@GiraffeClass: Twitter with 5 year olds



I have been on Twitter for just over a year now and continue to find it the most amazing resource. It’s like a virtual staffroom where I can access a stream of links, opinions, ideas and resources from an interesting and informed group of fellow educators world-wide. For someone working in additional support needs, dotting between 42 schools, it’s the staff room I most frequently inhabit.


And it’s a very special staffroom as there I find people all passionate about their area of interest, keen to learn and share – and support. One could not say that about all physical staffrooms! I have learned more about how to enhance my teaching this year than ever before through Twitter.

It’s educational (and a bit of social!) networking at its very best.

I hadn’t however given any thought to using Twitter with youngsters. Thanks to @literacyadviser I recently came across a fabulous connection to a class of 5 and 6 years olds who are Tweeting, @GiraffeClass. I gather that a different child has the responsibility to record what the class has been doing that day – as you can see from the screen shot.

What a wonderful idea. How delighted the parents must be to see such immediate evidence of thinking and writing and how valuable for the teacher to have such data.

This demonstrates to the little ones and their families how their literacy skills are developing. It is also a great method of showing how connected we all are today. Tweeting must also develop the children’s media literacy skills: ‘viewing, analysing and discussing a wide range of texts and using available technologies to create text in different formats’.

Later on, the discipline of the 140 characters will help the children to be precise in their writing, teaching them in a very real and unthreatening way that revision of ideas and careful word choice is essential to get your message across. It also encourages development of keyboard skills. Feedback (I don’t really know how that works with Giraffe Class to be honest) can be immediate. There’s nothing more exciting than having your thinking validated by a comment – especially if it’s from someone you haven’t met!

Finding this cheered me up no end!



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Thanks to @nwinton for the photo.

Here is my talk on Digital Storytelling and Dyslexia that I gave at TeachMeetLothians11 last night and here’s a wee summary for those of us who can’t bear audio files (me!):

I talked about the false dichotomy between the purists who regard anything but print as being beyond the pale to the techno-zealots who declare that print is dead. This debate is only useful if it challenges assumptions and makes us think about literacy now.

I quoted extensively from Bill Boyd  here when I said that the ability to read in itself is meaningless as it begs the question, ‘The ability to read what?’. The ability to read and the ability to access texts in all their forms are not mutually exclusive.

My thesis was a familiar one – at least to this audience: we must teach children to thrive in this century rather than preparing for the last. The need for creative and critical thinkers is never more desperate – and it is learners with dyslexia who are often able to think laterally beyond the confines of the conventional. That’s why I like them!

I talked about membership of the ‘Literacy Club’: membership of which in the past was dependent on children’s ability to move through a set of hierarchical skills – something that learners with dyslexia find hard. Reading is a life long endeavour which develops in confidence and competence the more it is practised across increasingly more diverse and difficult texts. The children I teach have often failed spectacularly at traditional reading but  flourish with the broader range of texts we are urged to use in Curriculm for Excellence.

I went on to talk about digital storytelling, Inanimate Alice in particular; reprising some of my thoughts already posted on this blog (all in 7 minutes!).

I finished with the wonderful quotation from Thomas West and make no apology quoting once more:

We should encourage diversity,

  • not only to be civil,
  • not only to be respectful,
  • not only to be humane,
  • not only to be just,

 but also because we have  a particular stake in diversity.

We want there to be people who have

  • abilities that we have not ever tried to measure because we didn’t know that we needed them,
  • abilities that may be in no way associated with the abilities and talents that we now measure by formal or informal means,
  • abilities we don’t yet know we need.


 TM was at the Scottish Book Trust’s headquarters on the Royal Mile. What a beautiful venue! And thanks to Fearghal and the team for organising such an invigorating event.

Great CDP opportunity on Literacy and Numeracy

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More on the tension between handwriting and word processing

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Appropos of my previous post about the tension between handwriting and word processing, take a look at Ceri Williams’ (no relation) description of how a young learner is acquiring the basics of reading.

