Literacy and teaching

Dot writes: freed by the heroic efforts of my husband to put our baby to bed, last night I indulged in an unfamiliar luxury: I watched some television. We didn’t have a television in the last flat. Anyway, I was very much interested by a programme on Channel 4 called Can’t Read, Can’t Write. It’s a stunt of sorts, but a socially responsible one, I think: a teacher called Phil Beadle tries to teach a group of adults who are to varying degrees illiterate to read and write. Last night’s programme focused particularly on two quite mature ladies who had previously been completely unable to read and who have now learnt some fluency (one is reading Little Women), and on a single mum who started the class with a reading age of twelve and is desperate to stop her dyslexic son suffering the same disadvantages in life that she has.

I was struck, not for the first time, by how obviously intelligent a person can be and yet still fail utterly in the school system. And once you’ve failed a bit, you tend to fail more and more; and you acquire huge mental and emotional barriers towards learning in the way that didn’t work for you. Phil Beadle was extremely creative about trying different teaching methods; for example, he got his students to practise writing with a game that involved bouncing across the room on space hoppers. However, he did at one point use the traditional method of talking at the front of the class and writing points up on a whiteboard. It got a very bad reaction; one of the older ladies complained vociferously and then walked out. She was highly articulate in explaining why her own rude interruptions and refusal to engage were the teacher’s fault. As Mr Beadle remarked, it was clearly a method that didn’t work for her.

As a university teacher I have it easy, because with only extremely rare exceptions my students are people who are already comfortable with traditional academic modes of learning. But it is worth remembering that, however much energy one puts into explaining the content of a course as lucidly as possible, constructing the ladders of thought one wants one’s students to climb, people are deeply affected by the whole learning environment – their fellow students, the mode of teaching, the rooms, the smells, the associations. Old English really panics some students and we have to work to overcome their sense that language learning, especially traditional grammar, is the sort of thing they just can’t do. I wonder if I can learn anything from this programme about how to deliver OE in a more accessible way?

Now, if I can just get my Head of School to authorize purchase of six or seven space hoppers…*


5 thoughts on “Literacy and teaching

  1. Helen Conrad O'Briain

    Over the years I have invested at least as much emotional as intellectual energy into teaching Old English. I have jollied, challenged, baked, prowled (as Grendel in a darkened lecture theatre), and generally made a holy show of myself. Luckily most students are, as Dot has written, good natured enough and dedicated enough to fight their way through the likes of strong verbs, i-mutation, and Verner’s Law to make it to the heady heights of Beowulf or the Dream of the Rood.
    A few students are simply too terrified of the prospect of grammar to even try. Generally the problem is not that they were badly taught, but they were not taught at all. Grammar, if mentioned at all, was as fearful to the teacher as it would become for the student. I’ve known one or two students like that, God love them. I suppose it is the intellectual equivalent of my panic when I put my head under water. Nevertheless, there are students who hug their baggage, shine it up, and put it all out in a row on the desk or seminar table to spare themselves the effort of heaving at least some of it overboard.
    I did not see the episode in questions but I would have very little sympathy with anyone who could not at least start out being civil in trying to tell someone that their help wasn’t helping.
    Space hoppers – no, I’d plunk for ten Irish draft mares. Two heads are always better than one.

  2. You should have seen the girl I tried to tutor when I was studying to be a teacher in the States. She was probably mildly retarded and she was stubborn and uncommunicative. When Stephen Dedalus thinks “Futility” — well that was it. I never finished teacher training.

  3. katimum

    I remember both trying to teach daughters to read and also to help some verymuch more difficult boys at their school. It is always something of a mystery to me that we can read at all – I didn’t find it particularly easy myself as a child. Even more difficult (for me at least) is reading music – I have always envied those who are able to see a series of notes and rhythmes and just sing it back. With practice, of course, I am much better than I was, but still painfully slow, probably because, unlike with reading, I don’t see groups of notes as a pattern of sound in the way I see patterns of letters as words.
    I used flash cards when teaching Dot – word recognition – as this is the way I read myself – it explains my dreadful spelling and poor Latin. However, she seemed to survive the experience and was in the habit of pinching The Hobbit off me to finish the next chapter when she was still in the infant class.
    Incidentally, Ken, I am unconvinced that a consistent spelling system (as with Welsh) would be such a great help, quite apart from meaning that vast swathes of the population would have to relearn their spelling. It still seems to me that you would have a lot of preliminary learning to do, and would still ultimately rely on recognising the pattern (and remembering for the spelling) rather than analysing what the sound symbols were each time you read or spelt a word.

    Do you also find it interesting that many human activities and likings are for identifying pattern (eg in music, literature etc.) and making sense of it? (That is why I dislike much ‘modern’ music – it meanders about without discernible pattern and makes me ratty!)

  4. Dot

    Interesting, mum – I hadn’t realised you deliberately taught us to read. I must have thought the ability simply welled up from my natural genius:-) I can’t remember what it was like not to be able to read. Anyway, flashcards don’t seem to have damaged me, and my spelling is quite good on the whole (though I have problems with anything ending in -ent or -ant).

    Helen, on the OE parallel, I suppose it ultimately matters rather less whether our students learn what we have to teach: however much we value Anglo-Saxon Literature, an inability to read it is not quite as crippling as an inability to read one’s child’s school report or a letter from the tax office. So in practice my policy is that if people insist on clinging to their anti-grammar baggage, I am not going to kill myself to wrest it off them. But I’d still like to think of some other ways of engraving grammar on people’s brains, to supplement the very traditional explanations and exercises I use at present.

  5. Belle Inconnue

    I was a very slow learned and couldn’t read for ages. At scholl I think they thought I was a retard. Then suddenly I realised I could read and by the next week I was reading Jane Ayre. I didn’t understand it, but I did read it! I think I would have benefitted from a more European style system of waiting to start formal school until I was older.

    I think reading is like a lot of things – to begin with we spell out the words, and still do if we see an unfamiliar word. However, the more we practice the more we can instantly recognise the shape of the word, or even not read the words at all but just fill in the gaps with what we think the word will be.

    I think the most important aspect of learning to read fluently and well, and also to write well, is simply to read as much as possible, preferably something that challenges you a bit. In other words it’s just practice.

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