Express yourself - and be truly literate

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
An approach built on inspiration can help children develop a love of language, says Jaye Richards

Scotland's increasingly multicultural schools are nowadays presenting teachers with the challenge of teaching pupils who do not have English as their first language. Teaching in such a school myself (albeit in Spain), I often complain about the literacy levels of these children.

Usually this relates to several aspects of their English comprehension and writing and, more often than not, the complaints come after a particularly bad marking session, where I almost end up throwing the books against the wall in frustration at the functional illiteracy of many of my pupils. To be more precise, it is bad sentence construction and poor spelling, usually phonetic. Spanish children often use phonetic spelling because that is how their own language is nearly always written.

As a science teacher, I find I have to spend a lot of my time teaching kids in the first and second year of senior school how to understand just what a question is asking them to do, as this always causes them problems. A good example would be some first-year pupils answering problem-solving questions on energy, which involved interpreting data on the use of energy sources displayed on a pie chart. When asked what the small segment representing water related to, most stated that water was used for drinking and washing and not for generating electricity, the correct answer.

So just what is literacy then? Is it the ability to read, write, spell and comprehend? Is literacy for second-language kids any different, or does it deserve any different set of definitions? Ask 100 teachers for their interpretations of this and you will probably receive the same number of answers in return. I did a quick internet search and came no closer to anything that sounded like the truth. The first real international definition of a literate person was probably the one put forward by Unesco in 1951: "One who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement on his everyday life."

This has been refined over the years by many different organisations and learned individuals, and by government manifestos and education departments. I have looked at many of these pontifications over the past couple of years or so in my own personal search for solutions to the problems of my pupils, and I always find myself returning to one word which, for me, is the true definition of the concept of literacy. And this is that word from the original Unesco statement - "understanding". If children are not taught to understand what they are being asked to do, and what they are being asked to write, then surely they become just little machines churning out whatever they see the teacher demonstrating.

As usual, it is down to us and how we promote the use of the language of understanding in our classrooms, how we inspire kids to understand and love language - any language. Do we, in our time-pressured classrooms, with the need to satisfy our masters' demands for measurable and publishable statistics, give as much thought as we should to our own use of language? Do we use language just as a means of transmitting information to a child, who then either receives it or not, or do we use it as a two-way discourse with our pupils (in the manner put forward by Paulo Freire in his 1970s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed)? Do we avoid the rigid, authoritarian teacher-pupil models, encouraging shared discussion and investigation? Do we inspire the kids entrusted to us to think effectively, make sense of their lives and talk, read and write about them with understanding and imagination?

If we are honest with ourselves, it is this discourse that is far too often lacking in our classrooms. Are we too busy, too pressurised, or just too hung-up on our own self-important role playing as educational "experts" to listen to pupils and encourage them to question our views, and discuss and write about their thoughts and opinions?

A single word - literacy - may not be enough for many educational academics and any teaching professional would be foolish not to give more than a passing thought to all the many theories. We lead ever more complicated, multi-stranded lives, which is reflected in the theorising of people such as Sensborough in his work Multiplicities of Literacies from 15 years ago.

This type of research is probably more relevant than ever in the world of mass communication in which we live and teach today.

But how often do the pupils understand the books we give them to read at school? How often do we rely on photocopied worksheets with just small passages of text, which do not convey the authors' full developments of their concepts? How often, when we visit the library with our classes, do we actually share the process of choosing books to read with our youngsters? And, more to my point, how often do we satisfy ourselves that they have actually read the book as a whole, discovering its myriad meanings, rather than just read the words to satisfy the pages in their reading record books? Not enough, I suspect.

So how do we improve literacy among our children, then? I have asked a lot of questions, and I don't presume to have all of the answers. Far from it.

But I do believe that we can make a difference. We can help our pupils to love language by talking about it with them, not just to them, and we must encourage them to talk to us as well. Give their opinions just as much validity as yours. Encourage them to treat language and its meanings as they would precious objects. And above all, inspire them.

Surely, the skill of self-expression is true literacy indeed.

Jaye Richards is a teacher in Tenerife.

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