Thursday, July 29, 2010

Notable Children's Poetry Books in 2010

The Children's Literature Assembly (CLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in the USA exists to promote the centrality of literature for teaching children. Each year it publishes a list of 'Notable Children's Books' in 5 categories - poetry, historical and realistic fiction, fantasy/folklore, information books (including biography and autobiography), and picture books. The 2010 list was released recently (here). Rather than reviewing all five categories I thought that I'd focus on the poetry books.

The award committee reviewed approximately 90 books before naming 8 books as notable.  They have also listed a further 12 books in a recent review in the NCTE journal Language Arts.  One definition of poetry is that "it is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response".  However, the committee defines poetry more broadly in this way:

"Poetry is words and phrases that stretch our imaginations and make us dream of impossible things or unlikely worlds."

No matter how we define it, poetry can be enjoyed by people of all ages; and poetry for children, if written well, can be enjoyed just as much by the 80 year old as the 8 year old. The list of notable poetry books is a wonderful collection of varied ways to draw together a collection of poems. Some are written by a single poet, others are written by many poets, one is an illustrated version of a well-known poem written almost 90 years ago and all use varied poetic forms.

The 2010 Notables

1. Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings (2009) by Douglas Florian. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This is a collection of 20 poems about dinosaurs, including 'Tyrannosaurus Rex', 'Spinosaurus', 'Seismosaurus' and even the 'Minmi'. Now I grew up near the town of Minmi in the state of New South Wales Australia, but this dinosaur was first found near Minmi Crossing in the state of Queensland. "What's the Minmi's BIGGEST claim to fame? It has the smallest dinosaur name".  Any boy (or girl for that matter) will love these poems and the beautiful illustrations that use collage, coloured pencils, dust, stamps and brown paper. 

2. Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems (2009) by Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

This novel book consists of 32 list poems by 24 separate poets.  It covers topics as diverse as the seasons, shooting stars and frogs.  The book was inspired by Walt Whitman’s famous list poem, “Song of Myself”. The collection parallels the school year and the school day with poems that children will relate to whether reading them or listening to them.  Here's one in the collection by Georgia Heard, the compiler of the collection.

'Recipe for Writing An Autumn Poem'
by Georgia Heard

One teaspoon wild geese.
One tablespoon red kite.
One cup wind song.
One pint trembling leaves.
One quart darkening sky.
One gallon north wind.

3. The Tree that Time Built (2009) by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston. Illustrated by Barbara Fortin. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

This unusual book manages to combine poetry and science. It offers a perspective from the planet's beginnings millions of years ago, through the age of dinosaurs right to the present. It uses an evolutionary cycle to tell the story of Darwin and his theories in poetic form. It was published in the bicentennial year of Darwin's birth. It contains over 100 poems and is accompanied by a CD with 44 poems read by 20 poets.

4.  My People (2009) by Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Charles R. Smith, Jr. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This book is based on the famous poem written by James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967), the African American poet, novelist and playwright, short story writer and columnist. This 33 word poem was first published in 1923. Charles Smith (who is a photographer and poet) decided to produce a modern illustrated edition of the poem for children and was inspired both by the poem and Langston's reason for writing it. In the Afterword to the book, Smith shares that "Langston wrote the poem to celebrate the pride he had for his black brothers and sisters in the late 1920s, when blacks were not acknowledged much in society”. Here it is:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

The design of the book is very effective. It consists of double-page spreads that have a black background and contain a brief segment of the poem in large letters (mostly a tan colour) and photographs. These are typically lively and sepia-toned close-up images of people. The focus is always on the faces of real people that project varied emotions (but often smiles and joy), and that complement the power of the words. Smith comments that he decided " show that like any other group of people, black people come in all shapes, sizes, shades, and ages, and that each of us is unique." He achieves this with great distinction!

5.  Looking Like Me (2009) by Walter Dean Myers.  Illustrated by Chris Myers. New York: Egmont.

This book is a celebration in poetry of people of all kinds - athletes, writers, dancers, readers, writers, talkers, dreamers, artists, brothers and sisters. Walter Myers' strong message is that we are all different and should be prepared to celebrate our diversity and uniqueness. The illustrations and words complement each other beautifully, a key quality of a great picture book.

