Reading/literacy roundabout

There was a good news story on ABC yesterday, and I did welcome it, even if I also had a total deja vu moment!

There is a national focus on engaging girls in maths and science, but the underperformance of boys in literacy attracts little attention. Now, teachers are calling for a national campaign to counter boys’ mass rejection of the English curriculum….

One boys school in Sydney’s inner west is trying to turn things around and has taken up the challenge to foster a love of literature.

It starts first thing in the morning. Canterbury Boys High begins every school day with 20 minutes of reading time. There’s no screens in sight as boys devour a wide variety of books from the classics to graphic literature.

English teacher Nathan McKinley said the initiative had helped create an ingrained focus on literacy that permeates all subject areas.

“It’s a whole-school focus now,” Mr McKinley said. “We’ve been able to move away from the idea that literacy is the English teacher’s job.”…

That’s great! However I witnessed exactly this practice as long ago as 1993, and it wasn’t exactly new then! See also my Grad Cert TESOL essay from 1998 on Literacy.

The practice is known as Sustained Silent Reading or Drop Everything and Read . I saw it happening in 1993 at South Sydney High School.

Back when I was doing that TESOL course Canadian Stephen Krashen was a big name. It is still worth reading his 2003 article False Claims About Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Skills vs. Whole Language, and Recreational Reading, especially given both major parties here in Oz have tended to go all reactionary on this.


Aspergers, English-speaking and Senator Revenant

To supplement my post Testing for English competence? read Annabel Crabb in today’s Sun-Herald.

The policy – proposed by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton with all the mellifluity of a man who has spent nine years in the Queensland Police – is currently under consideration by the parliament…

It’s drawn immediate support from Pauline Hanson.

Asked by Channel Seven what she thought of the proposed test and its associated Australian residency requirement extension from one to four years, the Senator declared: “It’s a start in the right direction.”…

The last minor mangle is a small sample of Senator Revenant’s somewhat loose connection to the English language. What price her IELTS score, I wonder?

Interesting: If you can’t speak English, you don’t deserve to call yourself a Senator, Pauline Hanson.

SHE wears her love of Australia like a badge of honour, but a leading speech expert says Senator Pauline Hanson should consider learning how to speak our language if she wants to inspire the nation.

Michael Kelly, a body language and speech expert gave Ms Hanson’s maiden speech in the Senate barely a pass mark of 5.5 out of 10, blaming her poor pronunciation and “clunky” delivery for creating an “amateurish” first impression.

Putting aside her controversial politics, the 30-minute oration was “not up to the standards Australians should expect of an inspiring member of the Senate,” Mr Kelly said.

Stumbling over basic words like “custody” and “integral,” Ms Hanson gave the impression she had not rehearsed the much-anticipated speech, which “lacked impact,” was “monotone” and at times was “twee” and “juvenile,” Mr Kelly claimed.

“It was like she was completely unprepared. She hadn’t worked out her phrasing, it was monotone and she struggled to read parts of it out,” he said.

“She was mispronouncing words like “custody” which she delivered as “cus-dy” and that just leaves an unprofessional impression,” he said…

The lowest point were her remarks offering to drive migrants to the airport herself, Mr Kelly said, immature and unbecoming of a senior parliamentarian….

To be uncharacteristically fair to the Revenant of Oz. I suspect that much of the trouble she has brought on her own head over the education of children with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, stems from her own intellectual and linguistic incapacity.  Rather than being taken out of context, her remarks had been typically garbled and ill-considered, but she does have a point. There should be better training and resourcing for the education of children with disabilities in the mainstream. I have a little experience here as in my last three years of teaching one of my duties was to support one-on-one some students with Aspergers. I had a couple of successes and one not so successful. At the time (2003-2005) this was all rather new to us. Glad to say one of the students concerned is now a friend on Facebook.

Many years ago — 1970 in fact — I taught at Dapto High School, south of Wollongong. In those days we had no idea at all — I do not exaggerate — when confronted, if we were, with students with such things as Aspergers/autism. Today is so different, as this excellent page from Dapto High attests. Do visit it if you want authoritative information on the subject.

