Monday, October 26, 2009

Firsthand Experience, Literacy & Learning

I have written previously about the 'The Language Experience Approach' to literacy on this blog (here). It is a term known primarily by teachers and educators and probably had its genesis in the creative activities of many teachers who drew on children’s firsthand experiences when structuring early literacy. Typically, these were teachers of young children who grasped just how powerful real life experience is to the stimulation of children's language and learning:
  • The squelch of mud between toes on a wet day in the back yard
  • Running on a sandy beach for the first time
  • Watching a worm wiggle in the palm of a small hand
  • Building a cubby house from boxes in the back yard
  • Watching a bird build its nest in a tree in the playground in spring
  • Doing hand painting
  • Observing chickens as they grow bigger day by day
One early advocate of this approach was Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) who wrote a book called Teacher (New York: Bantam Books). In it she outlined her "organic" approach to teaching based on the recognition of what she saw as the opposing human forces of destructiveness and creativity. A second significant person in the development of the LEA was Roach Van Allen whose research and teaching led him to develop similar approaches in the early 1960s.

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. Some people see this as a method suitable only for young children but nothing could be further from the truth. Any adult who has done or seen things for the first time will attest to the power of a significant new experience - seeing new places, doing things for the first time, tasting new food, finding yourself immersed in a significant event - new experiences have a major impact on learning and our use of language to describe these events. Such experiences teach us new things and move us to use language to make sense of the experience and tell others about it.

The approach in a nutshell

This approach to learning has four main elements:
  • 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
I thought in this post I'd give an example of what I'd see as a typical language experience for each of two age levels.

A Preschool Example - 'Hunting for creatures in the yard'

a) The experience

One of the favourite activities at our house when my grandchildren visit is hunting for insects or other living things in the back yard. If you live in an apartment you'll have to walk to the closest park or open space where there are gardens, trees and grass. If you have a magnifying glass all the better and perhaps a couple of bottles (or a bug catcher) and a couple of used ice cream or margarine containers.

As a parent or teacher you do need to exercise great care with this activity. Know about any dangerous insects in your area and be able to recognise them. If you don't know enough, have someone else with you who does. Worms, snails, slaters, ants and slugs are easy and safe. If you don't like the thought of holding a worm then there are lots of other insects to see in any yard. Look at the bark on any tree, lift a rock in the garden (with care if there are spiders where you live - use a stick), lift a pile of mulch, turn a sod of moist soil, look closely at the leaves on a tree, search the flowers and so on.

b) Talk about it

You can't help but talk about an experience like this, your child or children will be talking incessantly - "look at this", "ooo - it's moving", "watch out!", "what is it?", "it smells", "it jumped" etc. Ask questions as you share the experience (see my post on questioning here), extend their language - "yes, it's slithering", "smells like mummy's curry", "that's its stinger, don't touch it".

c) Making a record of the experience

One qualifier is that we shouldn't turn every great experience into a formal school activity, don't make your children draw or write about everything. But often, your children will want to remember the experience or write something so that they can tell others about it (siblings, a parent, friends, grandparents etc).

For very young children a drawing will be a wonderful way to record and communicate the experience and this is the beginning of writing (see my post on beginning writing here). Older children will label their drawings and maybe write a sentence or two, list some words that say how they felt or what they saw, or write elaborate text to go with the illustration (see my 7 year old grandson Jacob's illustration of a Blue Tongue lizard observed in his yard). You can also record photographs or videos (cell phones make this easy) as a record of what you've seen.

d) Telling others about the experience

It is important with experiences of this kind to give opportunities to share the experience with others - mum or dad, grandparents, other siblings, classmates. Not always, but often. This can involve showing the writing or drawing to others, hanging the product on a wall, the fridge etc, sharing it in any way that is appropriate to the product or record of the experience. Jacob gave my wife and I the picture above that he drew and told us all about the experience.

The sharing of the experience can lead to other experiences: a video on insects, the reading of a related book. Literature can also be an important end to a wonderful experience together: Eric Carle's 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', and Bruce Whatley's 'Looking for Crabs' immediately come to mind as books I'd want to share.

2. A Primary School Example (children aged 7-12 years) - 'Raising Chickens'

a) The experience

One of the most wonderful experiences that school-aged children can have is to raise and observe some living creature - silk worms, earth worms, an ant farm, tadpoles (this may be illegal in some countries due to environmental issues), chickens, ducks, birds, rabbits, fish, tortoises, guinea pigs or hamsters.

Raising chickens is one of the best examples that I've used or observed others using. You can buy day old chicks quite easily. If doing this for a whole class I'd suggest buying enough to allow one chicken to a group of 4 children, this will allow closer observation and an opportunity for all children to be involved in the care of the chicks. You will need a good cage with a wire bottom and a safe coop on the end that can be moved outside onto grass or dirt and then moved into a shed or weather shed for safety. As well, you need an exit strategy! What will we do with the chickens when they become hens and roosters. Knowing someone with a farm would be good.

