Reading To Learn

 Saturday, 1 December 2012


Learning To Read On The Day You're Born



          I remember my mother being horrified by a woman she met at a bus-stop, who complained that her ten year old son’s school was always ‘belly-aching’ about his low reading age.
          “What’s the matter with ‘em?” the woman asked. “He’s got until he’s sixteen to learn to read.”
          The woman shared what it seems is a common view – that reading is something learned during school hours, beginning at the age of five.
          I shared this view until recently. I believed I started learning to read when I began school
          I picked up reading as rapidly as it’s possible to do so. I don’t remember having any difficulty with it. Even such traps as ‘ough’ being pronounced ‘off’, ‘ow’ and ‘uff’ in different words didn’t hold me up for long, so eager was I to be able to read stories for myself.
          I was a very bright kid, eh? Ten out of ten, a gold star and a tick for me!
          Well, I was a bright kid, but I now think that my ease in learning to read had little to do with my being bright, nor did I start learning when I began school.
Michael Halliday
          In fact, most credit is due to my mother, and her surprising grasp of Functional Grammar (despite never having heard of it.)
          I’ve been hearing a lot about Functional Grammar lately, mostly from my cousin, Alan Hess, who teaches English in German speaking Switzerland. (You can see Alan's blog about FG here.)
          Functional Grammar is based on the ideas of Michael Halliday, and aims to teach foreign languages – and that foreign language of shapes called ‘reading’ – in the same way we all learned our first language. That is, by constant repetition and encouragement, by constant gentle correction, and the example of our peers and elders.
          We are, above all, social beings. We all want to fit in, to some extent, even the loners among us. Among ‘the lads’ a young man will swear, fart and swagger, to fit in. But that same young man, at his grandmother’s funeral, is very unlikely to behave in the same way. Instead, he will be demure and polite – to fit in.
          Language and reading, like getting rat-arsed and attending funerals, are social activities.
          Reading is a social activity too. I did not start learning to read at school, aged five. I started learning to read as soon as I could sit up, when my mother put a drawing pad in front of me, wrapped my fingers around a crayon, and showed me how to draw a cat.
          She also let me play with books (though she considered them almost sacred objects.) She let me use them as building blocks and tunnels for toy cars. So I learned that books were every day play-things.
          She bought me books and read aloud to me every day, following the words with her finger as I watched. Together we studied the pictures and talked about them.
          I learned that reading and being read to were pleasurable activities. And also, that enjoying books and reading was a way to please my mother.
          Both my parents loved books. Our house was crammed with reading, with bookcases to the ceiling in all rooms, and books piled on the stairs, on window-sills, under beds. My father read aloud to me too – he used to read out extracts from Jerome K Jerome. If I asked him one of my endless questions, he would often answer it by taking down a book.
          So I learned that reading was an adult thing I could aspire to: and that the answers to most questions could be found in books.
So is it any wonder that, at five, when I began school, I was powerfully motivated to learn to read? And that I approached reading lessons with the most positive of attitudes. Reading, after all, was not strange or difficult – it was something that my parents did every day, with great enjoyment. Gimme that John and Janet book! I’m going to crush reading!
          I was fitting in with my social group - my family. There are few more powerful spurs to learning a particular behaviour.
          My parents followed my reading progress with great interest, and encouraged, applauded and boasted about it. I was rewarded with stories, which I loved, and with more books. Is it any wonder I rapidly improved?
          In fact, my whole upbringing was designed to produce a child who wanted to read, and found it easy to learn. The hours spent drawing with my mother had practiced me in observing and memorising shapes. The hours of listening to stories had familiarised me with the shapes and sounds of many words, with narrative conventions and common phrases – which enabled me to guess at whole phrases from their context. Because I had been read to so much, I started school with a larger vocabulary than most five year olds. My parents' approval gave me a strong incentive.
          And, at a certain point, reading becomes its own reward – The Little Mermaid, (Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest of cornflowers and as clear as crystal…) The Jungle Books, Black Beauty…
          By contrast, I always struggled with maths – and so did my mother. Her attitude was, ‘I was always hopeless at maths. You’ve got that from me.’ I gave up on maths, much as she did. Now, in the light of Functional Grammar, I think this is more than a coincidence. Maths didn't offer me the same incentive scheme!
          Now remember that boy who had until he was sixteen to learn to read? I wonder what the attitude to books and reading was in his home?
          It’s very likely that there were no books in his house, and that he was never read to, or told stories. So when he began school, he was already handicapped compared to children from homes like mine. He had no familiarity with paper and pencils, no familiarity with the shapes of letters, or with phrases such as, ‘Once upon a time there was…’
          For him books were objects kept at school, and given out during lessons. Reading books was something that his family didn’t do. It was a difficult, and therefore wearisome, chore that he was made to do at school – a humiliating task that he stumbled through while the teacher criticised and bored classmates yawned. He would have struggled to see the point of it.
           And in rejecting reading and finding it 'boring' and 'stupid,' he was fitting in with his social group, his own family who, judging by his mother's bus-stop conversation, placed no importance on reading.
         Yet, when he was slow to master reading at school, he was labelled 'less able' and 'less academic' (and quite likely, in the privacy of the staff-room, a 'thicko'.) In fact, he was probably just as able, intellectually, to learn reading as I was, had he only recieved the same incentive, encouragement and reward from his social group.
           You learn to read when you go to school? – No. You start learning to read on the day you’re born.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


