David Didau’s understanding of a learner’s access into literacy emanates from an awareness that what we understand about our own knowledge is implicit. We know, without truly knowing how to explain or model it. As explanation, he presented Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:
Edward Hopper – Nighthawks
This represents a metaphor for how the word-rich are able to see the big picture. How they – we – are able to extrapolate meaning and context and make inferences based upon our understanding not only of the thing that we are analysing but about the world as well.
Setting this against the Matthew Effect, which states that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Daniel Rigney posited:
The word-rich get richer while the world-poor get poorer.
The word-rich gravitate to like-minded, similar-levels-of-vocabulary people. As such they – we – nurture one another’s vocabulary, helping a communal vocabulary expansion. The word-poor, conversely, in gravitating to their own like-minded brethren, are not at all placed for communal vocabulary expansion. They are said to not enrich one another’s vocabulary.
A student’s narrow view of Nighthawks – the Matthew Effect
What we have, therefore is this narrow understanding of our metaphor – Nighthawks. This is what students see. How might they gather meaning from it? How might they appropriately contextualise?
What can they get- can they understand?
David quoted some statistics around literacy:
- Good reading at age 10 predicts high GCSEs
- Speedy and accurate decoding at age 6 predicts success at 16
- 1 in 6 people in the UK struggle with literacy
- 7 million people cannot find the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Pages
- 1 in 16 adults cannot identify a concert venue on a gig poster
- A small study of 16 year olds revealed that 1 in 12 has only an 800 word working vocabulary
- At age 7, the word gap between the top quartile (7,100 words) and the lowest (3,000 words) is 4,100 words!
If you were restricted in this way – and Didau makes no bones about the fact it is the parents who have the greatest impact in this respect (an interesting side discussion in my mind is this – finally – growing acceptance that parents are to blame; I wonder when that becomes explicit) – how limiting would this be? How could you possibly express yourself, your emotions?
George Sampson in 1922 said:
Every teacher in English is a teacher of English
Establishing the fact that even if you’re not an English teacher, by using the medium of English, your only choice is to teach it explicitly, or implicitly… badly or well, knowingly and thoughtfully.
Making Reading a Priority
As a cognitive process, reading is the most taxing of all tasks, as detailed below in Scarborough’s diagram:
Scarborough’s Many Strands Woven into Reading
There is no link between language comprehension and general intelligence.
So, how might a student with a poor background in literacy make any sense of the analysis expectations within the curriculum? We were given an example text and asked what form it was, and subsequently, upon stating it was newsprint, what paper: the Sun.
We were able to tell this instinctively and when pressed on the why, could point to use of language. The issue became that our approach would provide students with absolutes – and there are no absolutes. There are only inferences based upon knowledge, context and the suchlike.
How do we, then, take our implicit understanding, recognising what it is and what it isn’t, and make that a cognitive process in our student’s minds? Without giving them superficial or misinformation?
Further to this, another example was presented, of Ikea wiring instructions for a lamp. What this revealed about us – expert readers – is that we are able to make judgements over what bits of information that we don’t know and ignore them, from our understanding of other elements in the text.
A skill for reading a text quickly to get an overview of the meaning of a text
- Read first line then flash through – passing eyes over random words
- Read the beginning and the ending
- Cast eyes across a diagonal
- Pick out nouns and adjectives only
Whatever the method, students need this modeled. They should be helped out of their independent skimming to get them out of the mindset of performing each word to themselves.
By just reading the first sentence of each paragraph gives context, allowing an extraction of meaning, and saves students getting dispirited with an entire text.
A skill for searching a text quickly and picking out specific information.
As a trivial insight, we implicitly know that questions have an order. For example, given a text and three questions, we know
- the first question will likely come at or near the start
- the second somewhere around the middle
- the last towards or at the end
We can also extrapolate from finding the answer to the first question, that
- the second answer will not be around or before the location of the first answer
- the third answer, similarly, will not be further back
As a student, if you didn’t know this, you would likely start reading the entire text again from the beginning for each subsequent question.
- Look for numbers, as these are eye magnets
- Look for proper nouns and their use of capital letters
A skill to zoom in on certain words, phrases and sentences, so as to understand the text in greater detail.
Imagine that you have a camera to zoom in to get analytical on the finer details; to see detail that we’d otherwise miss. Here’s a tree. Pretend it’s a text.
If we just look at the tree, what do we understand?? It’s a tree with leaves and bark and that it grows out of the ground. But, what do we really understand about this particular tree? We have to zoom in:
Zooming in – The bark, the moss, the grooves and mold
Here, up close with the tree (our text), we have a better appreciation of the interlacing of the bark, the variegated moss and mold. Without zooming in and focusing, a student won’t know what they can’t think about. Following this, the zoom out, and perhaps back further for the forest (or context), to allow fuller evaluation, the student cannot understand how the detail fits into the bigger picture.
Making Writing a Priority
Exam examples have shown Didau that students tend to devolve to thoughtless writing that suggests learning by rote, with many duplicating a line because of the structure of their teaching:
The room that I am sitting in is…
Didau discussed an example lesson task, in which students were writing letters to the dead scientist, Marie Curie as part of their English lesson. He talked about how their letters were filled with brilliant understandings of the science at the heart of the topic, but that their showing understanding of content was at the expense of skill. What had they learned?
It doesn’t matter how you write.
You need, he says,
to value the output; value the skill.
Focus on the how
- a mixture of short and long sentences (prescribing alternating lengths)
- restrict writing to prevent students beginning sentences with certain words or phrases
- avoid and and but
- teach discourse markers (adding, sequencing, illustrating, causal, comparative, qualifying, contrasting, emphasising)
A simple theory by Didau:
- we can only write what we are able to say
- we can only say what we are able to think
- but, if you can say it, you can write it
What does this tell us about speech?
Myhill and Fisher believe that
our ability to speak caps our ability to write.
And, Robin Alexander states that
most talk is social… but talk in the classroom is cognitive. Talk changes thought.
To improve writing, we must improve speaking. And to do that we must scaffold and nurture the right kind of speaking. An issue is that writing and speaking frames are necessary here but also are restrictive and constraining. Didau has 50 thought stems that were used as writing frames. He got his students to use them for their spoken answers, as follows:
- A student provides a great answer (in their own voice)
- They then direct their answer through a thought stem
- They then write their fully structured answer down
- Or, they direct their answer through a particular thought stem
- Go to 3
- Or, they direct their answer through a memorised thought stem
- Go to 3
This provides students with access to academic language.
They really do need to know this foreign language.
It creates a level playing field for the word-poor, even while they must know that there is nothing wrong with the way that they speak. It is the way that they write that is being developed. Their palette is being increased.
Didau always tells his students to not write, but to draft.
This, he says, makes them happier to redraft than write again. They can double space their work to provide space for this. Didau recommends that in the use of marking and proofreading:
- use a simple set of codes
- don’t mark work that’s not been proofread (proof is them highlighting and commenting on a section they are having trouble with, or visible annotation/evidence that they have changed elements)
- if it’s not excellent, it’s not yet finished