Category Archives: English

“Classrooms of Possibility” – by Hammond and Miller

Many recent articles and posts about English language education in Australia have highlighted the fact that this area is ever-changing and reflective of what is currently happening in our society. Undoubtedly, the teaching of English as an Additional Language or Dialect is undergoing transformation at a government and policy level with changes to funding and allocations, but also at a grass-roots level as various groups of people arrive in Australia, many of whom have been forced to flee their home countries. Under the UN’s Rights of the Child, the children that inevitably arrive here amongst these groups are entitled to an education and to access an age-appropriate curriculum (ACARA).

For EAL learners, who may arrive as refugees with potentially very low levels of literacy in their first language and are now attempting to learn concepts at the same time as learning a new language, accessing this curriculum becomes a challenge for both them and their teachers.

Jennifer Hammond and Jennifer Miller’s book Classrooms of Possibility: Supporting at-risk EAL students explores the range of experiences that refugees bring with them and the implications for their education here in Australia.

classrooms

The contributors recognise that there is significant evidence “that the strongest predictor of educational success for students learning in a second (or additional) language is the level of formal education in their first language (Thomas & Collier, 1997)” (Hammond and Miller, p. 18). For students who may have had limited or disrupted schooling in their first language, learning the academic style of English required to succeed at school will be much more difficult. Additionally, they often have to adjust to new institutional structures, form social relationships, and negotiate needs with teachers and other students. They may also have to deal with traumatic incidents from their past, which can influence how they adjust in our school system. 

Despite these challenges, however, EAL students with disrupted schooling can still flourish with the right support. Hammond, Miller and their contributors use many years of research and experience to suggest ways that we can support these at-risk EAL learners in mainstream classrooms. Amongst these – and to me one of the most important – is the notion of “cultural capital”; that EAL students feel that the language experience they do have is important and a valuable tool for their future learning. Depending on their experiences as a minority group (it is important that we avoid treating all refugees as a homogenous group), these students may have become culturally and linguistically disenfranchised, made to feel lesser or as an “other.” One of the most valuable things we can do as teachers is to encourage them to maintain connections with their language and culture and, when they feel comfortable, to share that with others as a rich resource for learning.

I recently observed what may be a very simple example of this: a newly arrived Kindergarten student is often hesitant to use the English that she does know for fear that she might make a mistake. Instead, she prefers to speak to her teacher (a native English speaker) in her home language through her more confident older sister, who then translates as best she can. A noticeable change has occurred in the last couple of weeks however, with the kindergartener taking greater risks with her use of English. This seems to have coincided with the teacher making an effort to learn and regularly use a few words and phrases in the girls’ home language. The students, who come from a refugee background, are sharing knowledge with the teacher, rather than the language learning being one-directional. It would appear that, as a result of this, the younger girl has developed more of a sense of her own cultural capital (although I’m sure she wouldn’t phrase it that way!) which has in turn facilitated a greater confidence with her own language learning.

The general message here and from the far more research-based claims made in Hammond and Miller’s book is that whilst the needs of at-risk EAL learners are exceedingly complex and challenging, there are simple things that we can implement in the mainstream setting that support them to access the curriculum equitably.

A great test of this is imminent with the arrival of an extra 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, set to be resettled permanently in Australia starting in December. This will present a challenge for many of our schools, but the children have a right to an education and we have a responsibility to ensure they receive it on an equitable basis to their Australian-born peers. To the teachers and school leadership that this will affect, Classrooms of Possibility is an invaluable resource with a positive message about best practice in supporting these learners.

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Teaching Reading Comprehension Using ‘Think Alouds’

This afternoon I downloaded (full of nerdy excitement) the winter ePub available to members of PETAA. The Winter release for 2015 is Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton’s Put It In Writing: Context, Text and Language, a book that explores how texts work and provides teaching and learning sequences and strategies for a range imaginative, informative and persuasive texts.

After reading through the introductory chapter, I cast my eye over the reference list, and one of the links caught my eye. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s 2003 chapter “Navigating Meaning: Using Think Alouds to Help Readers Monitor Comprehension” focuses on supporting students to develop their inferential skills using explicit strategies and teacher modelling.