I looked that up because of an item in today’s Sun-Herald by Peter FitzSimons — someone whose writing at times annoys me. But not today…

Even for Pauline Hanson, her attack this week on kids with autism – maintaining they had no place in “our” class-rooms – took the breath away. As ever, her polarising politics is divisive, driven by a mean-spiritedness that has set post-war records in Australian politics, and entirely ill-informed. In fact, the inclusion of students on the autism spectrum and wider Special Needs students has been successful across our brown and pleasant land, and some of it I have seen up close.

TFF’s brother, Andrew, is Principal at Dapto High School, where they have run a stunningly successful integration program for students on the autism spectrum for the last nine years, and they now have no fewer than 28 of them.

“These students enrich our school and this community every day,” he told me on Friday. “Students are encouraged to participate in the full range of activities: sporting, cultural, academic etc. Participation in mainstream classes is accommodated when ever possible; often playing to particular strengths; Art , Music, Engineering etc. It works. Never had a single complaint. It is inspirational and heart-warming on so many levels for so many of our Dapto students . . . and wonderful for those on the spectrum, and their families, too.”

Great to hear!

Testing for English competence?

On Facebook yesterday I posted with reference to Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship? The author of that, Misty Adoniou, is Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra. I was from 1990-2010 for much of the time a teacher of ESOL or ESL in a private language college, at a state high school, at an Anglican school, and as a private tutor, so I have had a professional interest. My post:

This is outrageous! If this had been the case twenty years ago my friend M, a very successful citizen indeed, would have failed, as would more successful citizens than you could poke a stick at, including quite a few Anglos born here! IELTS Band 6? A stupid suggestion — and as a retired ESL/ESOL I know that test well. “Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university” This requirement MUST NOT pass. Stupid Dutton!

I am marginally less excited this morning, but not much…

The Australian government has been proposing among other things a strengthening of the English Language requirements for those aspiring to be Australian citizens. (That link to a PDF currently works, but typically as with any government discussion paper could disappear at any time.)

English language is essential for economic participation and social cohesion,
and there are certain standards that must be met, especially for those
who are seeking to become a permanent resident or Australian citizen.

There is strong public support to ensure aspiring citizens are fully able
to participate in Australian life, by speaking English, our national language.
Aspiring citizens are currently required to possess a level of ‘basic’ English
to meet the requirements for citizenship. This is tested when an applicant
sits the Australian citizenship test.

Aspiring citizens will be required to undertake separate upfront English
language testing with an accredited provider and achieve a minimum
level of ‘competent’.

People currently exempt from sitting the Australian citizenship test, for example
applicants over 60 years of age, or under 16 years of age at the time they
applied for citizenship or those with an enduring or permanent mental
or physical incapacity, will be exempt from English language testing.

The test most people will confront is the internationally respected  IELTS test.  I have worked with this test in the past. This SBS page summarises well:

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton also outlined in a press release that the English test that applicants will be required to pass involve will involve elements of reading, writing, listening and speaking. This is thought that it will therefore make it equivalent to IELTS level 6.

What does “competent” mean here?

Let’s see how the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is scored as a comparative benchmark to define a “competent” English level.

IELTS measures the language proficiency of people who want to study or work where English is used as a language of communication. The test assesses areas including listening, reading, writing and speaking – in less than three hours.

According to the IELTS official site, there are two types of IELTS tests: Academic and General Training.

The General Training type, which focuses on basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts, is normally considered easier than the Academic type, and is already a requirement for migration to Australia.

It is therefore more likely to assume that Government’s citizenship test will look at the standard of the General type….

Currently, for international students in Australia hoping to study full-time in a recognised education institution, they need need an overall IELTS score of 5.5 for Academic type.

However, most universities set their English proficiency requirement at an overall score of 6.5. For University of Sydney, many faculties and courses actually require an overall band score of 7.0 or better with a minimum score of 6.0 in each of the components.

It is therefore quite hopeful to assume that the new English requirement shall not be a significant obstacle for those young people who successfully manage to accomplish a degree, migrate and live in Australia before applying for citizenship.

Labor is exaggerating when they say the test is “university level”, but I still feel the proposal, even if it refers to Band 6 on the General IELTS in listening, reading, writing and speaking, is setting the bar unreasonably high. As Misty Adoniou says:

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

I strongly suspect that if I were to spring a battery of IELTS tests on the usual clientele at City Diggers in Wollongong a rather alarming number — all of them citizens and many born here, including “Anglos” — would fail to make Band 6 in one or more of the skill areas. Of course they are all nonetheless competent as citizens.

