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.

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.

Can reading really be fun?

The National Literacy Trust says children who own a book are 15 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age, but I guess what they mean is children who own a book and read it.

If children, young adults and adults are going to read, well, anything (debate between screen and books for another time), then they need to want to. Encouraging reading in the context of lessons can be difficult enough. But if we return to my age old metaphor of reading as swimming, if you thought you would drown, would you get in the pool and paddle just for the hell of it? Probably not.

A student of mine – who is motivated and determined and puts her all in to her English Lit work – once told me that she didn’t know what to do with the books on her course, but that she’d read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because it was funny. And I feel like we don’t put enough emphasis on the fun of stories, or the thrill of discovering new things. Mostly when I read, if you take out the tomes I get through for my research, I read to relax. I don’t read thinking about themes or language devices (although I am prone to the “that’s a really nice sentence” feeling). I read just because I’m interested in the characters, or the story.

So here’s a thought for Christmas homework, if you’re still setting it. Challenge everyone in your class to find something – a page in a magazine, the first few pages of a book snuck for free in a bookshop (because let’s not forget books are expensive and a luxury) – that they enjoy. Anything. Everything. And don’t ask them any questions that analyse it when they come book – except maybe, why they liked it. Maybe then, some of our scared swimmers might dip a toe in the water and find it’s nice and warm after all.

Thank you for sticking with me since I started writing this. Every time someone reads or likes a post it makes me so happy, so thank you.

Merry Christmas!

Helen x

Why don’t we do more writing?

It’s a question I’ve been asked three times in the last week. Each time, by a student who, when given an exercise that combines reading and writing, usually complains.

I explained that we do writing and showed him the tasks he’s done over the last few weeks.

“Not that, creative writing. Like writing a story.”

I currently teach Functional Skills English, but before that I taught Creative Writing and I write novels. I was ecstatic that he wanted to do creative writing.

Now, my reason as to why we haven’t yet done creative writing is fairly easy. The class that student is in has only been running four weeks. It’s barely been time to get to know my students in terms of likes and dislikes. My other classes, running since September, all do creative writing exercises regularly.

But it made me think, when we teach functional English, do we abandon creativity? We focus a lot on reading, mainly because it is often the area of greatest difficulty for our students. But do we lose something by not practising Creative Writing?

The need to create is so purely human. Surely there is a lot to be said for allowing that to happen in English and then letting it drill down in to functional skills tasks. Creative phrasing can be deftly turned to a letter of complaint, after all.

I teach creative writing a lot because I love it and want to share that, but should all teachers strive to have it in their classrooms? I’d say it would make things a lot more interesting.

The last first time.

I recently started a doctoral degree in Education. I’ve wanted to do a PhD for a long time, and work and other commitments have always got in the way. So I think it’s important for the context of this post that I say I’m thrilled to be starting this new opportunity. I’m excited about the topic I want to research. I’m excited about the challenge.In my first real post for this blog I spoke about reading being like swimming, how in the beginning it looks easy and fun but, after an initial drop in confidence, fear can take over. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how, as teachers, we often forget what it was like to stand on the shore and desperately want to dive in.

The thought came to me because I’m feeling a similar sensation now. I’m so excited to begin my research. I can see myself in 4 years negotiating the surf and gliding through the water. But now, standing at the edge of a pile of reading, my toes are cold. The water splashes my face accidentally when I step in.

I’m a little bit scared.

Which makes me think of my students, and the first time I give them a piece of work at the top band of their level or at a level above that challenges them and scares them. I see myself standing by them and encouraging them to just jump in – that it will be alright and, that if it isn’t, I’ll see them to safety.

But I wonder if I’ve stopped remembering just how scared they are. Which makes me thankful for suddenly feeling a little out of my own depth. It reminds me that writing scaffolds, starting sentences, mind maps, seem like such small devices – so small that it’s hard to remember that a student might be clinging to them.

For some students, these things are life lines. Let’s keep making sure we throw them.

Is pop culture too big a part of literacy?

