and over 120 animals.

Honour books 

'Endangered Animals', Jennifer Cossins (Red Parka Press)

This beautifully illustrated full-colour picture book is packed with interesting facts and is perfect for young conservationists and students alike with a keen interest in the world around us.

'The Gigantic Book of Genes', Lorna Hendry (Wild Dog Books)

Genes are the blueprint for life. They are found inside the cells of all living organisms, and are responsible for how a plant or animal looks and grows. Welcome to the gigantic book of genes!

6. Crichton Award for Debut Illustrator  

Above: Self portrait of Van-T-Rudd

The winner of this prestigious award is Van T Rudd for 'The Patchwork Bike' (Maxine Beneba Clarke, Lothian). This book is reviewed above. It was an Honour book in the Picture Book category.

Friday, August 18, 2017

5 Ways to Make STEM Exciting

Above: Year 7-10 Students Listen to Guest Scientists

I had the chance to inspect the work of Year 7-10 students at a Girl's Secondary School in Sydney on Monday evening. It was an amazing feast of STEM project work. So much excitement, and so much wonderful teaching and student learning. This was education at its best, as students enjoyed and celebrated each other's work and the challenge of a possible scientific future.

It seemed to me that the teachers and the school were doing five fundamental things well:

1. Making STEM interesting above all else
2. Creating exciting opportunities for learning
3. Giving emphasis to experimentation, problem solving and curiosity
4. Considering real life applications
5. Enabling lots of first-hand experience

Students at the school were displaying and explaining their STEM projects to parents and teachers, and the scientific experiments and inventions were being assessed as they hosted and explained their projects. The night started with four outstanding scientists from universities and research organizations, challenging the girls to consider the varied options for a science career - research, invention, social good, teaching etc. We then had the chance to look at the exciting project work that the students had just completed. This was varied and of high quality, and students were near their work ready to explain their research findings or their invention.

a) Designing and completing scientific experiments

Three separate floors were devoted to almost 200 original projects as well as activity areas. Each topic was chosen by the student within some basic parameters of scientific method, project design etc. Here are some samples.

What is the ideal number of worms to decompose waste in a home worm farm? This clever student discovered that 500 worms were better than 1000 in producing a great volume of liquid fertilizer. I asked her to tell offer me her interpretation for this outcome and she was able to speculate why this was so.  The method was described well, the hypothesis and variables clear and sound. More future research to come!

The best music for Musical Therapy? Another student investigated whether there is an ideal type of music that is better for therapy? Is there a relationship between specific musical waves and effectiveness?

Does the volume of water affect the optimum setting time for jelly? Another considered whether there is an optimum volume of water to reduce time and yet preserve quality?

b) Inventions

A number of girls chose to come up with a novel invention. One girl in year 9 decided to design an adjustable child's chair that could be adjusted in height, distance from the floor and so on. Her aim was to allow a chair to be changed in multiple ways as a child grew, so that the back, seat and foot rest were properly located to allowing excellent ergonomic qualities.

Another girl in year 8 tried to invent a picnic rug that would repel ants. She designed a clever edging that was soaked in natural oils and was shown to be very effective. 

Above: The novel edged blanket and the report
c) Good Urban Design

Year 7 girls were all asked to design a sustainable house that not only used appropriate sustainable materials, but was energy efficient when constructed. Their 3D models were supported by their theoretical essays that were of high quality. This design had what you would expect: outstanding materials with great thermal qualities; correct orientation to the sun in the designated city they were allocated; energy conserving strategies and so on. The model below had all of these qualities as well as a green rooftop garden that reduced water runoff, and also had outstanding thermal and insulating qualities. It also required reuse of all natural water, self-sustaining solar power, and much more.

d) Experimentation with robotics

Above: A mass of materials
The evening also had a number of locations that allowed scientific experimentation in chemistry, aeronautics and robotics. The robotics station was one of the most popular places to be.

