Literacy for real…

I spoke in my last post about how literature and literacy, although they should be two sides of the same coin, often do not work together in the ways we would like to help students become literate in the real world. As I mentioned in that post, functional skills offers a great opportunity to bridge that gap, but there are great ways to do it when teaching literature too. Here are a few I’ve tried and loved over the years.

1. Relating things to now.

This technique is one I find particularly useful when teaching literature at GCSE – especially Shakespeare and Victorian literature. Often students find the physical language used a barrier, which prevents them from interacting with the text efficiently. 

A good way to combat this is to ask students to write a diary entry as a character – but from a modern perspective. For example, how Hermia feels because she can not be with Lysander. There are two key concepts at play here. First, students have to understand the original text in order to complete the exercise. But they must also understand the world around them in order to translate it in to modern circumstances. This allows them to understand the text at a deeper level, but also to increase their social and emotional literacy.

2. Change the method of transmission.

An excellent way I’ve found to cement understanding is for students to rewrite scenes from the book or play in a different format – a blog post, tweet, radio speech or film trailer all allow students ways to condense and translate information they’ve learned, as well as increasing media literacy.

3. Teaching someone else.

Especially good for advanced students, having students prepare a lesson aimed at children younger than them to explain key concepts of a work – having them prepare games and worksheets – really allows students to consolidate their knowledge, as well as increasing their communication skills.
I hope these are helpful, and that they are strategies you can try in your own lessons.

Are literature and literacy the same thing?

Literacy education often has, as its end goal, the reading of books. It’s a logical beginning and end. After all, if a student struggles to read a book at the beginning of literacy instruction, and is able to at the end, isn’t that the very definition of progress?

But are we actually limiting students by taking “is able to read and analyse a book or article” as a working definition of success in literacy teaching? In the U.K., a student with a A* – C (4-9) grade at GCSE would probably he assumed to be literate. But this doesn’t account for the rehearsal, the practice, the going over and over of the analysis of one text in class. It doesn’t assume that the largest, most insightful pieces of analysis are probably planted and developed by the class teacher. The language paper includes unseen elements, but the passing of exams – exam technique – is a skill in and of itself. It’s a skill quite distinct from what I think literacy means in a daily context.

The functional skills qualifications in English offer an alternative to those who are struggling with GCSE, and they are not as favourably looked upon in terms of “success” at literacy. But the skills in these courses are much better suited to literacy in real situations. The writing elements of these courses focus on necessary professional documents – letters, emails, adverts or press releases. The reading takes the same sorts of texts as sources.

I love literature. I love picking apart a book for its themes and character development and subtexts. But I accept that, for the majority of jobs, these skills aren’t necessary. As educators, I think our focus always needs to be on preparing students for their next step. In my phase of education, that’s university or work. And if my students don’t want to go on to study English Literature, they don’t need to be able to analyse Hard Times. They need to be able to understand their timetable, their employment contract, their first tax form. They need to be able to read an article or a magazine and be able to identify its bias, to recognise if something they see online is fake news.

It would be a shame if we were able to teach a generation of students to understand the books on the syllabus, but not leave them prepared to take on basic life tasks. In the next blog post, I’ll focus on ways we can inject “life” skills in to English teaching.

In the meantime, what do you think? Does understanding literature automatically denote literature? I’d love to hear other people’s take on this.

What comes before the word?

Often, when I announce to students which book or play we’re going to be studying, their first question is “are we watching the film?”

Whilst the answer is often yes, I’m always very clear about the fact that the parts of the film we watch should not form part of the student’ literary analysis of the book or play – that we watch the film for context only. But that’s for students who are at the point in their academic career where close textual and language analysis are skills that they’re comfortable starting to use. I would never ask students to write an analytic essay based on Baz Lurhman’s
Romeo and Juliet rather than the original text, but I would show it to them in order for them to begin situating Shakespeare’s language in a modern context.  

