Category: Literacy

Immigrants Speaking English? Again?

Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.

What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?

One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.

Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.

So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.

Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.

That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.

Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK


Techno-Literacy: Lifting Limits in Education

Watching a close friend’s 18 month old son play with his mother’s iPad and seeing even at that age, he knew what to do with the device made me realise that his childhood, teenage years and adulthood will be very different from mine.  Instead of feeling nostalgia for the days when babies played with wooden toys and learned to count on an abacus, I was ridiculously excited for him.  He was developing a form of literacy that many adults don’t have, simply because they did not acquire it at a young age.

Twitter this week has been awash with, frankly, polarised opinions on whether mobile phones should be allowed in the classroom as a result of a post on the ‘Scenes from The Battleground’ Education blog entitled ‘The Insanity of Allowing Phones in Class’.  The word ‘battleground’ seems oddly appropriate for this debate. One side tuts and shakes their head at what is deemed ‘progressive’ education; the other vehemently defends innovation and flexibility.  One could almost imagine that the former is wearing a corduroy jacket and smoking a pipe and the latter is dressed in tie-dye and sandals, copy of The Guardian tucked under a bangled arm.  Does it need to be so black and white?

In the debate about the pitfalls and merits of new technologies in the classroom, something gets lost.  In the age of the internet, a time of rapid change and development in society, we cannot afford to be so polarised in our opinions about technology and pedagogy.  It is simply this: mobiles phones, laptops, palmtops, interactive whiteboards and all of the peripheral equipment are now indispensible items in teaching and indeed, our personal lives.  Deciding to block out the existence of mobile phones is like censoring all conversations about sex – the more we avoid something, the more appealing it becomes.  We create the taboo and expect children to not be curious.  It’s a fairly Victorian concept.

Those of you shaking your heads in disbelief at my ‘progressive’ views should know that I am not standing in my classroom ignoring deviant children while they text each other during my lesson.  Creating boundaries is part of our role – but boundaries are not the same thing as limits.  We limit children when we prohibit them from using every tool that they have to learn.

I expect children to behave responsibly and to avoid using their phones in my lesson as it is not polite.  If I see one, in accordance with the school’s policy, I will ask for it to be put away and explain why it isn’t appropriate.  However, there have been times when I have deliberately asked for students to use their mobile phones in a lesson.  Studying spoken language in English Language GCSE sometimes requires the use of a voice recorder to record conversations.  Lots of students don’t know where that is on their phone and I show them because it is a tool they can use to succeed in their education.  Believe it or not, when asked to put phones away at the end of the task, students have done it without fuss.

On a wider scale, the child who has used technology to facilitate their education and is comfortable with it could be seen as a step ahead of a child that has never had that experience.  Techno-literacy is now just as important as basic reading and writing, particularly in a world where competition for jobs is fierce.  The business world has long bemoaned the lack of basic skills in students, resulting in ‘remedial’ classes for young employees.  However, the most common form of training provided to young people in business is in IT, according to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey.  Perhaps this goes some way in showing that we have not spent enough time training our young people to use technologies they will need later in life, precisely because of a snobbery about which kind of literacy is more important.  We don’t live in a world in which the three Rs will get you a job immediately.  Our young people need techno-literacy to compete and this might just be part of our job as teachers now.

In the next two weeks, I will be teaching one of my English classes about non-fiction and media by asking them to create a documentary, using their mobiles phones to film interviews and to take pictures.  I will trust them to use their phones sensibly by reminding them of the consequences of inappropriate use.  I will use technology to facilitate the writing of explanation in the form of ‘voiceovers’, which they will record on their phones and save on a memory stick.  I know that writing improves when it is relevant to a child’s life and has a real life context, so why would I shy away from using this vital piece of equipment that all of my students have?

And before you ask, no – I am not wearing either tie-dye or sandals.

The Perfect English Lesson: Not What We Thought All Along!

If there’s one thing English teachers should read before they go back to work on Monday, it is the Ofsted document entitled ‘Moving English Forward’.  It is always interesting to hear what Ofsted inspectors think of any kind of lesson, but nothing really prepared me for the full, unadulterated gamut of emotions I felt whilst absorbing this new missive.  I laughed, I cried, I threw it across the room and hurriedly retrieved it, cradling it protectively in my arms like it was my own child.

English lessons aren’t the easiest things to plan because the study of English is so open to interpretation.  Schools of thought over the years have focused on seemingly opposing approaches – the grammatical, technical, literacy not literature approach versus the creative and therefore nebulous, content and enjoyment-based approach.  This dichotomy can also be named the Michael Gove approach versus Michael Rosen approach.  I don’t think there’s an English teacher that manages to combine these things all in one go on a daily basis.  The sub-sections of English teaching mean that, quite often, planning a lesson becomes an awkward juggling act, trying to equally balance rigour, monitoring, assessment and progress with fostering a love of the text, the spoken and written word.  I love English teachers.  We are conflicted individuals who deal with the most fundamental aspects of society and we do it every day, not without complaint, but with a distinct feeling that if we keep trying to create the perfect lesson, medium term plan, curriculum map, one day it will materialise in front of us.  Then we can retire, or go into consultancy.