Throughout the night, teachers were interacting with their students and offering advice and encouragement to manipulate the position of motors, materials, writing tools and so on.  The girls gained great satisfaction from seeing their Bots moving and eventually making them work.

One of the most popular activities was the creation of tiny Bots that use the simple vibration of motors and balance to create movement. The exercise was to get your Bot to move, and at the same time scribe a circle pattern. Lots of fun, and a good introduction to many fundamental elements of robotics.

Above: Some of the Bots in action
e) Celebrating STEM

One other thing that impressed me about this school was the way STEM was being celebrated and shared amongst students. It was cool to be doing STEM at this school, and fun!

Above: STEM news, ideas and celebration


Sunday, July 30, 2017

5 Ways To Make School Boring

A child in a family I know started school for the first time this year. She was excited and couldn't wait to get there. Just months later, she looks forward to weekends and holidays. Recently, when she came home and was asked what sort of day she had, she hesitated and pondered the question and then replied:

"I think school is more about working than learning".

This 5-year-old arrived at school able to read, count and add up, and with a extensive general knowledge and a highly creative and inquisitive mind. How would you turn a child like this off school?

Step 1 - Make her do all of the same things she could already do before she arrived at school. Try to teach her to count to 10, and introduce the alphabet and sounds, even though she was able to count well beyond 100, had knowledge of the alphabet and sound symbol relationships, could spell many words, and was reading at a 4th grade level.

Step 2 - During library visits, insist she only borrows simple picture books, even though she was reading chapter books at home. Then watch go home her despondently without a book at all.

Step 3 - Reduce the activities that invite her to imagine, explore her world and to find out. Instead, replace these with drill and repetition of things she knew before she came to school.

Step 4 - Assume when she spends lots of time talking to other children in class, that she is distracted, rather than simply being bored.

Step 5 - Insist that she follow the same curriculum, and cope with the same methods as other children in the room who have not yet learned to read, write, spell and add up.

This little girl when asked by her family to talk about the best things to happen each day at school, would usually start with recess and lunch, because at these times she could play creatively with her friends.

Her innocent comment about school being more about 'working' than 'learning' is quite insightful. But at the same time, it is VERY sad, because it shows how little school was stimulating and challenging her. As teachers, we need to reflect on this story and ask ourselves regularly three questions about our methods, curriculum and general pedagogy:

1. How often do I do I implement activities designed to fill up lots of time, rather than offering varied possibilities for learning?
2. Do I take into consideration the varied abilities of my students, or simply teach to the 'middle'?
3. Am I aware of the varied abilities of my students and do I plan to meet their varied needs?

As a former teacher myself, including a number of year teaching in a sole charge school with 31 children in seven grades (Kindergarten to Grade 6), I understand the daily challenges as a teacher. But it is possible to plan activities for varied abilities in the same classroom, and to shift our focus from just 'working' to 'learning'.

Left: The One-teacher school where I taught

Other related posts

Six Steps that Will Change Learners

Boys & Learning: Build, Design, Create & Experiment

How Can Teaching Change Learners: 6 Steps

Questions, Exploration & Learning

Raising Chickens: The Power of Experience for Learning

Friday, July 21, 2017

Is There a Best Age to Start School?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic almost three years ago when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia, most of our schools commence the year in late January at the end of our summer break. In the Northern hemisphere, of course school starts in Aug-Sept. 

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In my home state of NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing. In other countries, we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain five, and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

This week some new research has been in the news that suggests there is a trend in Australia to hold back children for longer instead of sending them when they are eligible. The research suggested that "... the proportion of parents holding children back until they turned six almost doubled between 2010 and 2014, climbing from 1.5 per cent to 2.9 per cent". While parents doing this are in a minority, clearly some are making different choices. But why?