The Meaning of Mammoths



          Here’s a little domestic scene for you.

          A warm kitchen. The smell of baking. Sunlight spills through a window, lighting the bright scarlet petals of a potted geranium.

          In the centre of the room, a mother has fastened her small child into a high-chair so it can’t get away, while she croons to it. “Conjugate the irregular verb, to be. I am, you are, he is, she is, they are. How do we form the past tense? I was, you were, he was, she was, they were. And the future tense? I shall be – or should we use ‘will’? I will be, you will be, he will be…’

          This is how we all learned to speak our first language, isn’t it?

          Or try this.

          Mother (as she shows the child a banana): Do you want some banana? Do you? Banana? (Showing the banana again.) Banana. Mmm! (Pleased happy expression on her face, as she peels the banana.) Do you want a bite of banana? (Takes a bite of banana.) Mmm! Nice! Banana’s are nice! Do you want some? Do you want some? (Offering banana.)

          By the end of the meal, the child recognises the word, ‘banana’ and knows what object it is linked to. It also has an idea of what ‘want’ means.

          As far as I understand it (I don’t claim to be an expert) this is Functional Grammar in action. This is how we all learn our languages. (In exactly the same way my cat learned what the word 'brush' meant, after just two evenings, because he enjoyed being brushed so much. The word, the object and the experience united in his catty brain, never to be separated again.)

          Because language isn’t about rules of grammar. It isn’t about plu-perfects and subjunctives. It’s about communicating between members of a social group. At perhaps its simplest – but certainly not least important – level, its purpose is to enable a child to tell its mother it’s hungry.
          Language didn't evolve in classrooms, after all. It evolved on the savannah, and on the tundra. When it's cold and you're all hungry, it's vitally important to be able to tell your fellow gatherers exactly where that clump of reeds with the nutritious, starchy roots are to be found. And, when you're hunting a mammoth, who is pissed off, communicating the plan clearly to your fellow-hunters is more important than whether or not you split the infinitive.
          You might say that Traditional or Conventional Grammar is about proving how educated you are; and how well you've learned the rules - whereas language (and Functional Grammar) is about  meaning and communication. (Though the meaning it communicates may well be more than the sense of the words: social standing, for instance.)

          ‘Banana’ is a 'block of meaning.' In English, those sounds are attached to and signify a particular fruit.

          ‘Do you want’ is another block of meaning. It’s useful, because a great many other blocks of meaning can be clipped on to the end of it: an apple, a cup of tea, a sandwich, a pencil, a chair.

Do you want an apple?

                   a chair?

                           a cup of tea?

Mrs Price wants an apple

                       a chair

                                a cup of tea.