When students first arrive at secondary school, it is very easy for us to make the assumption that they must be, after seven prior years of schooling, fluent readers. For some students this assumption is true – they have strong skills in making multi-layered meaning from the words that they read on the page. This leads to a tradition of programming – especially in the secondary English curriculum – that tends to be based heavily on writing and doesn’t necessarily explicitly address reading skills. Weaker readers may be able to read the sounds of the words, but often struggle to read beyond the literal, to make connections between the text and what it is saying (or not saying) about the real world. Indeed, these inferential reading skills have appeared regularly in initial PAT-R data as an area in which my incoming students have needed support. As Wilhelm comments about a struggling student, “He could decode most words and thought that was reading!”

Wilhelm promotes “Think Alouds” as an effective strategy for accelerating the learning of these weaker readers. The teaching and learning cycle that we so often use to teach writing – build the field, deconstruction, joint construction, and independent construction – is quite applicable to teaching reading. Wilhelm suggests the following steps:

  1. Teacher does, students watch – teacher reads a text, verbally modelling a variety of strategies (think aloud) to self-check understanding when reading. Create flowcharts and lists and post in the classroom.
  2. Teacher does, students help – another text is read and students prompt teacher and explain the steps that should be taken to check understanding
  3. Students do, teacher helps – students read a text, taking over the comprehension monitoring process themselves. Teacher supports when necessary.
  4. Students do – support is withdrawn when students are able to use inferential reading strategies independently.

Wilhelm does not mention it – perhaps it is just assumed –  but I believe that just like the approach to writing, building the field would be a useful first step prior to teacher modelling. In his Reading to Learn pedagogy, David Rose argues that building the field prior to reading helps to reduce the cognitive load for learners when reading challenging texts, allowing them to focus on meaning-making because they already have a sense of what the text is about and understand the more difficult vocabulary identified by their teacher.

I am currently involved in an action research professional learning through Catholic Education Sydney that focuses on consistently embedding simple but effective activities for teaching reading within most lessons, rather than in isolated instances. Think Alouds are a strategy that has been modelled to us and that is applicable, not just in English, but across the curriculum. In fact, one of the most effective ways I’ve seen it used is in teaching students to interpret worded Maths problems! They can be adapted depending on the level of schooling, the subject area, and indeed the needs of individual students or groups within a class.

There is no absolute quick fix for struggling readers, but with a consistent and regular approach using simple and effective strategies such as Think Alouds, we can support these learners to successfully infer meaning from age-appropriate and challenging texts. This will in turn benefit their development in other areas of language and literacy.

LBOTE, EAL/D and Strategies for Supporting Language Acquisition in the Mainstream

This afternoon I made a presentation at a staff meeting about the nature of LBOTE and EAL/D students and simple strategies for supporting their language acquisition in the mainstream classroom. Shared below are the general slides (minus those specific to our school), including an explanation of the differences between LBOTE and EAL/D, the documents available to support mainstream teachers in their work with EAL/D students, and a variety of simple strategies for directly targeting the needs of these students in the mainstream classroom.

Learning to read: print or digital devices?

These holidays I am have set myself the challenge of blogging weekly about an element of my professional reading/learning/formation that I have focused on during that week.

Earlier this week I received an email from a colleague containing a link to an interview with Maryanne Wolf, a professor at the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tuft University.

The full article can be found here: http://pdk.sagepub.com/content/96/3/14.full

Wolf begins by differentiating the language and cognitive demands of learning to speak versus learning to read. The acquisition of oral language is, by and large, a natural process occurring through immersion. “You can put a child anywhere in the world in a speaking environment, and it will naturally trigger their language. It will happen. ”

This is not the case with reading. Reading requires being able to a decode symbolic code that is “both visual and verbal”:

“Reading is both a symbolic act, but it’s also an extraordinary act in terms of cerebral complexity and plasticity. Though it begins by connecting vision and language processes, it goes on to connect concepts, background knowledge, all the aspects of language like syntax, semantics, and morphology. Over time, it adds inference, analogy, perspective taking. It adds so many cognitive skills that, by the end, the reading circuit involves a panoply of some of the most basic processes connected to some of the most sophisticated cognitive and linguistic processes that human beings have ever achieved. The outcome is an extraordinary range of processes that all come together to propel thought. “- Maryanne Wolf, November 2014

So reading is already a far more complex act than speaking, but it is further complicated in an age where we talk about multiple literacies. Wolf refers to teaching children to be “biliterate” – people who are able to recognise different kinds of reading (in this case print versus screen) and apply different reading strategies appropriate to the context.

