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Reflect and relax: reasons to write?

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, takes a look at writing exercises in the classroom.

The four skills are listening, reading, writing, and speaking. These are often divided into the Productive skills and Receptive skills. The Productive skills are Speaking and Writing. The Receptive skills are Listening and Reading. First of all let’s think about what makes writing different to speaking.

Well, for a start, the spoken word is not concrete: if you get it wrong it doesn’t hang around your neck like a millstone! The written word is concrete. When you write, what you produce is permanent and so if you make mistakes, they are there for all to see. This can be a source of worry for some pupils. Clearly, we need to ensure that when they are writing children receive lots of support. The aim is not just producing a piece of writing but to build their confidence in their ability to produce it.

Writing is sometimes called the “forgotten skill”. It is certainly the last acquired. For most language learners it would seem to be the least important. After all, isn’t language mainly listened to and spoken? And this would seem to be what most learners want to do with the language. However, I think we need to be careful here. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Writing may come last as an acquired skill and least in importance to many of the learners when they are older, but for the younger learner there are a number of positive aspects. What are they?

To begin with it is allowing language production and consolidation through a different medium to the spoken word. It demands an effort which aids learning. It provides time for reflection and gives the children time to think about, and get a feel for, how the language hangs together. It creates quiet time in the classroom; the children are working at their own pace and the teacher is free to give individual attention to them.

How can writing be approached?

There are two broad approaches to how we can teach writing to our learners: product writing and process writing. Both these approaches have their adherents. I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of each in this blog post. My feeling is that a blend of the two approaches to writing probably makes the most sense with the balance leaning towards product writing in the early years. Other teachers may disagree and I would like to hear from them.

How does product writing work?

First of all we introduce the children to written texts. As they read they are being exposed to the vocabulary and structures that they will need later on. At the same time they are also being exposed to the conventions of the written form: punctuation, paragraphing, and text organisation.

If we take it step by step it goes something like this:

  • model text
  • controlled practice
  • organisation of ideas
  • production

It might help if I put some flesh on those bare bones. For example, the children read a short text from a Fan magazine It is an interview with a boy band. They work on comprehension through reading tasks. Then, they practise particular features of the text – the controlled practice. This could be how to use and, but and too. Once the children have completed the controlled practice they are given the opportunity to create an interview for themselves. They choose a sports star or a musician or even a member of their family. First they plan their work and then they write their interview mirroring the original text they read. This is Product writing.

It seems to me that starting with Product writing provides children with a structured, safe environment in which to produce their work. Many of you will probably argue that it is restrictive. At which point we touch on the old accuracy/fluency debate. Do you remember it? We could loosely sum it up by saying that Product writing goes from accuracy to fluency. Process writing, in contrast, goes from fluency to accuracy. (More or less!) Do you have an opinion on how we should approach writing for younger learners?

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Early Intervention: Why it’s a must for children with reading difficulties

Teacher helping young girl to readIn this article, Tanya Rivka Dy-Peque, an educational therapist who has worked closely with children with learning difficulties for several years, explores why early intervention in reading is so crucial to children’s future literacy.

If your child doesn’t learn to read, they are more likely to have social problems, develop a poor self-image, and earn less than their peers as adults.

Hearing this shouldn’t come as any great shock. After all, reading is central to daily life for most of us. Even if we don’t consider ourselves big “readers,” we still read bills, ads, emails, websites, and correspondence at work.

But for people who never learned to read, or who can only read a little, everyday life is a constant battle of faking their way through a literate world, hoping they don’t slip up. To combat this problem, a number of adult literacy programs have sprung up, but most research shows that it’s much more difficult – and time-consuming – for adults to become literate. In fact, even high school and middle school programs for slower learners seem to be a case of too little, too late.

Now, that’s not to say that older kids and adults can’t learn – quite the opposite. But the job does get tougher the more time passes and the more we struggle. This kind of failure – without proper help and guidance – makes us withdraw further and try less because we’d rather fake our way through than endure ridicule – real or perceived.

Luckily, the answer is right in front of us, because many students have shown marked improvement – so long as they have that proper help and guidance we mentioned, and provided they get it early enough.

How early?

By some estimates, students who find themselves struggling may begin to withdraw by as early as the middle of first grade! That’s why the most successful early intervention programs in schools tend to start before primary school and work to catch issues as they’re developing rather than discovering them after the fact and attempting to fix them.

So what are some common features of successful early intervention programs?

Everyday help

In the same way that going to a foreign country can help you to learn the language by immersing you in it, students having difficulties with reading and writing need to be receiving extra help as often as possible – preferably every school day. Moreover, these daily sessions should last at least 20 to 30 minutes, and at-risk kids need to be given an ample number of sessions to improve (several programs recommend around 100 extra sessions).

Small group and individual learning in combination with full classroom sessions

The tendency when dealing with at-risk students is to isolate them into smaller units and even one-on-one tutoring so that educators can give them their full focus. That kind of strategy is helpful in increasing literacy, but studies have shown that it should not replace full-classroom learning. Something about the communal power of learning to read and write together appears to enhance the process.

Meaning over memorization

With our increasing focus on test scores as a means of measuring aptitude, too many teachers expect students to learn from simple repetition, assuming that they either already know or will catch on to the meaning of the word over time. Unfortunately, this is not always true for at-risk students, so successful early prevention programs put a focus on making sure that the meaning of each word is clearly understood before moving on. This helps to create context and a real-world connection for many words.

A concentration on words

Too often, kids experiencing reading difficulties are asked to put words together into sentences before they understand the words themselves. Early prevention programs start from the bottom up, concentrating on words as the building blocks of sentences and slowly grouping them together to form simple phrases.

Writing as a means of word identification

To reinforce word recognition, successful early prevention programs often have students write out and spell words. Teacher assistance is provided, but only to the extent that students need it to spell words correctly.

Building confidence through re-reading

One of the best ways to increase reading confidence is to encourage students to read books over and over. This allows them to become comfortable with the words and meaning of the story, instead of forcing them to struggle through something new too quickly.

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