Chris Myers illustrates his father’s poetry using mixed media with vibrant colours like red, yellow and purple. Each of the people in each poem is shown in silhouette allowing the reader to more easily project themselves into each poem.

6. Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (2009) by Marilyn Nelson. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Penguin.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' was the first integrated all women's band in the USA.  It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The band is the focus of the book, and its story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages made from textured paper, including music, maps and even flowers, which overlay sketches that use watercolour, coloured pencil and graphite. The book also includes author and illustrator notes, a bibliography, and a list of related films, recordings and websites.

7. A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems (2009) by Deborah Ruddell. Illustrated by Joan Rankin. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This collection of 22 poems about forest animals written by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated by Joan Rankin will be a winner with younger readers. Ruddell's poetry focuses on the lives of rich animal characters that do many things. There is a poem that compares coyotes to carol singers, one in which a badger is writing a love poem, and there is a toad that tells of its ruined lunch.

"But I made a mistake
with the slug-on-a-stick–
a smidgen too salty–
and now I feel sick." 

The book is well designed, using a large bold font for the words and beautiful integration of text and image. Ruddell's poems are a riot of word play that are enriched by Rankin's magical watercolour illustrations. Children will love reading it or listening to others read them.

8. Red Sings from Treetops: A year of Colors (2009) by Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

As well as appearing now on the CLA notable list, this book of poetry was named earlier in the year as one of the 2010 Caldecott Honour books. Zagarenski’s playful illustrations support and enrich Sidman’s wonderful poetry as she explores the seasons and their colours.

Colour is hardly a new topic for poetry, so both author and illustrator needed something special to gain the attention of judges. Zagarenski uses computer illustration and mixed media paintings on wood. These combine rich textures, varied graphic elements, stylised figures and rich colours. Sidman describes each season of the year with a series of poems that sometimes use the predictable colours of the season (e.g. green for spring), but sometimes she uses colours that surprise you. The scenes in word and illustration offer many a surprise (just like the seasons) as a red bird flies above singing the seasons. The book 'dazzles' with its economical use of words and wonderful illustrations. A bit like the colour white really:

"White dazzles day
and turns night
inside out."

This book is a wonderful blend of exquisite wordsmithing and stunning illustrations.

Summing Up

Many teachers and parents neglect poetry, here is an opportunity to seek out some of the best that have been published in recent times.

Other Relevant Posts

You can see a list of all my posts on children's literature HERE.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Visual Literacy

I'm not too keen on the invention of new forms of 'literacy', because it always seems to devalue or break down the significance of the term 'literacy' as applied originally to reading, writing and understanding written text. We have a proliferation of terms that incorporate 'literacy' including 'financial literacy', 'musical literacy', 'multimedia literacy', 'driver literacy', 'environmental literacy' and 'computer literacy'. But of all the possible new forms of literacy we have seen, surely 'visual literacy' has some legitimacy.

What do I mean by the term Visual Literacy?

My definition is simple - The application of our visual senses to understand, create and use images for varied purposes.

By images I mean pictures, photographs, created objects (e.g. sculptures, architecture etc), advertisements, art, signs etc. These may incorporate words, but the dominant sign system that is used is the image (whether in space, on screen or on paper), not the word.

The photograph on the left of Indigenous Totems in British Columbia I would classify as an image whether represented in a photograph or when observed in situ (although interpretation is altered when viewed in their full context). Understanding what the totems might mean and their purpose, requires visual literacy skills as well as some background knowledge used in concert with visual skills. This will include historical knowledge of the varied forms of totems, their purposes, common images used and so on, and information on their location and the people group that created them.

Why is Visual Literacy important?

The most obvious reason is that our world is filled with more representational images than ever before. As well, these images require different skills to understand and use them. I don't accept the view of some that the book and the written word are less valuable than they once were.  Images aren't the key to the future, but they are very important, and frankly always have been. Indeed, our earliest forms of representational meaning used images not words. What has changed is that images are now more evident in our world, and the use of digital images and modern technology has increased, adding complexity and new possibilities. Understanding and using images is probably more important today because of their:
  • pervasiveness;
  • sophistication;
  • ease of production; and
  • power to inform and persuade.
Children and adults need to understand images and have well developed visual literacy skills to learn from them and to communicate with other people. In particular, children are increasingly subject to the use of images to persuade them to buy things, value things, imagine their futures, and understand the present and the past. This has positive and negative consequences.

