‘Bibliophile’s Paradise’: Hay Book Festival

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I’ve been having a very stressful time with all this redeployment nonsense and have found such blessed relief in sitting down at the end of the day and watching the lovely Mariella Frostrup at the Hay Festival. Once I retire I will spend my time travelling to all the book festivals in the country. I spent a couple of days in Hay 3 years ago, and even when there is no festival, the bookshops and general atmoshere are peaceful, stimulating, gorgeous.

Anyway, she was interviewing the beautiful Elif Shafak  this week  whose latest book I first heard about at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

Shafak grew up with two very different models of Turkish motherhood – her modern, working, educated mother and her traditional, religious grandmother.

Her novel, The Forty Rules of Love is concerned with questions of motherhood and selfhood. Ella Rubenstein, the middle-aged American housewife and mother at the heart of the novel, is unhappily married to an unfaithful and neglectful husband, and in thrall to the needs of her children. Her own life and needs and aspirations have been lost along the way, as has her belief in love.

She was describing how English and Turkish fulfil different functions for her. She described English as suitable for irony and comedy. Its rich, precise vocabulary lends itself to logical expression. Turkish, on the other hand, although less rich in terms of vocabulary, has equal power for a novelist. Shafak writes in Turkish when the mood is melancholy or magical. She said Turkish has a past tense that does not exist in English; one that is based in the time of folk tales. She uses this tense to illustrate those Once upon a time, mysterious moments which are being related to us.

That’s it. I know no more. But I loved the conversation.

Daivd Mitchell’s message from the Queen to the US (It’s her English!)

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Lovely soapbox rant about ‘I could care less’ and ‘I’ll hold the fort down’.

He’s okay about Americans losing the ‘u’ in colour though.

Babies’ ability to mimic accents

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I have been a fan of Charles Fernyhough since reading his lovely description of the first 3 years of his daughter’s life in ‘The Baby in the Mirror’: ‘ a painstakingly observed, exquisitely written voyage of discovery’, in the words of one reviewer. 

So I pricked up my ears when driving from one school to another to hear him on ‘Woman’s Hour’ last week. He was talking about new research finding that babies are capable not just of picking up information in the womb, but of using that knowledge to shape their own behaviour. They don’t just learn the accent; they reproduce it for themselves.

In a post here  he describes the research:

German researchers recorded and analysed the cries of some very young babies—between 2 and 5 days old—born into two language groups, French and German. There were 30 babies in each group. The analysis of the recordings involved examination of the cries’ ‘melody contours’, which makes use of the fact that the cry of a baby follows a distinctive pattern: first rising in pitch, and then falling, in a single arc. 

The results of the analyses showed clear differences between the language groups. The French babies’ cries spent longer on the rising part of the arc, and the German cries were skewed towards the falling part. These patterns match up to the particular prosodic patterns of the French and German languages, as demonstrated in other studies (and fully evident to listeners to those spoken languages).
What is striking about this new study is that babies aren’t just learning patterns in the womb, but they are also showing an ability to mimic them—which must call for some very sophisticated control over the articulatory system (the system of muscles that allows us to produce speech).

 I keep plumbing the depths of my ignorance about how language develops. Fascinating.

There are vowels and there are consequences


An article, ‘Text-talk teens lack the right words for work’, claims that youngsters’ abbreviated forms of communication are hurting their chances of securing a job.

The government’s first adviser on childhood language development, Jean Gross, says a generation of teenagers risk making themselves unemployable because they are using a vocabulary of about 800 words a day.

‘They are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated “teenspeak” of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms. Gross is planning a national campaign to prevent children failing in the classroom and the workplace because of their ‘inability to express themselves’.

It seems strange to use this phrase. From where I’m sitting, youngsters have no problems with expressing themselves – it’s only the adults and those not in the group who find it hard to work out what’s going on.

