Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.

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LOL. What Exactly Do You Mean?

There are certain ‘truths’ which become established through simple repetition; if we see and hear them often enough they must be true. One such truth is that the more technological society becomes, the less literate its citizens will be. This is the kind of thinking which had the crime-writer Ruth Rendell claiming in a Daily Telegraph article this week, without a shred of evidence, that reading was becoming a minority activity, something which she said ‘strikes terror into her heart’ (thereby employing the kind of hyperbole which I hope she is able to avoid in her writing).

SMS usage in Pakistan from 2007-2013

The number of text messages sent by phone users in Pakistan 2007-2013

This is the same near-hysterical reaction which greeted the advent of text-messaging or Short Message Service (SMS) in the 1980s, and which has accompanied it ever since. Developed in the Franco-German GSM corporation by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Gillebaert, the idea was to transport messages on the telephone signalling paths when there was no other traffic, and in so doing make optimum use of existing resources. In order to fit existing formats, message length had to be restricted to 128 bytes (later improved to 160 seven-bit characters), though based on his personal observations of postcard and Telex messages, Hillebrand argued that 160 characters were enough to express most messages succinctly. Today, SMS is the most widely used electronic data application across the globe.

In this TED talk from April 2013, the linguist John McWhorter argues that not only is it a myth that texting is destroying the English language, but the mistake we make is in thinking of texting as a form of writing at all. In his opinion, it is more closely associated with speech, and as such its informal structure is quite appropriate. Far from being a dumbed-down form of language, in the ‘fingered speech’ which we call texting we are seeing what McWhorter calls an ’emergent complexity’ in the ways that writing and speaking overlap. Another important theme which emerges from his talk, and which he shares with David Crystal (see later), is that most reasonably-informed people, including young people, are still quite capable of distinguishing between formal and informal language, and recognise the need to switch between them for different purposes, something which traditional grammarians used to refer to as ‘appropriate register’.

If McWhorter believes that ‘texting’ is a kind of sophisticated amalgamation of speech and writing, the eminent Professor of Linguistics David Crystal goes further in a way, by arguing that texting is also good for the development of language skills: in order to express yourself precisely and unambiguously in a very limited space, you need to understand something of the structures of formal grammar and the rules of spelling. In the most definitive study of the phenomenon to date, Txtng. The Gr8 Dbt., Crystal shows how to interpret its mix of pictograms, logograms, abbreviations, symbols, and wordplay, looks at how it works in different languages, and explores the ways similar devices have been used in different eras. It will surprise many to discover for example that the texting system of conveying sounds and meaning goes back a long way, all the way in fact to the origins of writing – and he concludes that far from hindering literacy, texting may turn out to help it. Here he is on the BBC TV programme It’s Only a Theory in 2009, debunking a few of the myths about texting,

A few common misconceptions about text messaging, according to David Crystal:-

1. Texting is done by kids only. It doesn’t take much time or effort to demonstrate that this just isn’t the case.

2. Kids fill their text messages with abbreviations. In fact, only around 10% of words used in text messages are abbreviated.

3. These abbreviations are ‘a modern thing’, invented by kids. Not true.

4. Since kids are leaving letters out, they don’t know how to spell. As Crystal sees it, if you don’t know how to spell it, you don’t know what to leave out.

5. This poor spelling finds its way into essays and examinations, leading to a generation of illiterates. Again, not true. Most young people recognise that text language is inappropriate in the context of formal assignments.

6. Most text messages are pointless. Think about it. Even the  proverbial ‘I’m on the train’ text has a point, and the point may not be explicit. ‘I’m on the train’ can often mean ‘I’m thinking about you at the moment’.

A more modern relative of text messaging of course is Twitter, the social networking site which requires users to ‘tweet’ a message in 140 characters or fewer. Much has been written about the benefits of Twitter in the classroom, for both students and teachers, but until now this has focussed on the social aspects of the medium, specifically on the importance of networking, sharing ideas, showcasing work and finding resources. Much less has been said about the benefits of tweeting in terms of language development. If you believe, as I do, that a crucial aspect of reading, writing and speaking effectively is the ability to summarise, you begin to understand the wider significance of texts and tweets. However, that is another post for another day. In the meantime remember that, as educators, our role is to help young people to a better understanding of the medium, not to control the message.

Further Reading:

Download the Creative Education Twitter Guide for Teachers here.

Testing Time For Teachers?

