Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meet the Author & Illustrator: Mark Greenwood & Frané Lessac

This is the second post in my new series on Authors and Illustrators. In each post I provide some background information, look at some of their work and then interview them.  In this post I interview husband and wife team Mark Greenwood (author) and Frané Lessac (illustrator) who have worked together on a number of popular children's picture books in recent years.

Both are unique talents and have worked independently of one another. Frané has worked with a wide range of authors of books for younger children. In the early part of her career she was both author and illustrator of a number of picture books. However, in the last 20+ years she has generally worked as an illustrator with other authors.  She is of course an accomplished artist. At one stage wanted to make films.  Like many creative people she has travelled much, enjoyed observing and living with people of many cultures and has been enriched by the experience.

Mark Greenwood has worked with Frané on seven of his nine books, but he illustrated one himself and also worked with Mark Wilson on one title. His first three books 'Magic Boomerang', 'Outback Adventure' and 'Our Big Island' were prompted by an interest in multicultural literature. In his more recent work he has turned to writing historical narratives for younger children. But Mark has another side to his creative life, for he is an outstanding musician as well. For many years he toured, recording and performing with some of the world's foremost musicians. Now he enjoys working with students of all ages, inspiring and developing their natural curiosity about books, writing and rhythm. He sums up his varied interests this way:
“My task as a writer is to fossick stories that ‘sparkle’ and make us want to read, hear and understand."

Mark Greenwood

Mark is a musician and award-winning children’s author. His books aim to foster a greater appreciation and understanding of Australian myths and legends. Mark enjoys working with students of all ages, inspiring and developing their natural curiosity about books and writing. He has twice won the Western Australian Premier’s Award for children’s books and 'Simpson and His Donkey' was Honour Book in 2009 at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. It also received a US Board on Books for Young People Outstanding International award in the same year. Mark’s latest book is 'Ned Kelly and the Green Sash'.  He is married to Frané Lessac and they live with their two children in Western Australia. For more information consult his website.

Frané Lessac

Frané is originally from New Jersey and is an artist of international renown having exhibited in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and the Caribbean. Residing in Western Australia, Frané now has over 30 children's books published throughout the world. Her work has won Australian and international awards and has been translated into numerous languages. In 2010 she was awarded the Muriel Barwell Award for Distinguished Service to Children's literature. More information about her work can be found on her website.

Examples of their Joint Work

Ned Kelly and the Green Sash

Mark Greenwood has the ability to take history and turn it into accessible narrative for children that is very powerful. His care with the historical record is evident in his work, but he always seems to be looking for a new angle that might just shed light on a previous telling. This latest book by Mark demonstrates his skill. The story of Ned Kelly has been told so many times, and yet he manages to look at it a new way and centre it in a childhood experience to which many children will be able to relate.  He doesn't seek to glorify Kelly, just give us another view.  It begins with words spoken by Kelly in the Condemned Cell at Pentridge Gaol:
'I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life, or that one fault justified another, but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way'.
The bloodstained sash that Kelly wore at Glenrowan
The narrative centres on the little known story of a green sash given to Kelly as a boy. The book includes brief biographies and fact files on the Kelly Gang along with the true story behind the green sash. The green sash was one of Ned Kelly’s most treasured possessions, given to him when he was eleven years old by Esau Shelton of Avenel, as a reward for rescuing his son from drowning. The public recognition for his bravery was pivotal in Ned’s early days. The sash was to assume poignant significance later in Ned Kelly’s short life when it was last worn beneath Ned’s famous suit of armour, on the day when all his courage was needed. The bloodstained sash was souvenired from the outlaw’s bullet-riddled body after the siege at Glenrowan in 1880. The Green Sash is used to offer a window into the character of a poor barefoot boy who grew up to be the most famous of Australian Bushrangers.

Lessac's wonderful illustrations, painted in bold greens, reds and oranges for the Australian bush, and subdued tones for the goals, greatly adds to the reader's understanding of the times. She brings to life the poverty of the Irish family, struggling to stay alive through drought.  The mark of the best illustrators is that they have their own style, born of unique creative experiences and a confidence to add to depth to a story not simply mimic it. In the interview later in the post Frané shares how she was fortunate not to be forced into an unfamiliar style; instead, she was allowed to pursue her own "primitive/naive painting as a legitimate art form".  As well as the vitality of her illustrations, she uses a full pallet of colours that children find captivating. The strong contrasts and simple style draw the eye to the key details.

This is a wonderful picture book.

Simpson and his Donkey

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACS). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight month siege of this isolated beachhead a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Once again, Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have a strength of colour that are not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

The Legend of Moondyne Joe

The motivation for this story was a visit by the author to the Fremantle Gaol near Perth Western Australia and the cell that was built especially for a bushranger who was difficult to keep incarcerated. Moondyne Joe was not known for gunfights or holding up stagecoaches in the early days of the colony. It was the convict bushranger's ability to escape each time he was placed behind bars.  The early settlers admired him as he roamed the wooded valleys and winding creeks of the Moondyne Hills, wearing a kangaroo-skin cape and possum-skin slippers.

It is difficult to judge from historical records whether Joe was a hardened criminal, or a 'lad' who pushed the boundaries of 'fair' play as he sought freedom. Mark Greenwood does not condemn him, nor defend his actions, yet as a reader, you find yourself willing this young man to freedom.

The simple story is superbly illustrated by the paintings of Frané Lessac.  Having visited the Fremantle Gaol I can attest that the pictures are very accurate.  The use of varied earth colours also capture the beauty of the West Australian landscape.

As with many of Greenwood's books he adds a glossary of terms and some notes on the convict era that increase the depth of the reader's experience of the book.  This is another wonderful book that engages and teaches.

Interview with Mark & Frané

The following brief interview provides an interesting insight into the work of writer and illustrator. To simplify the interview I have framed some of the questions with the book 'The Legend of Moondyke Joe'.  If you have any questions of your own please ask them of Mark and Frané and hopefully they will respond.

a) Questions for Mark  

1. Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for the book?

I live in a city that is surrounded by what was once regarded as the birth stain of a convict past. I’d often thought about creating a story about our convict past - a fun story, accurate in detail, about the strength of spirit that was nurtured by life in the new colony. 

On a trip to the old Fremantle Jail I came upon an unusual, ‘escape proof’ prison cell. That cold, dark, confined space - walls lined with thick timber pegged in with iron spikes, an extra steel plate placed over the barred window - was the spark for the book. Immediately I was drawn to the story of an amazing convict who became a legendary bushranger. Moondyne Joe appealed to me because he had many friends and admirers and won his notoriety for his remarkable escapes from custody.