          In learning language in this way, the child is far from passive. It is not pinned in its high-chair (or behind a desk), memorising lists of vocabulary or learning rules about ‘describing words’ and ‘doing words’, because that's the task it's been given.
           The child doesn't even know it's learning. It is thoroughly engaged and involved in the world around it. The child wants that banana.  My cat really wanted to be brushed.

          The child learns because that’s what interested, curious intelligent creatures do – especially if there’s some kind of reward involved, such as food, praise or  respect.
          Learning, after all, is a survival trait.

          Introducing boredom to learning is like dosing someone with a tranquiliser and then expecting them to learn as well and as easily. 
          We’ve all experienced it: trying to complete a boring task is the mental equivalent of trying to shift a heavy weight or wade through deep mud. We do it, when we have to; but boredom isn't the best aid to learning.
          Adding confusion doesn’t improve matters.
‘This form of a verb is typically used for what is imagined, wished or possible. It is usually the same as the ordinary or indicative, except in the third person singular, where the normal –s ending is omitted. In English this form usually denotes a formal tone.’  OED.
          None of you, of course, fail to recognise the subjunctive from this description. (What I want to know is, once you've removed the 'imagined, wished or possible,' what's left?)
          More than one teacher of my acquaintance has told me that they’ve taught children who almost hear nothing from their families except, “Shut up,’ and ‘Get out my way.’ That's their vocabulary.
          Another told me, ‘The children I teach get everything and nothing from their parents – everything in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets, and nothing in the way of  attention or affection.” The vocabulary of these children is, 'Go away, I'm busy.'
          I count myself hugely lucky to be able to say of my parents that they gave me everything and nothing – everything in the way of attention and affection, and nothing in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets. 
          Lucky children like me rapidly acquire ‘blocks of meaning’, and rapidly learn how these blocks can be taken apart and fitted together with other blocks, because the child hears these blocks of meanings used around it all the time. It observes how the people around it respond to these sounds. Often the blocks of meaning are carefully demonstrated to the child, as when a parent shows the child a toy, names the toy, and asks if the child wants it. (‘Heres Teddy. Do you want Teddy? Would you like to play with Teddy?)
          The child finds that it can exert power over its surroundings and family by learning to ask for what it wants. The family reward the child by being pleased, and praising its efforts. 
          There may be some bargaining between the parent and child. ‘What’s the magic word? – Say ‘please’ first.’ – ‘If you’re good today, we may go to the park tomorrow.’
           They also teach the child that there are different ways of speaking - that 'I want' is good enough for Mum and Dad, but 'Please may I - ?' and 'Thank you,' must always be used with other people. The child may be told, 'That's a naughty word. Daddy and Mummy may say it when they're angry, but you must never say it.'
          This is not merely Mummy and Daddy being mealy-mouthed. This is Mummy and Daddy teaching their child that social communication has many variations, and you must often change your words to suit the context. An example: a man entering pub is greeted with a shout of, "You (Expletive deleted.") The shout may have come from an enemy or his greatest friend. The meaning is entirely dependent on context - and might not be acceptable anywhere other than the pub.
 
          The children we call 'bright' are often those children lucky enough to live in a stimulating environment, where there is a lot to interest them, and where their interest is rewarded and stimulated anew. ‘You like the cat?” says the parent. ‘Then let’s look at lions, tigers, leopards – let’s mention the Ancient Egyptions worshipping them – and let’s have a look at wolves and elephants for good measure.’
          It doesn’t really matter whether the child remembers all it's told – sufficient that it is interested, and finds learning to be a positive, rewarding experience that it will be eager to engage in again.

          But the question is, when you meet a bright, chattery child, who gleefully lectures you on dinosaurs or the habits of ants – is it because that child is ‘naturally’ more intelligent than its ‘duller’ neighbour who doesn’t even know what dinosaurs are?
          And if that's so, how do you explain that the child who can't remember anything taught in class, can effortlessly learn countless categories of Packemon creatures?
          Is the difference, perhaps, entirely due to the amount of encouragement and stimulus the child receives from its social group, whether that's its family or its peer-group in the playground?

