Thursday, April 24, 2008

Author Focus: Pamela Allen

Pamela Allen is one of Australia's finest author/illustrators for young readers. I say Australian but she is actually a Kiwi who has lived in Australia for over 30 years. She has published over forty picture books since her first, Mr Archimedes' Bath, was published in 1980.

Her recipe is a combination of strong characters caught in humorous life situations, with simple illustrations that young children find captivating.

One of the great advantages of the author/illustrator is that they can apply both the craft of writing and illustrating in harmony. The good picture book has unity of word and illustration. The illustrations should contribute to the emerging story, not simply mirror it. Pamela Allen is a master at this and uses every device at her disposal to execute it with rare distinction.

Meg Sorenson (Australian Book Review) writes: "The characters in these books exude life, caught at the highest point of action, and animated forever on the page. Every curve, stretch and twist communicates exactly the way they feel, the sentiment or momentum each embodies."

Titles by Pamela Allen include: Mr Archimedes’ Bath (1980), Who Sank the Boat (1982) Bertie and the Bear (1983), A Lion in the Night (1985), Simon Said (1985), Watch Me (1985), Herbert and Harry (1986), Fancy That (1987), Simon Did (1988), Watch Me Now (1989), I Wish I Had a Pirate Suit (1989), My Cat Maisie (1990), Black Dog (1991), Mr McGee Goes to Sea (1992), Belinda (1992), Mr McGee and the Blackberry Jam (1993), Alexander's Outing (1993), Clippity Clop (1994), Waddle Giggle Gargle (1996), The Bear's Lunch (1997), Ordinary Albert (1997, text by Nancy Antle), Mr McGee and the Biting Flea (1998), The Pear in the Pear Tree (1999), Mr McGee and the Perfect Nest (1999), Inside Mary Elizabeth's House (2000), Can you keep a secret? (2000), Brown Bread and Honey (2001), Who Sank the Boat (2001), The Potato People (2002), Cuthbert's Babies (2003), Grandpa and Thomas (2003), Mr McGee and the Big Bag of Bread (2006), Fancy That (2005), Waddle, Giggle, Gargle (2005), Where's the Gold (2005), Inside Mary Elizabeth's House (2005), Where's the Gold? (2005), Daisy All-sorts (2005), Doodledum Dancing (2006), Grandpa and Thomas and the Green Umbrella (2006), I Wish I had a Pirate Suit (2007), Is Your Grandma a Goanna? (2007). Share said the Rooster (2007)

The sheer variety of ways she is able to tell an amusing story is remarkable. And each book teaches children about language and their world. In Mr Archimedes' Bath (1980) she introduces children to the scientific principle that a body or object will displace water in the bath. In Grandpa and Thomas (2003) children learn about the movement of tides and the consequence for sand castles. But she also delves into life's substantial human challenges like learning to share (Herbert & Harry, 1986) and the difference between reality and fantasy in Inside Mary Elizabeth's House (2000). All the while she is examining the richness of human emotions and relationships.

Allen has won many awards as both an author and illustrator. She is the only person to win the Australian CBC Picture Book of the Year award in two consecutive years (1983 & 1984), for Who Sank the Boat (1982) and Bertie and the Bear (1983). She has been shortlisted for the prize in five other years. She was also the 2004 winner of New Zealand's most prestigious award for children's literature, the Margaret Mahy Medal. In 2007 her book "Doodledum Dancing" (written by Meredith Costain) was an Honour Book in the Picture Book category. She is short listed yet again in 2008 for one of her latest books "SHHH! Little Mouse".

For more information about Pamela Allen's books you might like to look at the Penguin website which has good sections for teachers and children.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Boys and reading success: Get them reading

Paul Jennings is a well-known Australian (well he came here from England at age 6) children's author who has written many books for boys. In a recent article that appeared in the Melbourne Age, he shared his thoughts on why he writes the books he does and the challenges in helping boys to become readers. Some of his key points were:

  • Parents are important to children's reading success because much of the groundwork occurs before children start formal schooling.
  • Half an hour a day with a "skilled helper" is what a child needs to help them with reading.
  • Men are examples for boys, and fathers who read are likely to have sons who read.
  • It doesn't matter what a father reads as long as he reads for pleasure and demonstrates that this is a choice men make.
  • Boys have some interests that are different from girls and we need to recognise this fact.
  • Starting with books about sport or humour is a good place to start.
  • But ultimately, the quality of the story is the most important thing, not the topic although books need to recognise the diverse range of interests of boys.
  • While boy's might seem to have limited reading interests at first, no matter where boys start reading, ultimately quality will be what keeps them reading.

