Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why dialogue is important to comprehension development

This is a reprise of a post I wrote in 2011, which was based on an idea I first devised in the 1980s. Back then I was challenging teachers to consider the importance of what I called 'Text Talk'. I wrote about it at the time in a number of publications, including my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work' (Continuum). I was trying to challenge teachers to consider using more than just the classic IRE form of questioning. The Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) approach is probably the most common approach to comprehension. Typically, the teacher leads a discussions and asks questions to which a response is elicited and then evaluated by the teacher (and sometimes students). It is useful to test factual knowledge, or recall. It can also be used to attempt higher order questioning, but it rarely seems to in classrooms. I've written other posts on questioning (see HERE) that you might consider. But in this post I simply want to remind teachers and parents that testing comprehension doesn't do much to enhance or improve comprehension.

What do I mean by 'Text Talk'?

Above: Reading to my grandchildren. Lot's of Text Talk here
'Text Talk' means more than the teacher or parent talking to children about books, or asking them questions designed to elicit information. Rather, Text Talk requires the teacher or parent and children to have dialogue or conversation about reader understanding or meanings as they share a book, watch a film, observe some event and so on. It is used to tease out the knowledge and meaning that a text, image, movie or event offers. It's about tussling with, interpreting and even critiquing what the creator of the book or film has sought to communicate. 

Text Talk as an alternative to IRE questioning offers more space for children to share ideas and meanings, and offers them opportunities to grow understanding beyond a single idea or focus. The role is varied, but in essence, still simple and if led by the teacher involves:

a) Providing background information if necessary and appropriate.
b) Eliciting responses from readers to the text.
c) Suggesting alternative strategies for making meaning.
d) Sharing insights about reading and language.
e) Supporting and assessing student efforts to construct meaning.
g) Asking questions that expand knowledge and insight, rather than simply testing it. 
g) Introducing new forms of language and alternative purposes for reading.

Of course, while such discussions often need a facilitator, there is a place for students to fill this role. In this way different voices and ideas are sometimes heard and more students tend to engage rather than the most vocal few.

When teachers try to support comprehension, they can assume varying roles, ranging from some which are heavily teacher-centred and text dependent, to those that are child-centred and reader dependent. At times teachers will adopt a questioning role, but at other times they will provide support in the form of knowledge, alternative strategies etc. These roles are not mutually exclusive, nor is one approach right and the other wrong (although implementation of both can be good and poor). What is needed is balance and, above all, true conversation about books.

How should teachers talk to students about text?

One illustration of 'text talk' in action that I've used a lot is actually to be found in a children's novel 'The Great Gilly Hopkins' (Paterson, 1978). This story revolves around Gilly's struggles to adjust to life in yet another foster home, come to greater understanding of herself, and experience love for the first time. Within the story there is a delightful exchange between Gilly, Mrs Trotter (foster mother), Mr Randolph (a blind man who lives next door) and William Ernest, a younger mildly disabled foster child who lives also with Mrs Trotter.

After dinner one evening Mr Randolph asks Gilly to read some of Wordsworth's poetry to him. She reluctantly agrees, and finishes William Wordsworth's 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood'. She sits down lost in her own inner anger and frustration. But Mr Randolph interrupts her thought:
'Well, what do you think of Mr Wordsworth, Miss Gilly?' asked Mr Randolph interrupting her angry thoughts.
'Stupid,' she said.....................A look of pain crossed his face. 'I suppose,' he said in his pinched, polite voice, 'in just one reading, one might....'
'Like here' - Gilly now felt forced to justify an opinion which she didn't in the least hold - 'like here at the end, "the meanest flower that blows". What in hell - what's that supposed to mean? Whoever heard of a "mean flower"?
Mr Randolph relaxed. 'The word mean has more than one definition, Miss Gilly. Here the poet is talking about humility, lowliness, not' - he laughed softly - 'not bad nature.'
Gilly flushed. 'I never saw a flower blow, either.'
'Dandelions.' They all turned to look at William Ernest, not only startled by the seldom-heard sound of his voice, but by the fact that all three had forgotten that he was even in the room. There he sat, cross-legged on the floor at the end of the couch, a near-sighted guru, blinking behind glasses.
'You hear that?' Trotter's voice boomed with triumph.
'Dandelions? Ain't that the smartest thing you ever heard? Ain't it?' W.E. ducked his head behind the cover of the couch arm.
'That is probably exactly the flower that Mr Wordsworth meant,' Mr Randolph said. 'Surely it is the lowliest flower of all.'
'Meanest flower there is,' agreed Trotter happily. 'And they sure do blow, just like William Ernest says. They blow all over the place.'