“In defining literacy for the 21st century we must consider the changing forms of language which our children and young people will experience and use. Accordingly, the definition takes account of factors such as the speed with which information is shared and the ways it is shared. The breadth of the definition is intended to ‘future proof’ it. Within Curriculum for Excellence, therefore, literacy is defined as:

the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful. “

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English Principles and Practice

When ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish Government report on the findings of the Review of Teacher Education, was published in 2011, one of its more controversial recommendations was the introduction of literacy and numeracy assessments for aspiring teachers, a strange suggestion – at least to my mind – in a country which already has an all-graduate profession, and where the overwhelming majority of new entrants has a Higher English qualification. Just over two and a half years later, the tests, which appear to be voluntary, have just been published on an Education Scotland website and greeted with predictable  media headlines such as this one in the Scotsman newspaper –  ‘TEACHERS TO BE GIVEN TESTS IN STANDARDS DRIVE‘ – thereby cementing in the collective consciousness an assumed relationship between the introduction of a test and the raising of those elusive ‘standards’. There already exists a set of ‘Standards for Registration’ for anyone entering the teaching profession in Scotland, and very good they are too. In fact they were revised recently, and you can find them on the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s website, which is where I would have thought anyone aspiring to a teaching career in Scotland, and with a modicum of ambition, would look first.

And so to the tests themselves (raising along the way the question of whether it is ever acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction). Despite the very broad definition of literacy in Education Scotland’s own CfE literacy framework document (see above), the new literacy tests consist of a very small number of questions on spelling, punctuation and grammar, such as this one, where you are asked to choose the correctly punctuated version of a short piece of prose.

Test.jpg

When you have clicked on your answer, the following text appears:-

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As you can see, in this case the correct version of the sentence is number 3, for the reasons given. Except that it isn’t. None of the sentences is correct. The comma before the direct speech would suggest that the prefect was instructing the class to whisper the words ‘This noise is unacceptable’, which I don’t think she was. The comma in fact should be a full stop. You see, the problem with this kind of test is that what you are testing is pretty complex, and even when you think you have nailed it you are never quite sure what you are actually testing. Then of course a decision has to made about what percentage of correct answers makes a person ‘literate’ enough. At the end of another section of the tests – ‘confusing words quiz’ – for example, where you are invited to choose the correct version in context between two homonyms or similarly spelled words, a score of three from seven is deemed to be ‘reasonable’. How reasonable do you think 3 correct answers out of  7 is?

If this is a diagnostic tool to help aspiring teachers  judge for themselves which aspects of their language skills they need to work on – and the fact that the tests are voluntary and tucked away on a website which took me more than half an hour to find would suggest that it is – then all well and good. It may prove to be a useful resource in addition to those which are already out there. Unless I am missing something, the fact that the tests are not compulsory would also suggest that the government has rejected the recommendation to introduce some kind of additional ‘entry level’ examination, and decided on a different approach. If so, all credit to them – the hazardous nature of setting such a test has been demonstrated above. Standards will not be raised by introducing more tests, but through an understanding on the part of anyone entering the profession that their first commitment is to their own continuing programme of learning, and an acceptance of three basic principles:

  • We are learners first, teachers second.
  • Good communication is at the heart of all learning and teaching.
  • We are all learning to be more literate.

“Candidates for teaching should undertake diagnostic assessments of their competence in both literacy and numeracy. The threshold established for entry should allow for weaknesses to be addressed by the student during the course. A more demanding level should be set as a prerequisite for competence to teach.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future: Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland, 2011


Homework

To try the tests for yourself go to to the Aspiring Teachers website.

To read more about the vagaries of grammar teaching and testing visit this excellent blog by language expert David Crystal.

For a list of free websites to help with the development of English language skills click here.

No Trivial Pursuit

triviumWhen Martin Robinson set off in mental pursuit of the kind of education he wanted for his young daughter, he was using a benchmark effective teachers should always have at the forefront of their thoughts – would this be what I would want for my own child? As a successful AHT and Advanced Skills Teacher in London, the former drama teacher’s own formal education had been an uneasy affair, leading to frustration and an early departure from a school system which could not always accommodate his naturally rebellious and challenging nature, an experience which would ultimately shape his own approach to teaching what he describes as ‘that most subversive of subjects’.

