Saturday, July 30, 2011

A RADICAL APPROACH TO THE TEACHING OF READING: A STUDENT CENTERED READING LESSON

I remember watching the wonderful BBC adaptation of Henry Fielding’s epic pastoral novel “Tom Jones” some years ago with great pleasure. In this novel, in case you don’t know the storyline, Tom is adopted by the kindly squire Allworthy and brought up by him as a son. He spends most of his free time starting in early childhood playing with Sophie, the daughter of a well to do neighbor. Nature takes its course and as so often happens in these cases, the two fall in love; a fact that comes as no surprise to Sophie’s aunt but knocks her father for six if you’ll pardon the expression. Having firmly believed for years that Tom and Sophie are like brother and sister, he is aghast. I have seen no other actor so successfully render that feeling of utter and complete amazement; that feeling of being totally lost for words. His expression has always stuck with me and it is that very expression which I imagine has come over some of my colleagues’ faces as they read this title.  “We have them do pair work, group work, peer correction and the like; what are you on about?” I can almost hear them wonder. “This is a classroom; not a political rally or better still the parliament” I hear them protest. However, if you were to stop for a moment to think, you would I am sure agree that the only way to really learn anything is to practice. This we do in a variety of different ways when teaching reading: we have students answer various types of questions, we have them give the text subtitles, we have them outline to name but a few of the tactics in the teacher’s arsenal. We also sometimes – too infrequently in my view – have them make notes on the reading text. It is to the further use the reasoning skills developed by this activity can be put that we shall now turn.
He plays one, he plays one; he plays knick knack with his notes…
In order to be able to make notes on a reading passage, the students need to have been taught how. The easiest way to do this is the Cornell Method which has been discussed on this site earlier. I can’t stress the importance of the latter sufficiently for the teaching and practice of all skills and I strongly feel that not including it in any syllabus worth its salt is a grave error of judgment. So first of all, we will assume that the students have learnt how to make notes from a reading text and combine the latter into a coherent summary. Second of all, we shall also need to assume that they have been taught about main ideas and provided with adequate practice. By this I don’t mean talking about main ideas with the teacher droning on and on from bundles of never ending notes and the students falling asleep like in the case of that teacher in Harry Potter who was lecturing on the goblin battles if I remember rightly, and died in the process; without noticing, he kept right on talking. There was also the case of St. Paul, a brilliant orator, who is said to have spoken nonstop for three days at the end of which, one of his listeners fell off the wall he was sitting on and died. Remember, we desire the students to be interested, riveted even, to care, to be curious – and if you have given up on that or think I am gaga, you need a change of profession.  People only get truly involved in an activity if they actually get their hands dirty and that in the case of main ideas can be done by asking the students to give the text subtitles for instance; it does the job without the students really noticing and is fun to boot. Asking students to summarize a section they have read in one sentence or asking them to give you a couple of words that can best express the meaning conveyed by the text will both do the trick. Third of all, they will need to have had practice in analyzing a text by for instance, developing an outline and analyzing support. The reason practice in all these areas is a prerequisite is that the activity I am going to advocate provides further practice in all three! At this point, if you are anything like me, your faces have probably lit up with joy! As a breed, we members of the teaching profession like neat little packages that include all the students’ daily mineral, vitamin and protein requirements. But there is a catch…
He plays two, he plays two, he plays knick knack on …. Now hold on!
It has probably dawned on you what the catch is: the teacher will have to let go of the reins. As a species, this is not something we have been programmed to do; it has been instilled in us that our mission is to lead the students through a minefield of English and familiarize them with it so that they can later negotiate that same mine field by themselves. How, in heaven’s name, are they going to do this if the teacher isn’t leading them? It is irresponsible; criminal even, and besides it is way too time consuming. The activity to which I am referring is one the virtues of which the whole profession pays lip service to yet everyone studiously avoids in class. It is an activity which most literature puts on a pedestal but nobody seems to actually do in class. It is one that every curriculum planner worth his salt will support whole heartedly during presentations or seminars but will never include in the syllabus claiming that “the teachers don’t want it”. It is high time we put an end to this hypocrisy, dealt with our demons and grant this invaluable activity the place it deserves in the syllabus.
He plays three, he plays three, he plays knick knack with the text…
So if the penny still hasn’t dropped, what is the single activity that combines all reasoning skills involved in reading and which is on a par with or even better than summary writing but which, like summary writing, we, as a group, shamefully avoid? The activity to which I am referring is having the students write questions for a text. Oh that old chestnut I hear you say… Hand on heart, when was the last time you did this? Glance back, if you please, at the previous paragraph; do the excuses look familiar? One bit of comfort is that, contrary to what most teachers may think, the leader most definitely does not let go of the reins; only the students may not be aware of it – and where is the harm in that? I would like to demonstrate to you how this activity works with an example and I confess that yes, it is time consuming but the amount of learning that takes place is invaluable in the extreme which makes it all worth it. There is one important feature of this activity which is the greatest facilitator to learning and that is the fact that the students find it enjoyable. Naturally, it also has a writing task as no reading activity is complete without one.
THE VALUE OF PLAY- A READING ACTIVITY WITH A DIFFERENCE
  The psychologist Peter Gray wrote a series of essays on the value of play in terms of human development, which he then published in Psychology Today (http://psychologytoday.com ). I have selected three of those essays to work on with your students. I suggest that you work actively on “Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy” with the students and then ask them to work on “The Value of Play: Play is Nature’s Way of Teaching Us New Skills” and “The Value of Play: How Play Promotes Reasoning in Children and Adults”. Here is what I suggest you do.
SOCIAL PLAY AND THE GENESIS OF DEMOCRACY
The plan when working on these three articles is to turn the tables on the students and have them write the questions, as actually writing questions is as good a careful reading activity as answering them. In this first text, we suggest that you start by asking them to read the text either as a whole or in sections which you determine – depending on your class – and highlight or make a note of the main ideas, as the latter is what questions must essentially focus on. Questions are basically an aid to the comprehension of the text; props if you like. They are the compass which guides the students through the text. Therefore, as the year progresses, I often tell the students that the time has come to let go of the crutches and read on their own. Getting back to the matter in hand, make sure to check their work before you go on to the next stage. The list of main ideas in this text is as follows:
The value of democracy.
Why children do not acquire democratic values at school.
Why children can’t acquire democratic values through activities run by adults.
The fact that play is not a random activity, that it has structure and rules etc….
Game rules versus metarules of play.
The connection of game rules and metarules to democracy.
The importance of the freedom to quit.
The conclusion that can be drawn from Betsy’s story.
Benjamin’s story and the conclusion that can be drawn from it (the equality of play).
The real goal of play.
The effects of the absence of true social play.