This extract provides a perfect example of people talking about text and in the process increasing shared knowledge of the world, and their grasp of language.  As well, it creates interest and appreciation of an unfamiliar and more complex work than they could encounter and understand alone. Within it we see:
  • Mr Randolph providing access to a text beyond Gilly's experience.
  • How interaction and dialogue between individual people can facilitate learning.
  • How a 'teacher' can exercise quiet control through questioning and comment without stifling other voices and views (or just testing knowledge).
  • That the 'teacher' is not the only person with knowledge, and that insight can come from unlikely places (William Ernest).
  • Mr Randolph providing new knowledge in response to the Gilly's questions.
  • The excitement of Trotter as she witnesses the insight of William Ernest, and her affirmation of support for him as a person and a learner.
Text Talk and a more dialogic approach to reading comprehension, results when a teacher or parent has the sensitivity and insight to spot the teachable moment, to grapple for the right question, to know just when to provide new knowledge, or when to probe and prompt children to grasp new things.It can be used incidentally, or as the focus for whole lessons or group activities.

Related Posts

'Guiding Children's Learning' HERE
 Other posts on comprehension HERE

Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Children of All Ages Excited About Shakespeare

I've written previously on this blog about the value of Shakespeare for children of all ages, even primary school children (HERE). I grew up in a home where books weren't read to or with me, so reading was not a pleasurable pursuit at home. So there was little chance that I was ever going to meet Shakespeare until forced to read it at High School. What a terrible way to be introduced to some of the world's greatest literature.  I found English classes boring and seemingly unrelated to my life.  Not surprisingly, I found Shakespeare's plays remote and of little interest. And yet later in life I began to appreciate and love Shakespeare's work.

But is it possible to make Shakespeare accessible for children as young as seven or eight years? Yes, I think it is! A good place to start is either with an abridged version of the great plays or using some of the wonderful prose versions of his work. A company in Sydney has even begun to present live Shakespeare to primary schools.

Bell Shakespeare has set itself the task of introducing primary aged children to Shakespeare's plays, with a plan to teach Shakespeare's work to children as young as six. The company wants to inspire a new generation to love the work. The company sees the program as a form or 'early intervention' where children will be helped to appreciate the complex and rich language of the great epic stories that are the foundation of Shakespeare's work.

Sixty- Minute Shakespeare

I have no doubt that in classrooms where children learn to love words, language and narrative, that they will find Shakespeare exciting, challenging and enriching. There are many resources that will help you. Recently, I had a look at Cass Foster's abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays. The 'Sixty-Minute Shakespeare' series is an ideal alternative for those who lack the time to tackle the unabridged versions. Professor Foster has carefully condensed (without modernizing) the rich poetic language of each play so that it can be completed in about 60 minutes. The abridged versions offer the excitement of Shakespeare's tales, as well as the wonderful imagery in the prose and verse.

Each edition also comes with detailed footnotes on nearly every page explaining the more arcane words and phrases to help the reader better understand and appreciate each play. You will also find practical suggestions for staging, pacing, and thematic exploration very useful. Each script is approximately 70 pages.

'Shakespeare's Hamlet' staged on the page by Nicki Greenberg

This is a remarkable and ambitious work from Nicki Greenberg for high school children. This imaginative and epic 415-page graphic novel will excite many teenage readers. Hamlet has become an expressive black inkblot whose form changes shape according to his circumstances and mood. This is not a kid's picture book! Rather, it is one more attempt to present Shakespeare in new forms. Not just to make it more accessible (for some might find some other word-only attempts less challenging) but to tell it afresh.

