UKLA International Conference,University of Sussex, Brighton
Last weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend and present at the UKLA’s 50th Anniversary International Conference at the University of Sussex near Brighton. With up to twelve parallel sessions it was very tricky trying to decide which one to go to but I made my choice and here is a taste of the kind of things I heard and saw and thought of…
David Crystal gave the first keynote and took the opportunity to look back at a paper he gave at the 11th Annual UKRA Conference in 1975; “Neglected Linguistic Principles”. He used this to examine four linguistic principles that were, and still are, largely overlooked in policy and practice. These are:
1. Intonation is essential – English is not a tonal language in the same way as Mandarin or Thai but the meaning of a phrase changes depending on the way you say it. For example, “That’s nice” can mean wildly different things depending on the intonation you give it. Children struggle to pick up on these nuances and yet speaking and listening are increasingly marginalised in the National Curriculum.
2. Spelling has a history – everyone knows that English spelling conventions are either bizarre, messy or non-existent. What lots of people don’t know is that the OED provides each word’s history of usage that can help us understand why it is spelt the way it is. Having some of these tucked up your sleeve for those words that children struggle over could lead to some fascinating conversations AND, hopefully, get the spelling to stick!
3. Punctuation is social – which means that there is no simple answer for how and when to use a comma; different people and groups of people use it in different ways. Therefore it is simply ridiculous to deduct marks for using the Oxford Comma (see Gove’s SPAG test)!
4. Grammar is pragmatic – to understand grammar you need to be able to identify what linguistic choices have been made and then explain why. If you’re simply labelling the terms you’re only doing half the job.
In the light of current curriculum changes it is crucial to keep reminding each other of these four principles and finding ways to integrate them into our teaching.
In her presentation Debra Myhill shared some provisional results from a current research project on the teaching grammar. She started by pointing out that many student misconceptions are inadvertently taught by teachers. This isn’t surprising when you stop to examine the convoluted and opaque language of the National Curriculum or pause to reflect on the difficulty of trying to teach to the test when there are many possible answers but only one that is deemed correct. Debra also raised the point that students need to have an understanding of the reader-writer relationship before they can begin using their grammatical knowledge to craft their text and that they are often able to use linguistic feature accurately in their writing before they are able to label them correctly. Finally, she suggested that it might be more useful to avoid using definitions and build grammatical knowledge cumulatively or to find sharper definitions that begin simply and can be added to as the children progress through their schooling.
Significantly Debra was also keen to stress the importance of using classroom talk, listening to children’s responses and letting them see how grammar functions in context by using authentic texts. Her use of examples from Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur High King of Britain (1994) demonstrated that complex sentences are not necessarily longer than simple sentences and that the difference between complex and compound sentences may be very much up to interpretation. As a teacher I remember looking closely at the beginning of David Almond’s Skellig (1998) with my class and having a long discussion about the way in which short sentences are used to create a realistic, almost factual, narrative. The children were surprised that he hadn’t used more adjectives, adverbs and ‘wow’ words. Myra Barrs picked up on this disconnect between teachers and students understanding of what makes ‘good’ writing in her thought-provoking keynote. She referred to a piece of research on educational blogs (http://londonclc.org.uk/research-project/) and talked about the positive effect that it had had on students writing. However, Myra also noted that the teachers and the students had come away from the project with very different perspectives on why it was so successful; the teachers felt that the children’s writing gained momentum because they were writing for a real audience, while the students talked of how much they had enjoyed the teachers responding to their writing with questions and interested comments rather than corrections and ‘room for improvement’ notes.
Building Communities of Readers and Writers
All five keynotes picked up on this idea of literacy being an activity that is shared and shaped by a community of readers, writers, listeners and talkers. In his keynote Michael Rosen drew entertainingly on his own reading development to evidence the ways in which reading, writing and “saying out loud” are social endeavours that feed off one another; each child inhabits a different social sphere and therefore each child will approach and tackle their literacy development in a different way. The social context in which they find themselves drives their engagement with literacy as they learn to read, write and speak what they need to create friendships and allegiances. Ken Goodman reminded us that from the moment they are born children are finding ways to communicate their needs to those around them. He referenced research on the brain to argue that making sense of spoken and written languages both require the recipient to be active and motivated. “You don’t learn for the future, you learn for the present.” he said and we need to remember this when we plan our literacy curriculums.