In their excellent book, 'Interpreting the Visual', Helen de Silva Joyce and John Gaudin (available in teacher and student workbook editions) outline the varied approaches that we can use to understand images, including:

Critical social theory - this considers how art and media are used to empower and disempower people.
Cultural studies - this looks at how images are implicated in the social and political concerns of the day (e.g. racism, gender equity etc).
Media studies - this approach uses art history and literary criticism to consider how the image is used to communicate.
Quantitative approaches - these use a form of content analysis to analyse the topics or content privileged in newspapers, advertising etc to detect bias and intent.

'Visual literacy' is essentially an educational rather than a research tool. It seeks to offer children the tools that they need to understand the many visual images they meet each day. These are the skills that will allow them to understand why I took the photograph below of a roadside sign in Athens. What is the content? How have I used juxtaposition? Why have I done this? What am I seeking to communicate? More on this later. 

Today there is the added necessity of helping children to interpret images to determine not just their intent but whether they represent truth or a distortion of it. My post on 'Truth and the internet' explored the inability of children to interpret a story about the 'Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus'. Images are used to inform, warn, amuse and so on, but they can also be used to manipulate, distort, coerce and mislead. Visual literacy skills help children to understand the purpose and meaning of images. How can we help our children to be more visually literate?

A simple grammar of Visual Images

There have been a number of frameworks suggested for teaching visual literacy skills. One of the earliest was developed by Kress and van Leeuwen in 'Reading Images: Grammar of Visual Design' (1996).  They suggested that any form or communication simultaneously fulfils three functions. I have inserted some questions below based on generic questions derived from Kress and Leeuwen to help make plain what each of these are. I have based the questions on the above 'Be You, Be Cooper' image.

Representational - Any image conveys meaning and some view of the real world. 

What can you see in the image?
What type of image is it? How was it created?
Where might the image be situated (where is it from)?
When do you think it was taken?

Interpersonal - Images aim to engage the viewer in some way. 

Why might the person have taken the photo?
How do the parts of the image relate to one another?
What is the relationship between the people and the things in the image?
What makes you want to look at this image?
How does it make you feel, or what emotions does it lead to?
What is the image-maker trying to say?

Composition - Images are made up of elements that are arranged or reproduced in a particular way to achieve an intended effect.

How are the elements in the image arranged to make their point?
How are the elements arranged to make you look at certain things?
Why are some elements in the image given less prominence and others more?

A simple example

Parents might apply the above framework in very basic ways when their children confront images. Perhaps to simplify the framework you might simply use questions that seek to focus the child's attention on:
  • What can we see?
  • Why has it been created and how does it work on us?
  • How has the image been constructed to achieve the above?
Even an image as simple as my photograph above has much to discuss. I took it in Greece in 2002. The image was taken because I was struck by the juxtaposition of the sign promoting smoking, a practice that increases your chances of dying from cancer, a car, and the small white shrine below the billboard. The small shrine is typical of thousands erected all over Greece at the site of car accidents. In a nation where smoking is very prevalent and it has one of the worst road tolls in Europe, I was stopped in my tracks. The alignment of the white car, a potential cause of death, the cigarettes, another common cause of death (and a habit being glamorised), and the shrine that commemorates the sadness of death or thankfulness for a near miss, spoke very powerfully to me. I had to take the photo.

As with the interpretation of any image, if children were to consider this photograph they may need help. Simply applying the above three-step framework will demonstrate how.

What? If children were to consider this photograph they may need help to identify the shrine as an element but the others are self-evident. They might also need help to identify the foreign language on the sign (the clue to location).

Why? Once the children know the elements they are part way to understanding why I took the photo. They will need some knowledge. You could tell them about the purpose of the shrines, or you could offer a web link for them to explore.

How? Once the 'what' and 'why' are known even many younger primary school children will be able to look at my purpose as a photographer and how I achieved it is pretty straight forward with this image.
Other resources for teachers

If you're a teacher you might want to go further. I'd suggest that you look for a good resource book like 'Interpreting the Visual' that will help you to identify the many ways that images can be 'read' and used.