Callum is learning to write. Ceri gets him to:

write using his ‘magic’ finger, and the stylus on the Elitebook Tablet. He’s written the letters on the desk, tablet, NGFL_alphabet, Nintendo DSi, the walls, the carpet and paper.

He blended a n d today to read ‘and’ and as he blended the sounds to make the word, he exclaimed it like it was the first time he had really read it, rather than remembering the ‘and’ word. ‘I’m getting good at reading now’, was his comment.

After a few weeks he’s now recognising and distinguishing between h, t, sh, n, m and u (which bodes well for the future but it’s early days yet!)

I am convinced he is more motivated and engaged in literacy using the Nintendo DS, NGFL Alphabet and the Paint/Stylus input, time will tell.

A good compromise, methinks.

‘I long for the day when Amnesty is needed no more’. Michael Morpurgo

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In a lovely article Michael Morpurgo writes about the 50th anniversary of Amnesty, saying that ‘giving children a love of literature could help make the pressure group redundant’.

He descibes so beautifully the importance of literacy and the power of story to help us be human:

… developing in young children a love of poems and stories (fiction and non-fiction) is vital … It is through literature, not simply literacy, that we learn to understand and empathise. As readers, we learn about the lives of others, other places and cultures, other ways of seeing the world. We find out about the past, understand better how it made our today and how our today makes our tomorrow. We learn we are not alone in our feelings, that joy and pain are universal, that humanity is to be celebrated for its diversity but is ultimately one humanity. Through literature, we can find our place in the world, feel we belong and discover our sense of responsibility.

Amnesty understands this very well and it seeks out, encourages and endorses literature that it believes can help children develop this great skill of empathy, a skill that is vital for tolerance to grow, hatred to diminish and human rights to flourish.

If you want to create problem-solvers & reduce violence, spread literacy

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Most children who toil with reading experience the struggle as a reflection of something wrong with themselves – something of which they should be ashamed. The myth that reading ability is a test of intelligence is pernicious.

Children don’t know that reading troubles might be due to a normal difference in their genes and brains analogous to being tall or short. They don’t realise the contibution of engagement from the very earliest months of life in stimulating conversations and positive, focused, active learning experiences in the early years to success in literacy. Equally, they don’t see that their failed attempts to crack the archaic and artificially complex code are not their fault.

No, they blame themselves. We all search for strategies to protect ourselves from the shame of failing to achieve something, especially something as central as reading and writing. We come up with very complex ways to escape and avoid and channel that shame, most of which aren’t healthy for us or the people around us. We handle shame by avoidance (and yes, I still pay my dues to the gym but haven’t been since March), aggression. (‘What on earth is the point of quadratic equations? I never got them, and it never did me any harm’) or being destructive so as not to look inadequate (‘The alternative voting system is downright stupid’). Children learn very quickly that it’s more socially acceptable to be ‘bad’ than to be ‘dumb’.

And of course when we feel ashamed we are caught in a ‘learning-disabled downward spiral’. The humiliation children feel if they struggle with literacy motivates them to avoid reading but, most poignantly, it affects their very sense of self. And this undermines the cognitive capacities they need to learn to read in the first place.

I knew a 14 year old who told her parents she was in the ‘5th bottom set’ for maths. There were only 6 sets and she – according to her teacher – was in the 2nd set and achieving highly. It’s all about perceptions.

Not only are these learners in danger of continuing to be poor readers, they are also likely to develop aversions to other learning situations that trigger (or which they think might trigger and thus they avoid) similar shameful feelings. Such mind-shame is hugely disabling and it can have an immensely powerful negative effect throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Reading failure can result in a host of social pathologies: delinquency, drug and alcohol problems, and – not least – great loss to human potential because of negative life options. It is not that they think literacy is unimportant: quite the contrary. The defence mechanisms are so powerful because they acknowledge the centrality of reading and writing.

I can’t cite this source but I have read that the prison building programme in some states of the US is based on literacy rates in 3rd Grade. They can, and do, predict how many prisoners will be arriving in 20 years time on the basis of the numbers of children with reading difficulties at age 9. Now that’s scary.