Having checked the main ideas they have found and cleared the board; tell them they must now write questions to cover these main ideas. While doing so, they must try and join ideas together wherever possible. Again rather that leaving them to complete the whole text, break up the activity to help them to focus and learn from their mistakes. When you have listened to their answers, put the questions which you think are best on the board for all to see.  You might want to reward the best questions.  I once asked a class what, in their view, the best reward was and opinion was divided between honoring the student in some way with verbal praise or posting the praiseworthy piece of work, and chocolates – I know, my jaw dropped too. Make sure to ask them to prepare a key also. A possible set of questions and an accompanying key have been provided below:
 SAMPLE QUESTIONS
What conclusion can we draw from the description of democracy provided in paragraph one?
Why can’t children acquire democratic values at school or via activities run by adults?
How does the writer support the contention that democratic values are acquired through free play with other children?
Read paragraph four and five carefully. What is the ultimate importance of game rules and metarules in terms of the child’s development?
Why exactly do game rules and metarules exist?
What two qualities of play enable democratic values to be acquired while engaged in social play?
What is the real purpose of play?
At the end of paragraph ten, the writer says “That is the route to keeping the game going and having fun.” What is he referring to?
What are the negative consequences of the lack of “true social play”?
At the end of the text, the writer says “…that is the hard lesson of democracy.” What is he referring to?
KEY TO THE QUESTIONS ABOVE
Democracy isn’t easy.
Both are dictatorial or autocratic.( In schools, children experience dictatorship not democracy and the activities run by adults are also autocratic)
That is a setting where they are treated as equals, where they must have a say in what goes on and where they must respect the rights of others.
They are, in essence, the principles of democracy.
Because the pragmatics of play require them; because if people violate such rules, the game falls apart.
The freedom to quit; the equality of play.
To play well, to have fun and to keep the game going by keeping everyone happy.
Each player must attend to the psychology of all the players and play in ways that please them.
Epidemics of childhood obesity and depression, they find it harder to grow up with a full appreciation of democratic values.
That we are adults; there is no higher authority to turn to who will solve our problems.

