Books in the house

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 An interesting post here discusses the somewhat obvious role of home experience in creating readers.

Research shows a correlation between having books in the house as a child and future education success.

A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. The study looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father [sic].” Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.

It makes sense that having access to books and being keen to seek books out on one’s own would lead to a greater interest in reading and schooling. (But why focus on the father’s job? Surely the role of the principal carer – usually the mother – is far more significant.)

And now here’s the cartoon from last week’s Education Guardian:

Enough said?

Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. Twain

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Still thinking about spelling (I do this more than is altogether sane), here’s the full quotation from Mark Twain:

I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells “Kow” with a large “K.” Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow.
(Mark Twain, reported in the Hartford Courant, May 13, 1875)

An article, Widening our Perceptions of Reading and Writing Difficulties, describes research in Italy to show that,

even in Italian, in which it is relatively straightforward to convert sounds into letters, children still have difficulties in spelling. Younger children with dyslexia generally performed worse than proficient readers; however, the older ones showed a more selective impairment when spelling words, suggesting that knowledge of vocabulary may be more important in spelling than previously thought.

The same link explains the relatively common phenomenon called, in the UK at least, Spoonerisms:

Another study, from Tel Aviv University, Israel, provided the first systematic description of a type of reading disorder called “attentional dyslexia” in which children identify letters correctly, but the letters jump between words on the page, e.g., “kind wing” is read as “wind king”. Teachers and neuropsychologists often notice that children substitute letters when reading, but in this type of dyslexia the substitutions are not caused by inability [sic] to identify letters or convert them to sounds; they result from migrations of letters between words. The findings showed that letters would mostly migrate to the same position in another word, so the first letter of one word would switch places with the first letter of another word.

The article goes on to recommend an intervention to help this letter migration: present a ‎single word at a time, e.g., with the help of a word-sized window cut in a piece of cardboard.

The trouble with such a tactic is that the context disappears: the reader is no longer aware of all the cues other than single letters within the text that lead to understanding; s/he is solely dependent on decoding. At times this may well be an appropriate technique but it needs to be used cautiously I would think, especially as there is a strong coneection between effective encoding and knowledge of vocabulary, as cited in the first study.

     
     

The world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity

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There are some commentators who state that the printed word is fighting a rear-guard action against not only computers and television, but also a whole host of digital parvenus from hand held devices that do everything but make the tea (or perhaps they do now), iPads, Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, instant messaging, blogging, sharing music, pod- and videocasting, Flickr, and plentyof other disruptive technologies that haven’t penetrated my consciousness.

The ubiquity of the internet and especially the mobile phone mean they hold an unassailable place in the hearts and minds of most teenagers in the western world. (Email is dead, apparently, except when they reluctantly use it to communicate with adults).

Meanwhile, newspapers, magazines and books have ‘faded to shadows of their former selves, as this post-literate generation finds its facts and fun elsewhere’. Despair that kids aren’t reading anymore, that electronic media, of one sort or another, now occupy every spare moment, is commonplace in staffrooms, parental conversations and the mass media. There is a fear that digital technologies are responsible for numbing our kids’ intelligence and aspirations, and creating an ignorant generation unable to think for themselves. Sometimes commentators use statistics to support such a view: the PISA figures for 2009, based on assessments of 15 year olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science, show that performance in Scotland has levelled off since 2006 (although it is above the international average in reading and science).

A frequent conversation in staff rooms decries the prevalence of electronic media’s demand for spectacle and brevity which is, it is claimed, wholly responsible for a reduction in children’s attention span. But this equates brevity with debased taste, and sees patience for long stories as a mark of high culture. But if brevity is to be deplored, what should we make of haiku, sonnets, and ink-brush calligraphy?

On the other side of the coin, lengthy sagas are not the sole prerogative of the literary elite. Pop culture has its share of huge tales – witness the Harry Potter canon. Indeed, for every pared-down presentation pumped out by the electronic media, an engaging narrative can be found. ‘From literacy to digiracy: Will reading and writing remain important?’

Just look at the plaudits showered upon the TV series ‘The Wire’. It’s been labelled essential viewing, with a staggering ambition, Shakespearian in its scope. It is a ‘dense, novelistic drama’ whose viewers ‘care deeply about the fate of the characters’. The Wire has been described by many critics as the greatest television series ever made.  Surely this is as valid a piece of storytelling ( and as lengthy and complex) as anything written in a book.