Given the subject-matter, Trivium 21C: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past could so easily have turned into a dry treatise on the history of education in the western world, but in fact it could hardly be further removed. Through a combination of wit, humour, diligence and erudition, Robinson travels back to the Greco-Roman concept of the ‘trivium’ – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – traces its history through the ages by way of the major philosophers, and examines in detail his own supposition that the same principles could apply equally well today, in the context of the technologically-enhanced classroom of the internet age. In order to do so, he reckons that he must first address the question, ‘What is the purpose of education?’ His answer is a complex one, reaching far beyond the accumulation of grades, paper qualifications and the currently popular utilitarian concept of readiness for work, yet he is able to summarise it in deceptively simple terms.

“For my daughter, independence – an ability to understand and find solutions – would seem to be a good thing, and I would like her to love learning for its own sake. We are lucky to live in a culture that recognises the rights of women to be educated as free citizens. I would like her to be educated to spend her time in worthwhile activities, including a pursuit of the pure forms of higher culture. However, I would also like her to have experience and skills in the so-called inferior arts, such as an engagement with a craft in which the authentic experience of doing is as important as thinking…….

The three ways of the trivium – knowing, questioning and communicating – had come together as the basis of a great education. This is what I want for my daughter. I want her to know about things and how to do things. I want her to be able to question, both to find out more and to realise that some things aren’t known, can’t be known, or aren’t fully understood. I want her to communicate about things she has discovered, surmised, or created in the way of an open hand to the world . Finally, I want all this to have a purpose, which can be summed up by the phrase ‘a good life’ (because I certainly don’t want her to have a bad one). When I look at the three arts of the trivium, I wonder why it was beyond the wit of my school to give me this grounding, and why it shouldn’t be the grounding for a great education now. Surely there is nothing that could stop the trivium from being the foundation of schooling for my daughter in the 21st century?”

More astute readers will have noticed that the three original elements of the trivium – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – have become ‘knowing’, ‘questioning’ and ‘communicating’ respectively, though the writer himself arrives at these modern definitions only after a thorough examination of each of the concepts. Adopting the modern-day trivium, he reasons, would enable us to put an end to the sterile ‘debate’ which has so-called traditionalists and progressives arguing over the ‘skills’ versus ‘knowledge’ curriculum, as if the two were mutually exclusive, and instead recognise that all three elements, including the much-neglected art of rhetoric, are of equal importance when providing an all-round education. As a teacher of drama, and a highly successful one at that, Robinson is deeply persuasive about the importance of rhetoric, which he variously describes as communicating, producing, sharing, expressing, arguing, teaching or performing. There can be no critical analysis without knowledge, while knowledge, understanding and creativity are of little value without the demonstration of it to others, an idea which chimes with Seth Godin‘s notion that what matters is the production of art (see previous post).

“The art of dialectic therefore covers a very wide range of important activities in teaching and learning. In the context of whatever they are studying, students are taught the specific grammar that gives them structure and knowledge. This is taught in a way that also opens up the possibility of criticism, which in turn opens up the possibility for dialectic. Therefore, students should become well versed in being able to analyse and challenge, whether it be through logic, scientific method, or debate and discussion. Controversies should be welcomed and addressed. In classrooms, we should see the skills of deduction, induction, abduction, analysis, criticism, debate, argument, challenge, and dialogue. Added to this is the opportunity offered through logos: students should have quality time to develop their own enthusiasms and whether, like Sherlock Holmes, they like to play the violin, or whatever they decide to pursue, ways need to be found to ensure activities like these are recognised as being more than mere hobbies at the fringes of the curriculum.”

I think Martin Robinson has produced a manifesto for education – or more precisely for schooling – which is of huge significance and well worthy of consideration, regardless of one’s own education, politics, class, culture or belief system calvinwhy(he himself is an atheist). At times he paints quite a gloomy picture of the way schools are in Britain at the moment – ‘The current education and assessment system does not like doubt; it has its targets and assessment objectives. Teachers teach children what to think, what to write, and how to write it down for endless tests, which are intended to prove that they know what to think. Doubt is treated as an imposter; despite the language of opening minds, many are in fact being closed down.’ – yet he is optimistic that things can be turned around without adopting a new paradigm – ‘We do not need a new model; our system already has the capability to improve our existing educational landscape. This is truly radical: it is from the root and also progressive.’