          And what is the best way, in formal education, of teaching both these children to read, and speak another language?

***

          Blott is away for the next two weeks, sunning himself in Egypt.
          But here - to please Madwippet - is a clip of Functional Grammar in action. Betsy has mastered 300 words and their meanings!




     Betsy's owners, we're told, didn't initially try to train her. They found that she picked up the names of objects and associated them with the object simply by observation and repetition... It's estimated that she has the intelligence of, at least, a 2-year old child.

          And, if you're interested, you can find more about Functional Grammar, and teaching material here

The Importance of Story



          Okay, Christmas is over. Frivol is over. I want to return to the subject I was talking about before the mince-pies.

          Let’s be clear about one thing. Learning to read is hard.

          I remember a friend, a very educated woman, talking about a branch of her family that she obviously didn’t waste much love on. She’d heard that a distant twig of this branch had become a teacher. “It’s the first I knew that they could read!” she said.

          I’ve heard lots of variants on this joke. The subtext is: reading is easy, it’s kid’s stuff, something everyone can do. Therefore, if you can’t read, you’re stupid. I used to be a volunteer tutor at an Adult Literacy class, and I know how much this sneer hurts adults who find reading difficult.

          And it’s based on a fallacy. Reading is very, very hard.

          When someone immediately reads a sentence they’ve never seen before, they are, almost instantaneously, cracking a complex code, and converting shapes into sounds.
          A musician who sight-reads music is rightly admired, but someone who sight-reads a sentence is doing something only slightly less difficult.
          Because it’s a relatively common skill doesn’t make it easy. Driving averagely well is also a common skill, but no one assumes that’s it’s a doddle to learn or that it’s ’kids’stuff.’

          I’ve read that it takes about eight years to learn to read fluently. Because those of us who master the skill usually start very young, we tend not to remember its many difficulties.
          Those who don’t learn so quickly enter secondary school with a low reading age, and education for them becomes a worsening struggle. They’re made to feel failures, even if they are not told so outright. Hence the acute embarrassment often felt by my friends in the Adult Literacy Class.

          Our education system expects children to enter secondary school with a reading-age matching their chronological age, and, in secondary school you don’t ‘learn to read,’ you ‘read to learn.’

          If you can’t read, your formal education more or less comes to a halt. Schools become Aversion Therapy Units, putting children off education for life.

Brunel
          I have always revelled in the knowledge that if something interests me – Neanderthals, say, or brochs or rievers – ‘there’ll be a book on it.’ If I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones who went through school with a high reading age, I probably wouldn’t even have heard of most of the things that interest me. And though I haven’t done much with my fluent reading, how can we ever know what potential is being lost in the thousands of children we fail to teach to read fluently? How many mute inglorious Miltons and potential Brunels are we throwing away? It’s a huge waste and a national shame.

          Before Christmas, I was blogging about some of the teaching methods being developed, based on Michael Halliday’s theories. These methods aim to bridge the skill-gap between children who start school with thousands of hours of experience with books and language, and those children who start with much less. (To read the earlier blogs on this subject, go here.)

          One way is for schools to provide the experience that might be lacking at home. Instead of being constantly tested and graded, children should be read to, and told stories. Poems should be learned, songs sung.

          I’ve heard adults say children ‘waste their time in school. They only listen to stories.’

          Hearing stories is not a waste of time. Stories have, for millennia taught communication. They enlarge vocabulary and range of expression. A child who learns how to structure a fairy-story will understand better, years later, how to structure an essay – and even, how to order their own thoughts to make better decisions.

          And all this story-telling and poetry listening should be as pleasurable as possible – because, if it isn’t, then the children switch off their brains, and you’re wasting your time and breath.

          Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that story-telling has been used, for millennia, as a teaching aid – to gain attention, to hold attention, and to be memorable. (The Good Samaritan, for instance, The Ant and the Grasshopper – even The Little Engine Who Could.)

