Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literacy. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Literacy and the need for developing capacity

A common catch cry in schools is that we need to improve literacy. Each year the same old rubbish is wheeled out in the guise of cross curricula scaffolding, pro-forma templates and a bunch of clever sounding words that achieve little.

I think if we actually looked at what each learning area is actually doing, literacy is a common component that does not need to be explicitly looked at as a 'literacy' issue. Let's take mathematics for example and the current rhetoric.

Literacy Statement:
Gone are the days where you can teach and test a skill. To adequately support literacy in a school we need to implement literacy in every learning area. Texts used need to support literacy initiatives.

Maths Reply:
Mathematics is typically a text dependent subject. A good mathematics text typically has three components. Each section starts with explanatory text, an area where a student has the content explained - such as a worked example. Following the explanatory text is usually some form of text bank that identifies key words within a section and their meaning. Each word in the text is identified by the teacher and used in context to assist students expand their mathematical vocabulary. Following each bank of words is a section of practice starting with straightforward examples and leading to word problems that require varying degrees of English comprehension and analysis. Mathematical comprehension is verified against answers supplied to questions.

Literacy Conclusion:
Over time, whilst immersed in examples of the mathematical form, the student gains contextual understanding, developing processes and strategies guided by cues for usage. Students are encouraged to reflect upon the level of their skills through answer keys and response items in assessment. Students develop independent learning strategies through investigative tasks to extend their growing understanding."

At this point some people (predominantly non teachers and skeptics like myself) will go "what a load of BS". This is not "literacy" rocket science but just old fashioned teaching (no surprises here.. the maths response was teaching from a text with some testing).

Unfortunately a lot of the literacy movement seems to be just hot air .. a lot of documentation that outlines what we already do, with no defined outcomes or outcomes so unmeasurable that they are worthless.

When parents ask for literacy improvement they usually mean can my student paragraph, write a coherent sentence, deconstruct a problem, understand a text. These tasks are typically issues addressed in English departments as specific skills taught over five to ten years. In the same way we teach supporting mathematics for SOSE and Science, we need English to teach grammar, comprehension and reading skills to assist us. This seems to have been the first positive outcome from NAPLAN testing and the national curriculum debate.

The main issue with the literacy debate and to a lesser degree "the whole of language approach" is that core skills in English (and to a lesser degree other subjects) have been given a backseat to experiential learning and by distributing responsibility for learning language based skills we have watered down the ability and accountability for learning areas to deliver their subject specific content (and undervalued the real skill of English teachers). The value of cross curricula learning has been overestimated, with few realising the amount of work it takes to establish a working cross curricula programme.

As someone that couldn't write a paragraph properly until year 10 (when my English teacher forced us to write an essay every Friday afternoon last period for a whole year) I recognise that this is not a new problem.. but we have had 15 years since I was in school to identify the issue and pinpoint better ways of solving it than the current mess. When responsibility for written skills is devolved to many, responsibility for success is also distributed to the point often that no-one is responsible. Written skills (although supported by all learning areas) need to be the responsibility of English departments in the same way that mathematics is guided in a school by a Mathematics department.

I think that strong, visible and active English and Mathematics departments in a school are clear indicators of a good school.

We need to consider that developing capable English and Mathematics departments is not optional in schools.. it is a necessity and priority for success.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Favourite Sci-Fi books of all time

Yes I'm a maths geek... I am also interested in science fiction... they go together. Reading is a major factor in student performance and parents modelling that reading is pleasurable and informative is the only path to students getting into the habit. Not just in English but especially in maths with the new curricula being much more wordy and problem solving oriented.

With the demise of newspapers in the home, the humble novel is one of the few physical manifestations of the written word. It is still one of the most rewarding as it enagages the mind, imagination and gives a sense of achievement on completion. One of my most memorable and cherished moments in teaching was in my first practicum when a group of yr 7 students read their first complete book (as a group, one paragraph at a time over weeks).

My reading habits have narrowed over the years and I read Sci-fi nearly exclusively. My favourite books of all time (I have some very worn and well loved copies) are:

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Robert Heinlein
Starship Troopers: Robert Heinlein
Enders Game: Orson Scott Card
Foundation: Isaac Asimov
Dorsai!: Gordon Dickson
Hovercar Racer: Matthew Reilly
Neutron Star: Larry Niven
Voyage of the Space Beagle: AE Van Vogt
Dune: Frank Herbert
Neuromancer: William Gibson(Yes I know it's cyberpunk- but close enough)
Snow Crash: Neal Stephenson(ditto)

Out of Genre:
Magician: Raymond E Feist
Bourne Identity: Robert Ludlum (the movie does not compare with the pace of the book)
Animal Farm: George Orwell
Catch 22: Joseph Heller
Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone: JK Rowling
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: CS Lewis

Watching my father read, gave me the impetus to try, and continue trying to read complex and more complex books over time. I've never shared his love of the books he read - they had special meaning to his generation, but I do still read for pleasure, it is my primary method of relaxation.

We have to thank the internet for the resurgence of students writing to each other for pleasure - blogs, instant messaging, facebook/myspace portals (which all have their issues too).

Is it possible to re-engage not only student love of short form writing but their creative centres to design more complex works? JK Rowling showed that the task is not insurmountable.

Instant gratification is fleeting, a feeling of true achievement only comes through effort. Building resilience into our kids means demonstrating that long term effort is worth it.. well past 5 mins.. well past the end of the lesson.. past the term end and year end.. past school.. and hopefully past their own generation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Literacy and Numeracy

Now, I'm going to get myself in trouble here. I'm a little sick of work that should be done in English creeping into Mathematics and the applied subjects such as science, history and geography. If kids can't do basic operations, the Maths dept should be looked at closely. No argument here.

If kids can't capitalise, read a question, put together a coherent paragraph or write a simple report - please don't ask me to teach it in Mathematics. Two of these mentioned drive me batty - reading a question and writing reports especially when I teach that abomination subject Mathematics in Practice ("MIPS").

Don't get me wrong , I quite like teaching MIPS and its bastard brother Modelling. What I hate is the way kids struggle with the literacy components of both subjects. As a lower ability subject with a project basis, students have to be able to read the question, investigate the topic and write a report. Given that we teach the maths immediately prior to each assignment you would think it would be obvious how to do the assignment. Whooah betty.. nothing can be further from the truth.

The kids typically, if they read the question correctly can do the maths. Can they write a coherent report.. Very few.. who is responsible for teaching them how.. Maths?? Do I look like a competent English teacher with the cool shirt and students hanging off every Shakespeare bound word? Uh.. no.. I'm the guy with the shorts and sandals and socks and short sleeve shirt and ugly ties, possibly with an unkempt beard.

Science, History and Geography are hamstrung with teaching and reteaching concepts that should be covered competently in Maths and English. They have a real right to complain - they should be complementing our teaching and reinforcing topics NOT TEACHING CORE MATHS AND ENGLISH CONCEPTS! Whole child responsibility.. bah humbug.. someone must be responsible for each facet of learning - distributed responsibility is no responsibility.

Which leads me to a question raised by a few - where does responsibility lie for the teaching of core concepts. I would suggest that HODs and district supervisors are necessary as is a deputy or principal presence in the classroom from time to time. A chain of order that is responsible for maintaining standards across learning areas by subject specialists. These people can and should identify flaws, reward excellence and assist with raising standards across the board.

Why don't we have this? well.. maybe that's something we can all look into.