The new research in Australia considered over 224,000 students, and suggests that there was a trend towards more boys being held back. The reasons for this vary, but most parents are making choices based on their sense that their child might do better in education in the long term if they have an extra year to mature,

In my previous posts on this subject I have concluded that the question about the 'best age' to start school 'all depends' on the child and the family circumstances. Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but this varies from child to child, between the ages of four and a half to six years. As well, previous research has suggested that variations in starting age in general, don't seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement. In other words, it might just be that your child should be held back.

One of the interesting comments in the latest research was to show that parents are often worrying about behaviour and maturity in their boys, and even thinking about the consequences of their behaviour well into their adolescent years. The foundation of these thoughts would seem linked to fears of their children becoming victims of misadventure, crime, loss of university options etc. In other words, their immaturity affecting more than just their learning. Some parents of course choose home schooling for the same reasons, as well as a desire to shape the character of their children in the home. These are all legitimate concerns, but obviously what they suggest is just what I said at the beginning of this post, there is no magic age and parents need to make wise choices IF they are able to. This is a big 'if' because clearly some families don't have a stay at home parent that can care for them, and hence must rely on expensive childcare options. Some families don't have the luxury of choice. 

In reality, if we have the freedom to make the choice to hold children back we need to make our own assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

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

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

An interesting postscript to this matter is that countries like Finland where children don't start till they are seven (!) do well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys (more details can be found HERE).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Being Creative With Oral Reading for Young Readers

1. Because oral reading offer some important functions
  • It helps teachers and parents to observe and make 'visible' children's reading processes (what's going on in their heads)
  • It helps children to develop reading fluency and it supports vocabulary development
  • It can help us to assess reading progress and diagnose difficulties
  • It's a skill for life that we don't want to lose
I've written about oral reading before covering a variety of topics, including:

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

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

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

2. Making it fun and enjoyable

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

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

3. Some alternative strategies

Most of the ideas that follow can be found in a great article by Mary Ann Cahill and Anne E. Gregory published in 'The Reading Teacher'. Here is their description of oral reading in a US 2nd grade classroom they had worked in:
'One pair is rolling dice and using different voices to read; a small group is reading to small, plastic animals on their desks; three students are wearing masks while reading; and another pair is using little, red-beamed flashlights to shine on each word as they read.'
What are some simple novel ways to help children remain motivated and enjoy oral reading?

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

Summing up

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

A useful reference

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Eight Great New Picture Books (1-7 years)

1. 'Princess Cora and the Crocodile' by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca

With the incredible team of Newbery Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Caldecott Medal winner Brian Floca, it is no surprise that this new book is wonderful.

Princess Cora is sick of boring lessons. She’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. She’s sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day. Her princess life leaves little room for the ordinary things of life - like a pet dog! Enter her fairy godmother who doesn't supply a dog but a crocodile!

This is a book that will resonate with many children who will know what it is to have an over-scheduled and regulated life. And perhaps, it might challenge a few adults to see the benefits of simple things. Laura Schlitz has created a memorable and authentic modern fairytale that is brought to life by the illustrative brilliance of Brian Floca's work. Children aged 4-7 will love this book either to listen to, or read themselves.

2. 'Ollie's Treasure: Happiness is Easy to Find if You Just Know Where to Look!' by Lynn Jenkins & illustrated by Kirrili Lonergan

This is the delightful story of a small rat named Ollie and his grandmother who helps him to learn that often fun and satisfaction can be found in the simplest and most surprising of places.

Ollie's grandma sends him on a treasure hunt using a map that promises to lead him to 'something that will make him happy always'. Little does Ollie know that the things that will make him happy are not toys, or gadgets or the customary places that children often turn to for pleasure and fun, but rather in the simple things of life.

His grandmother's treasure map takes him on a journey that requires him to use his senses to explore his world. It comes as a surprise to find joy and pleasure in smelling the roses, gazing at the sky, feeling the grass beneath his feet and savouring the tastes, smells and sounds in his world.