We need to re-frame our thinking about reading, not tinker with the mechanics.

I’m as happy as anyone to engage in lengthy debate about the merits or otherwise of phonics as opposed to ‘real books’. But that is not addressing the real concerns about reading failure. We need to understand the challenges involved in learning to read from the learner’s perspective.

The majority of difficulties in acquiring literacy are learned, not neurological. If chronic shame is the abiding emotion felt by many children who struggle with reading, then we must not ignore the psychological damage that is being wrought in our schools.

All of us want to learn: think of the toddler stumbling and falling, pulling herself upright, trying again. That drive to make progress, to improve, to find out and explore is innate. We just need to harness it – easy to write here, harder to accomplish I know.

A lot of children are read to and have loved ones to listen to their emergent reading abilities at home. But for those who don’t come from a rich language background, where there’s not a lot of reading material around, or the television is on all the time, those kids don’t come to school with the same kind of expectations, or the same level of readiness: readiness to learn to read.

We don’t always differentiate what we do enough for those children. We wait until they experience some pretty significant failure, either academic or behavioural failure, and then we try some interventions and wait to see how they work. By this time the shame and the avoidance has magnified.

Psychologists tell us that the moment that shame triggers, when children become aware of their perceived inadequacy, it distracts and depletes the cognitive capability necessary to do the work. So some children are in a confusing environment. The context perpetuates their perception that there’s something wrong with them, and they’re mortified. And that’s the downward spiral that so many youngsters are caught in.

Shame is the greatest learning disability. Not so much because of the emotional attributions we make to it from outside, but because of the utter cognitive disruption that goes with it. We just don’t function well cognitively. This shame mechanism is not at all useful in relation to an unconscious faster-than-thought, virtual-artificial process like reading. It clouds the effective processing of information.

Confusion creates a self-consciousness which depletes the brain’s capacity to work out the confusion at the core, underneath at the cognitive processing level. Many children are just developmentally in varying places on the readiness spectrum. Awareness of falling behind their peers damages self esteem and ultimately puts them at risk of continuing failure and low self image and self efficacy. This makes them vulnerable to so many negative influences.

It’s just not the lack of the skills, it’s how they feel about the lack of the skills that creates so much unhappiness and dysfunction.

It’s our job – all of us – to ensure that all our young people view themselves as capable learners.

Thanks to the Children of the Code  site for stimulating this.

Handwriting or Word Processing?


Here’s an interesting thought from Doug Dickinson

Why is it given such an important place? Is it an essential learning skill? If it is – to what level does it need to be developed in a world where most communications are now made electronically and writing on paper with a device is usually for person notes etc? And what has it got to do with literacy?

All primary schools still include conventional handwriting teaching and I’m not sure how many routinely teach keyboard skills. The debate is challenging: it is imperative that we equip our children for the 21st century; but nevertheless we cannot pretend that every child has access to a computer whenever they need to write while in – or out – of school.

There is an important conversation to be had about the methods we use when teaching writing although ultimately of course, it is the content that matters. Certainly for learners with dyslexia, I have no doubt that word processing is infinitely superior to handwriting because of the obvious advantages of legible, relatively error-free presentation.

There is some research that claims that ‘writing by hand engages the brain in learning’.

During one study at IndianaUniversity published this year, researchers used an MRI machine to spot neural activity in the brain. Children were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and “adult-like” than in those who had simply looked at letters.

Recent research illustrates how “It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience atIndianaUniversitywho led the study.

This study did not appear to contrast writing with typing however. Another study, though, indicates improved cognitive activity and engagement when writing by hand.

In a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says

pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory – the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

This makes sense. Nevertheless, for children who struggle to recall letter shapes and patterns, whose motor skills are undeveloped, whose poor spelling inhibits creativity, I would suspect there is no contest: ICT will always be preferred. That’s if they have the skills in the first place.

Perhaps the combination of technology and handwriting is one way forward: an iPhone app can encourage little ones to draw letters with their fingers or a stylus: correct movements earn cheering pencils.

I am indebted to Gwendolyn Bounds for drawing my attention to this interesting research.

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