A particularly interesting discussion between the interviewer and Wolf is in regards to the development of children who learn to read from a screen. Wolf’s research currently involves looking at the physiological differences in reading strategies. She is interested in the difference in development between children who only learn to read via technology, children with a print/technology hybrid, and children with no technology.

So far her research shows minimal concern for children who learn to read with a device such as a Kindle, but a deficit for those who primarily learn to read on devices with more obvious distractions – web pages, advertisements, multimedia, etc. Although, this does not mean those reading from Kindle-like devices are safe from developing ‘lazy’ reading habits – if they are exposed to other screen media with distractions that cause them to read for “speed and immediacy” rather than deep understanding, then they are like to apply these same strategies to others forms of reading. “So the question becomes whether the mindset formed in a digital cultural milieu is really programming children always to be expecting the next attractive stimulus, rather than focusing their attention and concentration.” (Wolf, November 2014)

For the purpose of this discussion, there is print-based reading and digital reading – both reading in their own right. But the key issue is this: do we adequately help children to develop the skills sets required to differentiate between the two? I recognise in myself that I read a website differently from how I read a book. Online, my attention is divided between words, images, audio and audiovisual. When I read a print book, I am able to focus in on precisely what is being said and decode at a much deeper level. I even find it physically easier to focus for longer periods of time on a book that is printed compared to an e-book. I am a highly-literate and technologically savvy young adult and this print/screen dichotomy challenges me at times. So if adults find it difficult, how can we help young children to develop this “biliteracy” as Wolf calls it?

In order to be fully literate a person needs to be able to infer meaning from text at a deeper level. There is evidence to suggest that these skills are best acquired through print-based reading to begin with. Wolf suggests a kind of mentoring system where primary school children’s deeper inferential skills are charted in order to determine at which point to introduce digital reading and the associated skills. I must say at this point, I do not intend to say that digital literacy is less complex – in fact, it probably requires greater critical thinking and discernment as to what is regarded as fact or quality. But the deeper inferential skills need to be developed first in order to achieve these ones. Insomuch, Wolf does not negate the importance of technology; rather, she sees it as a complement to the teaching and learning of reading, but certainly not as a replacement.

And as a classroom teacher who sees many teenagers distracted by their flashy computer screens all day, mindlessly consuming what Google spits back at them, and struggling to read a printed text for five minutes, I can’t help but agree. My challenge is how to address it so that they develop the literacy skills sets required for the digital age that they are native to but not necessarily cognisant of.

A Vlog: Reading to Learn

Last week an EAL Consultant from Catholic Education SA, who I have worked closely with over the past couple of years, invited me to create a video sharing my experiences, observations, data and reflections on the use of Reading to Learn in my English and Italian classrooms. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practice, but also to speak to a number of students and hear their reflections about how useful they find this approach to language and literacy. The kids astounded me with the depth of their insights, and I wish I was able to share their videos here (privacy policies prevent me from doing so). Fortunately, their voices will be heard at a formal presentation that the above-mentioned consultant is preventing both overseas and in South Australia. In the meantime, I can publish my own video, so I’ll let the vlog below speak for itself!

What do South Australian pre-service and graduate teachers really need?

I would really like to know precisely who determines which courses must be completed by pre-service teachers and what those courses should contain.

I ponder this for a reason. Too regularly throughout the first four years of my career have I questioned, “Why was I not taught this at uni?” Friends who are also teachers have expressed that they have felt the same way.