A story that points to the value of mindfulness for our children in a world of hustle, bustle and gadgets.

3. 'Double Take! A New Look at Opposites' by Susan Hood & illustrated by Jay Fleck

This delightful picture book that tackles the language of opposites, does so with some surprising differences. First, the retro cartoon-like illustrations of Jay Fleck are delightful. But second, Susan Hood's text is linguistically rich, quirky and tackles opposites in some surprising ways.

Who knows what is BIG
unless there is small?

Does short measure up
except next to TALL?

And of course:

A racer's called FAST
when rivals are SLOW 

The book offers a new, engaging and entertaining perspective on opposites.
Prolific author Susan Hood and illustrator Jay Fleck have created a wonderful book that children aged 3-6 will listen to and read many times.

4. 'Ambulance Ambulance!' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Brian Lovelock

I've enjoyed and reviewed the wonderful work of award winning Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock before on this blog. Their attraction to big machines is a topic that many young readers enjoy, and previous books like 'Construction' and 'Roadwork' are great examples. They have teamed up again for 'Ambulance Ambulance!'.

Once again, the same simple, bright and action packed images support the simple text that exploits rhyme, onomatopoeia and action.

Bleep, bleep. Emergency! News just through: Crash, crash, there’s been a crash. Let’s go, crew!

Nee nar nee nar nee nar nee nar ...

Now what child 3-5 years old won't join in a shared reading of this book!
5. 'Raymond' written & illustrated by Yann & Gwendal Le Bec

This wonderful French team gave us 'Danny' and now 'Raymond'.

What if dogs could walk and talk and go to work? Well, Raymond the dog has big ambitions beyond his ordinary, canine life in the big city. He wants to take himself for a walk and get his own dinner. And when he’s done all that? 

Children will love the cartoon-like bright images, the simple text and the quirky story of a previously very happy family dog who one day looks up at his family dining together and 'has a thought (a rather big thought for a dog) ... couldn't I just sit at the table? Isn't that what families do?'

Of course, it wasn't going to stop there. Trips to the theatre, supermarket and nights at home, were suddenly different. And Raymond discovers a magazine that will change his life even more - 'Dogue'!

Soon, he wants a job, just like his owners. But when Raymond begins a high-flying journalism career at Dogue magazine, he soon realizes it’s no walk in the park… The wonderful 'visual' humour, as well as the delight of the text will mean that children, parents and teachers will just love this book! 

6. 'A Kiwi Year: Twelve Months in the Life of New Zealand's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Snerling

This book is the latest in a wonderful series that helps children to understand the different lives that children lead around the world. Each book takes the reader through a typical year to reveal the everyday celebrations, cultural events, special holidays, sport and lifestyle.

I have reviewed previous titles by this team on my blog - 'An Aussie Year', 'A Scottish Year' and 'An English Year' (HERE). Now it's time to find out what life is like in 'A Kiwi Year'. Each book in the series begins by introducing us to five children from diverse backgrounds. We then follow them through the year. As the seasons change, so too do the things children play, celebrate, learn and do. In January, some play 'cricket', plant veggies in the garden, go camping and enjoy summer holidays. In February, there are celebrations for Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day and hot weather at the height of summer. In March, there is a national Maori celebration (New Zealand's First People), the celebration of Pacific communities, 'Children's Day', and homework!

Children will love this simple but effective introduction to the life and culture of people from another land. Tina Snerling's wonderful images will have children wanting to dip into the book many times.

7. 'A Canadian Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Canada's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Sterling

Just as with 'A Kiwi Year', children are given an insight into the life and culture of another country - this time Canada! All the books in this splendid series offer so much more than any geography text for children ever could. The teacher in me wants to race off to a classroom to share this book as a basis for a whole unit of work on Canada.