The aim of the book was to bring to life a legend from convict history, subtly explore the frontier qualities of the Australian bush, and provide children an insight into the early years of settlement. The underlying theme of freedom, independence and determination forms the basis of the historical origins of the Australian legend, and has a universal appeal.

Fremantle Gaol Entrance Today

2. You seem to have done a great job in balancing the 'facts' of Moondyne Joe's life as we know them, the romanticised tellings of his escapades, and your own sense of who he was. How hard was this and how did you arrive at your sense of who Moondyne Joe was?

To get close to Joe’s character and invite readers into his emotions, I imagined the tone of his voice, the way he thought and the way others thought about him. Through research I imagined the bleak windswept shores that greeted convicts in 1853 - and the strength of spirit that was nurtured by life in a sometimes cruel convict colony. Using my ability to dwell in possibility, I tried to conceive what it would be like to meet the bold bushranger face to face. What would he really be like? Defiant, brave, kind or cheeky, innocent or guilty...Moondyne Joe came to life because he was motivated by a goal. The story developed by discovering where the journey took him and what challenges Joe faced.

To do that, I owe special gratitude many people, but particularly Walter Chitty, whose father took food out to Moondyne Joe when he was on the run from the authorities. Walter is an elderly gentleman with a wonderful memory. He was an outstanding source of first hand knowledge of Moondyne Joe.

Through convict stories we get an understanding of daring, wit and opportunism. The ability to keep your nerve, the courage to endure when everything is against you. Laughter in the form of cheek became a Joe’s defence. Humour, laced with bravado, a defining Australian characteristic - the ability to laugh at ourselves – these were qualities that drew me to him.

3. How much interaction did you have with Frané Lessac in producing the final book?

Working with Frané is always a surprise. Although I think I know how she will paint a particular scene when I compose the language, I am always amazed when she brings my characters to life through her art.

We constantly talked about our idea for Moondyne Joe from the beginning of the project so we could visualize the concept together and see it through to the finished book.

Story always comes first. Frané came with me on many of my research trips. Once my text was close to a final version, (after hundreds of rewrites) I handed it over.  Frané took the text quite literally and then added the background details not mentioned, details that invite speculation and discussion and give readers a sense of atmosphere and excitement – details that words alone cannot portray. Frané’s work is so detailed that after she’d completed the artwork for Moondyne Joe I was able to give the text a final snip. We’ve found that taking a loss on the words and letting the art tell certain parts of the story always improves a picture book, where visual literacy carries a substantial part of the historical interpretation.

4. How did your interest in historical fiction develop? Were there influential books, people or experiences that motivated or 'nudged' your journey as a writer down this path?

Our past is full of adventures and curious, larger-than-life characters. It is a vibrant and rich vein of material for writers and readers but I wouldn’t have discovered my passion for history if it hadn’t been for a boy who once asked me, “What is Lasseter’s Reef?”  Unravelling the story of Lasseter’s treasure of gold took ten years and was the catalyst for an obsession for research that has consumed me ever since.

Now I’m hooked on history. I’m compulsively drawn to foraging through rare bookshops, libraries, curiosity stores, searching for old newspapers and antique maps.  I’m curious about the past and have developed a real passion for sifting through research like a detective, analyzing clues, data and evidence. I particularly enjoy going to the places where my stories take place. This helps me to balance creative interpretation with historical authenticity. Finding the remains of Moondyne Joe’s old horse traps hidden deep in the bush, his grave, his escape proof cell, the scene of many of his escapes, was a highlight of the research of this book.

I enjoy the process that comes with discovery. The success of historical fiction depends on the sense of authority an author conveys. Mastering the content is as essential as mastering writing technique. To get to know characters through research is like excavating an archaeological site. You need to brush away layers of time. To reconstruct the life and times of a character requires patience.  But without imagination, passion and enthusiasm even a well-documented story can leave readers cold. Writing needs to be accurate but research details should not just be tacked on for effect.

An early image of a dig in search of Lasseter's Reef
Questions for Frané

1. Could you tell the readers of this blog why you became an illustrator of children's books? Was there a special motivation or someone who inspired you to do it?

As a child, being an artist and illustrator seemed a romantic notion. When I moved to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, I immediately fell in love with the people and the place.  I began painting the scenery, flora and fauna of the island.  I started to exhibit my work and decided the best way to share Montserrat, would be to write a book about the island for children. That was my very first book, My Little Island and I’m happy to say that it’s still in print thirty years later.

2. What have been the greatest influences on your very distinctive style?

I've always loved painting, but never thought I was good enough to be a real artist. Luckily, my art teacher in high school thought I was completely hopeless when he couldn’t teach me perspective, so he left me alone.  My school wasn't progressive enough to recognize primitive/naive painting as a legitimate art form. 

I spent many weekends in New York City, where I grew up, exploring the finest galleries in the world. I fell in love with artists such as Rousseau, Gauguin and Matisse.  Little did I know then how much influence they’d have on my art though out my life with their colour and composition.

3. How much research is required as an illustrator to produce such wonderful images that work so well with the text?

When asked to illustrate a book, I try and visit the place and immerse myself in that environment. If I can’t go, or even if I do, I talk to as many people as possible, visit museums, libraries, see films and read many books on the subject. Sometimes I have to go to dreadful Tahiti or Morocco or Italy.

5. Are there any children's illustrators that you particularly admire? 

I admire so many...The genius of Shaun Tan, the humour of Alison Lester, and the craft of Jeannie Baker.

Both Mark & Frané

What has been your favourite response to any of your books?

We were extremely moved when we met a young girl at the Perth Writer’s festival who had stitched together a beautiful cuddly Duffy the Donkey (from Simpson and his Donkey). It was her most treasured possession.

What is your next project? 