There are also good web resources around. For example the Curriculum Corporation in Australia has an excellent website devoted to Visual Literacy advice, complete with examples of images that teachers can use - 'Visual Literacy K-8'.  This site also lists other resource books and how to get them in the USA and Canada.

You will also find many helpful links on the EDNA website in Australia (HERE).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting Younger Readers into Chapter Books

From the Archives - I wrote a post on this topic about a year ago, this is a revised version

I’ve written before on the importance of reading to and with your children (here). However, I’ve been asked a number of times for help with more substantial books to read aloud to children as they grow in language and reading proficiency. In this post I suggest some good chapter books for children aged 5-7 years (boys and girls).

Is my child ready for chapter books?

In one sense, this is an easy question to answer. If he or she won’t sit still long enough to hear a chapter through, then it’s too early. But, then again, you might just be choosing dull books or books that are just too hard and complex as narratives. You might also need to sharpen up your story reading.

Here are some quick questions that you might think about in assessing whether your child is ready:
  • Can your son or daughter listen for 30 minutes plus of reading aloud from picture books?
  • Do they seem to enjoy the text as much as the pictures?
  • Do they seem to relate to the characters and can they follow more complex picture books?
  • Do they ask you to read favourite books over and over?
  • Are they showing growing understanding of written language and asking questions about it (e.g. “What does calamity mean?” “Why does it say….?).
If you answer yes to most of these questions then they are probably ready. Children who have been read to constantly during the preschool years are typically ready to listen to chapter books from age 5 years and up (some even earlier). I also add that some children will be ready before 5 years. My two daughters and my two oldest grandchildren all started to love chapter books before 5 years of age. The starting time will reflect their maturity, language proficiency and the depth of the literary and narrative experiences that they have had in the early years.

Why read chapter books to younger readers?

In a post I wrote in 2008 on ‘Guiding children’s learning’ (here) I talked a little about Jerome Bruner’s concept of “scaffolding”. This idea was devised by Bruner to explain the behaviour of adults helping three and five year old children. He identified scaffolding as a process where an adult helps children to learn in advance of their developmental level. The adult does this by doing what the child cannot do by themselves; allowing students to slowly take over parts of the process as they are able to do so. In many ways, this is the most fundamental reason to read chapter books to your children once they have become avid listeners to stories and beginning readers. They can listen to more complex stories than they can read themselves as emerging readers.

In practical terms, chapter books offer children:
  • More complex narrative forms and plot development
  • Richer and more complex language
  • New areas of knowledge about their world and the human condition
  • Different literary devices
  • They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading
As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared history within the family, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

A couple of warnings

Having said all of the above, there are a couple of warnings that I’d give:
  • Don’t push your children too quickly; all learning requires periods of consolidation before moving on to more difficult terrain.
  • Be aware that while your children might be able to follow the story line, relate to the characters and so on, they may not be emotionally ready for some of the content.
  • Be prepared to offer support - with chapter books you may need to explain new words, discuss new concepts, offer new knowledge etc.
  • Don’t forget, that reading a chapter book still needs to be interesting and enjoyable and that it will be harder to achieve this without pictures so you’ll need to work harder on varying your character voices (see my earlier post on reading to and with your children HERE).
One final warning. Don't assume that once you commence chapter books that picture books no longer have a place. Young children still need to read picture books and hear them read to them. They continue to have an important role in children's literacy development throughout the primary years of schooling.

Some Chapter Books to try

The list below is not meant to be extensive, just illustrative. It has a particular Australian flavour (but not entirely). I preface the following suggestions by saying that individual children will handle these books at different ages. The age guide that I have given is meant to be a ‘group age’ guide for teachers sharing such books with larger groups. Parents reading to a single child will perhaps find that their child can deal with books I’ve listed at an earlier stage. Conversely, your child might not be ready for some of these books as suggested. You may also find that they can handle even more difficult books not on the list (but don’t forget the warnings above).