A curious justification for tightening English is some apparent connection to resisting terrorism:

Recent terrorist attacks around the world have justifiably caused concern
in the Australian community. The Government responds to these threats
by continuing to invest in counter-terrorism, strong borders and strong
national security. This helps to ensure that Australia remains an open,
inclusive, free and safe society.

In the face of these threats, there is no better time to reaffirm our
steadfast commitment to democracy, opportunity and our shared values.

The English Test is after all part of that package, and on those grounds alone I feel Labor has been justified in sending it back to the drawing board.

As far as I know I have not met any terrorists, but I have been up close and personal with a well-known member of  Hizb ut-Tahrir, as I recount here and here.

This goes back to 2005 and a particularly interesting if controversial event. On the day I was not there, as I had to attend a meeting of ESL teachers at Erskineville – or was it Arncliffe, one of the last such meetings for me as I retired the following year. But I did know all the participants at The Mine end, and I posted on it at the time and the following year. See Salt Mine and Islamic Students; 7.30 Report: The Mine and the Islamists; The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern?. On Floating Life Apr 06 ~ Nov 07 there is also a major entry from April 2006.

What I found yesterday was a video on YouTube of the complete 2005 Seminar [still there at 9 Oct 2014] referred to in those entries. The controversy centred on the guest speakers, Sheik Khalid Yassin and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Wassim Doureihi. These people would fall in one of Michael Burleigh’s inner circles (see previous entry) but not necessarily, of course, into the innermost circle. While I had concerns about the Mine students involved, I very much doubt they would have even considered the innermost circle – quite the opposite in fact. (I also refer to these students in my Cronulla 2005 posts.)


Stills from the video.

Mine students often show initiative, of course, and these particular students were very bright indeed and participated in all aspects of school life to the full. An earlier generation some ten years before promised they would have Barry Crocker and Kamahl at their farewell assembly. We thought they were joking, but on the day, there they were! The Tamils were especially happy. So were the office ladies.

What I can say is that Wassim and company would have had no trouble passing IELTS at a very high level, so what is Mr Dutton actually doing?

You know who…

Related: it is worth taking the challenge of this article from 2015. And also along the lines we are freaking out rather more than we should, read Londoner Stephen Liddell from 10 June 2017: Talk of Terrorism is all hype. He posts this, figures relating presumably to the UK:


Do check my other posts tagged “terror”.

Time to assert the critical role of media professionals

Today for example the Sydney Morning Herald brings us an important interactive page on the 2003 invasion of Iraq — a must read. Such media voices are now under attack from the most powerful office in the world, and we must all fight back with everything we’ve got.


Thanks to jollyjack on Deviant Art

Now for some signs of these times. First:

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—A few minutes into his CPAC speech Friday, esteemed and honest president Donald J. Trump said people were so excited to hear him speak that, “There are lines that go back six blocks. I tell you that because you won’t read about it.”

In a sense, he’s right. You won’t read about it, because they don’t exist…


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday hand selected news outlets to participate in an off-camera “gaggle” with reporters inside his West Wing office instead of the James S Brady Press Briefing Room.

The news outlets blocked from the press briefing include organisations who President Trump has criticised by name. CNN, BBC, The New York Times, LA Times, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, The Hill, and the Daily Mail, were among the news outlets barred from the gathering.

Instead, the press secretary hand-picked news outlets including Breitbart News, One America News Network, The Washington Times, all news organisations with far-right leanings. Others major outlets approved included ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, Reuters and Bloomberg…


“I can run a little hot on occasions,” he admitted at the conservative freak show known as the CPAC conference. Judging from his rare public outing on Thursday, that would be an unusual example of diplomatic understatement.

Bannon spoke disdainfully and at length about the real threat he identified facing the nation: a critical media that he likes to call “the opposition party”. “They are the corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to the economic nationalist agenda that Donald Trump has,” Bannon yelled.

Bannon clearly shares Trump’s burning sense of resentment at being excluded from the establishment. For his boss, that reached a peak with the humiliation of President Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

For Bannon, now safely inside the West Wing, that means still seeing the world through the lens of the Breitbart website that shocked the media conscience with so much alt-right trash. At one point on Thursday, Bannon even used the phrase “we at Breitbart”, as if there were no real difference between his old job in digital far-right media and his new job as a presidential adviser.