However, for students (of any age) who aren’t yet able to engage with texts in a way that allows them to comprehend and infer meaning from them, I think film is an excellent starting point. In my last post I talked about reading being like swimming, and how often swimming teachers begin to teach on land – demonstrating arm and leg movements, making sure head and neck alignment is correct. I think film is the literacy equivalent of standing on the poolside tucking your head between your arms.

When we watch films, we do a lot of the things that we also need to be able to do when reading, but without the exercise of decoding. We place the characters in their familial or situational context. We begin to piece the narrative together – are these scenes going chronologically or do some go back in time – and understand what some of those narrative events mean specifically for certain characters. By watching body language, we are able to infer a character’s feelings towards another character.

We do all this naturally, largely without thinking, because our brain is not actively engaged in having to read.

Which is why, when teaching reading to learners who have struggled with reading – often well in to their teens and beyond – I start with film. Once reading becomes fluid and automatic, readers are able to see the action as they’re reading as if it were a film playing. Just using the film in the first place mimics that sense of achievement – allowing students to feel that they already possess all the skills to read fluently. Which they do.

I’ve been told that starting with films rather than “easy” books is a waste of time, but when using a film gets my students to a place where they feel comfortable and competent, rather than using a book clearly beneath their age range which puts them in a place of discomfort immediately – I don’t see why anyone would choose the book.

Sometimes it’s best to start where you are.

Let’s talk about swimming…

Imagine that you grow up on an island. Because you’re surrounded by water, swimming is a huge part of life on your island. People have jobs on boats or as life guards – but clearly you need to be able to swim to get these jobs. Without being able to swim, your employment options, your chance of success in life, are significantly damaged. 

Not to mention that swimming looks fun. As a toddler, maybe you see your older siblings playing in the water, splashing and diving and laughing. Swimming looks like an activity you want to try for yourself – after all, if all the other kids are doing it, how hard can it be?

So you try learning to swim. You jump in to the water and it’s bright and blue and warm, but then maybe your head ducks under and you get water stuck in your mouth. Maybe you jump in too quickly and you struggle to get to the surface and get scared. Maybe none of those things happen, but when you try to swim – when you actually start to move your body in the water – you find it hard to keep in a straight line, or you can’t move your arms and legs in tandem, or you keep floating on to your back.

Suddenly the thing that other people made looked fun and easy is the exact opposite. It’s hard, it takes a lot of practice. Maybe that first experience made you scared of it. Maybe you’re embarrassed to try again in public in case people laugh at you. So you stop. You don’t swim unless you’re made to – unless your school makes you take swimming lessons and you can’t get out of it.

But swimming is still an essential part of life on your island. If you want to get a job you need to learn to swim. So, when you’re a teenager, you try again. You start paying attention to your swimming lessons. But your swimming teacher no longer just has to teach you to swim. You don’t just need to learn how to kick your legs and move your arms and breathe in time with doing all these things. Your teacher has to fix all the things that you’ve been carrying around in your head since that first experience swimming went wrong – the fear that you might go under or the embarrassment you feel.

Which brings me to reading. Teaching reading skills to teenagers and adults feels a lot like teaching someone who is scared of water how to swim. You have to unpack all of the psychological reasons why up until now reading hasn’t been something they’ve felt able to do. And those reasons are different for everyone – but everyone needs to be able o read in order to actively participate in most of life’s basic tasks. So developing those strategies – those very early steps that help people become better readers – is essential. And sometimes, it’s very similar to teaching swimming. When you first begin, you don’t start in the water. You start on the land.

Which brings me to the first reading teaching strategy I want to discuss – in the next blog post.

The way to words.

A pun on ‘the way forwards’, I’ve started this blog to document my research and practice in to literacy and reading. I’m an English teacher based on the North West region of the UK, and in recent years I’ve specialised in teaching struggling readers along with dyslexic learners. I’m fascinated by the psychology and social aspect of reading, the way older learners with reading difficulties approach reading, and the way in which as adults we promote and assist in the development of reading as a skill.

Expect posts on my practice, things I’ve been reading or researching and my general thoughts on literacy and reading. I’d love to talk to other literacy enthusiasts so do get in touch!

Helen.