I don't have the space to go into great detail, but here are just some of the dimensions to this rich experience:
  • The first day or two is always very exciting, simply let the children observe, handle (carefully) in groups (close observation by the teacher is important at first - do it a group at a time) talk about the chickens, draw them etc.
  • Establish a routine for how the class will observe and care for the chickens - feeding, observing, talking about, writing about etc.
  • Structured observation is another great extension to this experience - examining the food, weighing the food (and graphing over time), weighing the chickens, measuring their height, wingspan (a teacher job usually), looking at specific parts (feet, comb, beak, tail, wings...).
  • Observing behaviour - eating, activity, communal actions, 'personality....
b) Talking about it

You won't be able to stop children talking about the chickens. Allow the children to talk while they observe (this won't be a quiet activity), at times structure or direct the talk with careful questions (e.g. "Can anyone see the tail feathers?" "Do chickens have teeth?" "How have the feet changed from last week?" "How do they drink?" "How do chickens sleep?").

As well as group talk, there will be wonderful opportunities to have children do prepared talks in their groups, to the class, to visitors to the class, or to other classes. The talk can be factual, imaginative or even dramatic based on their observations. For the latter, children can even invent dialogue between their chickens, give them identities etc.

You can also make good use of literature and other non-fiction to stimulate other discussion and learning about chickens. 'Hector and Maggie' by Andrew & Janet McLean and Colin Thiele's 'Farmer Shulz's Ducks' are just two books that come to mind that could enrich the experiences and stimulate new types of creativity.

It is in talking about their experiences that children can talk their way to new insights and understandings. Language and learning are intertwined (I'll blog on this on another occasion).

c) Making a record of the experience

The observation of chickens is an activity that has to be recorded in some way. Here are a few ideas:
  • Keep a daily log or journal (these could be individual, group or class based - probably all three).
  • Do regular drawings - a single chicken, chickens in groups doing different things, detailed drawings parts of the chicken (head, feet, wings, beak etc). Compare drawings over time etc.
  • Record food and water quantities (and maybe graph this).
  • Record and graph the chicken's weight and size.
  • Attempt some creative writing - 'The battle of the chickens'.
  • Produce a video of the chickens behaviour, key observations etc.
d) Telling others about the experience

Such a rich experience needs to be shared with others. This can be done in many ways:
  • Display student writing and drawing on walls
  • Have the children take home their journals to share with their families
  • Have class presentations at school assemblies (present information, stories, pictures, videos, or just teach the chicken dance!)
  • Create a class blog on chickens - different class members could blog each day, pictures and photos could be uploaded, video clips shared
  • Prepare a dramatic presentation for another class

The benefits of a Language Experience Approach

As I wrote in my last post there are many benefits for language and learning. These include:
  • New knowledge
  • Increased language proficiency
  • New vocabulary (specialist and general)
  • Literacy learning - for the young this will include simple concepts of print, new words, and a growing grasp of sentence structure etc; whereas for the older child this can extend to knowledge of new written genres, writing for new audiences, growing reading and research skills.
  • A stimulus to creativity
  • Increased interest in learning
The LEA is not just a technique just for young children, older children also benefit from firsthand experience as a significant vehicle for language and learning. I'd be keen to hear from parents and teachers of experiences that have worked well with your children.


Le Loup said...

"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"

This is what we adults do in 18th century Living History, it is very educational.
Good post.
Regards, Le Loup.

Prue said...

Thanks for this Trevor. We are about to go on an overseas holiday with our kids for 6 weeks. I had been wondering how I could get my kindergarten aged son to remember the trip well. I am now thinking that it might be good to get a scrap book that he can draw pictures of things he's done, and if he feels like it he can write a sentence or two as well. Although I can foresee a lot of aeroplanes in the scrapbook... he's pretty keen on them! And I guess we can paste in train and tram tickets and the like too.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Le Loup, I'm glad that this is the way you approach history - I needed to be in your history class!

And thank you for your question Prue (nice to hear from you). The idea of a travel scrapbook is a great idea. Our two daughters (yes Nicole and Louise) still have scrapbooks/journals that they kept while travelling around Europe and living in the USA when they were 7 and 4 years. They also did the same things as teenagers on another trip.

It would be great to encourage him to draw pictures of the things he sees, do maps and plans of the places and sites he visits, copy signs or words, and collect pictures, cards, tickets etc. Digital photos also make it easier.

You should keep one too so that you can talk about it together. Try to give him freedom to record the things he likes and is most interested in (they'll be different to your interests). I'd suggest that you try to pick a time each day when you do the cutting, pasting etc. The more he can write and draw along the way the better. The thing to avoid is it becoming a major chore each day. It needs to be fun and stimulating.

Have a wonderful time. Would love to see some of the results.

Best wishes,


Prue said...

Thanks for all the ideas Trevor. Yes, I plan to write a diary too, and will convert it to a travel blog either there (if I get the time) or here when we get home. I did that last time we went too.

I also did a travel diary when I was eight years old and my family went around Australia for 3 weeks. It was a chore and I hated it, so I will make sure my son enjoys doing it, and I won't force it upon him every day like I was! It has been wonderful to read back through over the years though, and I have compared it to Alison Lester's trip in "Are We There Yet?"

Trevor Cairney said...

You are a wise Mum Prue, have a wonderful time! Trevor