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Category Archives: literacy

Catch-up part one: some interesting sites.

1. A book, really – and a site that introduces it.

whiffling_ukcoverThe Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under and elsewhere).

Discover all sorts of words you’ve always wished existed but never knew, such as fornale, to spend one’s money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell.

Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it is you wouldn’t want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else.

I am a sucker for things like this, and you can do a lot worse than to become interested in odd and curious words, and above all in the fascinating stories that lie behind so many words.

2. A good reference site for ESL teachers

It doesn’t hurt that this site is included there! 🙂 — 15 of the Best Blogs for EFL and ESL Teachers.

efl

3. Ed Tech, e-learning, e-literacy.

There are some good posts on Barking Robot. For example: Study: Children Who Blog Or Use Facebook Have Higher Literacy Levels.

Research conducted by The National Literacy Trust on 3,001 children from England and Scotland showed that schoolchildren who blog or own social networking profiles on Facebook have higher literacy levels and greater confidence in writing…

Among the key findings:

  • 56% of youth reported maintaining an active profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or Bebo, while 24% said they maintained their own blog;
  • The study also found that 49% of young people believe writing is “boring.” However, 57 per cent of those who used text-based web applications such as blogs, said they enjoyed writing compared to 40 per cent who did not;
  • 56% of youth who had a blog or profile on a social networking site (SNS) reported to be confident in their writing ability: 61% of bloggers and 56% of social networkers claimed to be good or very good at writing, compared to 47% of those who had neither.
  • A total of 13% of children surveyed had their own website, 24% kept their own blog and 56 % had a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or Bebo;
  • Social web activity was also credited with encouraging children to engage with more traditional forms of writing. Those who were active online were "significantly more likely" to write short stories, letters, song lyrics and diaries than those who had no online presence;
  • The National Trust urges that kids should be encouraged to write blogs and use social networking sites like Facebook to improve literacy levels and encourage them to engage in writing…
 

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Good academic writing source for seniors and university students

In answering a recent comment I found the following site from Monash University. It is very good.

monash

 

For many kids Civics is arid, deadly dull and is thus hard to teach

That, I suspect, is part of the problem behind the story in today’s AustralianStudents do badly in study of civics. I really don’t think results would have been much better fifty years ago when I was fifteen.

STUDENTS’ knowledge of Australia’s system of government is lower than expected, with only one in three Year 10 students knowing what the Constitution is.

The national assessment of civics and citizenship in Years 6 and 10 found about 54 per cent of primary students and 41 per cent of high school students met the proficiency standards for their year. But about one in five Year 10 students failed to meet the Year 6 standard.

"This was especially the case in relation to information about the constitutional structure of Australian democracy," the report says. "Lacking such fundamental information will restrict the capacity of students to make sense of many other aspects of Australian democratic forms and processes, and they may, therefore, be disadvantaged in their capacity to engage in meaningful ways in many other levels of civic action or discourse."

At Year 6, students are expected to recognise the division of governmental responsibilities in a federation, identify a link between a change in Australia’s identity and a change in the national anthem, recognise the benefit of different political parties and the federal budget.

By Year 10, students are expected to recognise key functions and features of parliament, analyse the common good as a motivation for becoming a whistleblower, explain the importance of a secret ballot, and recognise how the independence of the judiciary is protected. On the Constitution, Year 10 students were asked "what is the Australian Constitution?" and given four possible answers: the rules about how the major Australian political parties are run; the policies of the Australian federal government; the framework for the ways Australia is governed; all the laws that Australian citizens must obey…

Look at the last paragraph there! Did I know all that fifty years ago? Answer: NO! What do we expect then? Why, aside from pious hopes, should we expect 100% of kids to have mastered all that arcane matter?

On the other hand, kids today do have advantages. In the web world there are some marvellous sources of information. Even the Book of Answers from the last government’s ill-conceived citizenship tests is not a bad resource on these and other matters. But then there are sites such as Australian Politics and Oz Politics. Certainly it isn’t hard to find out these days; in my day it was less easy.