Mmmm. Despite the reminder that radical means ‘fundamental’ as well as ‘progressive’, I don’t know that I necessarily share his optimism, and I wonder whether the educational system we have is truly capable of producing young people (and I mean all of them, not just a few) who are truly independent thinkers, capable of joining up the often disparate experiences they encounter while following a secondary school timetable. If you have ever had the opportunity to shadow such a student over the course of a school day or a indeed a school week, where he or she will encounter anything up to fifteen discrete subjects, you will realise what a tall order that is. The ways in which a young person makes sense of his or her schooling, and the question of responsibility for ensuring a smooth and progressive journey, could be the subject of many more books and blogposts. Martin Robinson’s daughter is fortunate to have such a father, teacher and mentor  to call her own. Would that every child could say the same.

“Schools should ensure that opportunities to perform and communicate are at the heart of what they do. Performance means making theatre, speech making, poetry readings, dance, sports events, community spectacles, art, and so on. Some schools run their own theatres, concerts, radio and TV stations, film companies, multimedia platforms, publishing houses, school newspapers, web pages, Twitter communities, blogs, computer programmes, art galleries, and workshops, with the philosopher kids (the term Robinson has coined for young people in the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom) developing their communicative skills through performance. This should be about creating content, not capital. In order to do this, schools should use their partnerships with local communities, businesses and individuals, as well as their heritage, history and cultural institutions.”

This review has also been posted on the Amazon website.

SPAG Balls

The introduction this week of so-called ‘SPaG’ tests (spelling, punctuation and grammar) for 11-year-olds in England takes me right back to my own Primary 7 class of 42 pupils and Jimmy Bowie, a ‘great teacher’ whoseteacher-hits-pupil reputation extended well before him. It was a spartan regime of mental arithmetic in the morning and English language – parsing and analysis – in the afternoon. Friday afternoon was the exception, when a couple of hours of silent reading (bliss for some, including me) or drawing, provided an outlet for what limited creativity we were allowed to possess or demonstrate. Spelling was generally reserved for homework, twenty words a night completely out of context, and one of the belt (or strap) next day for every mistake. Tam McGill, a fearsome character who sat in front of the teacher’s desk, where he was regularly subjected to public humiliation, had been kept back a year for failing to meet the required ‘level of intelligence’, which in those days was deemed to be fixed for life and could be measured by a simple short-answer question paper. Now he was chasing the world record for the number of beltings in a single day. The ‘incentive’ to learn was based largely on fear, which many, including our working-class parents, wrongly called ‘respect’. I could go on, and run the risk of turning this into a Monty Python sketch, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Kids enthusiastically greeting the new SPaG tests

I write this from the point of view of one of the ‘winners’ of that particular lottery. I actually enjoyed the analysis of sentences and the parsing of individual words. I loved the problem-solving logic of it, the neat structures. It seemed that once you had cracked the code, you couldn’t lose. For others, however, it would remain a mystery, one of the undiscovered wonders of the world. Later, I would go on to spend a significant part of my life as an English teacher, engaged in that same metaphorical mud-wrestle with language and literature and learning. Has my experience taught me that grammar isn’t really important after all? Absolutely not. An understanding of grammar – if not necessarily the terms of grammar – is the key to language development; without it, a person’s ability to articulate and communicate will be seriously restricted. I really believe that my old P7 teacher’s intentions were good – he knew the importance of grammar – but the mistake was in believing that you can force anyone to learn anything, and it is especially naive to think that you can make them all learn the same thing at the same time. Like many others, I fear that, rather than ‘raising standards’, the re-introduction of such simplistic standardised tests distracts teachers from their real purpose and encourages teaching to the test. But since grammar is about rules – one of which is that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did – I would like to offer a few simple rules of my own about the learning and teaching of grammar:

  • the rules of grammar should be learned within the context of language used for specific purposes and not as a separate ‘subject’
  • understanding grammar is as much about hearing as it is about seeing
  • grammar should be learned through engagement with increasingly difficult, high-quality texts, both written and spoken, and appropriate for individual learners
  • terminology should be introduced as and when appropriate, and preferably when the learner is curious to know
  • using language in creative ways does not have to wait for a complete understanding of the rules (in fact a complete understanding of the rules is not possible since they change with time and circumstance)
  • if you are a teacher, lead by example and demonstrate the benefits of a good command of language

Further Reading

For a much more informed and articulate criticism of the SPaG tests, read language expert David Crystal’s excellent blogpost here. You might also enjoy this piece from Year 6 teacher, Miss Smith.