Bannon predicted the media would fight “every day” against the Trump agenda…


Trump used the opening of his remarks to again denounce the media, saying many stories about his administration are “fake news” with stories that rely on anonymous sources. Trump pointed to a Washington Post story this month that cited nine current and former intelligence sources who said Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed US economic sanctions on Russia with that country’s ambassador before Trump took office.

Trump said he didn’t believe there were nine sources. “They make up sources. They are very dishonest people,” Trump said. The Post’s stories helped lead to Flynn’s resignation after further disclosures that he had misled administration officials, including Vice President Pence, over the nature of his conversations.

“We are fighting the fake news,” Trump said. “It’s fake, phony, fake.”


President Trump’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland was littered with some of the president’s favorite and frequently cited falsehoods. Here’s a roundup of 13 of his more dubious claims, listed in the order in which he made them:

“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed.’ There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. . . . They make up sources.”

Trump is referring to a Washington Post article that disclosed that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials. The Post report prompted a firestorm that led to Flynn’s firing by Trump, because it turned out that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and other administration officials about whether he had discussed sanctions.

The article cited information provided by “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.” (Calls by the Russian ambassador are monitored by intelligence agencies.) No White House official has disputed the accuracy of the article — and indeed, it resulted in Flynn’s departure from the administration…


There is reason to be concerned about the integrity of American political and legal institutions as the president and his advisors have thrown them open to question and manipulation. The president seems not to have thought through how these tactics will affect the future political trajectory of the country — a fact that contains stark similarities to the way the leaderships of Egypt and Turkey have leveraged institutions to meet immediate political challenges and, in the process, consolidated the authoritarian nature of their respective political systems.

Finally, with my teaching hat on, from the International Literacy Association:

If we have time to teach our students only one thing this school year, let it be critical literacy! There are few topics more crucial for students today than those that enable them to analyze information critically.

Gone are the days when trusted teacher- and peer-edited textbooks were the main providers of knowledge. So long to a time when most fake news existed at the checkout line in supermarket tabloids. These days, our students are flooded with information, and without the proper skill set for identifying fact from fiction, it will be difficult for them to determine legitimacy. Modern media come in many different formats, including print media (books, magazines, newspapers), television, movies, video games, music, cell phones, various kinds of software, and the Internet. Knowing how to read these media critically is the key to literacy and understanding for today’s learners and information consumers…

One way is to teach students to use the 5W’s for Critical Analysis, recommended by Donald Leu, Deborah Leu, and Julie Coiro in their 2004 book, Teaching With the Internet K–12. They suggest it is helpful for students to ask the following questions while consuming information: Who is saying/writing/creating this? What was their purpose of the particular media that was used? When did they say/write/create? Why did they say/write/create it? Where can we go to check for accuracy?

Tailpiece 10am:

Part of the developing picture.

AUSTRALIA’S best-loved children’s author, Mem Fox, was left sobbing and shaken after being detained for two hours and aggressively interrogated by immigration officials at Los Angeles airport.

Fox says she’s unlikely to ever travel to the United States again after being made to feel like “a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay”.

President Donald Trump had created the climate for this sort of behaviour, she said, adding: “This is what happens when extremists take power.”…

“I am old and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently,” she said. “Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in her 80s, in a wheelchair.

“The way I was treated would have made any decent American shocked to the core, because that’s not America as a whole, it really isn’t. It’s just that people have been given permission to let rip in a fashion that is alarming.”

The irony that the two most popular of her more than 25 books published in the US, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and Whoever You Are, are both about diversity, was not lost on her. Nor was the fact that the theme of the conference she was attending was inclusivity and diversity.

Fox has visited the US more than 100 times since 1985, and is widely known there as an author and literacy educator…

Fly on the wall school doco: Revolution School

Fascinated by the how of ABC’s Revolution School. See A years’ worth of drama: Revolution School on Screenblog.

At high school, drama unfolds every single day. So imagine the challenge facing Revolution School series producer Alex West as he tried to fit the ups and downs of an entire school year into just four episodes. By Caris Bizzaca.

In 2015, the centenary of Gallipoli was commemorated, Malcom Turnbull became prime minister, and in Melbourne, a typical high school was trying to lift their bar under the watchful lenses of a group of documentary-makers.