Another article describes investigations into the advantages of using texting when writing. It finds that texting ‘helps pupils to spell’. Children who regularly use the abbreviated language of text messages are actually improving their ability to spell correctly, the new research suggests. A study of eight- to 12-year-olds found that rather than damaging reading and writing, “text speak” is associated with strong literacy skills. Researchers say text language uses word play and requires an awareness of how sounds relate to written English.

This link between texting and literacy has proved a surprise, say researchers.

These latest findings of an ongoing study at the University of Coventry contradict any expectation that prolonged exposure to texting will erode a child’s ability to spell. The research suggests that texting requires the same “phonological awareness” needed to learn correct spellings. The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”, said Dr Clare Wood, Reader in Developmental Psychology at Coventry University.

Instead it suggests that pupils who regularly use text language – with all its mutations of phonetic spelling and abbreviations – also appear to be developing skills in the more formal use of English.

So when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be. Instead of texting being a destructive influence on learners, the academics argue that it offers them a chance to “practise reading and spelling on a daily basis”. Using initials and abbreviations and understanding phonetics and rhymes are part of texting – but they are also part of successful reading and spelling development.

Children who are heavy users of mobile phone text abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), plz (please) and l8ter (later) are unlikely to be problem spellers and readers, the study has found.

The research, carried out on a sample of 8-12 year olds over an academic year, revealed that levels of “textism” use could even be used to predict reading ability and phonological awareness in each pupil by the end of the year.

Moreover, the proportion of textisms used was observed to increase with age, from just 21% of Year 4 pupils to 47% in Year 6, revealing that more sophisticated literacy skills are needed for textism use.

The study conclusions will come as a surprise to many who believe that textisms are vandalising the English language.

The theory behind the research, carried out by Dr Clare Wood, relates to one of the early developing skills associated with (and believed to underpin) successful reading and spelling development. ‘Phonological awareness’ refers to a child’s ability to detect, isolate and manipulate patterns of sound in speech.  For example, children who can tell which words rhyme, or what word is left if you remove a letter, have particularly high levels of phonological awareness.

We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all, after such a negative portrayal of the activity in the media.  We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but that textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children.  Texting also appears to be a valuable form of contact with written English for many children, which enables them to practice reading and spelling on a daily basis.

So what can we do with this evidence? With further research, we hope to instil a change in attitude in teachers and parents – recognising the potential to use text-based exercises to engage children in phonological awareness activities.  In short, we suggest that children’s use of textisms is far from problematic. If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards among young children, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.

I don’t think these 2 studies are necessarily incongruent. Few could disagree that some young people lack experience of a rich linguistic background which consequently disables them from full participation in the symbolic representations and concepts they are expected to grasp in school.

However, the majority of adolescents using texting to network seem to grasp quite easily the distinction between formal and informal language. (Check out Bill Boyd’s perspective on handwriting (and spelling) on ‘If it matters, it matters’ ).

The very real problem of children entering school with limited vocabulary and language experience is one that will not be solved by ignoring 21st century developments that enhance learning.

Until told otherwise I shall continue to encourage students to make notes in ‘txt spk’ .  See another related post here.

Are phonics as important in languages other than English?

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I have been thinking about the apparent dissonance between the ‘iceberg theory’ of language – that language learning is innate – and the differences in the brains of people with different native languages.

Perhaps the two are not incompatible. After all the brain is amazingly plastic. Baby babble is indistinguishable until around a year old when distinctive sounds emerge. Apparently Japanese babies stop being able to articulate ‘l’ sounds when they reach 12 months. 

When children are learning to read English, there is a greater demand on decoding (because of the variety of etymological roots  which results in frequency of irregular spellings) than in other more consistent languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ will take far less phonological processing than, say, ‘thought’. Readers of German or Italian, for example, quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires.

English readers (and French for example) appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur. Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing. The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very undeveloped – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.

I have connected posts here and here and here  and here.