There is a big role here too in well organised excursions to parliaments and courts, as many schools do. The information people there are often brilliant, and the whole thing becomes more concrete. On the other hand bureaucratic responses to child safety issues have made organising any excursion a logistic nightmare, so I suspect there has probably been some reduction in such activities. A shame. Mock courts and parliaments are another approach that can bring these matters to life.

Coincidentally, yesterday I found myself with a 15-16 year old from China, a recent arrival whose English is developing, trying to help him with a Legal Studies task on the rule of law – and a whole host of other key terms all crowded into one or two of his school lessons. A challenge. We did our best.

 

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Two to look at

Students of ESL or EFL will find much to use on Real English. There is also an associated blog.

realenglish

The next is an Australian educational blog that came my way. It has much to offer teachers, especially but not only those dealing with very young students. I commend the ESL page, not merely because I get a mention but because it points to some excellent resources beyond ones I have so far noted. The literacy page is also very good.

rampantred

 

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Spell it like it is | spiked

Spell it like it is | spiked by Frank Furedi, author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), is a mix of sense and nonsense in my view. First the nonsense:

In essence, variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths. Contemporary cultural life has become estranged from the idea of Truth with a capital T. In academia, social scientists never tire of informing students that there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different perspectives as representing many truths.

The demotion of the status of truth calls into question the purpose of gaining knowledge. Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

Only if you like grinding axes, Frank! Talk about reading things into stuff… The question of how best to deal with errors, spelling or otherwise, has been around long before those deep cultural matters of postmodernism and relativity that so vex cultural conservatives. There are areas where pluralism is extremely appropriate, in my view — religion not least. Religious tolerance, much to be desired in the modern world, depends on such pluralism, as it not such a long step from rejecting that to deciding “You’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m afraid I have to kill you…”

But spelling?

Yes, I am in favour of people being able to spell English words correctly; always have been. But I try not to confuse issues in the manner of Frank Furedi. I do not see spelling errors as evidence of cultural rot. I do see them as inconveniences for writers and readers, and therefore to be dealt with. So I can sympathise with Frank Furedi when he complains that this is not good enough:

My principal objection to ‘variant spelling’ is that it reinforces the pernicious idea that children and young people today cannot be expected to meet the difficult challenge of learning how to use language correctly. For some time now, influential educators have asked whether it is desirable to teach children correct spelling. Some pedagogues argue that teaching spelling is a waste of time that serves no positive purpose. Others claim that an insistence in the classroom on spelling everything correctly frustrates those who suffer from learning disabilities and dyslexia.

I suspect he has never seriously considered the issues of learning disabilities and dyslexia. I have, and am perfectly able to reconcile thinking teaching spelling is far from a waste of time with adjusting my practice when dealing with those with learning difficulties.

Sorry, but Furedi really is a bit of a windbag on this matter.

Yes, you can learn about spelling on this site: I’m a poor speller. Can you help?

 

More good educational/English Studies blogs

Just had this email:

I am a regular reader of your English/ESL–and more! blog and I have found your site to be an inspiration. I am a teacher of high school English at Katikati College in New Zealand and I have been blogging for about nine months…

So I checked them out. I suggest you do the same.

This one is for Year 13 students (New Zealand):

katikati2

This one is for other years, the majority of students at Katikati College.

katikati1

Students here will find many relevant articles and links.

 

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Legitimate concerns about writing rubrics

There is no doubt that some criterion-referenced assessment procedures and related documents such as the Australian ESL Scales can be extremely useful; one example of the latter in use comes from The New England (NSW) Girls School. A “cut-down” form I use myself is here, and it has proven very accurate.

However, there are legitimate concerns about the use of writing rubrics. See for example The Trouble with Rubrics by Alfie Kohn (ENGLISH JOURNAL March 2006 — vol. 95, no. 4).

