Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This thing called reading

Years ago Frank Smith was very popular with those who believed in holistic or experience based learning. A quick look at his book reassures me that his ideas make as much sense as ever.

I never really get involved with reading or literacy but it seems the 'default mode' for most primary teachers.

When you visit primary classrooms you become aware that the great part of the school day centres around literacy and numeracy. For all this emphasis reading still seem to be a problem for some students it ever was.

And to keep teachers on the straight and narrow there are those who see salvation in phonics waiting in the wings to distort the process even more. Schools have been deluged with 'best practice' ideas about how to run their literacy programmes.

And to make things even worse( or more serious) are the proliferation of reading tests to assess where students 'are at' all resulting in gathering and graphing data. Teacher are busy providing 'formative assessment and providing appropriate feedback.

Reading the most recent literacy book produced by the Ministry and it is enough for me to give up . As a result of all this 'expert' help teachers develop group system to ensure students are provided opportunities to learn to read. When I visit classrooms I observe what the groups, who are not with the teacher, are doing - most of it seem of doubtful value to me.

I am reminded of a UK commentator who said that the, 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum'. Certainly in systems that nationally test their students this is further exaggerated and, as a result, in those countries teachers teach to the tests, and all too often, the arts and sciences etc are simply pushed out for lack of time.

And still children fail.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity, has written that we are 'mining our children heads for two commodities, literacy and numeracy and, in the process, not realising the various gifts and talents that are being overlooked. Robinson believes that creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. Another UK expert Guy Claxton writes that 'learnacy' ( the desire to learn) is more important than literacy and numeracy.

As for the most recent Ministry book on literacy teaching I was surprised that no reference is made to Frank Smith.Even more surprising there is no reference to Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson both pioneers in getting young children to write and read naturally. Their approach was to tap the imagery of the children themselves as the basis for writing and reading. This language arts/experience approach was once a feature of New Zealand classroom but it seems to have been replaced by 'formulaic' 'best practice' teaching. The real need to tap the voices of the children, and to develop vocabulary through sensory experiences, is no longer common. Before the word must come the experience.

I think this lack of meaningful experiences is part of the problem and this brings me back to Frank Smith.

Frank Smith believes it is not difficult to make reading impossible. For children reading must be meaningful to attract them. What is being read must make sense to them or they won't bother and it seems some don't

The key to reading and writing lies in students seeing them as a valuable tools available to them to study what they are really interested in. What is required is for teachers to negotiate stimulating programmes that really engage their students. To do this they need to tap into the thought and personal experiences their children have. It is their stories that really count. Teachers also need to tap the interests and concerns students have and as well make use of first hand experience both inside the classroom and outdoors.

To learn like this require reading ,writing ,thinking and in turn learning.

Young children are born to learn.They are innately wired with the curiosity to want to learn and reading is just another form of learning.

Frank Smith believes that children do not need to be taught to read instead teachers need to create the conditions for them to want to. If reading is active process, that respects their ideas and worlds, they will want to join the reading club.

It is the same for learning anything

This Friday I present at a reading conference!


audrey said...

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Tom Sheehan said...

Please grab a large piece of 4 by 2 and beat me mercilessly if I ever use the words 'best practice'.

The real need to tap the voices of the children, and to develop vocabulary through sensory experiences, is no longer common. Before the word must come the experience.We won't blame video games, screens, busy parents, safety concerns or anything else. The facts as I see them are that 21st century primary aged children still love doing all kinds of things that stimulate thinking - reading and writing. Today we had a wonderful school show and tell assembly where we shared our first 5 weeks of learning for the term. Children shared poetry, stories, factual writing, memories, digital presentations and of course art. I congratulated my creative teachers for their efforts with their children's learning centred around the topic of bikes. The joy on children's faces was evident, confident in their learning.

Plenty of experiences and quality words.

Great blog Bruce.
We are up your way next week!

Bruce said...

Thanks Audrey and Tom.

Great to hear things are going well for the school Tom. I am more and more convinced that helping students attend to their experiences and to value their own imagery and thoughts are the key to learning. We don't need to teach students we just have to provide challenging conditions and provide engaging activities to allow them to grow. Curiosity, the need to express ideas, and postive relationships with caring adults, will do the rest.

Learning from life is compulsory - it is school learning that is problematic.

Angela Maiers said...

I could not agree more. Frank Smith understood the importance and significance of the "Literacy Club", and encouraged educators to not only make sure every student was invited, but fully understood the rules to participate.

The "Rules of the Literacy Club" have changed, but the conditions of entry remain the same. Our students need teachers to model, demonstrate, and design instruction that invites students to use literacy for exploration, enlightenment, and empowerment.

We will fail, if we continue out work in literacy instruction devoid of meaning. Purpose, meaning, and relevancy give students a reason to read, write, investigate, share, and create.

The mediums and forms in which we do this work may change, but without meaning....none of that matters.

I spoke about reading without meaning here- I would love your thoughts!

You continue to be an inspiration and a rational voice for what matters most, and I thank you for that!

Bruce said...

Thanks very much Angela - we are on the same wavelength - or is that page. I have some quotes of Frank Smiths I will post when I return from my travels. They are from his book 'Insult to Intelligence'. The title says it all.

Indiana Bob said...

Liked your blog

The caretaker and I at my school are building big building blocks for the junior classes (we are too mean to pay $700!) the aim is to encourage a range of developmental activities through something that excites the boys. This will generate a real language experience, supported by the teaching staff that they can talk about and discover with.
Real radical for 2009 – we have to fire those fellows up!
Good luck with your Reading Conference. Would love to be a fly on the wall
Indiana Bob

Jody Hayes said...

I love that line ....
'Young children are born to learn.They are innately wired with the curiosity to want to learn and reading is just another form of learning.'
Curiosity ... that is the key!

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
I was at your reading conference today and loved everything that you had to say! So much of it just made sense and I loved that fact that you put the bullet to much of what we are being expected to do because it is 'best practice'. With so much focus on literacy and numeracy, our school really needed to hear what you had to say. I only hope that it makes people stand up and make some changes. Thanks heaps for making today a benchmark for change.

Bruce said...

Thanks anon - re reading conference. Thanks for your positive feedback. I am away for a few days but will post my impressions of the conference -which I did enjoy, although the phonics stuff was a bit too much for me!