Methods of teaching reading

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In a comment here, Alan Coady made an interesting point about the use of the terms, “top down/bottom up”. In the context of the post, this is certainly a political point. In England, as I understand it, schools are required to use the synthetic phonics method; while in Scotland guidance to that effect is issued with no compulsion.

However, the terms also refer to very different approaches to the teaching of reading. ‘Top down’ refers to a ‘whole language’, linguistically rich methodology of which the ‘real books’ movement was the most extreme. The method emphasises the meaning readers bring to text based on their experience and interpretation of text based on their prior knowledge. Some commentators (e.g. Goodman 1967 ) refer to this as a ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game’.

In contrast, ‘Bottom Up’ or the serial method, stipulates that the meaning of any text must be “decoded” by the reader and that students are “reading” when they can “sound out” words on a page (Phonics). There is little reference to higher level knowledge. I know of one school even today that does not allow its pupils to have a ‘reading book’ (and remember in some cases this may be the only book to which a child has access) until s/he has cracked the phonic code.

Thus, theories that stress bottom-up processing focus on how readers extract information from the printed page, claiming that readers deal with letters and words in a relatively complete and systematic fashion (e.g., Gough 1972 ). Theories that stress top-down processing (e.g. Smith 1971 and Stanovich 1967) hold that readers form hypotheses about which words they will encounter and take in only just enough visual information to test their hypotheses.

I guess I may be open to yet more attack from the phonics zealots in admitting to my own practice: the issue really does raise all sorts of hackles and some commentators can become quite hot under the collar!

But I’ll go for it: in most situations, bottom-up and top-down processes work together to ensure the accurate and rapid processing of information. This is certainly the approach that I have taken in my years of teaching reading and is symptomatic of the pragmatic, eclectic tactic that so many experienced teachers take when they have the choice.

Every child is an individual. Everyone has a different learning and cognitive style. Some children flourish with a phonic approach; others rely more upon context cues and prior experience. In busy classsrooms, all must be catered for.

In essence, we want our children to believe that reading opens doorways to magic and ideas and other worlds. We want them to believe that  they can become readers.

Thanks here  for the image.

The miracle of learning to read


 Alan Coady’s comment on my post Avoiding unquestioning orthodoxy evoked such a long reply that I am making it into a couple of new posts.

 First he said: Learning to read can sometimes appear such a complex and varied process that it occasionally seems a miracle any of us manage it at all.

He’s so right:  learning to read is an extraordinary achievement. Sometimes I think our children do it despite what goes on in school. I mean this in no way negatively about our infant staff. They almost universally do a fantastic job. But in between wiping noses (or blood. Or worse.), listening to interminable stories about lost teeth, doing up shoe laces, and generally helping their charges to sit still, hold hands, tidy up after themselves, and do no harm, the fact that so many 5 and 6 year olds do learn to read and write is a major miracle!

Secondly, he asked about the meaning of fostering a “literacy environment” in the community.

Many parents and carers need support in understanding the crucial importance of creating an climate that is favorable to learning to read. Sharing books at home is only one strand. Drawing attention to the shapes and meanings of words on menus, shop signs (few 3 year olds can’t recognise the Golden Arches of a well known burger chain!), flyers that come through the letter box, etc. is another way parents and carers can engage their children’s interest and awareness. Playing word games, particularly if these include rhymes (‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a log…’) and alliteration (‘Wibbly Wobbly Woo, an elephant sat on you. Wibbly Wobbly Wilery, An elephant …’), is also likely to help a child develop literacy.

In addition, many schools consciously develop links with the community. They take their pupils to the local shops, doctors, dentist, in order to explore the way writing is ubiquitous. Some communities have ‘literacy walks’, akin to a nature trail, that encourage little ones to observe and be excited by words and language.

I don’t know the answer to Alan’s query about the figures of children leaving school. Sorry. I shall try to find out.

Alan’s final point necessitates a whole post to itself.

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