Once upon a time I vaguely thought of assessment in dichotomous terms: The old approach, which consisted mostly of letter grades, was crude and uninformative, while the new approach, which included things like portfolios and rubrics, was detailed and authentic. Only much later did I look more carefully at the individual floats rolling by in the alternative assessment parade — and stop cheering…

Consistent and uniform standards are admirable, and maybe even workable, when we’re talking about, say, the manufacture of DVD players. The process of trying to gauge children’s understanding of ideas is a very different matter, however. It necessarily entails the exercise of human judgment, which is an imprecise, subjective affair. Rubrics are, above all, a tool to promote standardization, to turn teachers into grading machines or at least allow them to pretend that what they’re doing is exact and objective. Frankly, I’m amazed by the number of educators whose opposition to standardized tests and standardized curricula mysteriously fails to extend to standardized in-class assessments.

The appeal of rubrics is supposed to be their high interrater reliability, finally delivered to language arts. A list of criteria for what should be awarded the highest possible score when evaluating an essay is supposed to reflect near-unanimity on the part of the people who designed the rubric and is supposed to assist all those who use it to figure out (that is, to discover rather than to decide) which essays meet those criteria…

I worry more about the success of rubrics than their failure. Just as it’s possible to raise standardized test scores as long as you’re willing to gut the curriculum and turn the school into a test-preparation factory, so it’s possible to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things.

This attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment is objectionable in its own right. But it’s also harmful in a very practical sense. In an important article published in 1999, Linda Mabry, now at Washington State University, pointed out that rubrics “are designed to function as scoring guidelines, but they also serve as arbiters of quality and agents of control” over what is taught and valued. Because “agreement among scorers is more easily achieved with regard to such matters as spelling and organization,” these are the characteristics that will likely find favor in a rubricized classroom. Mabry cites research showing that “compliance with the rubric tended to yield higher scores but produced ‘vacuous’ writing.”…

Maja Wilson has written a book on the subject: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment . The fact it won a NCTE James Britton Research Award attracts me, and the chapter I downloaded looks very promising indeed. The gist of her argument may be seen here:

So if you really do want to think about what rubrics, for all their uses, might miss, and whether what they miss could after all be very important, I suggest you follow these ideas and keep thinking…

See Maja Wilson (PDF) Chapter One

RELATED

Right-wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths on my personal site quarrels about some relevant issues. It was written around the same time as this post. Teachers may be interested. As the title indicates, it is a bit of a rant…

 

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Improving handwriting

There are two aspects here: 1) appearance and legibility; 2) speed.

I have to confess that my own handwriting is not the most beautiful in the world, though I can make a fair effort at calligraphy with the right equipment and plenty of time. I was taught handwriting way back in the day’s of steel nibs and inkwells! I also was taught Copperplate! Ball point pens, back then, were considered evil.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

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Literacy controversies

When you have been teaching as long as I have, and all up that’s over forty years, you should become immune to recurrent panics, usually political, media-driven, or coming from “educationists” with an axe to grind. But you don’t…

The latest tea-leaf reading and teeth-gnashing has followed the publication of the PISA Report 2007 (PDF). I posted on that here. Recently too we’ve had the Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2.

However, there are, as always, many reasons to think about how we teachers could do better. Young People Seen Losing Love of Reading by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo appeared in the November 19 edition of the US online magazine Teacher Week.

American youths are reading less in their free time than a generation ago, a statistic that bodes poorly for their academic performance, job prospects, civic participation, and even social well-being, a report by the National Endowment for the Arts says.

Increasing use of electronic media is largely to blame for a decline in pleasure reading among young people, says the report, released today. But the failure of schools to instill a love of reading is also a contributing factor, according to endowment Chairman Dana Gioia.

