Category Archives: reading

Check the VodPod; do the poll

Go down the side bar to find the Pod. Then —


My own views

I wasn’t going to say anything, but on reflection decided I would.

The three videos interpret and recreate something of William Golding’s much-studied novel Lord of the Flies. Each was done by students working in different contexts and for different purposes. Two of them take the “facts” of the novel and seek to present them in cinematic terms; one is the result of an alternative ending exercise, a “what if?” question. Two of them are highly imaginative; one is not. In fact one is everything I was afraid a YouTube video might be and is, from an English teaching perspective, a total waste of space. Two I would give “A”; one I would give “F”. In one case I would also want to send the students to some kind of course in water safety or surf life saving!

Now you decide. 🙂


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?



We need to get back to thoughts like these: 2

You may read read some edited extracts from the interview material that underpins Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game (eds) Teachers Who Change Lives. In addition to those, I was interested to note among the teachers and (ex)students interviewed is Nicholas Jose, currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, a long-term friend of my friend M, and also a friend of mine.

That is the method the book used: to interview a range of people about teachers who changed their lives, and also to interview a number of teachers. The project is 100% humanist and humane. Data is neither quantified nor analysed statistically. Instead, a number of themes emerge from the corpus of interviews. These are then expanded in a series of chapters. I propose to devote an entry to each of those themes.

But first a word on my own experience. It is only from time to time that I would say my teaching reached the level this book describes — but it did happen. Let me say, however, that those times were perhaps peak experiences, and sometimes they were not even recognised at the time they occurred. The school as institution can often be dispiriting and imperfect. There have been times I have said: “I love teaching. Just such a shame it happens in schools!” I think many teachers will know what I mean.

It is always nice to be told when such interactions actually happened, as one ex-student, Chris Jones, did in a comment here. Expanding on that in an email, Chris wrote, and I was more than happy to read:

I was very lucky to have you as a teacher Neil. Your classes were so different. I remember you as perhaps the only teacher who seemed to treat us as equals – you were a wiser equal, no doubt, but we could talk as if we were all standing at the same level. We could laugh and share thoughts and feelings without the usual hierarchy, and that made the learning experience all the better. My memory of Great Expectations mirrors that – it was like we all *together* made comments on it. No other teacher ever made me feel quite that way.

Chris was in the class of 1986. I knew at the time I was enjoying myself — and working quite hard — but I really had no idea this was the effect on some at least in that class.

You will find a bit about some of my ex-students and coachees in Lines from a Floating Life and The Big Archive on WordPress: those links take you to the relevant category searches.


We need to get back to thoughts like these

This is the first real post on this new (but old) venture, and again, as will normally be the case, I am using Windows Live Writer to do it.

I have decided to open up this specialised but informal blog to supplement the two I have on WordPress: English/ESL — and more and Lines from a Floating Life.

Yesterday on Lines from a Floating Life I mentioned that I had bought, among other things, Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game (eds) Teachers Who Change Lives (Melbourne University Press 2006) “to make me feel good about being a teacher.”

I have been browsing, and I am happy to report the book is totally unscientific, without statistics or hard facts to back up anything it says — and yet I venture to suggest it may be one of the best books I have read for many years on what good teaching really is about. I will tell you more next time.


What works?

Thanks to the fact that that excellent US resource Education Week is having an Open House at the moment, I have been able to access some really good information for teachers. I do have a free subscription, but that limits you to a small number of articles per week; still worth subscribing though.

There is, for example, a blog on gifted education that may interest some, especially because of the cultural context from which it comes: Unwrapping the Gifted.

Tamara Fisher is a K-12 gifted education specialist for a school district located on an Indian reservation in northwestern Montana and president-elect of the Montana Association of Gifted and Talented Education. With Karen Isaacson, she is also co-author of Intelligent Life in the Classroom: Smart Kids and Their Teachers. Her hobbies include drawing, hiking, fourwheeling, and building houses. (She lives in a house she built herself.) In this blog, Fisher discusses news and developments in the gifted education community and offers advice for teachers on working with gifted students.

Subject of much ideologically driven controversy in recent years has been the perennial topic of the teaching of reading. Here in NSW Reading Recovery has for some years been the program of choice in many Infants Departments, but lately phonics-driven approaches, which always appeal for some reason to the political Right, have tended to attract much publicity, and funding. It is interesting then to read Out-of-Favor Reading Plan Rated Highly:

Reading Recovery, a popular one-to-one tutoring program that Bush administration officials sought to shut out of a high-profile federal reading program, has gotten a rare thumbs-up from the federal What Works Clearinghouse.

The positive rating comes after prominent researchers and federal reading officials tried to dissuade states and districts from paying for Reading Recovery with funds from the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program, which calls on school systems to spend their grant money on programs backed by ‘scientifically based research.’ In their objections to the tutoring program, critics raised questions about its cost and cited problems in the studies attesting to its effectiveness.

‘I think this is good news for all the school superintendents who kept Reading Recovery alive in their schools,’ said Jady Johnson, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, a nonprofit group based in Worthington, Ohio. ‘I’m hoping this report will signal a change in direction for the [U.S. Education] Department.’

See also Reading Curricula Don’t Make Cut for Federal Review.

Just one program was found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review–alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based.

Federal officials and contractors tried to discourage states and districts from using Reading Recovery in schools participating in the federal Reading First program, citing a lack of evidence that it helps struggling readers.

Other popular programs were found to have potentially positive effects as well. Success for All, a whole-school-reform program developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, got the favorable rating on alphabetics and general reading achievement, but mixed results on comprehension. Voyager Universal Literacy System, a product of the Dallas-based Voyager Learning, was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics but potentially negative effects on comprehension. Accelerated Reader, distributed by Renaissance Learning Inc., was found to have a potentially positive impact on comprehension and general reading achievement.

The review discussed here may be found at The What Works Clearinghouse where you may also find a report on ESL programs.


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New writing workshop for HSC Module B

I have just worked an essay one of my coachees submitted a week or two ago. It is on Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, a novel many praise. It has even been turned into a noted stage production. “Simply awesome. Cloudstreet is a winner from beginning to end…something native, new, vast and unforgettable.” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 1998.

Not everyone loves the novel, however: see these opinions. One 18-year-old wrote:

Cloudstreet is a luke-warm piece of writing, that is made awful by the fact that Tim Winton thinks that it is a masterpiece. You can practically hear in every line “Oooh look at me, I’m Tim Stinkton. Look how great I am.”

He should have hacked the book in half, punctuated it properly, culled it of all the meaningless ‘symbolism’ and self-indulgent philosophy, and made some attempt at developing the characters.The book has some good moments and it does get better towards the end, but Tim Winton doesn’t realise his limitations and can’t see past himself. Another thing, he threw the ‘fish lamb is the narrator’ thing right at the end, and it shows. The whole book reads like a first draft.

Do you agree?

See the new workshopped essay at Writing Workshop 09: Advanced English Module B “Critical study of a text”.

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Posted by on August 2, 2007 in Australian, English studies, HSC, questions asked, reading, student help, works/authors, writing


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