I experienced a wide range of teaching styles at uni, from some amazing lecturers and tutors to some who weren’t quite as up there. I learnt a lot about big ideas like teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds, about the importance of relationships in education, about involving parents and families, about SACSA, SACE and even a couple of nods towards what would become the Australian Curriculum. I learnt to write elaborate lesson plans and unit plans that ticked all the boxes according to the relevant policies and frameworks.

But very rarely was I taught the HOW of teaching. Of course, we looked at educational theory both in terms of methodology and classroom management, but my university program did not prepare me for the nitty-gritty of what I teach and the medium through which I teach it: language.

Which brings me to the question: given that we were bombarded with the principle of “Literacy and numeracy are everybody’s responsibility”, why was I not adequately taught how to teach literacy and numeracy in my subject area?

Friends who attended other universities tell me that they had “Literacy” courses, but even those courses didn’t go quite far enough.

So how can we expect pre-service and graduate teachers of ANY subject area to teach literacy and numeracy effectively if they are not equipped with the skills to do so? How can we expect explicit teaching of language features in subjects other than English if teachers do not have the linguistic knowledge? (At this point, I would like to qualify my point by saying that I do not assert that teachers do not know their subject area. What I mean is, do they know how to explicitly teach the language and language features associated with that discipline?)

In the past few years I have immersed myself in Language and Literacy PD (and by Language, I am not referring to my role as a LOTE teacher, but as an English teacher) and it has made me a hundred times more effective in my role. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that due to a lack of skills in teaching literacy in my first year of teaching, I let my students down. If I had known then a small fraction of what I know now, their learning and approach to the subject might have been different. I majored in English at uni – I can only imagine how non-English trained English teachers might feel when faced with meeting the Language Strand requirements of the Australian Curriculum. It would be like putting me in front of a Maths class!

The skills for teaching literacy and numeracy are something that I feel passionately about being more effectively integrated into pre-service teacher training and on-going graduate teacher professional development. I wonder, what else do pre-service and graduate teachers really need? According to the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, approximately 30% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

What can be done better at university and in the earliest years of their career to prevent this? What do those teachers require?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

My Reading to Learn Journey

I count myself as very fortunate to have been involved in Catholic Education South Australia’s Reading to Learn professional development program over the past two years.  Given the fact that it has been at the front of my mind for the past term and going into the ASFLA conference next week, I felt it required a descriptive/reflective post to explain my fervour.

Reading to Learn was developed by Dr David Rose and is based on principles of functional grammar. It aims “to enable all learners at all levels of education to read and write successfully, at levels appropriate to their age, grade and area of study.” (http://www.readingtolearn.com.au/) This provides a key point of access to the Australian Curriculum, which also demands that students of all abilities work with age-appropriate, challenging texts across the curriculum. Whilst Reading to Learn was originally developed with EAL students in mind, the strategies are applicable to mainstream students of all levels.

Having said this, I think David Rose explains the theory behind the strategy best:

My Reading to Learn journey began with my colleague’s encouragement two years ago. Getting involved is the best thing I have done for my teaching. It has strengthened my prior knowledge of linguistics, changed my approach to literacy education, and helped me to develop a lot more empathy with my students and what they experience when learning to cope with complex genres in secondary school.

As well as its application in my English and Religion classes, I have also found the pedagogy successful in my LOTE classroom. Whether in English or Italian, I am seeing my students’ confidence and willingness to attempt challenging genres growing by the week. With this, their reading comprehension and ability to produce quality writing is increasing tenfold. It is hard work and time consuming, but the fantastic results make it worthwhile.

Reading to Learn is being used at an international scale, and my colleagues and I have had opportunities to network with visiting teachers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, as well as teachers from across South Australia. We are looking forward to continuing to share ideas and learn collaboratively at next week’s Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association Conference next week in Melbourne.

lovely gifts!

Some generous gifts to our school by our Scandinavian Reading to Learn visitors.

This program is not just for English and EAL teachers, either. Literacy is a cross-curricular priority, and as a school we are working with staff to develop a consistent approach across the learning areas. This is an on-going process, which is still in its very nascent stages, however there are some promising signs and I will continue to post as we progress through this stage of our Reading to Learn journey.