“The study shows that reading is endangered at the moment in the United States, especially among younger Americans … and not merely the frequency of reading, but the ability to read as well,” Mr. Gioia said in a telephone conference call with reporters before the report’s release. The emphasis in many schools on bolstering reading skills and preparing students for tests, he added, is insufficient for nurturing an appreciation of reading.

“This functional approach to reading,” he said, “is not adequate to instill a lifelong love of the subject.”

In a subsequent online ideas exchange a number of US teachers made suggestions, many of them similar to ideas you might hear in staff rooms or at conferences here in Australia. (By the way, in all those international comparisons, whatever it is they measure, Australia still outperforms the USA in literacy.) For example:

Claudia, a secondary teacher:

I have watched this conversation with interest, because for the past several years I’ve taught nothing but an elective, “Reading for Pleasure,” at my high school. We started small, one section per semester. Now, we run 12 sections, and could fill others if we had the teachers. In my school, there is a strong culture of reading—our media center is active and kids talk about their books. For the first nine weeks of this semester, 131 students in my classes read a total of 269,157 pages. (This includes books for English classes, not necessarily for pleasure.)

My class is designed to share books with students, and to give them a place and time to read, uninterrupted by other demands. Then, everyone writes about what they’ve read. I read with my students every day (tough gig, I know), and I respond to every entry, as a fellow reader.

I’ve noticed the same ‘dip’ in interest among our students that others have noticed. Over and over in their literacy autobiographies students tell me how much they loved reading in elementary, and then “something” happened. They can’t even articulate what it was. I wonder how much can be attributed to new demands on kids’ time, new interests, or peer groups that may not value reading. I spend lots of time in class talking about books, fiction and nonfiction, young adult, classics, popular adult fiction. Once kids learn (relearn?) what they like, they DO read for pleasure, because they have the power to choose what they read.

I want to throw one more idea into the mix. Nowhere in all these articles do I see a serious acknowledgement of the reading kids do the most: online. I would argue kids are interacting with text much more often than the “experts” think when we factor in computer use.

What do you think of this whole question? How do you encourage reading? How widely do your students read?

If you are a student, what is your attitude to reading? Do you think you are “good enough”? What do you read? How often?

 

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Email about the Educational Testing Service

This arrived this morning.

Hello,

Because you write about ESL and learning the English language, I thought you and your readers might be interested in the Educational Testing Service’s [link] new TOEFL Tips & News feed [link]. TOEFL Tips and News is a free way for students to keep updated on the latest TOEFL developments, share English learning tips, and receive helpful insights from ETS on how to pass their exam.

Here are some recent headlines from TOEFL’s Tips & News:
• What Should You Read to Build Your Reading Skills?
• How To Recognize a Pronoun Instantly
• By 2008, seats for TOEFL iBT will increase by 80% in China

You can subscribe to TOEFL Tips & News by visiting the ETS website. Please help us tell students about ETS’ newest educational tool by copying and pasting this code to your blog: Subscribe to TOEFL Tips and News from ETS.

We appreciate any help you can offer to spread the word!

On ETS see Wikipedia.

The Educational Testing Service (or ETS) is the world’s largest private educational testing and measurement organization, operating on an annual budget of approximately $1.1 billion on a proforma basis in 2007. ETS develops various standardized tests primarily in the United States for K-12 and higher education, but they also administer tests such as TOEFL and GRE internationally. Many of the assessments they develop are associated with entry to US tertiary (undergraduate) and quaternary education (graduate) institutions…

ETS has been criticized for being a “highly competitive business operation that is as much multinational monopoly as nonprofit institution”.

Due to its legal status as non-profit organization, ETS is exempt from paying federal income tax. Furthermore, it does not need to report financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission…

It is worth looking at their free magazine Innovations.

See also Fairtest.org.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) Works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial.

Australian connection

According to the Summer 2007 issue of Innovations, ETS produced the Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey used in Australia. I have a post on that here.

 

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