Friday, January 23, 2015

Starting School: Is there a perfect age?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic in January 2014 when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia most of our schools are returning next week and many children will start school for the first time.  I can't remember my first day at school, but I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our two daughters off for their first day of formal schooling (this was some time ago).

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing.

In other countries we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain five and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

So is there a best starting age? If there is, few education systems seem to agree on what it is. "Should my child start school at five even though... (fill the blank)?" is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. The short answer I give is "it all depends". Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but variations from four and a half to six years don’t seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement.

It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school. In reality, we need to make individual assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

Is my child physically ready? 
  • Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro! And Kindergarten teachers are good at it anyway). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
  • Can they feed themselves and will they cope with a new degree of independence?
  • How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
  • Are they toilet trained and independent in many areas of self care?
Is my child emotionally ready?
  • Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
  • Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
  • If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
  • Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
  • Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, engage in 10 minutes  of screen time without being easily distracted, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
  • Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
  • Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
  • Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
Ultimately, parents need to make this decision based on what they know about their child. There are some other things worth considering:
  • What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
  • What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
  • What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
  • What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are only four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start reading until they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that Finland that does well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys. It was second in the latest rankings for reading, and yet, the starting age in Finland is seven!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Book is Not Dead! 6 reasons why the paper book is still loved

An article in the latest edition of the Financial Times has shared some startling data about book sales in the last year. While the hype for the last three years has been that paper book sales will continue to dive at the expense of eBooks, and that book stores and traditional publishers face extinction, these views might well have been premature. Indeed, they might even be wrong!

Here are some of the highlights of the article:

1. Publishers and book chains in the US, UK and Australia have all celebrated some of their strongest sales figures for some time with rises of up to 5% in December.
2. The number of paper books sold rose in the US by 2.4% in 2014 to 635,000,000 copies.
3. The growth in eBooks stalled in the US and UK with fewer electronic book readers being sold.
4. Sales of adolescent and young adult fiction rose by 12% in 2014, while adult fiction fell by 8%.
5. A recent Nielsen Book Sale survey found that teenagers prefer paper books.
6. A Deloitte study suggests that paper books will account for 80% of global book sales this year and would continue to outsell electronic books for the foreseeable future.

My own work with children also suggests that the hype that electronic book apps created 2-3 years ago has waned a little, as the novelty has worn off and readers rediscover the power of narrative and the tactile benefits of paper. This might also relate to the discovery that interactivity can ultimately distract from story, not just enrich it. Other trends seem to suggest an increased interest in graphic novels and comics (see HERE and HERE).

6 Reasons Why Paper Books Still Work!

1. They're easy! They don't need power, and can be mistreated. You can take them to the beach! Simply try throwing your tablet towards the bed and missing it! Or accidentally sitting it.
2. They're always there. If you've been buying picture books online for years as I have, take note of the number of apps that no longer work.
3. While novels on readers are easy enough to use, many picture book apps take time to navigate and the interactivity can be distracting.
4. There is something gloriously good about the tactile experience of curling up with a book, or reading to your child with a paper book.
5. Books are a visible presence that reminds us that they're there! I'm embarrassed to say how many books I've bought online and still haven't opened (true I have book piles too!). I can't trip over them or simply see them reminding me of their presence as I walk into the room. A room with books invites the reader to enter new worlds.
6. In professional reading, paper books offer a more natural opportunity (for most) to make marginal notes, use post it notes etc.

Having said all of the above, I know that we can list many good reasons for eBooks (that's why I'm a fan of both) - they store easy, silverfish aren't a problem, they are cheaper, easier to get, offer countless titles (especially of old books), allow expanded options for publication, they do allow new ways to interact with books and open up the way for new multimodal forms of reading (which I've written on before). But.... the paper book still has a magic that will ensure that it doesn't die.

I'd be particularly be keen to hear from teachers who have been using eBooks with younger readers aged 5-12 years. Picture books and in fact all books for readers 0-6 would seem to be the most resilient to the 'assault' of eBooks. My own observations suggest that there is a drop off in interest with ePicture books once the novelty of 'clever' apps subsides. Your thoughts?

Some of my previous Posts on eBooks HERE

Monday, January 5, 2015

Introducing Writing Workshops for Children

There are many good reasons to implement daily writing workshops in classrooms. Probably most important amongst these is that they offer the opportunity for children to experience writing as process not just as product. That is, to understand that writing is something that has to be worked on if it is to communicate with and engage readers. Young writers need to experience writing as craft, something that requires hard work, revision, research, planning, careful use of language and a sense of purpose and audience. But Katie Wood Ray reminds us in this short video that there is something even more basic that writing workshops offer - the chance to develop writing stamina.

I had the chance to see such 'stamina' demonstrated as part of a research project when team teaching on a Grade 1 class with an outstanding teacher, Inta Gollasch. I spent most of the year in Inta's class observing the literacy behaviour of her children (I have written about this in detail on my book 'Pathways to Literacy'). The language story that follows illustrates a number of other good reasons for having daily writing workshops in classrooms. Inta's approach to writing workshop was simple, she provided:

  • Time each day when children were encouraged to write about topics of their choosing.
  • Folders in which they kept their draft materials and lots of writing materials.
  • Opportunities for the children to share their writing with others when the need arose.
  • Individual teacher conferences for children when needed (but at least weekly).
  • Varied opportunities for the children to publish and share their writing with larger audiences.
  • Help with publishing when the young writers wanted to pit their work into some more permanent form.
On the first day in the classroom I observed a boy named Brock eagerly writing in a "magic cave" constructed as a retreat area.  I stopped to ask how he came up with this idea for his story.  He replied:

"Well, it was like Chlorissa. (She wrote about) that book (The Enchanted Wood) that had children who moved to the country.  I changed it around."

Brock's piece based on the The Enchanted Wood (Blyton, 1939) was primed (at least in part) by the fact that Chlorissa had done this earlier. 

I observed a preoccupation with Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books in Inta’s class.  The teacher had read two of these books ('The Enchanted Wood' & 'The Magic Faraway Tree') in the first 4 weeks of school.  The third ('The Wishing Chair') was read over a two-week period some two months later. 

The teacher's reading of these books had a strong influence upon the writing of children in the classroom.  This showed itself in the students' narrative writing, in playground games, in letter writing and even at home.  In all, ten 'Blyton type' stories were written in this classroom during the year.

Above: Chlorissa's story
Chlorissa's writing that had inspired Brock and others to write their own Faraway Tree stories was begun in June (mid school year in Australia). She was still writing it at the end of the school year (December).  By this time the story was 20 pages long and Chlorissa had stuck each of the pages together to form a scroll, that could stretch almost across the width of the classroom (something she liked to demonstrate at the end of every writing session).

Chlorissa's writing demonstrates what Katie Wood Ray was talking about; daily writing workshops can help children to develop stamina. This is stamina of two kinds, first, the ability just to stick at a task for a long period of time (30 minutes each day). Second, the ability to keep coming back to the same task day after day. This is one of the key skills of the writer, sticking with the writing task - stamina!

But I think the language story also demonstrates a few other things as well:
1. Writing workshops help children to learn about the craft of writing.
2. It offers opportunities for young writers to write for 'real' audiences.
3. The sharing of writing can inspire other young writers.
4. Books are an important source of inspiration for young writers.