The result is Revolution School: a four-part ABC documentary series that investigates how to improve high school education in Australia by focusing on Melbourne’s Kambrya College over the course of one year….

The first challenge [Alex West] faced was how.

“How on earth do you begin to capture events in a very dynamic ever-changing school environment where there’s over 1000 people, and you have no idea who will end up being key characters or what might happen to them?” West says.

The second main challenge was finding a way of incorporating the cutting-edge research and work of academics, such as Professor John Hattie from University of Melbourne, into the series.

But having this work cohesively alongside the stories of students, parents and teachers presented an additional problem.

“It’s kind of two genres in a program-making sense, which could fight against each other,” West says.

“Strictly observational documentary making and specialist factual television production had to be somehow aligned into a way that would work.”…

Do read on. I have over the years been involved a couple of times with attempts to capture real school in action. First was modest: just to capture on videotape the interactions of a single lesson in a full class of 30-40 students. This was 1977-78 at Sydney University and involved three full-size television cameras, an OB van, and a director who in his time had worked on Coronation Street and with Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand! The results were fit for the purpose, surprisingly, which was to give trainee teachers material to study and analyse. The best we could do to achieve natural results  was to have two lessons, the first not recorded so students acclimatised to those bloody great cameras in the room and the second recorded. Worked pretty well, actually.

Second was in 2001-2003 at Sydney Boys High with a UTS project on Scaffolding. The camera was much less obtrusive by then and the results were useful.

You can view the Powerpoint slideshow used at the presentation to the final conference at UTS in August 2003. You may also read a 2005 article on the project by Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons: Putting Scaffolding to Work.

The term “scaffolding” is a metaphor taken from the building industry. There it is a temporary structure that is taken away when the building can stand alone. Good teachers often do it “automatically”. On the other hand, some “scaffolding” (if done in a mechanical fashion) may be unnecessary, even counter-productive.

Starting in 2001 and continuing in 2002 with 7E and 7F, a research project on scaffolding was conducted at Sydney Boys High School (and other secondary and primary schools), a collaboration between the Department of Education and Training (Multicultural Branch) and the University of Technology Sydney. Research team leader was Dr Jennifer Hammond of UTS.

7F 2002 was the original target class. The researchers looked at English, Geography and ESL. In 2002 the classes were in English and French.

In 2003 the data was studied and conclusions drawn, culminating in a presentation at UTS in August 2003…

I particularly recall the need to get clearances and permissions from all families involved, something that didn’t bother us in 1977=8! We didn’t get 100% permission either, so we had to make sure a tiny number of students were never shown. I can only imagine the paperwork that went into setting up Kambrya College for a year’s fly-on-the wall with what are in fact spy cameras everywhere!

From the outset,[Alex West] decided two fixed rigs, each with two cameras would need to be installed in the school, so they would never miss an opportunity. They monitored these cameras from an office onsite, so they could selectively record only what was necessary. On top of that were two roving cameras, helmed by shooter-directors Naomi Elkin-Jones and Nick McInerney, and four to six cameras installed on the school’s own CCTV system.

A blanket agreement was made with the school and every child was sent home with a release form. If those weren’t signed, there was an extensive process involved in making sure the filmmakers didn’t include a child who wasn’t cleared.

The amount of footage they accumulated was immense…

We are seeing the edited product where narratives did emerge over time. It is the nearest I have ever seen to the feeling of being in a school of over 1,000 teenagers and a staff of around 70. I really do admire what the doco makers have achieved, not to mention the school itself.


One reason for choosing Kambrya was its ordinariness, but also its great achievement since 2008.

At a time when we are falling behind in the international education rankings, REVOLUTION SCHOOL tells the story of Kambrya College, a typical outer suburban high school in Melbourne. Kambrya struggles, but led by Principal Michael Muscat, it raises standards by applying cutting edge research developed by Professor John Hattie at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

Change is challenging and confronting for students and teachers alike, however by applying simple low cost ideas in the classroom Kambrya undergoes a dramatic transformation. Ultimately this is a lesson for all schools in Australia, identifying what they can do to improve standards at this critical time.

One issue that emerged last night was how literacy was improved. Here the expert input came from Di Snowball.