Teresa Cremin delivered the Harold Rosen lecture at the end of the conference, masterfully reflecting on aspects of his thinking through a discussion of three recent projects. “We need to confer full story rights on the pupils,” Rosen writes in 1985 because narrative stimulates thinking. To which Teresa added narrative thinking has the potential of creating two different types of worlds through play: the world of ‘what is’ and the world of ‘what might be’. The first project of which she spoke on “Possibility Thinking” examined the conditions necessary for students to be able to participate in playful posing and exploring the questions ‘what is?’ and ‘what if?’ What Teresa found was that as children progressed up the school there were fewer possibilities for spontaneous pupil-initiated narrative. However, in the second project she discussed, “Creative Little Scientist”, it was fascinating to see the unofficial spaces children found in maths and science activities to engage in off-task playfulness. The third project analysed the ‘Helicopter Technique’ (a way of collecting and acting out stories in class) and showed how it might be possible to draw on child-initiated storytelling and play within the classroom to foster a spirit of togetherness and build a community of sustained, focused and playful storytellers.
I was really interested in this last project and the implications that findings from it could have on our teaching practices throughout primary, secondary and further education. Some of the most exciting learning experiences I’ve had have been through The Capital Centre at The University of Warwick and I’ll never forget the way in which Shakespeare was opened up to me through collaborations, playful engagements and shared research projects in the archives. The presentation given by the head of Victoria Junior School (UKLA’s Literacy School of the Year), Pauline Robertson demonstrated the transformative potential of building a community of readers. Pauline spoke of the way in which the school invested in the library and used technology to make the books instantly accessible to the children; she spoke of promoting and valuing reading by making it visible by displaying photos of the school’s adults and children reading; she spoke of ensuring that every member of staff was able to contribute meaningfully to the children’s reading progress; and she talked of how personal iPads could be used as tools to enable creative and collaborative. It was a real pleasure to hear about the kinds of steps being taken in schools to ensure that children develop an interest and enthusiasm for reading.
The Importance of Communication
In her keynote Myra Barrs spoke of similarly inspiring and proactive schools, reminding us of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge and experience that practitioners have. She asked, “Whose knowledge counts in government literacy policy?” (also the title of a recent publication by Ken Goodman, Robert Calfee & Yetta Goodman). To which Colin Mills replied in his presentation, a small selection of companies who are involved in developing policies and then selling materials and skills needed to implement them. Colin’s discussion of the kinds of knowledge economies and political landscapes that are encouraging the number of consultancy companies to flourish was nuanced and evidence-based. I find this silent revolution that is rapidly transforming education at all levels into a neo-liberal economy measurable by monetary value worrying.
However, I’d like to finish by thinking briefly about some of the excellent and insightful research that was shared over the weekend. Jackie Marsh, Julia Gillen, Cathy Burnett, Clare Dowdall, Guy Merchant, Becky Parry and Victoria Carrington delivered a fascinating symposium on digital literacies of the past, present and future, asking us all to take a longer view on current technological developments and look carefully and closely at the kinds of spaces for learning and literacy created by Edwardian postcards, computer games, social networking sites, iPads, films, and iPhones. They all spoke persuasively of the ways in which children are able to engage creatively within these domains, using the semiotic resources of each to build friendships and perform their own developing subjectivities. Victoria’s call for new ways of thinking about place and space was echoed in other presentations that sought to investigate the ways in which young readers engage with different texts and text-types; Erin Spring (winner of the UKLA prize for student research) talked sensitively about how two groups of children from a city and small-town community in Canada construed place in both their primary world and in two texts they were asked to read; Su Li Chong described the ways in which undergraduate students conceived of themselves as readers of digital and print texts; Fiona Maine told us of the ways in which teachers can enable children to create and manage their own discussion by providing them with strategies to participate in film talk; and Debbie Pullinger, David Whitely and Julie Blake explored some of the possible benefits of learning poetry by heart in a thought-provoking presentation that reflected on the kinds of engagements with poetry memorisation and recitation encouraged.
All these presentations shared an ability and willingness to engage with the ways in which children are active and creative readers and creators of texts. They all demonstrated a nuanced approach to working with children in sensitive and child-centred studies that really listened to what young people were saying and were receptive to learning from what they were doing. My own research on the ways in which children read, discuss and creatively respond to novels with integrated visual elements has made me very aware of how important classroom talk, playful engagements and collaborative projects are. It has also made me very aware of the ways in which these things are made possible by teachers and schools who create spaces and places in which talk, play and collaboration can flourish. On the other hand, as I enter the final year of my PhD I continue to ask myself how can I help to get these understandings out into the public domain? How can I ensure that politicians, policy makers and educators are aware of that little bit of knowledge I might be able to shape?
The UKLA is a brilliant organisation and its growing numbers speak of a critical mass that I am sure is gathering of like-minded people who want children to become independent, creative and reflective makers and shapers of texts. Being part of it and contributing to its work is one way in which I think I can help raise awareness and effect change – bring on the next fifty years of the UKLA!