Can we still use fairytales?

National storytelling week was last week, but I still had more to say on stories so I thought I’d make this the second part of my thoughts on stories. This time, I’d like to look at fairytales and why we’ve stopped telling them.

You might think, if you look at Young Adult literature or the fantasy book market, that fairytales have never been more popular. There are new retellings and stories that incorporate fairytale elements each year.

But that’s not the same as telling fairytales. Fairy and folk tales come from a time before every community had access to literacy, and as such I think they’re still incredibly important when we look at literacy today.

Following the story of a fairy or folk tale handed down orally through generations and then remembering it to pass on to others practices some of the skills that we find are often underdeveloped in our students – listening and remembering.

Before we even get to the act of writing a story down, just the receiving of the story has benefits on literature.

But they have an impact on emotional literacy too, on learning how to identify with characters who have both positive and negative traits, of when to be wary of strangers and how it’s still important to try to help them. This is something I think we’ve lost. Everything is suddenly real, concrete examples when, actually, sometimes a little imagination can go a long way.

What do you think? Can fairy tales have a place in modern literacy?

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.

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

Close reading and why it matters.

I teach a lot of reading. Reading comprehension accounts for about 50% of most of my lessons, for many reasons. The first is that it’s the area most of my students need to develop in order to pass their exams. More importantly, I think it’s the skill they most need to develop in order to have successful futures.

But there’s a difference between reading and understanding the main point of something, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it, and understanding what that means and why it’s important.

Close reading has been my focus in my lessons for about two weeks now. I started a new job in September and this is week 6 with my new classes. The difference between reading for gist and reading for meaning is a big one to them, and not a skill that comes easily.

But it might be one that helps them the most in the future. I’ll give an easy example: mobile phone contracts. We’ve all been there, tried to switch deals to find out that we can’t until a certain date without a fee, and most of us will admit that we’re in that position because we maybe didn’t give the contract the attention it deserved. But what if we hadn’t developed the skills to read that phone contract? The rental agreement? The new job specification?

Close reading is important, even when teaching lower levels of functional skills qualifications. Because one day these students will need to access things, and my worst fear is them being exploited because they can’t read what they’re signing up to.

Good questions to encourage close reading can be:

• That’s a great point, can you tell me where it says it in the text?

• Why do you think the writer has phrased it like that?

• What do you think this really means?

• How would you interpret it?

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.