Di Snowball began teaching in 1972 and quickly realized she didn’t have enough training in how the children in her Grade 1 class in Melbourne would learn to read and comprehend.
Ms Snowball took it upon herself to find out all she could, and over time developed a six-step strategy for teaching reading which has achieved dramatic results in low-performing schools both in Australia and overseas.

In 1992 she was invited to provide professional learning for teachers and administrators across schools in New York and other parts of the US, and she carried out that role for 16 years. More recently she has been involved in a program which has led to significant improvement in literacy levels in schools in Melbourne’s western region.

The principal at Footscray North Primary School, Sharon Walker, sings the praises of Di Snowball’s approach to teaching reading. “We look at Finland, Singapore, people go overseas and yet we have a fantastic model on our doorstep,” Walker says.

Di Snowball has written several books and articles about literacy teaching and has produced videos demonstrating the most effective teaching practices.

I was gobsmacked by what Di Snowball gets the teachers to implement, as it is an approach that I had seen back in 1993 when I did a research project for the Department of Education in the Botany area of Sydney! Then we called it SSR, or Sustained Silent Reading. See Sustained Silent Reading in the Classroom.

Independent silent reading has been viewed as a time-honored educational tool. Yet today, many teachers sacrifice it for direct instruction, arguing that there are more effective ways to spend the time. What do the experts say?

Let’s begin with the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report. That report stated that “independent silent reading is not effective when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills.” I agree; purpose, design, and integration are critical.

The Forgotten Element: Improving Fluency in Struggling Readers

At the same time, the panel admits that it “does not negate the positive influence independent silent reading time may have, nor the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension.” They simply call for more well-designed studies.

Respected researchers Stephen Krashen and Michael Pressley agreed with the need for those studies and cited significant SSR research that the NRP did not consider. (See The Case of Phonemic Awareness and Effective Beginning Reading Instruction.)

High school English teacher Steve Gardiner adds other strong arguments in his new book, Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading. A 28-year classroom veteran, Gardiner asserts, “Giving them time to read is clearly the most important thing I do with my students. It

  • builds vocabulary;
  • connects to writing;
  • develops an understanding of the qualities of great readers;
  • meets needs the teacher might not know about (What an empowering statement!); and
  • gives students a chance to connect with reading in an unstructured situation.”

It was most encouraging to see again last night what this commonsense approach can achieve. The critical issue is that you learn to read best by actually reading something that means something, as I said back in 1998:

Both whole language and Natural Approaches are attractive, and it is fair to say that they have enhanced the learning and educational experiences of many students. Both mainstream and second-language classes became places where meaning was valued, where communication really took place, where the students could deploy their growing resources of language in interesting and stimulating ways.

Looking back through my own teaching in the 1970s and 1980s I must acknowledge the positive inputs of this family of approaches and their continuing relevance. Among the benefits was an opening of the concerns of English teaching to the world itself, including the mass media and issues of importance in the lives of students and their communities. It was a liberation from the narrow round of literary text analysis, vapid ‘compositions”, mechanical ‘comprehensions’ and arbitrarily sequenced sentence grammar exercises. Students engaged in reception and production of much more authentic texts for real purposes. There was more scope for small group work and an increase in classroom talk and reflection on process. We all found much to be excited about in those years.

It was not all fizz and excitement, however, with blind faith in the students to become literate ‘naturally’. Bob Walshe, an influential advocate in NSW of the process approach to writing, always advocated careful attention to what he called the ‘writing situation’ with attention to the effect on text of variables such as purpose, audience and context. He also advocated the teaching of a minimal sentence grammar, preferably as the need arose in students’ writing. (See Emmitt and Pollock 1991:103.)

Conscious study of language was recommended even by the ‘growth through English’ school:…

Di Snowball seems to have weaned the Kambrya teachers off a kind of “direct instruction” deadness working on tiny snippets of text with stultifying exercises.

For more on Di Snowball see Not beyond comprehension: the six easy steps to improving literacy.

The six comprehension strategies Snowball adapted for teaching reading are: prediction/prior knowledge; think-aloud; text structure; visual representations; summarisation; and questioning. Each strategy is explained and modelled by the teacher before students apply it to their own reading.

Importantly, students must be reading independently every day to practise using the strategy and also reflecting on how it has helped them with their reading.

Further reading: PDF Summary of Survey and Research from the Revolution School site. Most interesting.

Related: my post from May 2016: At last! Sound and sensible journalism on our schools.