a) Suitable for 5 year-olds

‘Aurora and the little blue car’, by Anne-Cath Vestly, 1969
‘Arlo the dandy lion’, by Morris Lurie, 1971
‘Charlotte’s Web’, by E. B. White, 1952
‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, by Roald Dahl, 1970
‘Morris in the apple tree’, by Vivian French, 1995
‘Pippi Longstocking’, by Astrid Lindgren, 1945
‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’, by May Gibbs, 1940
‘The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill’, by Dorothy Wall, 1939
‘The Littlest Dragon Goes for Goal’, by Margaret Ryan, 1999
‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, by A.A. Milne, 1926

b) Suitable for 6 year-olds

‘The BFG’, by Roald Dahl, 1982
‘Billy Fishbone King of the kid’, by Dianne Bates, 1997 (Bushranger series)
‘Bud Buster’, by Sofie Laguna, 2003 (Aussie Nibbles series)
‘Dragon ride’, by Helen Cresswell, 1987 (Colour Young Puffin series)
‘Elephant in the kitchen’, Winsome Smith, 1980
‘Grandma Cadbury’s Trucking Tales’, Di Bates, 1987
‘James and the Giant Peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Hazel the Guinea Pig’, by A. N. Wilson, 1989
‘Mr. Popper's Penguins’, by Richard & Florence Atwater, 1939
‘Rabbit Hill’, by Robert Lawson, 1944.
‘Superfudge’, by Judy Blume, 1984
‘Tashi and the Genie’, by Anna Fienberg, 1997, (series)
‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’, by Florence Parry Heide, 1971
‘The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race’, by Morris Lurie, 1969
‘The Wind in the Willows’, by Kenneth Grahame, 1908

c) Suitable for 7 year-olds

‘Boss of the Pool’, by Robin Klein, 1986
‘Bottersnikes and Gumbles’, by S. A. Wakefield, 1969
‘Boxer’, by Ian Charlton, 1999
‘Boy’, by Roald Dahl, 1984
‘Callie’s castle’, by Ruth Park, 1974
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Roald Dahl, 1964
‘Charlie up a gum tree’, by E. A. Schurmann, 1985
‘Dear writer’, by Libby Gleeson, 2001
‘Dog tales’, by Emily Rodda, 2001
‘Foggy’, by Allan Baillie, 2001
‘Frog thunder’, by Jill Morris, 2001
‘Hating Alison Ashley’, by Robin Klein, 1984
‘James and the giant peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Jodie’s Journey’, by Colin Thiele, 1997
‘Just So Stories’, by Rudyard Kipling, 1902
‘Let the Balloon Go’, by Ivan Southall, 1968
‘Little House on the Prairie’, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1935
‘Little Old Mrs Pepperpot’, by Alf Prøysen, 1959
‘Matilda’, by Roald Dahl, 1989
‘Mike’, by Brian Caswell, 1993
‘Misery Guts’, by Morris Gleitzman, 1991
‘Onion Tears’, by Diana Kidd, 1989
‘Over the top’, by Ivan Southall, 1972
‘Penny Pollard’s Diary’, by Robin Klein, 1983
‘Selby’s Secret’, by Duncan Ball, 1985
‘Storm Boy’, by Colin Thiele, 1976
‘The adventures of Stuart Little’, by Daphne Skinner, 2000
‘The amazing adventures of Chilly Billy’, by Peter Mayle, 1980
‘The borrowers’, by Mary Norton, 1958
‘The Eighteenth Emergency’, by Betsy Byars, 1973
‘The Iron Man’, by Ted Hughes, 1968
‘The enemies’, by Robin Klein, 1985
‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’, by C.S. Lewis, 1950
‘The penguin friend’, by Lucy Sussex, 1997 (Collins Yellow Storybook series)
‘The Twits’, by Roald Dahl, 1980
‘The turbulent term of Tyke Tiler’, by Gene Kemp, 1977
‘Wiggy and Boa’, by Anna Fienberg, 1988
‘Wendy’s whale’, by Colin Thiele, 1999

Book series

I’ve written about book series in another post (here) and offer a detailed lost for many ages. There are a number of book series that children aged 5-7 years will enjoy, here are just some:

Alf Prøysen’s ‘Mrs Pepperpot’ series
Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ books
Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi Longstocking’ books
Donald Sobol's 'Encyclopedia Brown' series
Enid Blyton's 'Faraway Tree' series
Hugh Lofting's 'Dr Dolittle' series
Jeff Brown's 'Flat Stanley' series
Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Ingalls family' series
Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ series
'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis
Emily Rodda's 'Rowan of Rin' and 'Deltora Quest' series

Some related links

The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Supporting comprehension (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

New Aussie Children's Books - July 2010

Because there are so many wonderful books being published all the time I thought I might do a regular review of recently released children's books that I think are worth reading. They will usually be Australian books available from good bookshops at the time I write the post. They will generally be available in the USA and the UK as well, even if only online, but overseas readers of this blog may sometimes have to wait a month or so after the post to see the books on sale through major online stores.