          I quote the Ontario Ministery of Education (these methods have been successful in Canada.) Becoming a reader is a continuous process that begins with the development of oral language skills and leads, over time, to independent reading. Oral language – the ability to speak and listen – is a vital foundation for reading success.’ 
Illustration: Kai Nielsen
        And where that foundation hasn’t been provided at home, the school must provide it. Tell them stories! The Brothers Grimm, The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man. That masterpiece of suspense, The Billy Goats Gruff.

          This is not ‘just play.’ This is not ‘wasting time.’ The frequent hearing and discussion of these old stories extends vocabulary, and demonstrates a whole spectrum of possible emotions and responses, from grief to gratitude, from rage to forgiveness, from fortitude and determination, to despair, to devotion. They teach pronunciation, rhythm, alliteration – and various modes of speech, from the everyday to the archaic and formal. Stories do all this, and more, and they do it pleasurably, so that children beg for more.

          Gradgrind was, as Dickens pointed out, wrong. Stories are not mere entertainment, they are not a waste of time.

          Story-telling is the seed-bed of eloquence and literacy.

The Little Bad Wolf and the Big Chocolate Cake



David Rose
          Last week I was talking about the importance of story-telling  to literacy.

          But more formal lessons are important too. This link will take you to David Rose’s site, where he explains some of the techniques he’s used, in Australia, to ‘accelerate learning’ across all backgrounds and ages.

          First, the teacher prepares a text.

          This means choosing a text which interests and engages the students and reading it with them. Terms new to the students are explained, and any background or context needed is also supplied. For instance, a wolf may be big and bad, but what is a wolf anyway? Students may never have heard of one before. (My aunt taught Black Country children of primary age who didn’t know what a cow was. They knew only one word for any kind of four-legged animal: ‘dog.’ I wish I could believe this would be impossible now, but I fear it's not.)

Not a dog. Pig fancier.
          After preparing the text comes a detailed reading of it. The teacher gives students a lot of help in identifying words and groups of words.
           For instance, say the class are studying the story of the three little pigs. The teacher might say: 'Let's look at the title first. That's this line at the top. It tells you what the story's about. It says, 'The Three Little Pigs.' Who can find the word 'pigs'?
     "Yes! That's right. It's the word at the end. Let's highlight it.
      "What kind of pigs are they?
     "Right! Excellent! They are little pigs. Can we find the word that says 'little?' Great! - let's highlight that one too.'
          And so on. Lots of looking at the text, lots of praise, lots of repetition of a fairly simple task. But the repetition is driving the lesson home. If you repeatedly search for and look at something, you are going to remember it. The students are being 'laddered' to improved reading. You don't leap from the ground to the roof of your house in one mighty bound - but you can climb up there, one rung at a time, on a ladder. And you're more likely to keep climbing if, at every step, you're given reason to feel pleased with yourself.

The late Michel Thomas
          This has a lot in common with Michel Thomas' method of teaching language. Thomas insisted that the student should be completely relaxed and stress-free. They should not attempt to remember what they were being taught, or do homework. It was the teacher's responsibility, Thomas said, to structure the lessons in such a way that the student learned. Any kind of stress or anxiety, he believed, makes learning harder. Haven't we all experienced that? I know that I can type fast and accurately if I'm alone, but if someone's watching me, I might as well be typing in mittens

          Above, I've used 'Three Little Pigs' as an example, and assumed that the children are quite young.  A considerably more difficult text might be used with teenagers, one far beyond their reading-age, but not beyond their comprehension, if all the references, metaphors and irony are explained.
          (Older, well-read people tend to forget, I think, about the perfectly natural gaps in the knowledge of younger folk.)

          Students highlight words and word-groups. My cousin asks his students to identify ‘Who or What’ words in red, ‘Process’ words in green, and ‘Circumstance’ words in blue.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs.

                  The little red hen and her three chicks baked a cake.