Our next book is 'The Greatest Liar On Earth – A ‘true’ story.....' published by Walker Books

Books by Mark Greenwood (newest to oldest)

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Simpson and his Donkey
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, The Legend of Moondyne Joe 

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Mark Wilson, Fortuyn's Ghost
Mark Greenwood (author & illustrator), The Legend of Lasseter's Reef
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Magic Boomerang

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Our Big Island
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Outback Adventure 
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Caribbean Alphabet

Books by Frané Lessac (newest to oldest)

a) Illustrated

Mark Greenwood (author), Ned Kelly and the Green Sash
Laura Krauss Melmed (author), Heart of Texas
Patricia Zelver (author), The Wonderful Towers of Watts

Barbara Ker Wilson (author), The Turtle and the Island
Mark Greenwood (author), The Legend of Moondyne Joe
Aleph Kamal (author), The Bird Who Was an Elephant
Rita Golden Gelman (author), Queen Esther Saves Her People
Barbara Ker Wilson (author), The Day of the Elephant
Eric Maddern (author), The Fire Children: A West African Creation Tale
Isaac Olaleye (author), The Distant Talking Drum
Charlotte Pomerantz (author), The Chalk Doll
Mark Greenwood (author), Simpson and his Donkey
Marilyn Singer (author), On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World's Weather
Mark Greenwood (author), Our Big Island
Mark Greenwood (author), Outback Adventure
Vashanti Rahaman (author), O Christmas Tree
Monica Gunning (author), Not a Copper Penny in Me House: Poems from the Caribbean
Marilyn Singer (author), Nine O'Clock Lullaby
Laura Melmed (author), New York, New York! The Big Apple from A to Z
Marilyn Singer (author), Monday on the Mississippi
Barbara Ker Wilson (author), Maui and the Big Fish
Jan Wahl (author), Little Gray One
Mark Greenwood (author), Magic Boomerang
Jan Jackson (author), Dragon of Rendonda 
Anne Rockwell (author), Clouds
Mark Greenwood (author), Caribbean Alphabet
Lee Bennett Hopkins (author), Good Rhymes, Good Times: Original Poems
Irving Burgle (author), compiler, Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies
Laura Krauss Melmed (author), Capital! Washington D.C. from A to Z

b) Written and Illustrated

Island Counting 1 2 3
Good Rhymes, Good Times
My Little Island 
Caribbean Canvas
Camp Granada

Other Related Posts

Meet the Author Series (HERE)
Author Focus Series (HERE)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Creativity: Identification, stimulation and the place of knowledge

What is Creativity?

I write regularly about developing the creativity of children on this blog. Creativity is one of the most important of human attributes. The great educational psychologist Jean Piaget said of creativity:

“The principal goal of education is to create [people] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – [people] who are creative, inventive and discoverers."
I define creativity as the ability to show originality and imaginative skill resulting in something new or different. Its products include novel solutions, methods, use of language, performance, devices and varied artistic objects or forms.

Above: Rebecca & Elsie create a beach boat to take them on a journey

Creativity is fundamental to human advancement and is a quality to be valued and nurtured. And yet, it is so easy to constrain and conform our children with a resultant loss of originality, innovation and discovery. The devaluing of these things can lead to a loss of enjoyment, motivation and creativity. As John Holt expresses it:

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. (John Holt, 1981)

How can we stimulate creativity?

a) The preschool child - Parents, carers and preschool teachers need to:

  • Provide time for children to explore their world.
  • Offer opportunities for structured and unstructured play.
  • Encourage experimentation with language and story.
  • Create an environment that encourages the child to invent novel solutions in play.
  • Ensure that children are not placed under too many restraints and structures.
  • Try to enhance opportunities for children to attempt to solve problems or explore new things. 
  • Encourage deep learning of things that interest the child
  • Offer new experiences and situations that challenge them to find out, seek solutions and solve problems.
  • Make good use of technology without allowing it to dominate children's lives.
b) School-age children - The teacher or parent needs to:
  • Encourage learning, expression and exploration in situations that emphasise the generation of ideas, solutions and forms of expression that are divergent as well as convergent.
  • Ensure that the desire to evaluate learning and encourage excellence does not limit creativity.
  • Ensure that rewards do not simply privilege single answers or solutions, or pathways to reaching the single right answer (because of course there are correct answers to some things).
  • Integrate opportunities to learn as much as possible cutting across the traditional subject disciplines.
  • Provide time for children to explore, express and reflect on their learning.
  • Encourage self-discovery, inquiry learning and varied modes to expressing ideas.
  • Encourage children to ask good questions of themselves and others.
  • Encourage depth of knowledge in areas that fascinate the learner.
  • Encourage exploration of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences.

How do I know a child is creative?

While children can be tested to see if they demonstrate high levels of creativity, most teachers can tell quickly if a child seems more creative than other children. Parents sometimes find it harder to be objective, as they view constant progress in learning from birth to age 5. This normal (and quite remarkable development) can easily give all parents a sense that their child is highly intelligent and creative. Here are some questions that you might ask to determine if your child shows extra creativity:

Do they tend to come up with lots of ideas in response to verbal or visual cues?
Are their ideas different, quirky, 'outside the square'?
Do they look at things from different perspectives (e.g. draw an object from above rather than giving a side elevation)?
Do they suggest solutions to problems that surprise you because they are different or unusual?
Do they express themselves metaphorically or abstractly in play situations or in use of language and storytelling (e.g. "I'm a laser force that's knocking you over")?
Do they find it easy to elaborate on the ideas of others (e.g. can progress shared oral storytelling in unusual directions)?
Do they show an attention to fine detail in drawing and language?

Above: Jacob's drawing of a Blue Tongue lizard is drawn from the unusual perspective of "a predator flying above it"

How observation and knowledge can fuel creativity

Sometimes I think that when we use the term creativity some people imagine that it comes from being a dreamer who empties their mind of ideas and distractions so that they can imagine amazing things. This isn't where creativity comes from (though contemplation can help idea generation). If you think of some of the most creative people of all time you will realise that they were also very knowledgeable. Leonardo da Vinci was arguably the most creative person of all time, but in his age, he was also one of the most knowledgeable people who understood more about science, art, anatomy, mathematics, cartography and engineering than most people of his day.

If we want our children to be creative we should encourage them to learn, observe their world, acquire deep knowledge of things, ask many questions. The drawing above that one of my grandchildren created when he was six would be identified by many as creative for many reasons. The vantage point alone is novel and unusual for a six year-old. The artist has drawn the scene from above, taking the perspective of an eagle hunting its prey. But note also that Jacob displays great knowledge in this drawing. He has great anatomical awareness of the Blue Tongue lizard, shows knowledge of animals and insects and demonstrates advanced ability in spelling. The drawing below that followed a trip to the Aquarium was done as a four year-old and is a picture of me drawn from the perspective of the fish in the aquarium looking at me through the glass. Again it displays knowledge of many species of marine life (which he could name and describe) as well as novelty.

