Sunday, April 02, 2006
Developing real literacy : Margaret Mahy
I once read an article by Mem Fox, an Australian children’s author, who was talking about the phonics versus whole language debate. She said that those arguing were missing the point. The key to a child learning to read was the relationship between the learner and the helper. If positive respectful relationships were in place then of course she would go with a whole language approach.
To my way of thinking the key to develop powerful readers is to begin with each learners own experiences and identity and, through these, to help each learner develop a sense of ‘voice’ and of themselves as learners.
All learning is about developing a sense of personal competence and power but all too often technical process of being able to read is seen as an end in itself.
And it is just not good enough to acknowledge a students experience, or to simply provide experiences to write about, just to get them to write something for them to later read. If they are ever to really appreciate the power of story telling, or reading to learn something, then they must tell their own stories and learn about things they are interested in.
Margaret Mahy, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished children’s writers, in her biography written by Tessa Duder, says we are not changed by experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. ‘Unless we have formed our lives into story, structured it with words, we can’t contemplate the meaning of our lived experience’ This is done by turning the raw material of our life into stories, and in the process, ‘it can be creatively transformed and given meaning’.
Teachers by valuing this approach can help all their students, develop a sense of self, realize the power of story telling and develop ‘real’ material for the individual student, and their classmates, to read.
The best way into reading is to tap the emotions, the sensory impressions and the insights that emerge from the experiences, real or remembered, of each individual learner. From these powerful stories can be written, or scribed, to become the basis of first reading .When students read other books written for them they will be able to comprehend that they too are authors – authors of their own lives.
Many parents write out, or share orally, such real or imagined stories of their children well before the students come to school – appreciating such activities are more valuable than resorting to flash cards and phonics.
Student centred teachers, if they really value personalized learning, ought to have rooms full of students' stories, questions and ideas. Struggling readers need sensitive adults who after lots of talking and sharing can scribe out, or help students write out, their own stories to read. If this were to be done the emphasis needs to be on developing the students identity as writers and not just to get then to read something; artistic expression could be part of the process.
Teachers need to see their students as professional 'meaning makers' with lots of exciting stories and ideas to share and to develop their classroom into learning communities. Kids would then grow into reading, and all other areas of learning, as a natural process of self discovery.