In looking at some of the texts for English Literature with my students (you know, the ones from over a hundred years ago that they struggle to relate to) I’ve noticed that pop culture references play a huge part in the understanding of the text. 

This is difficult enough when a text is modern, when the references to pop culture are cemented in T.V programmes made famous throughout the 80s and 90s. Pre-twentieth century cultural references – the traditions of Christmas or the understanding of workhouses and debtor prison essential to understanding A Christmas Carol, for example – are almost inaccessible for some students.

Which isn’t to say that learning about these things isn’t a valuable and educational experience in and of itself. Learning the history of our culture can bring sense to many things students have seen and heard for years without understanding. But does it need to be an essential part of reading, something so intrinsic to a text that not knowing it hinders reading comprehension?

I think particularly of some of my students when I say this. Students whose parents emigrated to the UK in the sixties and later who, whilst classing English as their first language, sometimes lack the breadth of pop culture that might be shared by someone who has parents and grandparents who threw out and then explained vague pop culture references throughout their childhood.

Pop culture is meant to be something that unites us, but in the context many young people experience it, it is something that further isolates them from the text. After all, each generation has its own pop culture references, its own set of essential experiences that bind it. But these often fail to make it to set texts in English until many years later, meaning that young people have to interact with and try to understand a culture that does not include them. For example, Monty Python references probably do not hold much humour for someone who has never seen or appreciated them for the contribution they made within the pop culture of the time.

Pop culture and literacy are both important facets of education, but I will always argue that literacy is the most essential for success in general. So maybe it’s time that essential texts didn’t focus quite so heavily on a culture that is, in a lot of cases, no longer relevant.

Do you need to read the whole book?

In a recent Guardian Secret Teacher, a teacher commented on the fact that teachers aren’t reading, so we can not therefore assume students will. 

In this article, the teacher raised the fact that, when teaching a book for English Literature, most teachers give students extracts, and, even, that most teachers also only read the extracts. These are the extracts that are deemed most important parts for exam analysis. 

But is that teaching the book? I agree with the time limits – they’re tight. I also believe that, without the whole book, students don’t have the whole picture. A novel is a complete piece of work, and asking a student to comment on a character’s journey throughout a whole book by giving them ten extracts is akin to asking someone to comment on an artist’s use of colour by giving them the bottom corner of a painting.

What I also find problematic is that this article suggests that there is a common belief that reading the whole book as a class would only be useful for one thing – for the study of that work of literature. I wonder, then, why the benefits of group reading, of vocabulary building, of comprehension and inference learning opportunities are dismissed so easily. 

I’ve said before that you can have literacy without literature, and I still believe this.

But can you have literature without literacy?

Read the whole book. It will be worth the time.

Seeing yourself on the page.

In this recent post for TES, Cynthia Murphy reminded teachers (as if we needed reminding), that modern children’s literature is excellent. Children’s authors manage to intertwine a challenging level of language with a gripping story and a dose of social issues that mean most children can see themselves represented in a main character.And this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. In order to really engage with literature, children – and young adults – need to feel like it means something. Like most of us, if it has some connection to them, children feel like it means something.

Which makes me wonder why GCSE syllabuses now only focus on pre-twentieth century literature, and what we can do to make these stories as relevant as possible to the children we teach.

First of all, retellings will be your friend if you’re trying to bring Shakespeare or Dickens to life. But there is only so much you can offer with an alternative version of the text. Sooner or later, students have to engage with the original, verbose, unwieldy – and, to some, incomprehensible – text.

But many of the issues addressed in these texts are universal. Once you have read through the text with students – and I would advise fully reading it through, no matter how long it takes – you can use many exercises to bring the text back to the twenty-first century.

Students can write agony aunt letters as the abandoned Miss Havisham, tweet about their exploits as one of Fagan’s gang or move the workhouse to a modern day children’s home.

And once they understand what the characters are experiencing, they can empathise. Not the same as seeing yourself on the page, not at all as valuable, but a good place to start.