What better way to understand a nation's history, social and cultural practices, natural wonders, climate and more. Children have the chance to view another culture through the eyes and experiences of the children who live it every day. Wonderful stuff! The texts are carefully crafted by Tania McCartney who doesn't waste a word, the descriptive text for each event or activity complements the illustrations, and judicious labelling also add depth with few extra words. Another great book to read from front to back, or to leave on the table to be dipped into over and over again. Each time, young readers will notice new things, have additional questions, and be actively learning about other cultures and nations.

8. 'Nanna's Button Tin' by Dianne Wolfer & illustrated by Heather Potter

I have a glass jar full of shards of broken pottery collected on British sea shores. Each fragment echoes a place, a time and a story! My grandchildren love to empty the jar out and wonder about the meal tables these pieces might once have witnessed across 2-3 centuries.

'Nanna's Button Tin', like my bottle of pottery shards, contains objects that echo stories. Dianne Wolfer's beautiful story begins:

'I have my Nanna's button tin. it's full of stories.'

As the little girl takes off the lid in search of a button to replace her teddy's lost eye, her Nanna helps her to search for just the right one. A special button is needed for Teddy! Just the right size, just the right shape, and just the right colour. And as they sift through them, memories come back for Nanna. "This one is special ... it was on the jacket you wore home from hospital." And the little girl has memories too. "I remember that button. It was on the birthday jumper you made me." And when they find the right one, Nanna sews it on. What a delightful book! The gorgeous watercolour illustrations are all works of art in their own right. Perfect to read at bedtime, or for any child to enjoy aged 3 to 7 years.

Note: This book was temporarily out of stock when I wrote this post (no doubt due to the positive reaction to the book). I'm sure that the next print run will be out soon. Do check, it is worth it!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Six Steps That Will Change Learners & Classrooms

The terms 'Transformational Teaching' and 'Transformational Learning' are discussed in the academy at times. But is this just academic nonsense or is there some significance to the terms and the practices. What practical advice might the work offer to teachers, parents and those who homeschool?

In the simplest possible terms, Transformational Teaching (TT) is teaching that changes learners by creating the right conditions for learning. We change the way we approach tasks, the questions we ask about the tasks, our expectations for what kids will learn, and our expectations. In effect, it helps to change the way learners understand learning, their co-learners, their teachers and themselves. This is the dead opposite of 'Transactional Teaching'.

The latter can be recognized by the emphasis on transmission of knowledge from teacher to child. Its major concern is what the learner knows and will learn. Transformational Teaching values knowledge too, but it is characterized much more by inquiry, discovery, firsthand experience, critical thinking and the use of varied communication and thinking skills, than simply knowledge transmission. Here are 6 basic steps that will help to create environments in order to change children from simply trying to acquire, soak up or replicate knowledge to learners who develop their abilities in areas like inquiry, discovery, and critical thinking.

6 Key Steps to using Transformational Teaching.

Step 1 - Develop effective routines

If we want to create classroom that encourage inquiry, experimentation, problem solving and lots of interaction, we need to be VERY well organised. Whether quiet places, or noisy ones, we must have good routines.

Step 2 - Organize classroom space & materials well

Transformation learning requires a place, where materials are available, spaces are provided that permit interaction, additional access is given to computers and other key resources.

Step 3 - Establish clear expectations with students about what can and cannot occur

We need to establish some basic rules about sharing space, movement, sharing materials, how class members interact, time frames for task completion and so on. All must be clear and revisited regularly.

Step 4 - Implement routines for the sharing of ideas and discoveries

Classrooms where transformational teaching and learning are practiced, need to be places where ideas are shared and celebrated. Audiences are very important to testing ideas, receiving feedback and learning from one another.

Step 5 - Place a high importance on quality outcomes and behaviour

They will also be classrooms where standards are high. Near enough is not good enough, there must be accountability in terms of quality, task completion respect for others and so on.

Step 6 - Place a priority on communication, feedback, task evaluation, honesty & respect

This is the key to a vibrant engine room in any classroom. Classrooms where there is honesty, generosity and accurate feedback are places where members will take risks as learners. Ensure that these are present and part of your regular maintenance work as a teacher.