My point is that the seedbed of creativity is knowledge, and the ability to use knowledge in novel ways. While the teaching of facts for facts sake will do little for creativity, knowledge acquired in response to an intense interest and desire to learn in response to the learner's questions, is a great stimulus for creativity.  From knowledge the child can see connections, anomalies, novelty, unanswered questions and can ask themselves (and others) "Why is it so?" "What would happen if?" "How can I find out?" And so on.

Even the familiar can lead us to wonder, reflect, puzzle, and ask questions. Here is a practical example. My eldest grandson (the same grandson who drew the Blue Tongue lizard) loves to visit a river near my home (the 'Cooks River'). This is a not a spectacular river (as Australian rivers go). When it was discovered by Captain Cook in 1770 it was no doubt pristine and its mangrove lined banks and waters would have been teeming with great biodiversity. Today, it is polluted, large sections of the mangrove  (but not all) banks have been degraded and the biodiversity (although improving), and it is a just a 'shadow' of what it once was. But just about every time he visits we spend an hour or so exploring the river.

My wife said recently, "What do you do down there?" My response was "Talk, look, ask questions of each other, sharpen our observation skills. I think I learn as much as Jacob". Every visit has a highlight. On recent trips the annual mullet run up river saw thousands of fish swarming and feeding. Each visit we observe variations in tides, signs of mangrove regeneration, and life amongst the mangrove roots (e.g. small mud crabs, insects, fish). We listen for new and familiar birdcalls, and hope for new species of birds and animals. Sightings of familiar wildlife are just as important, including a pair of White-faced herons, pelicans, Wattlebirds, two escaped domestic ducks, native mice. We look for signs of human impact, pick up seed capsules, and look at blossoms and fruit on native trees. We scan for insects of all types. Every new or old sighting is exciting; each is recounted as we go home. Discussions are had about favourite reptiles, birds, insects, even cryptids, and the ongoing efforts to fix up the river. We share knowledge, question each other, puzzle over things we don't understand, and go home to look up species of bird and habitats in reference books as well as on the Internet to find answers to our many questions.  This is how knowledge and creativity feed on one another.

Alice laughed. There's no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ('Through the Looking Glass', Lewis Carroll)

“The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas.” (Abe Tannenbaum)

Some posts on this blog that offer practical ideas to stimulate creativity

'The Role of Adults in Children's Play' (HERE)
'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (HERE)
'Understanding and Developing Creativity' (HERE)
'Stifling Creativity: The School as Factory' (HERE)
'The Power of Simple Play' (HERE)
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' (HERE)
'Stories in a Box: Stimulating language, writing & imagination' (HERE)
'Choosing Great Educational Toys for Children' (HERE)
'English, the inventive language' (HERE)
'Firsthand Experience, Literacy & Learning' (HERE)
'The Language Experience Approach (LEA)' (HERE)
The Worrying Preoccupation with Weighing the 'Sheep' (HERE)

Monday, March 21, 2011

New Smartphone App Helps Students and Writers with Citations

This post is for anyone who ever has to write a paper or publication that requires references, or who wants an easy way to save book bibliographic information.  A new smartphone application makes it very easy to cite books.

The app is called Quick Cite and costs 99 cents. It is available for iPhones and Android-based phones. The phone needs to have an inbuilt camera. For the iPhone all you need to do is point the phone at the bar code on the back of a book and once the camera locks in on the code it takes a photo, creates the bibliographic reference and emails it to you in one of four citation styles—APA, MLA, Chicago, or IEEE. You can choose the style you want and the email address to receive the reference.

The app was developed by a team of seven Canadian students who tried to develop seven apps in seven days at the University of Waterloo. They called their project 'Seven Cubed'. Quick Cite took them eight hours to develop.

The app has a couple of minor drawbacks.  First, the use of barcodes only became standard publishing practice in the 1970s, but most of the books we usually cite will have barcodes. Second, it doesn't seem to work that well with literature and some non-fiction books, particularly if they are more than 10 years old. In the case of children's literature, the barcodes often don't lead to a citation. A third minor glitch is that sometimes the place of publication is missing. Hopefully, the developers will iron out these problems, but they may just reflect issues with barcode use, particularly for older books.

The applications for the app should be obvious. Students and academics can quickly scan the barcode and have the full citation in seconds ready to be copied and dropped into a publication.  As well, it is a perfect way to record the details of books used in libraries, new books seen at bookshops and so on.

At 99 cents this is amazing value. I've already been putting the app to good use. Now any time I see an interesting book I can scan the citation details in an instant. You can buy the app via iTunes HERE.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Motivates Children to Learn?

When my grandchildren were visiting just after Christmas they were playing with some old stamps and an inkpad. I noticed that they were using an old set of reward stamps that I had purchased in my first year of Primary school teaching. I stopped using them the year I bought them - 1972!  But they had survived.  I was a little horrified to see the stamps with words like "Messy", "You Did Not Listen", "Do this Over", "Incomplete" and a token "Good" (again see the illustration). I know why I bought them.  As a young inexperienced teacher in a difficult school in Sydney I grasped at old ideas; how I was taught, extrinsic rewards and sometimes punishment. I can also recall why I stopped using them. I was wandering around the room one day at the end of a lesson checking books and one of my Grade 4 students said: "Sir, can I have a the 'Do this over' one, it's the only one I haven't got yet?" I realised that they liked the pictures and thought little about the words.

I was reminded again today of the stamps when a new batch of stickers came free as an insert in magazine to which I subscribe. They are mostly adhesive stickers these days and as you'd expect they are much more positive, no hint of anything negative. As well, in this much more market savvy age. The set is promoting Sally Rippin's popular Billie B. Brown book series.  As an aside, this is a level of commercialism that wouldn't have been possible in 1972.  I can certainly see kids collecting these stickers and feeling good about it. But do these stickers (and my old set of stamps) do anything useful to motivate children to learn? And what about other reward systems that are used in schools regularly; do they motivate children to learn? To answer these question I need to say something about 'motivation',  'competition' and 'punishment'.

What is motivation?

The psychologist will tell you that motivation refers to the psychological forces that lead us to act to achieve a desired goal. It can also refer to the reason for our actions that give purpose and direction to our behaviour.  Psychologists always distinguish between two major categories in our reasons for action. First, forces that come from inside the individual (e.g. interest, challenge, intense need to know something, desire to complete a task, feelings of self-worth etc) - Intrinsic Motivation. Second, forces that are external to the learner that can offer reward and pleasure (e.g. prizes, money, good grades etc) - Extrinsic Motivation.

What is Competition?