I am sure you have begun to comprehend the extent of the text work that is involved here; it is a good half dozen reading activities rolled into one. You could also ask them to have questions about referrals – think of the number of pronouns and their uses they will have to study to pick the best – and vocabulary guessing. You will need to point out that what they are in fact testing is the ability to guess the meaning of words and that they should aim for words for which there are contextual clues. Again think of the amount of scrutiny the vocabulary in the text is going to get; after all, the goal is to hit on something that their classmates will fail to answer and get recognition from you. The added bonus will be that they themselves will learn vocabulary and one other demon, low tolerance for ambiguity, will be dealt a death blow. Getting back to the job in hand, make sure to have adequate discussion and provide feedback before you move on to the second phase (this second phase should ideally be done on a separate day for practical reasons).The next thing I suggest you do is divide the class into groups or pairs. Give each pair or group one of the remaining texts (make sure to have an equal number of groups or pairs as they will be switching papers later). Tell them they must now do what you did with the first text: that is to say, highlight or make a note of the main ideas and then write questions which they will later swap with a group or pair working on the other text. They will then answer each other’s questions and check each other’s answers. When this is completed, all the students will have worked on all three texts either by answering or by asking questions. There will have been enough variety and activity to help them remain focused and this will, in turn, knock any discipline problems on the head. The lists of main ideas are as follows:

THE VALUE OF PLAY: HOW PLAY PROMOTES REASONING IN CHILDREN AND ADULTS / LIST OF MAIN IDEAS
Children can solve logic problems (syllogisms) in the context of play.
The view concerning counterfactual syllogisms that researchers held at the time ( the ability to solve counterfactual syllogisms depends on a type of reasoning that is completely lacking in young children)
To what extent Piaget was right( that children under about 10 or 11 regularly fail to solve such syllogisms correctly)
Under what conditions did Piaget turn out to be wrong?
The difference between abstract and concrete reasoning
The difference of opinion concerning abstract and concrete reasoning (Piaget and his opponents).
The current view concerning concrete and abstract reasoning.
The justification for the current view.
The link between imagination and problem solving.
Play involves imagination; young children are masters of play so it is no surprise that they can solve counterfactual syllogisms in the context of play.
 Why 11 year olds solve counterfactual syllogisms in a serious context.
 How adults could get to solve counterfactual syllogisms.
Why exactly play helps in this context.
What kind of play? Self chosen, self directed.
The difficulty involved in the candle problem.
The relationship between slapstick, a serious film and lack of activity and the candle problem; the reason why slapstick helps.
The link between imagination, play, inventiveness, creativity and the ability to plan the future
Remember to remind them to make connections; the purpose is to cover the important points with as few questions as possible. You might want to reward the group which prepares the best questions.
THE VALUE OF PLAY: PLAY IS NATURE’S WAY OF TEACHING US NEW SKILLS / LIST OF MAIN IDEAS
The primary purpose of play.
Which animals are the most playful species and why. Certain birds are more playful; why?
How it is possible to predict what an animal will play.
Why children play more than any other species. This can be predicted from the previous paragraph.
Various kinds of play are listed; the reason for the extensive list. A general question rather than individual questions about each.
The relationship between culture and play.
Why children typically learn to use new technology; the value of attraction to the new.
The connection between education and the serious purpose it serves (education).
Why the child at play does not fear failing / is unhampered by evaluative concerns / what play involves and doesn’t involve.
 The value of repetition and play.
How reading can become one of the pleasures of life
Play versus recess; learning versus work.
After the main ideas have been found, questions have been written, swapped, swapped back and checked, the students will be ready to write. I suggest they write about the positive effects of play and follow the plan below. They can look back at the texts, their notes and the questions and answers for information but must to a large extent use their own English. A certain amount of borrowing has educational value, I feel, and should be allowed. The last thing you need to ask the students to do is design a good writing activity to round everything off. Below you will find one that I prepared myself.
WRITING TASK: THE POSITIVE EFFECTS OF PLAY
INTRODUCTION including the thesis statement (three basic advantages or positive effects…)
FIRST DEVELOPMENTAL PARAGRAPH: play is nature’s way of teaching us new skills.
SECOND DEVELOPMENTAL PARAGRAPH: how play promotes reasoning.
THIRD DEVELPMENTAL PARAGRAPH: social play and the genesis of democracy.
CONCLUSION: What can be done to give children more opportunity to play; or a restatement.
And this activity comes rolling home…
This whole activity, which will stretch over two days in this case, will enable such a lot of learning and afford so much pleasure that you will be amazed. This brings me to another crucial point: in order to be a better teacher and a better implementer of other people’s material – textbooks – a teacher needs to prepare his own material as well. The vision and understanding afforded by preparing your own material will be reflected in the teaching and be mirrored in the students’ reaction as they respond, instinctively, to the growing competence and confidence of the teacher. The teacher is, after all, an intelligent being who will benefit from the act of preparing material in much the same way students do though perhaps on a different level. I must confess that I have become a much better teacher myself since I started preparing my own material some years ago now. The understanding I gained by means of the activity helped me to do a better job of dealing with textbooks and material we are required to cover by the institution I teach at. Growing competence and confidence is accompanied by success which in turn brings happiness and joy of living. Who is luckier than a person who feels he is walking on air ever time he enters his workplace?

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