What do these classes do?

I'll probably say more about this in a future post but in general terms Transformational Teaching leads to classroom environments where you will see:
  • Much greater interaction between students as well as much greater interaction with the teacher.
  • Much more group work. This will vary based on topic, interest and expertise, not simply general ability.
  • The teacher leading from 'behind' as much as from the front.
  • More celebration of work and achievements.
  • Greater learner autonomy within clear boundaries.
  • Regular demonstration, and expert resource people visiting.
  • Increased use of multi-modal responses (shared use of images, words, drama, art etc).
  • Increased risk taking, experimentation, problem solving and creativity.
  • Finally, we will see higher expectations and standards for work and behaviour.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Getting More Girls (& Boys) to Love Coding

I have six grandchildren and as they grow older their interests become clearer. All love learning, but not all have the same learning interests. Even when they were very young, some would love to dig in the compost heap with me, and others, not so much. Some would bring every insect inside to examine it, others were less keen. One still heads for my study (where all the books are), and we have to crow bar her out for meals. Her brother was always more likely to head to the back yard (garden) to dig around, look to the sky for birds and so on.

All my grandchildren love books in their own way, but one seems to have her head in a book most of the time. Interestingly, she is also interested in coding, and is very good at mathematics. Another grandson already shows signs of talent in coding and computing and has more recently discovered books. All children are different, but I suspect all could code if taught well. What will the girls and boys in our lives become? Hopefully, both will become wonderful people who will have many interests in life. But vocationally, what might they become? Research evidence suggests that statistically, my grandson has more likelihood of ending up in a career where he will use his strengths in STEM, particularly coding, than my granddaughter. This is a problem. 

Gwendolin Tilghman who is a private equity associate at KKR, works with technology companies as part of the firm’s technology, media and communications, is interested in this area too. She has just written an interesting post that I shared on LinkedIn, which argues for proactive efforts to get more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She writes:

"I have always been interested in topics relating to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). So, when I started college and was able to learn any subject of my choosing, it was no surprise that I decided to pursue an engineering degree. However, what was surprising was that I seemed to be the only girl to do so, or at least that’s how it felt sitting in a room full of boys throughout many of my classes. Perhaps it should not have been because even though women now represent 47% of the workforce, only 12% engineers are females." 

Clearly action is necessary to encourage girls and young women to consider careers that build on their knowledge and interest in STEM. One the most critical needs will be to encourage girls with an early interest in science and maths to explore coding.

Gwendoline is part of the 'Girls Who Code' initiative in the USA that is seeking to close the gender gap in technology. She comments:

Get Coding (Walker Books)

Where can we start to inspire young girls (and boys as well) to explore coding?  There are some great resources appearing on the market that will help. I was recently sent a great little book designed for primary or elementary school children - Get Coding (Walker Books) that has been produced by Young Rewired State (see below). This is a wonderful little book, it made me want to get to a computer, and to start doing some coding.

It is well designed and very inviting. Each page combines text, step by step instructions and projects to undertake. The first 15 pages are text-based with some headings, pictures and diagrams to make sense of the limited amount of the word descriptions. The reading level is about 8-10 years. Once the reader is through this introduction they can begin a series of missions with Professor Harry Bairstone, 'a famous explorer' who is '... in desperate need of [our] help'. Once we are introduced to the mystery of the lost 'Monk Diamond', we are ready to code our way towards completing our mission. Yes, we will need to know what HTML tags are. And we will learn how to use them as we learn to write HTML code, on our way towards completing the mission. Very soon, we are writing the code for a simple web page, with text and images. Eventually we build our own 'Monk Diamond Discovery Web Page'.

By Mission 5 our young coders will be making their own game 'The House of Volkov's Security Team' that is responsible for protecting some valuable jewels on display in the The House of Volkov'.