For tips on some of the trickier points of English grammar check out this Oxford Dictionaries page.

For a comprehensive list of tools and websites to help you develop understanding of spelling, punctuation and grammar see my list of English Language Sites at the top of the page.

If you’re feeling confident about your own expertise in this area, try the BBC ‘Ten Questions on Grammar’ challenge here.

To find out more about how Scotland currently monitors literacy standards through the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, visit the SQA website here.

If you are responsible for staff development, and are concerned about teacher confidence with spelling, punctuation and grammar, why not contact me to discuss my ‘Mind Your Language’ workshops and seminars (see Teacher Training and Development link at top of page).

Write It Out Loud

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of reading aloud as a means of developing understanding as well as promoting enjoyment in reading. It is commonly accepted that when children are read to on a regular basis by an adult, their chances of success in formal education increase dramatically; there are very few children who do not like listening to a story or a poem being read to them with great expression by an able reader. Some of the best teachers I know will read to their students daily, demonstrating to them the benefits and the joy of that shared experience.

However, there is another, arguably more significant role for reading aloud which is often overlooked, and that is its use by students themselves as a strategy to improve writing. Teachers seem more reluctant in the age of technology to encourage reading aloud as a strategy, particularly for older students, though ironically it is the ready availability of technology which makes recording and listening simpler than ever before. As this presentation from Peter Walsh at McMaster University in Canada neatly demonstrates, for those students who do not yet have a firm grasp of language and grammar, reading their work aloud, either to themselves or to someone else, allows them to hear their weaknesses, whereas simply re-reading with the eyes often has little or no effect when it comes to better writing. A further benefit to this technique is that when the developing writer is struggling to find the right expression, reading or speaking their thoughts aloud before committing them to paper can often make the difference between acceptable and accomplished.

Taking the Metro or Jumping on the Bandwagon?

Anyone taking the bus or train to work in the UK this morning would have been confronted by this headline in the popular free newspaper the Metro, creating the impression (again) that our schools are currently populated by armies of illiterate teachers who can hardly distinguish their anus from their olecranon. So let me try to put the ‘problem’ into perspective. One of my many responsibilities in a previous role as a DHT in a large secondary comprehensive school was to read, comment on and sign the twice-yearly reports for my year group – around 250 students. In the course of doing that I would regularly have to return to members of staff who had errors in their reports and ask, as diplomatically as possible, that they be re-written, to save potential embarrassment all round (Note that ’embarrassment’ is a tricky word to spell). It is a task I did not enjoy. Was it ignorance on the part of the teacher or simply the pressure of deadlines and a hundred and one other things on their minds? In my view it was much of the latter and a little bit of the former.

“Evidence presented to the Review suggested that a small, but none-the-less significant, number of initial teacher education students lack some of the fundamental attributes to become good teachers, including limited interpersonal skills and basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy. Although the evidence was largely impressionistic and applied only to a minority of students, the concern was persistent and widespread and needs to be addressed.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future – Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland January 2011

Teachers do, occasionally, make mistakes when writing reports. But we all mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do, yet teachers, uniquely it seems among the population at large, are not allowed to. They must be above reproach, infallible, superhuman, an expectation all too easily taken up by the mainstream media. Newspapers, and newspaper journalists themselves you may have noticed, also make mistakes, despite having internal mechanisms to ensure that they don’t, a point not lost on independent ICT consultant and founder of L4L Leon Cych, who contacted the Metro and asked them about their newspaper and the role of the sub-editor. You can hear the resulting conversation here (Note that it is easy to confuse ‘hear’ and ‘here’ if you are in a hurry).

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Poor spelling or a case of revenge?

At the risk of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to attend one of my literacy sessions with teachers, I often begin with a spelling test consisting of four or five words, offering a substantial prize for anyone who achieves full marks. Only one person has ever claimed the prize, and he admitted later that he had attended an earlier event so remembered the words, which I hadn’t changed. The moral of the story is that whether you are a teacher or just an ordinary human being, when it comes to literacy none of us is the finished article (Note the singular noun ‘none’ – no one – takes a singular verb ‘is’). The key issue is not whether you know, or think you know, everything, but whether you are aware of your weaknesses and are taking the appropriate steps to improve them.

Footnote: the most common error in the reports I was responsible for checking was a failure to distinguish between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. When I explained the difference to one colleague I was told that I was making it up.