Monday, May 19, 2008

The Language Experience Approach (LEA)

The Language Experience Approach probably had its genesis in the creative activities of many teachers who drew on children’s firsthand experiences when structuring early literacy. There are two people most credited with what we now know as LEA. The first was Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) whose book Teacher (New York: Bantam Books) outlined her "organic" approach to teaching based on the recognition of what she saw as the opposing human forces of destructiveness and creativity. Her ideas were developed teaching in a Maori school in New Zealand for 24 years. The second significant person was Roach Van Allen whose research and teaching led him to develop similar approaches in the early 1960s. I describe the method in more detail in my book Teaching Reading Comprehension (1990), Milton Keynes (UK): Open University Press.

The method draws on children’s firsthand experiences that are either naturally occurring or are planned by the teacher or parent. The experience becomes a focus for discussion and exploration and eventually is recorded as a written text in some way.


The overall procedure involves four main activities:

• sharing an experience
• talking about the experience
• making some record of the experience (words, pictures, photographs)
• finally, using the recorded experience for further reading, discussion and the stimulation of further writing

1. Shared Experiences – There are endless experiences that might lead to rich language stimulation, including:
  • hunting for insects in the garden
  • cooking
  • growing plants from seeds
  • hatching and keeping chickens
  • setting up an ant farm
  • keeping and caring for animals and pets
  • going on an outing to the beach, the movies, the bush
  • making craft (perhaps stimulated by a story, television, an outing etc)
  • a book (literature or non-fiction) that has been stimulating or could be a good springboard to other language (e.g. Janet and Allen Ahlberg's 'Jolly Postman')

2. Talk about the experience

  • Talk constantly together as you share the experience
  • Ask questions
  • Point things out
  • Tell others about the experience

3. Make a record of the experience

  • This can be a simple drawing or sequence of drawings that you label in accordance with the child’s memories or understandings
  • It could be a narrative or recount of the experience (i.e. what they did)
  • It could be a more detailed combination of drawings, pictures, photos etc
  • As you do this take the opportunity to talk about written language and demonstrate various concepts of print (letter and sound names, left to right, capital and lower case letters, whole words etc).

4. Tell others about the experience

  • Later you can use the products of the language experience for re-reading, discussion, sharing with significant others.
  • Use any texts for shared reading.
  • Celebrate the work.
  • Look for other related books to read with or to them.
  • Encourage further related writing, observation or exploration.
  • Use the text for further discussion of language, particularly concepts of print.

The benefits of LEA

There are many benefits including:

• confidence as language users
• growing vocabulary
• growing awareness and knowledge of concepts of print
• an awareness that written texts carry meaning that can be understood and shared
• a growing awareness of text genres (e.g. the difference between narrative and recount)
• a growing understanding that words and pictures together can communicate meaning

The LEA is ideal for children aged 4-7 years. As well, it has great usefulness as a method for children experiencing difficulties with reading and writing or who have delayed language. You can read about this application here.

Another colleague, Dr Jan Turbill from the University of Wollongong has written about the use of digital Language Experience that draws heavily on the use of digital photos. You can read it here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's all about time:How busy lives affect families

The principal of Presbyterian Ladies College (Sydney), Dr William McKeith, has said what many of us have been thinking for a long time. The mad pace of modern life is having a negative impact on families. He points out that an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report this year on how Australians use their time indicates that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." The ABS survey shows how patterns of time use have changed and indicates that people are becoming increasingly time poor and that working non-standard hours and bringing work home is having an impact.

His personal comments on the pace of life ring true:

"We can feel it and see it all around us. Hairdressers are often open into the night, international banks are conducting business on combined southern and northern hemisphere time, emails and text messages find us day and night, seven days a week.

"When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children? Might I suggest that many of the social and emotional challenges confronting our young people are grounded in the work patterns of we, their parents. Parents are not available to supervise the use of the internet and video games, to check on the appropriateness of friendships, to visit the school, to welcome the child in from school. We are tired, stressed, irritable much of the time. Some parents will seek out ways of avoiding contact with their children in order to minimise their exposure to these feelings."

A more worrying feature of the report is that according to the ABS survey approximately 25% of children (17 and under) have a parent living elsewhere (perhaps interstate or overseas) and there are increasing numbers of children in boarding schools who rarely see their parents.

Dr McKeith concludes:
"There is a tension between hours and patterns of work and family values and the care of our children. As a force for the protection of family values and community welfare, government has a role to play. I suspect that in the interests of our children we are well overdue for a realistic appraisal of how we are balancing our work and family lives."

While there are families living in poverty for whom there is no possibility of reduced hours of work if they are to cover the essentials of life (food, basic shelter and daily needs), for many, there are choices to be made. The process used for making life choices may need to place a higher priority on the needs of children and the impact on family life more generally. The issues surrounding why parents are working longer hours are complex, but it would seem that there are choices to be made about careers, the size of mortgages, the importance of overseas holidays, entertainment etc, and that the human costs borne by our families must be considered more seriously.

You can read Dr McKeith's full Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece here or a version that appeared in the Brisbane Times here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Indigenous students making literacy progress

A new literacy program introduced by the West Australian government has led to significant literacy gains for indigenous students in 42 remote communities at Kiwirrkurra in the Gibson Desert. The key seems to be straight forward – mandate that teachers spend the first two hours of the day to guided reading, guided writing and word games. As I discussed in a previous post, time on task is important for success in anything. One of the most basic insights from literacy research in the 1960s and 1970s was the repeated observation by researchers like the late Dame Marie Clay in New Zealand and Richard Allington in the USA that struggling readers read less than successful readers.

Paige Taylor reports in the Australian Newspaper that "The literacy of children at Kiwirrkurra in the Gibson Desert, 700km west of Alice Springs, was so poor four years ago that only a handful had the reading and writing skills to attempt the West Australian Government's annual written literacy exam for all students in Years 3, 5 and 7. Of those who sat the test, not one met the national benchmarks."

Mitchell Drage, is a Pinikura-Thudgara man and is one of the few indigenous school principals in Australia. He reports, "Their progress really has been incredible." Mr Drage suggests that community support for the school at Kiwirrkurra has been the key and he credits the encouragement of community leader Jimmy Brown - a Lutheran pastor who speaks nine Aboriginal dialects - for the children's interest in school. Mr Brown's approach is simple: "I tell them school is good and they come by themselves, they don't have to be told."

The Department of Education and Training's analysis of the strategy shows that, since its introduction, 70 per cent of Aboriginal students in remote West Australian schools have demonstrated moderate to very high improvement in their reading standards. In 2007, 66% of Year 3 students in remote communities achieved state reading benchmarks compared to 48% in 2005. For Year 5, the gains were from 31% (2005) to 42% (2007).

The Australian report can be read in full here.