This is wonderful stuff, and should be part of every child's primary school education. 

Information of Young Rewired State

Young Rewired State was created in 2009 and is a network of 3000 data specialists with a female founder - Emma Mulqueeny. It has 30% female developers with 60% aged 18-25. It has an interesting methodology based on the principle of rapid prototyping, using the MVP concept of working towards a minimum viable product (MVP). It runs events and programs for technically gifted young people aged 18 and under. It draws together young developers, designers, and those with other technical skills to build projects (mainly phone and web applications) that attempt to solve real world problems. Most of the developers participating in Young Rewired State events have taught themselves or learned coding skills outside the traditional school curriculum.

Information about Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Its programs inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities. They have been especially effective in impacting skills development for girls in their formative years. At the completion of this academic year, Girls Who Code will have reached 40,000 girls in total, covering all 50 US states during its five-year history. In fact, an impressive 93 percent of their summer program participants said that they now want to major in, or are interested in, computer science because of their participation in the program — this might well mean no longer being the only woman in the classroom!

Friday, May 5, 2017

8 New Novels for Older Readers

In this post I review eight new novels for readers aged 8 years to Young Adult. They arranged in what for me is reverse order. I start with the books for young adult and teenage readers and work my way towards books for primary aged children.

1. 'The Rest of Us Just Live Here,' Patrick Ness

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Patrick Ness is an extraordinary writer of adolescent and young adult fiction. The award-winning author of 'A Monster Calls' (reviewed on this blog) and 'More Than This' has given us a new book to savour. It's a book that will probably divide readers, even some of his fans. But teenagers living through the experience of following and living in the shadow of others, will I suspect, relate more deeply to it. 

Others will compare it to previous books and perhaps be less enthusiastic. For parents and teachers concerned about sexual encounters, relationships are mentioned but not described or dwelt on. Its about real life for teenagers.

“Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can.”  

A book suitable for readers 15+
2. 'The Year It All Needed,' by Kirsty Murray

On Tiney Flynn's seventeenth birthday, every church bell tolled as if heralding a new year, a new era. Tiney stood in the garden, purple jacaranda petals fluttering down around her. One by one, her sisters came outside to join her; first Nette, then Minna and lastly Thea. It was 11 November 1918. Armistice Day.

For Tiney and her sisters, everything is about to change, but not in the way they might have imagined. Building peace is complicated; so is growing up. From tragedy to undreamt-of joy, from weddings to seances, from masked balls to riots in the streets, Tiney's world will be transformed.

At the end of the war and the dawn of the Jazz Age, Tiney Flynn must face her greatest fears and begin a journey that will change her destiny.

This wonderful piece of historical fiction begins as peace is declared at the end of WWII. It is set in Australia and Europe and written by talented author of eleven books Kirsty Murray. Tiney Flynn has just turned seventeen. What will life be like for Tiney, and all those who are celebrating peace? An excellent book that tries to represent something of the complexity of a time when after the joy and celebration of peace the reality dawns for many that some troops return broken, families have lost loved ones, and many are grieving and adjusting to a world that has changed.

A commendable novel that deals with the impact of war, not just at the front but also at home. Suitable for young adults.

3. 'The Hate You Give,' by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl's struggle for justice.

This is a powerful novel for young adults that unpacks the racism that is evident throughout the world, but which has been brutally evident on the streets of America. This book is inspired by the 'Black Lives Matter' movement that has been born due to the death of many people of colour on the troubled streets of US cities. Angie Thomas opens her story through the interactions of a group of teenagers at a party, followed by a drive home and a death due to a broken tail light. But lives are changed when the main character witnesses the killing of her best friend by a police officer. The sixteen year old central character Starr is an inspiration. A great read for young adults.

The movie rights have already been sold to Fox, with Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) cast as the star.