Competition is essentially when two people contest the same thing. Two runners try to reach the finish line first, thirty people scurry to get the last 20 tickets to a concert, two families try to get the best table in the park, children strive to be the best speller in the class. Competition can motivate, but there is great debate about its potential to lead to intrinsic motivation (not just extrinsic motivation).

What is Punishment?

Punishment is the use of some stimuli to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviour. It can involve physical stimuli (e.g. a smack, confinement etc) or non-physical action (e.g. the removal of privileges, verbal chastisement etc). It is seen as effective if the punishment leads us to want to avoid a behaviour or action in the future (e.g. the child stays on task, rather than off it).  Research also suggests that for it to be effective it needs to happen just after the behaviour, and it is more effective if it is severe and occurs every time the behaviour occurs.

So what does this all mean for kids and learning?

1. Be careful with extrinsic motivation - At the very least, what we know about motivation should lead us to think carefully about the use of any form or extrinsic reward to motivate children. The stamps I used I can confidently say had little impact on the children I taught. Perhaps over time if your child gets enough super effort awards at school, they will feel good about themselves. But not if the rewards have little relationship to 'real' achievement or 'real' change in behaviour that they recognise as having its own rewards.  We need to recognise that extrinsic motivation might change behaviour for a time, but it doesn't necessarily lead to any sustained benefit. In fact, some argue that it does little for intrinsic motivation.

2. Ensure that ultimately it is intrinsic motivation that we should seek for our children - When extrinsic rewards are removed will they continue to want to learn, explore new ideas, sustain their efforts in any area of life?

3. Understand that punishment has a place in parenting and teaching but it is limited - For a start, physical punishment is not an option for teachers, and is rarely an option for parents. Even physical strategies such as the 'naughty chair', detention and so on, only work long term when associated with a realisation on the child's part that their behaviour was unwise, wrong, inappropriate, selfish etc. It should also lead to the child seeing the benefits to them of different behaviour.

4. Understand that for every winner there is always at least one loser - Classrooms, in particular, are places that should not be driven just by competition. In any class, and family for that matter, there will be different children with different strengths and weaknesses.  If you promote competition you will need to link it to a very broad range of achievements. Our primary aim isn't just to make sure that everyone gets a super effort award, but to actually acknowledge varied areas of achievement and learning. You will need to ensure that you don't simply reward compliant behaviour but also acknowledge kindness, tenacity, creativity, problem solving, graciousness, service and so on.

5. Recognise that extrinsic motivation has a relationship to what and how you teach - As a young teacher I soon discovered that teaching spelling simply by drilling and memorising lists of words led inevitably to a Friday spelling test to judge success or failure on the list. The Friday test of separate isolated words matched the way I taught decontextualised spelling, not the ability to write well, or even spell well in context. If your child's school has a massive and complex system of award cards, or if you teach in a school like this, you should constantly consider what is rewarded or acknowledged and what this says about the things that are valued in the classroom.

Summing up

I want to stress that I'm not saying that competition is wrong and completely unhelpful. No, it can motivate us in many positive ways.  But there is a difference between an adult being self-motivated by a desire to compete and succeed and the way we impose competitive structures on young children. Children need to understand when competition is good, fun and satisfying - this is one of life's hard lessons. They need to learn how to win and lose gracefully, and how to deal with success and failure. Wanting to beat your brother at backyard cricket might be fun and drives lots of good physical activity, skill development etc, but the benefits are greater and more wide reaching when motivated by more than just wanting to beat him or her into submission. 

We need to think carefully about how we use extrinsic motivation, competition, reward and punishment at school and at home.  We also need to remember that each child is different (even in a family), that we all respond differently to extrinsic rewards, and that different things act as intrinsic motivators for all children.

"If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." Albert Einstein

"One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But... I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success."  Thomas A. Edison

Other posts

There are many other posts on this blog that deal with related issues in child learning (here)

A UNESCO document titled 'How Children Learn' can be downloaded free HERE

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Meet the Author: Catriona Hoy

This is a new series of posts that will feature interviews with children's authors. Today we meet Catriona Hoy who will launch her latest 'George and Ghost' tomorrow.  You can read my interview with her later in the post about her writing and her life. This first post is also part of a blog tour that Catriona is conducting to coincide with the launch of the new book.  I review her new book as well as all her other books below.

About Catriona Hoy

Catriona was born in Dumbarton, which is between Loch Lomond and Glasgow in Scotland. Her family emigrated to Australia when she was 7 years old. She moved house seven times before she was twelve and she went to five different primary schools. She comments, "I got used to being the new kid on the block. I learnt to speak a new language...well sort of. I learnt to go shopping instead of do the messages; to do the vacuuming rather than the hoovering. But I quickly developed an Aussie accent so people would stop asking me to say things in the playground."

She loved reading very early and read anything that she could get her hands on. "I particularly loved myths and legends. I escaped to imaginary places because we moved around a lot and we'd left all of our extended family back in Scotland."

"I always loved reading and writing poetry. Funnily enough, in high school, I ended up doing science rather than English. I thought it would get me a better job. I started off as a lab technician but since I didn't get to talk to anyone all day, I started to worry that I might be a figment of my own imagination. So I became a teacher instead and now I get to talk to people all day."

Catriona is still a part-time secondary science teacher as well as a writer and lives with her husband, two daughters, a pet Labrador and sometimes her husband's other two children.

Her Books

Catriona has written six books since 2006, which is very impressive given that her writing has been very much part-time. Her picture books tell stories of significance that teach as well as share strong narratives. Her love of science shows through frequently in her books and leaves the reader wanting to know just a little more. Below I give a short description of all previous titles and a longer review of her latest book 'George and Ghost' to be released tomorrow.

1.  George and Ghost (2011) illustrated by Cassia Thomas

I love this simple and elegant story.  George and Ghost are friends, but George isn’t sure he believes in Ghost anymore and tells Ghost he needs to leave. Ghost sets out to prove logically to George that he is real? But this doesn't go that well as his logical proofs fail one by one - he weighs nothing, doesn't appear in their photo, can't displace water in a bucket and so on. Ghost leaves. But they miss one another and when Ghost comes back he tries a more philosophical approach to prove his existence.

This is a beautiful story of simple friendship, which 'asks' a number of questions of the reader. With a dash of science and a little philosophy, readers are challenged to ask what might be, not what can't be.

Just as in her last book 'Puggle' Catriona manages to weave scientific concepts into a delightfully simple and engaging narrative.  Cassia Thomas has done a wonderful job with the illustrations that support perfectly this whimsical but thought provoking tale. Children aged 3-6 will love this book.