Each issue will be broken into four sections, 'Picture books', 'Junior fiction', 'Independent Readers' and 'Non-fiction'.  I'll generally choose 1 or 2 books in each category.

1. Picture Books (0-6 years)

Because You Are With Me, Kylie Dunstan

Kylie Dunstan won the Children's Book Council of Australia Award for Picture Book of the Year in 2009 for her brilliant book 'Collecting Colour'. Her latest picture book tells the story of a special relationship between a father and his daughter. The little girl can do anything as long as her Dad is there. She can walk down a dark hallway when she knows her Dad is there, she can even look a tiger in the eye if her Dad holds her hand. The predictable text and beautiful illustrations support each other perfectly. Dunstan uses collage made from Nepalese lokta paper with great effect. She is a very talented author and illustrator.

The Important Things, Peter Carnavas

This story tells of the special bond between a mother and her son Christopher that grows stronger as they struggle to cope with the loss of their husband and father.  Both mother and son try to cope in different ways, but eventually face up to each other's feelings and work together to deal with their loss and live a new life together. The story shows the importance of remembering, shared bonds that strengthen relationships and the joy of a special relationship between a mother and a son.

2. Junior Fiction (6-9 years)

Billie B. Brown: The Soccer Star, by Sally Rippin, illustrated by Aki Fukuoka

Billie B. is an independent young woman who stands up for what she believes in, sticks up for her friends and has her own special 'style'. Billie has many adventures. In the first book in the series 'Billie B. Brown: The Bad Butterfly' the central character wants to be a famous ballerina, but perhaps not in the role she has been given; perhaps a swap of roles to something more suitable will help? Other titles include 'The Soccer Star', 'The Midnight Feast' and 'The Second-best Friend'.   

The short 44-page format and simple texts make this suitable for younger readers. Younger girls (aged 6-9) should love them.

3. Independent Readers (10-13 years)

Mosquito Advertising: The Parfizz Pitch, by Kate Hunter

It's school summer holidays and 14 year old Katie Crisp has time on her hands after another unspectacular term as far as grades go. But she has talents as yet undiscovered.  When she discovers that a well-known family soft drink company (Parfitt's) is being taken over by a major corporation that will leave her mother unemployed, she decides that it's time to use some hidden talent. With some friends, pocket money and lots of creativity, she sets out to save the company and her Mum's job.

3. Non-fiction

Making My Place, by Nadia Wheatley

This book that tells the story of how the book 'My Place' by Nadia Wheatley Donna Rawlins (see my previous post here), was turned into the television series of the same name (here). This recently aired on Australian television. Wheatley explains the evolution of the series from the book and takes the readers through all stages of the film making, including script writing, casting and direction, costumes and make-up and then offers an analysis of the plot and characters. There is also a set of free teachers' notes available (here).

Somme Mud, by Private Edward Lynch, Editor Will Davies

This is a fascinating true story, which follows the war experience of a group of young men who set out from Sydney in 1916 to fight in the 'Great War' in France. The main character and the other enlisted troops at the centre of the narrative are fictionalised, but all other elements portray their real life experiences. Edward Lynch who returned from the War and became a teacher tried to publish the manuscript in the 1930s but was unsuccessful. After his death family members succeeded and it was published for adults in 2006. This new book is edited by Will Davies and is an abridged version for teenagers.  It offers a graphic insight into the horrors of the Western Front. It incorporates archival photographs as well as photographs of the sites today.  It will interest boys aged 11+.

Other Posts on Literature

For all my posts on Children's Literature use the site label (HERE)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Spelling, caught and taught

How do we learn to spell?

Spelling like writing has often been surrounded by many misconceptions concerning how it is developed. This is an area of the school curriculum that 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 the last time I did a 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. I outlined these 10 key skills in the previous post (here).

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 discrete stages, they are reognisable 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 my 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 many people find helpful (some of which I shared in my last post).

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).