We all need stories.

I saw this quote from the late, great Ursula Le Guin this week, and I thought it made a great starting point for this blog.

I’ve spoken about why reading matters outside of being an important life skill, but I’ve never spoken about stories.

I’m really lucky that in the setting I teach in we have small groups. My biggest class size is ten and all of my students will get on with their work quickly again if we take a short break. Lessons are long, so often we do take a quick brain break and we just chat about what’s happened that week or something we’ve seen in the news. We tell each other stories.

We focus in Functional Skills on all communication having a purpose, a goal that, once achieved, marks that act of communication as satisfactory. But we don’t often think about communication as satisfactory in itself.

We use language only because we live in a society. Without the presence of other people, there would be no need to communicate. Sometimes being able to summarise the T.V programme you watched last night or explain why your bus journey was long are conclusions, and skills, in and of themselves.

I’ll talk more about stories in the sense of folk tales next week, but, for this week, try to give weight to those lulls in your class where students just talk.

I’m not being funny but…

Students always want their lessons to be fun. Most of my students, when they talk to each other about non-English related things make great jokes, use puns and offer sarcastic takes on each other’s lives.

As soon as we turn to work, the fun stops and they start to concentrate. But what if comedy was a part of learning?

This recent article made me think even more about all the skills students practice when they’re being funny. I’ve often told students that if they could replicate the manipulation of language they achieve when talking in their written work it would make great reading.

I’ve started to think of some ways comedy can be used in classrooms.

1. Trading insults. As long as the boundaries are established clearly before the exercise, and students know that profanity is banned, getting students to come up with the most creative insult can be a great exercise. If you’re teaching Shakespeare, even better, as you can see if anyone can top the Bard himself at turning a great insult.

2. A funny story. Experimenting with slapstick, students can collaboratively – using the whiteboard or large pieces of paper – create the funniest story of what happened to a character walking home. The best thing about this idea is that it allows all senses of humour a chance to shine.

3. Knock knock! An oldie but a goodie, knock knock jokes allow students to experiment with vocabulary, and offer insight in to implicit meaning which can be tricky to teach on its own.

I hope you try some of these out and, more importantly, I hope they’re fun.

Why reading matters.

When I started this blog, I mainly wanted to talk about literacy, reading, and how both of these things can affect social justice. I still want to talk about those things, but I’m aware that I spend a lot of time talking about needed reading – the skills you need to read a gas bill, recognise a fake news story, even pass an exam.

What I haven’t given as much time to is the reading that doesn’t “mean” anything. I can do all of the three things I’ve just listed, but I can’t remember the last time I did any of them for fun.

Reading, however, I do every day. I think as teachers we often give up on the idea that our students – apart from the ones doing it already – will ever find reading fun. We settle for giving them the essential skills they need. And that’s great.

But I want to get back to talking about reading as a no-pressure, fun activity. Something you do in the bath, on the bus, before bed. Something that brings you joy or sadness or takes you in to anther world.

I read every morning before I go in to work in my car. A lot of my students have noticed this and started asking me what I’m reading. We don’t talk about the author’s great use of metaphor or the descriptive language techniques. We talk about the story.

Some of them have even asked to borrow the book.

I know that’s not what helps pass exams, but it’s one of my biggest successes to date.

Are hubs what we need to improve literacy?

Last week, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced plans to open over 400 literacy hubs around the country to help improve literacy and social mobility. These are to operate similar to “maths hubs” and will be lead by outstanding schools.

Justine and I are in agreement on one thing, here. Literacy and social mobility are linked closely together in my view, and pupils that have high reading levels at younger ages are often the ones that go on to Higher Education and employment in greater numbers.

But where I differ from Greening is the idea that these hubs should be attached to schools, or that struggling levels are literacy are a problem experienced exclusively by those below school age.

We used to have this wonderful service in this country where people of all ages could go and read, take books out and even take classes in things like reading. It was free, and open at times that people could actually attend rather than for an elusive two hours in the middle of the day.

It was called a public library, and it was wonderful.

Adults who were in the library could ask for help with reading discreetly. Librarians ran storytelling and reading events to engage toddlers and young children. Parents who desperately wanted their children to read but who couldn’t afford full price books could make sure they read something new every week.

But the same government that are now astounded that we have a literacy problem in this country closed most of our libraries because they were too expensive. Services that are for underprivileged and, let’s actually say the word, poor people often are expensive to run. But what libraries contributed to the literacy levels of the UK was invaluable.

So, do I agree with the idea of literacy hubs? I agree we need to do something. But I can’t help but feel that we had the right answer all along.

2018 goals

Happy New Year!

I love a new year. Any time is a good time to commit to making change, but the start of a new year feels even better. I thought I’d share my goals for this blog for 2018.

1. To continue to discuss literacy teaching in practice – successes, pitfalls, practical advice.

2. To discuss literacy and education news stories.

3. To engage more critically with literacy research. I want to discuss the current research climate around literacy and offer my own insight in to it.

4. To meet other literacy bloggers – I’d love to build professional relationships with some of you.

See you next week for my first real literacy post of the year.