Teaching activities and notes written by Catriona are available for teachers who might want to use the book (HERE)

2.  Puggle (2009), illustrated by Andrew Plant

This book was motivated by a visit to the home of some wildlife carers and an encounter with a real life orphan echidna.  The book tells the story of a baby echidna named Puggle who is taken to an animal refuge after his mother is hit by a car. The book traces Puggle's slow development from being helpless to being independent. It shows how it learns to suckle, how its body changes, and how it is released into the wild. While the book is in a narrative form it communicates factual information about echidnas and has additional factual information on the end papers.

Teaching activities and notes are available for teachers who might want to use the book (HERE)

3.  Mummies are Amazing (2009), illustrated by Annie White

What are mummies for? Everyone has an opinion, but the narrator concludes that Mummies can do amazing things. They can make a snake out of some stockings, they can make sore feet better with a kiss, and the parties they plan are something else! But while they can do amazing things, sometimes we need to help them feel amazing too.

Mummies are carers, nurturers, nurses, cooks, artists, listeners, clappers, finders of lost things and protectors from monsters in the night. This a wonderful book about the simple things that mummies do that no one else seems to be able to match. Annie White's illustrations do more than simply accompany the story, they add extra things to explore.   A wonderful book for early readers 5 to 7 or for reading aloud. The book is also a parallel story to Catriona's book 'Daddies' that she wrote first. 

Teaching activities and notes are available for teachers who might want to use the book (HERE)

4. Daddies (2008), illustrated by Mal Webster

Everyone has an opinion on what Daddies are for (even Mummies!). They're good at washing dishes, changing lights, playing crazy games and creating fun and mischief. Anything is possible from flying in spaceships, making you walk the plank, rumbling or cuddling. 

This funny little book tells the story of Daddies from a child's perspective.
Mal Webster's watercolour and pastel artwork capture the fun and energy of encounters with Daddy. 

Teaching activities and notes written by Catriona are available for teachers who might want to use the book (HERE)

5. The Music Tree (2006), illustrated by Adele Jaunn

Liam loved to hit things in the garden with a stick. He hit the pot plants, he hit the barbeque, and he hit the garden shed. When he hits the window his mother decides to take action. She hangs an assortment of noisy items in their tree that Liam can hit to his heart’s content.

Then late one hot, sweltering night, the music tree calls to Liam…..

As with many of Catriona's books, this one asks questions of the reader. Might this just be possible? Is there still some magic in the world?

Teaching activities and notes written by Catriona are available for teachers who might want to use the book (HERE)

Award - Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book in 2007 (Early Childhood).

6. My Grandad Marches on Anzac Day (2006), illustrated by Benjamin Johnson

'My Grandad Marches on Anzac Day' was written by Catriona based on her children's grandfather who fought with the British army in World War II. It tells the story of one family's involvement in this day, but at the same time it is a similar story to that of many families who wake up early on the 25th April each year to remember the fallen of war and to celebrate the mateship of those who survive.

This book is an ideal way to help very young children learn something about Anzac Day. It is a simple, thoughtful and touching tale told through the eyes of a little girl. It explains what happens on the day and its significance for a young child.

I sit on Daddy’s shoulders.
It’s a very long wait.
But my grandad will come.
My grandad marches on Anzac Day.

Sadly, this book is out of print. You may be able to obtain a copy HERE.

Teaching activities and notes are available for teachers and parents HERE

An Interview With Catriona Hoy

Hi Catriona, could you tell the readers of this blog why you wanted to be a writer of children’s books? Was there a special motivation or someone who inspired you to do it?

I've always loved reading and when I was younger, one of my ambitions was to be a writer. However, I ended up choosing science subjects towards the end of high school and sort of went off down that track. I started off as a lab technician, then got into teaching and found I loved it. It wasn't until I'd given birth to my second daughter that I had one of those, 'if you had your life over, what would you be...' conversations with a friend. I said that I'd always wanted to be a writer and she said she'd always wanted to be an artist. Many years later, that friend has completed a diploma in textile arts and I've morphed into a children's writer. It was that particular friend who encouraged me to send something in to a publisher and to stop listening to those voices in my head that said I couldn't do it.

Do you find the writing process difficult? Which aspects of your writing are most challenging?

Oh, it's the jargon, lol! Especially when I first started out, as I didn't have a background in English or writing. My first couple of books were written on gut instinct and I also wrote a lot of very bad stuff that I'm embarrassed to say I actually sent to publishers. I still find that in discussing books I lack confidence, although I'm getting better. I remember early on, someone giving me advice about POV (point of view) and not really being sure what they were talking about. I'm lucky though, that I have a good sense of grammar, which I think came more from studying French than English.

My big challenge to myself is to one day write a novel, although I have a lot of learning to do before I get there.

Your background in science has had an obvious influence on your writing, what other things have helped to shape your writing?

In terms of writing, it's important to write about what you know, to be authentic. So my books are either about my family or things which have interested me along the way.

What is the research process like for the writing of a book like 'Puggle'?

Picture books are so small, it would be easy to think that a lot of research wasn't required but that's not the case. I've always felt that I need absorb as much as I can to make sure that everything is factually correct. Sometimes I'll have a first draft and a skeleton, then I have to go over those initial ideas to see that they are correct. For  My Grandad, I read Les Carlyon's "Gallipoli" amongst other things, obviously at a much higher level than ever needed to be in a picture book. I loved researching Puggle, as it was so interesting. I kept in contact with the wildlife rescuers and was able to follow Puggle's journey as he grew up. At the same time, I also found out as much as I could about echidnas and had to develop a timeline to work out what happened, when.

For 'George and Ghost', I was able to draw on my own knowledge of science and my teaching background, so the actual research process wasn't so involved in that. Having said that, it's probably the one with the most science in it and the most challenging ideas.
Of your 6 books, which one was most satisfying for you and why?

Oh that's hard, it's like someone asking which of your children is your favourite! They are all satisfying in different ways. My Grandad Marches on Anzac Day was my first book but it was also about my father-in-law, who I was very fond of. It was a nice way to say 'we love you,' to him and it's especially poignant as he passed away before it actually came out in shops. It's our family's way of keeping his memory alive. I have another book, Our Gags coming out in April, which is my first 'chapter book. Again, I love that one because it's about my mum and how she helped out with my children. Again, it's a way of saying thanks for all those things she's always done.

'Puggle' was satisfying because Jane Covernton, the editor, made me work really hard on the dialogue and the flow of the story, so I feel I learnt a lot. Daddies was fun because it was about the wild things that Dad's do based on my brother and my own husband.