The naysayers are in good company. Socrates, too, had grave concerns about the impact of the written word. He challenged the new technology head on, questioning whether the mythical discovery of the written word served any useful purpose. The written word would ‘provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it’.

We do know that our sources of trusted wisdom are eroding fast. Look at the Wikileaks debacle. We can no longer view our institutions or leaders as sources of reliable information. John Naughton writing about the EU’s investigation into whether Google is abusing its dominance of the market for internet searches says that the EU’s

beef is that Google’s non-paid-for search results deliberately favour its own “Shopping” service and disadvantage them. Given that Google has effectively about 90% of the search market in the UK, it clearly has considerable power.

The article in the Economist continues:

Our trust of Google, which ranks a web page by how many other pages are linked to it, and how many other searchers view the page is in question.

I know that I approach such searches uncritically, trusting in the engine rather than my own judgement. I don’t think I’m alone. Our faith in such search engines highlights how easy it is to be seduced into accepting a ranking by ‘the wisdom of crowds’ or, more sinister, by commercial considerations.

I recognise that many young people have superior skills in making sense of contexts that are constantly changing rather than entrusting to a set body of knowledge. But this is not to say that teachers are irrelevant.  We have a significant role to play in supporting young learners to take control, to use the tools available to develop critical thinking, grow their understanding of what is and what is not of quality – in whatever format. And ultimately – excitingly, creatively, collaboratively – to help them to make their own interpretations, their own stories in a world that is constantly connected to everything and everyone.

And just because the world in which our children are growing up is light years away from that I experienced, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could help me to be part of that world too?

Scotland combats school closures by offering lessons online

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A glowing (sorry) report from the BBC descibes how some teachers and pupils are accessing learning through Glow:

The Scottish education intranet system, now being copied across the world, is allowing teaching staff and pupils to get some work done between the sledging and snowball fights.

The Glow programme, which was the world’s first national intranet for education when it was launched in 2007, has been rolled out to all of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. It is designed to link the country’s schools and provide a forum for pupils, teaching staff and parents in which to share lessons and resources.

In areas where snow has forced schools to close, Glow has proved its value, say teaching officials. Teachers can set work for pupils and engage with them, even though the school itself is shut.

Officials say there has been international interest in the system since it was set up in 2007 at a cost of £37m. Run by the curriculum body Learning and Teaching Scotland, Glow can be accessed by 850,000 pupils, teachers and parents. In 2008, the Star Wars director and education advocate George Lucas, told the US House of Representatives that America should follow Scotland’s lead and set up a similar platform for online learning.

I have to admit that after my initial enthusiasm (I did make some small contribution to the original tendering process all those years ago when Glow  – or Spark then SSDN as it was then – was a mere twinkle in the eye) I let my own Glow Group fall into abeyance  and only logged on infrequently. And let’s just say that my role as a Glow mentor never really took off.

However, this inclement weather and exponential leaps forward in take up and content mean that I am more inclined to speak about Glow’s benefits to all and sundry. Let’s hope others do the same.

Here’s a post from Anna Rossvoll, Creative Learning whatever the weather, wherein she describes using Glow this week.

Decoding Dyslexia

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Thanks to The Ghotit Blog for the link.

Give them a laptop and a group of pupils will teach themselves

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I’ve been prompted to post this comment on the inspirational talk I heard at the Scottish Learning Festival in September by the news that Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’ will feature on The Culture Show this coming Thursday on BBC2 at 7p.m. Mitra -professor of educational technology at Newcastle University – has recruited hundreds of grannies in Newcastle to go online to help children in India with their education. And he has reversed the process for children in Gateshead.

The academic who inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ believes all pupils should be given time in groups with a computer to teach themselves. One of the most powerful things Mitra says – again and again – is ‘…and then I went away’. That’s the key!

Teachers simply need to design questions that evoke curiosity and interest, then ‘sit back and admire as learning happens’.

Mitra’s work over the past decade has shown what exciting things happen when we let these children take learning into their own hands.