The ideas in Paul Jennings AGE article are based on his book for parents 'The Reading Bug'.
To his ideas I would add the following points:
  • Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like but which they will be able to read.
  • Take the time to help your sons choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.
  • It is helpful to read with your sons (certainly right through primary school) - a good way to do this is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction - boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in - books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind.
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, poetry and silly rhymes.
  • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading.
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
Boys, because they are boys (and are different) will enjoy books more when they help them to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do stuff!

Motivating boys to read can be done by people other than fathers but what Jennings is saying, and what research from many disciplines supports, is that fathers have a special role to play in supporting their sons, motivating them and providing good models for them. Fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. As my previous post on the subject of fathers indicated, the quality of the relationship between boys and their fathers matters.

For the full text of the AGE article 'Boy Story' click here. For more information about Paul and his books click here. For information on 'The Reading Bug' (his book for parents) click here.

If you want a great list of books for 11-14 year old boys suggested by the School Library Association in the UK click here. You can download the entire publication for free with its list of 160 books with quick summaries organised by category (e.g. discover, play, spy, experiment, laugh etc). Every parent with a teenage boy should have a look at this resource. I plan to do another post later on motivating younger boys.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Board games and early literacy

I have written previously on this blog about the importance of play for children (here and here) but I was reminded recently of the impact that structured games can have on learning. The journal "Child Development" recently reported on research conducted by Robert S. Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology and Geetha B. Ramani, assistant professor of human development at the University of Maryland. They found that games can help preschool children learn mathematics, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The article reminded me of the many benefits of games for learning as well as for literacy and language.

The general usefulness of games

There are literally hundreds of games that have been designed for children and adults today. When I was a child the choice was much more limited (e.g. snakes and ladders, ludo, scrabble, monopoly, draughts) but the enjoyment and benefits were fairly similar. Some of the general benefits include learning:
  • That you can't always win
  • How to take turns
  • Team work
  • To be more patient
  • Risk taking
  • The importance of persistence
  • Anticipation skills
  • Memory
  • Colour and shape recognition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Vocabulary

But as well as these general benefits, there can be more specific benefits for learning that are related to other forms of learning, including:
  • Basic counting and mathematics
  • Word recognition
  • Problem solving
  • General knowledge
  • Writing (numbers and words)
Board games as learning aids

Schools have long used games in recognition that they can be a beneficial way to learn many things, especially for young children and those with learning difficulties.

The use of board games as part of school literacy and mathematics is motivated by the perceived benefits of:
  • repetition and over-learning (i.e. the repetition of something until it becomes second nature and increases the speed of recall);
  • incorporating some forms of repetitive learning into game situations to increase enjoyment and help concentration and time on task;
  • providing foundational knowledge for other more complex learning.
Some simple board game applications for literacy

The application of games to literacy has taken many forms. Here is just one example. It relies on board games that traditionally use a dice to determine the pace of the game. You can take existing games and simply replace the dice with a set of cards that require some simple reading task; each with the number 1 to 6 in small print that dictates the number of spaces moved. There are endless variations. For example:

a) You can choose basic sight words (i.e. words like 'were', 'said', 'there' - that is, words that can't easily be sounded out and are more easily recognised as whole words based on their shape and some partial letter clues. There are a number of these lists available such as the Dolch List that has been in use since 1948. Write the words in print at least 2 cm high and then write a number between 1 and 6 on the top right-hand corner (in much smaller print). You can use existing games like snakes and ladders, but instead of using the dice you have a pile of cards face down that players turn over one at a time and read. If successful, they move a counter the appropriate number of squares to progress the game.

b) Do the same as the above but use sound cards as appropriate for the child's age.

c) Use phrase cards instead of single word cards.

d) Use colour or number words.

As a teacher I often used games with children who were struggling with reading. In fact one of the things we did for struggling readers was to create our own simple board games that had a theme that matched the interests of the child (e.g. car racing, football, space, dinosaurs, cartoon characters, super heroes etc).

While there are some electronic games that attempt to use repetition and over-learning in similar ways, many of the other general benefits of games seem to be achieved more readily with board games.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Basic Literacy Support 3: Is Phonics all we need?

As a parent, one could be forgiven for being confused about the best way to teach young children to read. I've been studying early reading for 35+ years and while we've managed to learn lots of things about literacy and language from research, few new understandings have been gained about the best methods to teach literacy. Good teachers have always known what is required. Public debate tends to make pretty simple stuff complicated. The debate seems to end up being distilled into two major competing claims - it's either about phonics (decoding words) or whole language (reading 'real' stories).