But of course 'George and Ghost' is my newest baby. I'm so pleased overall with the visual aspects of Cassia's gorgeous illustrations and the overall quality of the finished product. To get the text to hang together was really tricky, as there were some really complex ideas going on there and I didn't want to give kids the wrong idea. 'George and Ghost' is all about the scientific method, the nature of matter and energy, even a bit of philosophy. In fact a minister recently said that it was exactly like trying to prove that God exists...How's that for complex! So I'm hoping this is a book that will be the start of some open-ended conversations about life, the universe and everything...or maybe just how friendship is the most important thing of all.

What has been the most memorable experience in your writing career so far?

Getting invited to the Christmas party for Hodder Books in London...and being too scared at first to talk to anyone! A couple of champagnes helped though. I spent a fortune buying a new red coat that I thought made me look quite dashing and writerly, rather than a suburban mum. Then I had to check it in downstairs at the cloakroom anyway and no-one got to see it!

It was also pretty great being invited up to Townsville because veterans had banded together to buy 'My Grandad' for all the primary schools in the area. It might sound glamorous but a lot of writing is hard work, disappointment and dealing with a new rejection. You have to develop a thick skin and celebrate the successes...and I like celebrating...

What are you reading at the moment?

Well, I've just finished the Tomorrow Series, by John Marsden and now I've moved on to the Ellie Chronicles. I'm fighting my daughter for them...she's in year 8. For my bookclub we're reading Fly Away Peter by David Malouf and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I've usually got two or three books on the go at once.

Were you taught creative writing in school? Did it help?

I didn't take creative writing although II was exposed to it as part of the English curriculum. I loved writing poetry from an early age and remember a teacher in grade three giving me a special book to write poems in. I wrote particularly bad poetry as all teenagers do and had good and bad experiences with English teachers. I do wish I'd listened a little more on essay structure as I feel I only learnt that when I did Dep Ed. What I have learnt about writing has been self taught, in particular learning the form of a picture book and being able to structure ideas. However, I've also had a great group of writing friends in my on-line writer's group who have helped me to grow as a writer and given lots of moral support.

What advice would you impart to aspiring writers?

Oh the usual...write about what you know, show don't tell. In particular, if you want to write picture books, make sure that you can see clearly at least 16 different images in your head. Sometimes people think they have a picture book, when it is essentially a conversation, which doesn't translate into pictures.

Network and learn as much as you can about the industry. It's also important to be able to take criticism ....your family and friends will always love it but ultimately you need to have a critical 'friend' who you trust...even if you have to pay them.

What has been your favourite response to any of your books?

I love hearing from people who have read my books, it's a great feeling to think, wow, someone other than my friends and family actually like my books! I think the loveliest emails were from people who read 'My Grandad Marches on Anzac Day,' as it seemed to touch so many people. I've had people email me to say that it brought them to tears, so it's nice to know that something that meant a lot to me meant a lot to them too.

Other Links

Catriona Hoy's blog (HERE)

Blog Tour Details

Monday March 7
Claire Saxby:  Let’s Have Words
Topic: Art vs Science

Tuesday March 8
Rebecca Newman: Alphabet Soup Magazine’s Soup Blog
Topic: Does a picture book need editing?

Wednesday March 9
Trevor Cairney : Literacy, Families and Learning
Topic: The Writing Journey

Thursday March 10 (Official Release Day!)
Robyn Opie: Writing Children’s Books With Robyn Opie
Topic: Writing George and Ghost

Friday March 11
Dee White: Kid’s Book Capers : Boomerang Books
Topic: Ghosts…Do You Believe? And…a review!

Saturday March 12
Chris Bell: From Hook To Book
Topic: Picture books: Here and Overseas.

Monday March 14
Lorraine Marwood: Words into Writing
Topic: What’s real anyway?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eight Strategies to Help Children Become Better Spellers

How do we learn to spell?

Learning to spell like learning to write has often been surrounded by many misconceptions. It has been misunderstood by children, parents and even some teachers.  The standard way to teach spelling in schools has generally been through the memorisation of lists of words and learning rules.

But as I pointed out in a previous post on spelling (here), it is impossible to learn the number of words that we use as adults by memorising lists. So, while spelling lists might help children to memorise some words, proficient spelling requires the development of a range of generic skills that are necessary for effective spelling.

The stages of spelling growth

Children begin to learn about spelling in the preschool years as they are immersed in a rich language environment that supports them as readers, offers them many varied opportunities to write and encourages an environment where it is natural to explore words and 'play' with them. There are many skills that children need to learn that eventually they can apply as part of writing for varied purposes. Most children move through a series of stages in spelling development.  While these are never 'neat' and discrete stages, they are recognisable with most children. Understanding the stages will help us to choose the right strategies to help them become better at spelling.  Gentry and Gillet (1993) suggest that most children move through the following stages:

Pre-phonetic - this occurs very early on (from age 2-3 years) and involves the child trying to form letters or simply drawing symbols that are an attempt to represent letters.

Semi-phonetic - at this stage (age 4 and up) the child is able to write most letters and even some approximations to words, and they know some of the sounds they make (as well as letter names).

Phonetic - eventually the child is able to represent sounds with the appropriate letters (single letters at first). They also begin to represent words in more conventional ways, but often they will use invented spelling patterns where the word has some (but not all) of the letters correct. This begins for most children from 5 years of age.

Transitional - at this stage children (aged 6-7 years) are able to think about the word, develop visual memory and begin to internalise the spelling pattern and know when words 'look right'.

Conventional - at this more mature stage the child can use both visual and auditory skills and memory as well as meaning based strategies (like seeing how the word fits in context). Now they can write multisyllabic words from memory and find the learning of new words much easier as they apply their skills and strategies from one situation to another.  This occurs for most children from about 8 years of age but continues to develop throughout the primary years of schooling.

How can I help children to be better spellers?

Most children learn quite naturally to experiment with writing and spelling, and adults support this at a very early age. Even as we read to toddlers we point to words and language devices; this in a sense is the beginning of spelling awareness (not just reading). Early memorising of rhymes and songs, playing with sounds and words play of all kinds is also the beginning of spelling. The 10 necessary skills outlined in a previous post (here) are acquired both incidentally ('caught') and by explicit help ('taught') and instruction. There are a variety of more explicit strategies that teachers and parents can use to support spelling development in the primary school years. I will share 8 key strategies that are helpful.