I would love to hear from other teachers and schools using this pedagogy. What have been your successes and challenges? How do you implement it in your classroom and across the curriculum?

Composing Written Texts Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6

This afternoon I was fortunate enough to be present at the launch of Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6. This fantastic resource, aimed at a national audience, represents several years of work from Beverley White, Anne Hamilton, and Kylie Pedler from Catholic Education SA and Bronwyn Custance from the Department for Education and Child Development.

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The book is a practical manual  for classroom teachers to support the scaffolding of written language in English, Science, History and Mathematics. The writers set out to provide “written models that illustrate the language features for particular genres at specific stages of linguistic development” (White & Hamilton 2013, p. 5). They have drawn upon genre maps to determine which genres students are expected to write at each year level in the Australian Curriculum. They have then developed writing samples for each genre which reflect the AC’s expectation of linguistic capacity at each year level. Each year level and genre is aligned not only to the Australian Curriculum, but also to DECD’s 2012 Language and Literacy Levels across the Australian Curriculum: EALD which have replaced the former ESL Scales and “describe the development of language and literacy needed across the year levels to access and demonstrate curriculum knowledge, skills and understandings for all learning areas” (DECD 2012, in White & Hamilton 2013, p. 6). Hence, the content of the book is relevant to all students in a mainstream or EAL classroom.

It is important to note at this point that while the resource draws heavily on functional grammar, it is not a guide to functional grammar and does not offer further explanation of terms other than in the glossary. That is not its purpose, although it provides references for those who do wish to learn more about the linguistic theory that underpins the work.

Structurally, Composing Written Texts is divided into year levels Foundation to Year 6. Annotated samples of the genres expected at each year level are found within the sections. These annotations include details about text cohesion, text structure, grammar and word knowledge, which are features described in the Language and Literacy Levels. Immediately following the annotated samples are practical suggestions for scaffolding the learning of students at this stage in their development. The scaffolding is structured around the following teaching and learning cycle:

teaching and learning cycle

This cycle allows teachers and learners to engage in a continual process of assessment for learning, and provides the flexibility necessary for differentiation of learning at any point depending on student needs.

Finally, at the end of each sample, specific links are made to the Australian Curriculum for English, Mathematics, Science and History to demonstrate where these units of work meet AC requirements.

This edition of the resource only covers Foundation to Year 6, but there were whispers at the launch today of an edition covering the scaffolding of writing from Year 7 to Year 10 (where the Australian Curriculum stops and the South Australian Certificate of Education begins). This would take some time to develop, but as a secondary teacher I am excited about the possibilities. Having said this, I still think that Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6 is an incredibly useful resource for secondary teachers. It is a reality that we do have students working at the language levels that are explored in the book. This may be for any number of reasons, but regardless of what those are we must meet these students where they are at and work to move them up the levels. Composing Written Texts provides a practical guide for doing so that I will certainly draw upon in my role as both an EAL teacher and a mainstream classroom teacher in a secondary setting.

For more information or to obtain a copy of Composing Written Texts, contact Catholic Education SA or download and print the order form, found here.

Creative Catastrophe – reflections on a digital unit for Year 8

Over the past few weeks a colleague and I have been working on a collaborative project with our Year 8 English classes that involved teaching persuasive language through a topic on copyright, plagiarism and Creative Commons.

We perceived a need among our students to develop their understanding of what it actually means to create their own original piece of work, and what the limitations are on their use of other people’s ideas and works for their own purposes. The idea for the unit lent itself brilliantly to teaching about digital citizenship and what their rights and responsibilities are as both consumers and creators of content in both the digital and the physical world.

After hearing Selena Woodward speak at the South Australian English Teachers Association conference in May of this year, we were excited and inspired to begin the project. And so were our students when we explained it to them – it’s main selling point for  them being that they got to create a video at the end.

I have made videos with classes before. I should have known how exhausting it would be. I was so excited about the concept that I forgot.