(Not having studied with Alan, I may not have this quite right, but you get the idea.)
          Students would be given detailed help with each of the above sentences. 'Now this sentence says that the little red hen and her three little chicks baked a cake. What's a cake? How do you bake one, do you know? (Either the students or the teacher explain these things.)
          'Now, what was it they baked? Yes, a cake! Can you find the word, 'cake' right at the end of the sentence? Can you find 'a cake'? Very good! Let's highlight that in red.'

          Once students are more familiar with the text, the sentences are taken apart and played with. Words are cut out, moved around, and used to make new sentences – either on pieces of paper or a computer screen. The students are spared the chore of writing and can concentrate on the words.

          Once upon a time there were three little pigs and three big wolves.

          The little red hen and her three fluffy chicks baked a big chocolate cake with chocolate icing.

          You can mix it up.
           Once upon a time there were three fluffy big wolves who baked a little chocolate hen.
 

          My cousin tells me that his students enormously enjoy this, producing long, long sentences. The pigs can be little and pink and dirty, the wolves can be big and grey and hairy and fanged. The cake can have chocolate icing, and sprinkles, and candles, and cream and a red bow. Without realising it, by simple repetition and gentle correction, the students are learning how language bolts together. The little red hen can become a giant blue hen, or an enormous green cat. The chicks can be yellow as well as fluffy, and there can be three of them or three thousand.


           Sentences can be turned round. A tasty chocolate cake was baked by three little chicks and a little red hen. There were three little pigs once upon a time.
          Sentences can be formed by words on a card (or by dragging words about on a computer screen.
          The farmer rides his horse.
          The horse rides his farmer.
         Such reversals cause great amusement - these games are fun!
          The cards might have folding sections - or if the computer might offer a choice of other phrasings. You can then unfold a section - or drag in a phrase - to make:
          The horse was ridden by the farmer
           The farmer was riding his horse.
           The more I learn about these methods, the more I learn how complex and demanding devising suitable teaching materials is - but with this approach, the onus is on the teacher to make learning easy and relaxed for the student. And it works!

           Spelling is tackled by being broken into ‘startings’ and ‘endings.’

          So you can take the starting, ‘str –‘ and add -eet, -ing, -ap, -ong.

         To the starting 'ch', using cards or computer, you can add - ick, -urch, -um, -ap, -ina, -ip.
          The teacher draws attention to these 'startings' and 'endings' repeatedly. Repeatedly. Drip, drip, drip. It's the teacher's job to take the trouble, not the student's job to memorise by rote.
          The colour-coding and the use of images and games where words are moved to match the pictures exploit the fact that our memories are far more visual than verbal.
  

          Once the students can all read the passage fluently and understand it, they move on to writing.

          They are set the task of writing a passage closely based on the one they’ve studied in such detail. Notes are made on the board, and the students collaborate, supporting each other, and being supported by the teacher.
          They discuss the purpose of their writing - remember, reading and writing are social activities. Is the purpose of their piece to instruct, to pass on factual information, or to describe atmosphere or feelings?

          Using the notes, and working together, the students write their own version of the text.

          Next they move on to individual writing. Working alone, they write their own version of the text they’ve worked on as a group. Stronger students may move to this stage earlier, while the teacher continues to help the weaker ones.

          The final stage is Independent Writing. Here each student is set the task of writing a new passage, but one similar to that they’ve been working on - that is, a series of instructions or a description. They will use many of the words and phrases they have learned during the previous stages.

          The students then move on to a new text, and the cycle above is repeated. Of course, many of the words and phrases they’ve already learned will be used in the new text, and the students’ knowledge will be reinforced. Their confidence will increase as they encounter words and phrases they recognise.

Alan Hess
          This method has been found highly effective in both Canada and Australia – and my cousin, Alan Hess, has seen for himself, over the last four years, what an improvement can be made in the standards of both literacy in students’ own language and the speaking and understanding of a foreign language.

          In a relatively short time, it ‘ladders’ children up from having weak language and literacy skills to a point where they can ‘read to learn’ with confidence.

           And also read for pleasure, of course. What writer could fail to be enthused by the idea of a growing market of eager readers?

          Just for interest, here's a link to a fascinating Horizon programme about Michel Thomas and his teaching methods.


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