Since 2006, Mitra and colleagues have been asking the question: How will learners in remote areas get an equal opportunity? These areas are not necessarily geographically remote. They may be remote in other ways, for instance, areas in big cities that are socio-economically remote, areas that are religiously or ethnically remote.

This is where computers come in. Laptops were sold to the richest schools in the world. But the richest schools already had good teachers and, mostly, good students.

Mitra decided to modify and develop technology and take it to some of the remotest locations he could find (including Gateshead). He wanted to examine whether it would survive, and if it did, what would it do for education.

He started to install computers into brick walls in public places in hundreds of villages and slums in India, Cambodia and Africa. The media called this the “hole-in-the-wall” project.

The computers were designed to be used by 6- to 15-year-old children, free of charge and free of any supervision. In the first five years of the experiment, they showed that groups of children could teach themselves to use a computer and the internet, irrespective of who or where they are; irrespective of what language they spoke and of whether they went to school or not.

Ten years later, a girl in rural Maharashtra is studying aeronautical engineering following her encounter with the computer in the wall. A village boy who became a genetic engineer in one of India’s premier laboratories found the subject by reading the New Scientist at his hole in the wall.

What else could children learn on their own, apart from the use of computers? In Hyderabad, groups of children showed significant improvements in English pronunciation, with just few hours of practice on their own. They used a computer and a speech-to-text program that had been trained in a native English accent.

In the tsunami-hit village of Kalikuppam in southern India, children with access to a hole-in-the-wall computer taught themselves basic biotechnology, reaching a test score of 30% in just two months. They had started with a score of zero. If Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves biotechnology in English, on their own, how far could they go? A 30% score may be impressive, but it’s still not a pass. The researchers decided to use a local woman, working for an NGO, to help them go further. She had no background in biotechnology, but she took on the role of an untrained friendly mediator to encourage the children, using their desire to impress each other and their adult friend. Two months on, the scores in Kalikuppam rose to over 50%, close to what is achieved by trained subject teachers in the posh private schools of Delhi.

Mitra brought these results back to Britain. By chance, Vikas Swarup, whose book became the film Slumdog Millionaire, revealed that he had been inspired to write his story by the hole-in-the-wall experiments. Following that, he made an appeal to British grandparents to give an hour of their time to talk, using Skype, to children in the slums and villages of India. Within days, 200 volunteers, of all ages, many of them retired teachers, had come forward.

In the following months, 40 of these “eMediators” had over 200 hours of contact with children in India. They read them stories, played games with them, and chatted about their two countries. A child development expert, Suneeta Kulkarni, is measuring the effects of this on the children’s English communication skills.

Two years ago, they decided to try the same approach in the UK and have been working with three schools in the north-east. In Gateshead, 10-year-olds working in groups were able to answer GCSE questions they would normally encounter six years later. Mitra asked if they could have done this more quickly if they had not shared a computer but worked on their own. They said they could not have done it at all that way

Mitra now believes that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not necessarily knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own.

The new model is straightforward. It’s called a Self-organised learning environment. It’s ‘just’ a “cybercafe” environment for children – light, comfortable, safe and inexpensive. Children work in self-organised groups of four or five. They have the freedom to work as they please, or not to work, if they so please. Order is maintained by the children themselves. Sessions should be timetabled, just as playtime is. Each session is driven by a question designed by teachers.

Now Mitra is calling for such learning environments to be built in every primary school. He says that teachers

need to be trained to design simple questions that will evoke curiosity and interest while gently nudging a group towards the curriculum. Then, they can sit back and admire as learning happens.

The teachers have to learn to let go.

In the language of physics: “Education is a process of self-organisation and learning is its emergent property.”

Fascinating stuff. I’ll be watching on Thursday.

Dyslexia: What’s it all about?

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Watch the clip and think about Gavin Reid’s Checklist:

  •  Have small steps been used?
  • Are the sentences short?
  • Is the vocabulary easy to understand?
  • Have visuals been used?
  • Has large print been used?
  • Is the font style appropriate?
  • Has enough attention been given to presentation?
  • Are there opportunities for self-monitoring and self-correction?
  • Are the tasks within the child’s comfort zone?

Are we doing enough to ensure that our learners with dyslexia are thinking, doing, learning and being all they can?

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