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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.

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

I’m returning to a topic that I have written about many times in the past, but it is an issue of such fundamental importance to our education system that it can never be aired often enough. The context is Scotland but I would be willing to bet that it applies in many parts of the developed world, and it was prompted by this tweet which appeared in my Twitter timeline from Erica at the Young Adult Literature Symposium in St Louis, Missouri, last week:-

Now, while I don’t have a problem with introducing 45-year-old books to young people – and of course many of the best books  ever written are much older than that – I think implicit in that statement is the fact that when it comes to the English curriculum in schools, and those texts which candidates choose to write about in examinations, the core list of texts often seems to be set in concrete, and the same very narrow range of texts is promoted as if they were the only books ever written – Of Mice and Men anyone? Animal Farm? Lord of the Flies?

How does that reduction happen? Consider the following key outcome of the new curriculum in Scotland. Despite the language of the outcome, which suggests it was written by a committee (and believe me it was), the objective is clear and commendable – that, by the age of 15, or before in some cases, all young people should be able to say that they are regular readers and are able to make personal choices in their reading. I would have preferred it to say something along the lines of ‘Reading is an important part of my life and it is something I will continue to pursue long after I have left school’, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

“I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response. I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

Curriculum for Excellence Literacy Outcome 3-11a (S1-S3)

Why is it then, when young people are able to meet this outcome by the age of 15, many of them are failing so dramatically to demonstrate this ability by the age of 16 and 17? What has happened to them in the intervening two years? Three simple words – the examination system. Have a look at some of the key points emerging from this year’s External Assessment Report for Higher English. These statements are taken directly from the report and are unaltered.

  • There was more evidence than in recent years of candidates coming to the exam with prepared answers (often on questions from recent past papers, as the appearance of key words suggested) and attempting to adapt these to ‘fit’ the questions asked.
  • The high number of choices of inappropriate choice of poem for questions 12 and 13 leads to the suspicion that significant numbers of candidates are coming to the exam with just one poem on which they are determined to answer come what may. This practice cannot be discouraged strongly enough.
  • A number of candidates are in the habit of writing at the end of most paragraphs stock phrases such as ‘….and this helped me to understand the central concerns of the text’, without ever having stated what they believed these central concerns to be, let alone how what they had just described had aided their understanding of them.
  • The term ‘theme’ continues to be used in an inappropriate way by some candidates, as if it were a ‘technique’, similar to, for example, setting, characterisation or symbolism. A proper understanding of ‘theme’ is key to the study of literature.

This is what happens when teachers are judged by the exam results of their students, when there is pressure on young people to learn a procedure which is quite alien to them, and for all of that to happen within a very short time frame. Writing ‘critical essays’ is not something which most of them will ever do again, and simply reflects an academic study of literature which is inappropriate for all but a tiny minority of students. Any love of reading has been squeezed out of them by the end of the process. How can it be that so many young people who at the age of five were reciting poems and enjoying the rhythms and patterns of language, will, by the time they sit Higher English, be thinking of poetry as that single poem which they have ‘analysed’ to death, the lines and responses to which they will have spent the best part of a year committing to memory.

There must be a better way, and there is. If Higher English is to remain in its present form – and it has seen too many ‘reforms’ in recent years to suggest that there is any appetite for further change – we need to make sure we provide a viable alternative for those young people who have genuinely developed a love for reading but not for essay-writing, and we need those people in positions of authority who talk about Higher English using expressions like ‘the gold standard’ and ‘benchmark’ to think more carefully about their own language. More importantly, we need to recognise that a love of reading, and by implication a love of learning, SHOULD BE THE NUMBER ONE  GOAL FOR ALL LEARNERS.  When a young person is able to ask, in response to the literacy outcome above, “I’ve just read this. What do you suggest I should read next?” you know as a teacher you have done something invaluable.

You may also be interested to read Braintrack’s The State of Young Readers in America

For my extensive list of fiction for 10-14 yr-olds, each text summarised and reviewed, click here.

Reading. Aloud.

There was a time when a great deal of time in school was spent on reading – and even singing – aloud, in turn, around the class. I remember well the feeling of dread as my turn drew nearer. Many a child was made to feel humiliated in front of his or her peers, and generally speaking, time marched very slowly. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken haltingly by embarrassed thirteen year-olds over the course of an entire school year is probably not how Shakespeare had envisaged it. Little wonder then that over the past three decades the practice has fallen out of fashion, and children are rarely asked to read aloud beyond the early years of primary school. Which is a great pity, because it is only by reading or speaking aloud that we can truly understand, or demonstrate an understanding, of the written word. I was reminded of this recently when re-reading one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureishi, in an essay enitled Dreaming and Scheming – Reflections on Teaching and the Writing Life, where he describes one of  his writers’ workshops:-

“In the hope of dissipating some of the self-consciousness, I play a few standing-up ‘name’ games, where people introduce themselves. Then we run about a bit, before sitting down to play some word games. Whatever you do at the beginning it will always take a few weeks for people to begin to feel at ease for them to be able to speak to each other about their writing or to read it aloud.”

Developing oral skills in young people takes time and patience, but it can also be fun. New technologies, such as MP3 players and – even better – simple hand-held video cameras and smartphones, make it so much easier for us to encourage children to read and playback the written word, to enjoy the pleasure of language and to reflect on their own performance, without the embarrassment of reading aloud in front of the whole class. Yet sadly, one of the unintended consequences of target-setting and data-crunching in schools is that teachers often feel obliged to move too quickly to writing, a full folio and and evidence of that which is often confused with learning – WORK!

For more on reading aloud see this previous post Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York