There is no doubt that Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique. At 400+ pages it is hardly an easy 'read'. But might it not help the young uninitiated reader of Shakespeare to see new things? Only readers 13+ will be able to help us to answer this question.

The language of Shakespeare is given new emphasis as the play is performed on paper. This is a play 'staged' in a book as the title suggests.  It is a very interesting book but I can't help but feel that a retelling like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories (see below) is not a better way in. It is hardly stuff for the poor reader, but more likely the gifted who wants to experience Shakespeare with new depth and relevance. It might just do this for some.

Joint winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year 2011

Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Prose Forms for Young Children

You don't need a theatre company to help you to introduce Shakespeare to young children. One of the easiest ways to get young children interested in Shakespeare's work is to read some of his plays in adapted prose form. While there are some pretty awful attempts to do this, the collections written by Leon Garfield are superb. His first collection 'Shakespeare Stories' was illustrated by Michael Foreman and published by Gollancz in 1984. It features 12 of Shakespeare's best-known works, including 'Twelfth Night', 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth'. Garfield is a brilliant writer of children's fiction and so if anyone was to tackle this project, he would surely be the most likely to succeed in presenting the plays with as much complete dialogue as possible but with adaptations that make the works more accessible without detracting from the language, plots and characterisation of each play. This is how Garfield begins 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':
Hermia, who was small, dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair and tearful, loved Demetrius.
But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermia...who did not love him. What could have been worse than that? 
Garfield's adaptations are engaging and faithful to the plays and if read well to children as young as 7 or 8 will capture their attention. I have used them with children or varied ages and they love to hear Garfield's versions of Shakespeare's work and they want to pick them up and read them. My daughter has also found the Garfield collections wonderful to use with her children aged 6-10.  She has written about this on her own blog (HERE).

A shorter collection, 'Six Shakespeare Stories' was published by Heinemann in 1994 and 'Six More Shakespeare Stories' in 1996.

Other resources

There are a number of other helpful resources and sites for teachers who want to try Shakespeare with children aged 6-12 years.

'Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare' was written by Edith Nesbit in 1907 and is still available in more recent editions (HERE)

A good BBC resource that offers children a simple introduction to Shakespeare and his work (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare 4 Kidz' site is worth a look. Their tag is "Bringing the world of Shakespeare to the young people of the world" (HERE)

'Shakespeare is Elementary' is a great little site developed by an elementary school (Crighton Park) in Novia Scotia Canada. It has some great ideas for getting started (HERE)

You can buy some scripts adapted for young children but I haven't personally tested them (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare for Kids' site also has some helpful advice for teachers using Shakespeare with primary/elementary school children (HERE)

Read more about the Bell Shakespeare work in Sydney HERE

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Britain's Top 10 Children's Books

While lists of great books, let alone 'best-loved' books, are fraught with problems, they do serve to remind us of books we might just have forgotten.  Yes, what we love will vary from adult to adult, and also from child to child, but this recently promoted list of 'Britain's best-loved children's books' is interesting as much for what isn't in it, as what did actually make the top 10. Interestingly, only one book in the top 10 was published in the last 25 years. I'd want to add a number of more recent books to my top 10. I suspect that 'Winnie The Pooh' wouldn't be number 1 in the US, but it might be in the top three in Australia. I have included a link to Lorna Bradbury's list of 100 top books below, which makes for interesting reading. I've also added some links at the end of the post to a number of sites that feature the choices made by children which tend to have a much more recent bias. I'd love to hear about books you'd like to see in the top 10.

1. Winnie The Pooh - AA Milne (1926)
2. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (1865)
3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle (1969)
4. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien (1937)
5. The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson (1999)
6. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (1964)
7. Black Beauty - Anna Sewell (1877)
8. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
9. The BFG - Roald Dahl (1982)
10. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (1950)

Lorna Bradbury's Top 100 Books for Children and Young Adults 
US Children's Book Council 'Children's Choices 2014' 
Young Australians Best Book Awards (YABBA)