4. 'The Heartbeat of Wing Jones,' by Katherine Webber

This is an excellent debut novel about a mixed-race family hit by tragedy in 90s Atlanta.

With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing's speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants. 

The main character Wing Jones has to deal with her brother being in a coma. She takes up running to help her cope and she discovers an ability she didn't know she had. With grandparents from China and Ghana, and she has struggled to know just who she is. As she runs, she finds a way to distance herself from the tragedy of her brother. The novel is well written, and offers a mix of humour, love and the strength of family. The characters are well developed and their depth adds greatly to an excellent story 

This book is also marketed as 'Wing Jones' with another cover in the UK and Australia. This US title and cover seem more appropriate and aligned with the book.

5. 'Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son,' by Janeen Brian

“Yong,” my father said one night as I sat on the earthen floor, stroking my pet cricket and determined to save it from being eaten. “You will come with me to Australia.” Yong doesn’t want to leave Guangdong to travel to the goldfields of Ballarat. But as the firstborn son, he has no choice. On the long and treacherous journey, Yong strives to be an honourable son, while he and his father face many hardships and dangers. But in his heart, he knows the shameful truth – that his honour is a lie. Can a journey change lives? Has Yong the courage to face what lies ahead?

This is a wonderful book for readers aged 9-12 years. It tells of an historical event in the 1850s that few Australians know about. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants who were bound for the Victorian goldfields found themselves stranded on the coast near Robe on the southern coast of Australia. They are well short of Melbourne and have to walk all the way to Ballarat in Victoria. Yong and his father are part of the group. Yong strives to be the type of honourable son expected, but and there are many challenges along the way that test him. This is a story that shines a light on many issues, including racism, prejudice, exploitation of others, and coping with change. It is a gripping tale from award winning South Australian author Janeen Brian.

6. 'Maybe a Fox,' by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee

A compelling tale about two sisters.

Sylvie and Jules, Jules and Sylvie. Better than just sisters, better than best friends. Jules’ favourite thing is collecting rocks, and Sylvie’s is running – fast. But Sylvie is too fast, and when she runs to the most dangerous part of the river one snowy morning to throw in a wish rock, she is so fast that no one sees what happens when she disappears. At that very moment, in another part of the woods, a shadow fox is born: half of the spirit world, half of the animal world. She, too, is fast, and she senses danger. When Jules goes to throw one last wish rock into the river for her lost sister, the human and shadow worlds collide with unexpected consequences.

The book has been written by Kathi Appelt (Newbery and National Book Award finalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee) and Alison McGhee (New York Times bestseller). It is written in alternate voices, the two foxes, Jules and Sylvie. It's a heartbreaking and charming tale about the bond between two sisters left alone after the death of their father and mother. This is a beautiful story for readers aged 9-11 years that shouldn't be read without a box of tissues.

7. 'A Friend in the Dark,' by Pascal Ruter

A heartwarming and funny story about the power of friendship, perfect for fans of Frank Cottrell Boyce, Jacqueline Wilson and Lara Williamson. Victor is a failure at everything – school, girls, making his dad feel better about his mother having left them. When Marie-Jose, the smartest girl in the class and musical prodigy, starts helping him with his maths homework, there must be something she wants in return.

This poignant and very sensitive novel for readers aged 12-15 is above all a story about friendship and how the strength of bonds with others can get you through the worst of things. When Marie begins to lose her sight, the finding of Victor as a true friend helps her to clear many hurdles.

A lovely story that boys and girls will enjoy.  

8. 'The Turnkey,' by Alison Rushby

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London's Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

While superficially, some might see this as a simple story about ghosts, it is much more. The real focus is on a clever and strong female character (yes, she's a ghost but...) who spends most of her time settling disputes and listening to grievances to keep the souls at rest. Boys should enjoy the book as well. 

The book is ideal for mid-primary readers. The suspense and mystery with its supernatural plot, will capture the interest of varied readers. Suitable for readers aged 9-12.