1. 'Have a go' strategy

This is a strategy for trying to spell unknown words as part of the writing process (ideal for children aged 6 years and older). Teach your child (or children) to apply the following strategy when they need to spell an unknown word.
  • Ask yourself, have I seen it before?
  • Say the word out loud and try to predict how many syllables you can hear.
  • Ask do I know any other words that sound almost the same?
  • How are those words spelt?
  • 'Have a go' (Aussie vernacular for trying to do something) at the word.
  • Ask yourself, does the word look right?
  • Have additional attempts at getting the word right.
2. Look-cover-write

This is a strategy that you can teach children of any age (who have started to write) to acquire new words. It has three simple steps.

Step 1 - When you need to remember how to spell a new word look at it, say it out loud, examine the number of syllables, any unusual grapheme/phoneme relationships etc.

Step 2 - Cover the word

Step 3
- Try to write it from memory


3. Here is a collection of self-help strategies - children as young as 6 can be taught to try to learn new words.
  • After covering the word try to picture it in your mind.
  • Uncover the word and trace the letters, cover and try again
  • Look at the new word, break it into syllables. After studying the syllables cover the word and try to write it.
  • Look at the new word and try to memorise the most difficult part of the word (e.g. the 'ght' in sight).
  • Check your writing environment for the word, or one like it (wordlists, other writing, dictionaries etc).
4. Using sound to visualise words

An alternative to some of the more visual strategies above is a simple auditory strategy that can be used as follows. The key to the strategy is to keep encouraging the child; avoid making the child feel like spelling is one big test session.
  • Ask the child to write the word after saying it slowly at least twice.
  • Encourage them to listen to the word as they say it and to try to write the sounds in order.
  • Now repeat the word breaking it into its parts or syllables; for multisyllabic words some teachers have the children clap as they say the syllables out loud.
  • Encourage the child to try to think of other words that sound the same and to think about how the other words are written.
  • Finally, have the child write the word (bit by bit) as they say the syllables.

5. Word family approaches

Many young children will benefit from an approach that presents words in sets that have similar phonological elements. For example, you might present your children with a group of words ending in 'ight', that begin with 'thr' etc. You can have fun forming the lists with your child (or children), writing them down, then trying to remember them. There are many good spelling games that support this type of approach (you can read more about these games here).

6. Using a word connection strategy

This is a strategy that supports the development of the 'connection' skill mentioned in my previous post on spelling. It is a meaning-based strategy.
  • Ask the child whether the word to be spelled reminds them of another word they know.
  • Encourage them to explain how it is similar and then use the information to help spell the word.
  • Then encourage them to think of other words like these words and to use parts of the new associated words to write the new word.
  • Encourage them to think of places or contexts where they might have seen this word used.
  • Then try to write the new word.

7. Morphemic (meaning-based) strategies

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
For some words a meaning-based approach will help older writers. This starts with the parent or teacher pointing out a morpheme within a new word, explaining the meaning, then analysing a set of words. For example, a word like 'unexpected' can be broken into two elements, 'un' and 'expected'. Discuss with the child or children what 'expected' means and then explain the meaning of the prefix 'un'. Have the child think of other words that fit this pattern and then write them down. Depending on the age of the children you might even go further with an example like this and break it into 'un', 'expect' and 'ed'. In this instance you would also consider how the suffix 'ed' changes the meaning of the word.

For older children (aged 11 and up) you might also consider exploring Latin roots to aid spelling. For example:

  • 'mare' meaning 'sea' as used in marine
  • 'pedis' meaning 'foot' as used in pedestrian
  • 'gress' meaning to walk as used in 'progress' and 'transgress'
  • 'tract' meaning to 'draw', 'drag' or 'pull' as used in 'attract' and 'contract'
  • 'hyper' meaning 'excessive' or 'excessively' as in 'hyperactivity'
You can find a good resource for basic Latin word elements here.

8. Mnemonics

Mnemonics are devices that help us to remember things. I'm not a big fan of this approach but sometimes it helps when a child (or adult) just can't manage to avoid confusing two spellings. So it's usually a strategy that people use to remember how to spell words that they get wrong habitually. A mnemonic simply helps to remove confusion or narrow the options for spelling. There is a down side to mnemonics though. If you use them too much you tend to reduce the use of other key spelling strategies, reducing your confidence and risk-taking as a writer. A simple example of a mnemonic applied to spelling is one used to help us know the difference between 'affect' and 'effect'. It is based on the word 'raven' used as an acronym:

R - remember

A - 'affect'
V - verb
E - 'effect'
N - noun

Online resources

There a variety of online resources that aim to help children learn more about spelling. Most are simply ways to memorise lists of words but even this basic strategy has a place, particularly for irregular words that are exceptions to our languages rules. An advantage of online resources is their appeal for young children and the instant feedback that children receive. One useful site is (here) that offers varied wordlists, a free spellchecker and thesaurus, games to play etc. You can also find sites that allow children to apply strategies like the ones I have described online (see for example application of 'look, cover, write' on this site). You can find other games and activities at 'Games aquarium' (here) and others on the Kent Junior High School site (here). But remember, spelling is much more than learning lists and playing online games.

Summing up

Language is always undergoing change (see my post on 'English, the Inventive Language') and with increased use of mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and so on, it is bound to change more than at any other time in history. But accurate spelling is still important. With spellcheckers everywhere and the preparedness of the young to invent their own language online, some suggest that the teaching of spelling isn't as important, but this of course is nonsense. Conventional spelling is still important - let anyone come up with an invented version of your name and see how you react. Accurate and consistent spelling is not just about conventions and good taste; it is important for the communication of meaning.

Spelling is an integral part of reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is learned as we use language for real purposes. But it isn't simply 'caught'; there is an important need for teaching. Most of this 'teaching' does not occur through memorising lists of words, but rather as we draw children's attention to variations in the English language. We need to show them simple rules for spelling, offer strategies for getting words right, provide tools for seeking correct spellings (including dictionaries and spell checkers),  give them new knowledge about how our complex language works and as we simply encourage them to use and 'play' with words.

Other links and resources

The Tasmanian Department of Education has an excellent web resource that offers a range of practical strategies to use to help spelling (here)

'Guide to English Spelling', David Appleyard (here)

My previous post on 'Twenty Fun Language & Thinking Games for Travellers' has some relevant activities that could be adapted (here).

Christine Topfer & Deidre Arendt (2010). Guiding Thinking for Effective Spelling, Melbourne: Curriculum Corporation (here).

Diane Snowball & Faye Bolton (1999). Spelling K-8: Planning and Teaching, York (ME): Stenhouse Publishers (here).