One approach stresses the learning of reading from part to whole (first learn sounds, then words then read longer texts). The other (often referred to as Whole Language) stresses the need for children to encounter language in the form of stories or non-fiction, and assumes that decoding and other language skills are learned as children read. Few teachers actually believe either of these extreme views, but much public debate is stimulated by a minority of teachers, academics, doctors, psychologists, businessmen, and parents who do.

In this post I want to do just two things:

Stress what young readers need to experience if they are to learn to read successfully.
Outline some basics about phonics.

1. What do young children need to experience to learn to read?

First, you need to understand that children first begin the process of learning to read from birth. The child who arrives at school aged five ready to take off in reading has usually experienced many things. They've had parents and caregivers who have:

* spoken to them, listened to them, asked them questions, and answered their questions - from birth children should experience almost constant immersion in language;
* read to them, shown them what it is to write, and generally allowed their child to see literacy demonstrated in varied forms;
* actively tried to get their child to look at print and make sense of it - at first this might have involved pointing to symbols (e.g. the McDonalds logo "M"), encouraging them to recognise the names of TV shows from the symbols (e.g. ABC Kids) and so on. In such households children have been introduced to the fact that language can be represented by symbols as well as the spoken word;
* taught them songs, rhymes, chants, limericks, jokes (e.g. Knock, knock...). This trains memory and teaches key aspects of language (rhythm, intonation, phrasing etc);
* provided them with varied experiences in which language has been a vital and integral part;
* taught letter names, numbers and perhaps some sounds;
* encouraged them to 'read along' with books, predicting from the pictures, looking for key details and events from the pictures, looking at publishing devices such as enlarged letters, coloured print to provide impact, thought balloons etc;
* encouraged them to predict repetitive language patterns in some picture books - "But where is the Green sheep?";
* drawn their attention to print everywhere in their environment.

Children who have experienced the above find reading easier when they get to school. Children who haven't experienced this will struggle in comparison.

2. How do I help my child to be better at decoding (phonics)?

The ability to decode words is obviously a critical part of reading. How is this learned? Is there only one way? Decoding is what most people know as phonics - the ability to sound out words. Knowing that letters represent sounds and when put together that these make words. My website has a detailed overview of common approaches to phonics for teachers and interested parents, but below I've provide a basic overview on how to help your child.

You can begin some simple phonics and whole word recognition from about age 4. This should happen naturally if you’ve been doing all of the things I talk about above. Some children will be ready earlier than others but once they reach 5 you should more systematically focus on print. But be careful, if you have your child sitting down to ‘do school’ as a preschooler, then you run the risk that you might make reading more difficult and take all the joy out of it (with obvious negative long-term impact). Experiencing the joy of books and language is still the main task of any parent. But here’s a sequence that can be used for phonics:

a) Teach some consonants (e.g. b, t, c, s, g, s, m, f, l) – try to make it fun. Use the letter name as well as the sound. “Look, that’s a ‘b’.” “Can you see the ‘r’ in Rebecca?”.

While you’re pointing out letters teach a few whole words. For example, their name, mum, dad, kids (as in ABC Kids), STOP etc.

Point to letters, numbers and words as you read things and also write them down with them and encourage them to write as well.

b) Introduce the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) – while you can point to the vowels separately these are better introduced as part of words or in combination with consonants. “That says ‘u’ in mum”. “Let’s look for some ‘at’ words on this page”. “Let’s write some ‘at’ words together.” You might even sound out special words in stories. For example, in books that use sound words you should say them and point to them. “Mr McGee is saying OWWWW and OOOOO”. “Look, that says BANG”.

c) Point out other print conventions – as your child begins to learn more about written language he/she will have lots of questions that you should try to answer. As well, you might point out punctuation, the difference between upper and lower case letters. You might label their drawings with words they give you to describe their creations. Read the words back to them and encourage them to likewise.

d) Play games that use words, sounds and numbers – Word BINGO and I Spy are simple examples but there are many commercial examples. Many games can make car trips seem shorter and act as a catalyst for families doing things togethers (including brothers and sisters).

e) Other sounds and words – your child’s responsiveness to reading will determine how much more that you will need to do before school, but in the first two years of school most children should learn all the sounds commonly encountered in written language. If you want a more detailed and comprehensive overview you can visit my website for more information.