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.

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

Digital literacy and fake news.

Fake news is a new phrase. Especially since the American Presidential election last year, the idea of news made entirely to suit a political agenda has appeared more and more often on social media and in traditional news outlets. This article by the Independent suggests that children are finding it difficult to discern which stories are fake, and so the number of calls to NSPCC about concerns over world events have risen. But there is a bigger issue than children – young people who we perhaps would not expect to be at an age where they can detect bias – not knowing if a story is “real”. Many older teens and young adults struggling with literacy issues lack this skill too.

News articles – even those that based in real news – always have a slight bias. And while it may be common knowledge which side of the political spectrum well known journals swing to, the huge number of growing online journalism forums is not so easy to define.

Which leaves people with lower levels of literacy vulnerable to groups trying to publish messages that would be frowned upon by mainstream media. Without the ability to detect bias, if everything is taken at face value, some of our young people and low literacy adults are open to exploitation.

So what’s the practical way to address this? How can we do this in lessons and functional skills courses? Bias is a key part of the syllabus at GCSE and at functional skills level 2, but what about learners working at a lower level than that?

I think for me the key is questioning. What is the article saying? Where did it come from? Who wrote it and can you google that person to get a better idea of their intentions in writing the text? What other sorts of articles appear on the same site?

Questioning what we read, even if we don’t automatically recognise the bias, makes us much less likely to get sept up in fake – and sometimes dangerous – news.