We started by posing the following question to the students in the form of a video stimulus: “What can we do to draw upon other people’s work but avoid plagiarism?” We then went through a process of building persuasive language skills and understanding of copyright laws and Creative Commons. Students used this learning to work in groups and create a persuasive video response to the original problem that had been posed to them.

Some of the challenges of this somewhat-inquiry based project included the anxiety of relinquishing some control to the students in terms of where they went with their suggested solutions to the problem and how their product developed. Yet this was also an opportunity in that the onus was on them to work together effectively and solve problems, hence helping to build the resilience I am aiming for with my class. There was also the challenge of getting students out of their comfort zones. Many of them have used Windows Movie Maker before, but they were reluctant to try new programs such as Powtoon or other animation based software. And then there was the degree of trust in the students required to do the right thing as they moved around the school to film.

There were many opportunities though, which outweighed the challenges. It was great to see students who wouldn’t normally work together so enthusiastic about their shared ideas and work. Unlike the last time I had students create videos, this task was far more structured in terms of a step-by-step process and the language structures students were required to use. The accessibility of students’ smartphones and tablets also made  the facilitation of the filming and editing much easier as they simply had to plug in and go, rather than sharing the school’s limited video cameras among many groups.

Click here to see the students’ reflections on the project and some of the final products. To be honest, they were a little more amateurish than I had envisioned. But when I think about it, they are Year 8s, and the concepts they are talking about are actually quite complex. So I’m very proud. We may need to work on some editing skills though…

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Creative Catastrophe – reflections on a digital unit for Year 8 by Melissa Phillips is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at 8 Faulkner’s Class Blog.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://melissasphillips.wordpress.com/about/.

PAT-R and Teaching Reading Comprehension Skills

Yesterday a colleague and I attended a Purposeful Assessment workshop run by ACER. It focused on the PAT-R and PAT-M tests, and how they can be interpreted and used for diagnostic data and to inform classroom strategies. It was a clearly-structured, relevant workshop which provided me with direction for how to effectively use the PAT-Reading tests my Year 8 English students completed at the end of last term.

Something which the presenter said that struck me was about the necessity for teachers to have a deep understanding what makes a text complex. This seems obvious, I know – but it got me thinking, I wasn’t taught this at uni. At no stage in my degree do I remember doing a topic or unit that focused on explicit teaching of grammar. We did a lot of work on unit planning, lesson planning and the curriculum, but nothing when it came to teaching students language (other than in in my Italian elective). But nothing substantial when it came to English. So as a graduate, I didn’t have the depth of knowledge and skills required to explain linguistic operations to students, or to effectively deconstruct a text. I could do it myself, but to make some of the concepts accessible to students was a struggle.

It wasn’t until my work with the EAL team at Catholic Education SA that I was truly able to explain the connection between what I could do, and the theory behind those skills. Then I was able to effectively communicate them to my middle school students in a way that set them up for successful reading and writing. Given that I was training to be an English teacher, this is a gaping hole in the course. Fortunately in my first few years I have been exposed to and participated in courses and projects surrounding literacy and have made links with amazing colleagues from whom I have learnt the necessary skills.

Essentially what beginning teachers need in order to learn to move students from general decoding of language to real comprehension, interpretation and analysis is a starting point. The Reading to Learn program was my stimulus, and now that we are using the PAT-R test I am able to effectively identify and target the skills that my students need to develop. There are a wealth of resources out there to help students develop the language they need to be effective readers but it is important to be discerning. We must consider multimodal presentations, and whether or not the questions posed are appropriate. For example, questions that simply require the students to recount the events word for word do not require any critical thinking or manipulation of language and therefore are not an accurate measure of comprehension. Questions and activities need to encourage students to explore, infer, interpret, analyse and crate using language.

Some recommended resources for building students’ language skills and comprehension include:

Derewianka, B. (2011) A New Grammar Companion for Teachers, PrimaryEnglish Teachers Australia

Humphrey, S., Love, K., & Droga, L. (2011) Working Grammar, Pearson Australia

Reading to Learn

Cameron, S. (2009) Teaching Reading Comprehension Skills: a practical classroom guide, Pearson New Zealand

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