Where does the conflict come from?  Well, we didn’t become English teachers because we enjoyed learning about semi-colons and split infinitives.  Most of us, I imagine, came into teaching because we loved our English lessons at school, because we loved reading and because we wanted to help little people love those things too.  Unfortunately, that illusion was shattered for me early because I was told that the most important thing about my lesson (in my head, so much like Robin Williams’ in Dead Poets’ Society, standing on tables and all) was that I should be able to demonstrate that the majority of my pupils were making better than expected progress.  I was told that Ofsted wanted to see pupils making progress, even in the 20 minutes that they might be in my classroom.

No one said anything about making sure that they enjoyed the learning, or that pupils should show depth of understanding.  The de facto position in lesson observations in two out of my three schools has been that progress is a limiting factor – in essence, if progress was deemed to be satisfactory, the whole lesson would be graded that way.  This is not a concept I disagree with, but it did lead to some interesting developments in my own teaching.  I slowly eliminated my guilty feelings about skimming over the surface of a poem so that I could teach students to analyse lexical choices to get a C grade.  I learned to demonstrate progress within 20 minutes, with advice I was given by people much more experienced than I was in the field.  From ‘make a student stand up and recite the learning objective when an inspector walks in’ to ‘subtly engage a student into a conversation about the level they were working at in a lesson’, from ‘stop what you are doing when an inspector walks in and make students check their learning’ to ‘always squeeze in peer or self assessment so you can demonstrate progress’.  The list goes on.

So, this is where I come back to the ‘Making Progress’ document.  Imagine my surprise when the document outlined a lesson that I instantly recognised as being one that I would teach.  Lesson objectives, starter, card sort, identify devices, mini whiteboards, criteria, samples from work, evaluating effectiveness linked to criteria, produce writing, peer assess.  Sounds like my life.  Except, dear people, Ofsted now say that this was not an effective lesson (quite rightly) because it “concentrated on the pace of activities rather than the pace of learning”.  I’m sighing even as I write this.  Was this kind of lesson not inevitable when progress became a limiting factor?  Ofsted, you created the problem you now seek to address. Some may argue that this view of lessons, in particular in English, may not be an Ofsted-generated issue.  Whether or not that was their intention, schools interpreted Ofsted’s wisdom in many ways.  Like Voltaire (and Uncle Ben in Spiderman) said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you take into account the anecdotes of feedback from Ofsted inspectors on English lessons, you can’t really deny that fact.  The most recent example at a friend’s school involved an inspector stating that any lesson where the 20 minutes included extended discussion or writing would immediately be graded ‘inadequate’.  This was this year, post January 2012 Ofsted guidance being issued. English Teachers have become used to creating mini English factories, a production line of activities sequenced so that at any point, one can stop and demonstrate progress.

In what I can only imagine is a tongue-in-cheek, aren’t we so funny subsection of the guidance entitled ‘Some common myths about good teaching’ (you jokers, you), Ofsted declare that the reason that the teaching in English has improved but the learning hasn’t, is that teachers do not allow sufficient time for extended reading, writing or discussion.  Poems are taught for their component parts, texts read in extract and personal response jettisoned for the more measurable skill of analysis of words, structure and style.  GCSE skills that lead to C grades, for how else is a school judged other than by league tables that demonstrate only a school’s ability to teach to an exam?

After Ofsted reveal the essence of a good English teaching, my favourite bit of the guidance is encapsulated in the immortal line: “Teachers need to remember that it is unlikely that all these features will be found in a single lesson.”  They are absolutely right, of course.  What is difficult to gauge is a teacher’s individual ability to disregard the last ten years of advice and guidance about what constitutes a good English lesson and go left-field, teach a lesson in which an Ofsted inspector sees students discussing their personal response to a text for twenty minutes or more.  Bravery exists in many forms and one of them is holding your nerve whilst an inspector takes notes on a lesson that goes against all the advice you’ve been given in your career.  Sounds it like it would lead to sweat patches.

If it sounds like I’m throwing down the gauntlet and challenging all English teachers to do this; that’s not my advice at all.  I’m firmly holding the aforementioned gauntlet in my hands, surveying the lie of the land and deciding where to toss the thing.  I think in that time, we should have a few more Ofsted publications to peruse and yet more advice to heed.  Wait and see, people, wait and see.

Right, I’m off to plan the perfect lesson.  See in you in a few hours?

Phonics and Reading Lists Aren’t Enough to Raise Literacy Standards

A few months ago, I was outraged, as were many teachers who work in secondary education, to read the Evening Standard splash on literacy statistics.  Today, I read the National Literacy Trust’s annual survey on reading, entitled ‘Setting the Baseline’ and was pleased to see that someone is actually taking into account views of young people on their understanding of reading today – how they feel about it, how often they do it and what they actually like reading.

As expected, the list of items that students claimed to like reading differs somewhat from the list Michael Gove recommended in March earlier this year after a visit to the US charter schools run by KIPP.  I have visited KIPP schools in New York and admire their dedication to the raising of literacy standards amongst the most deprived students in the state.  What Michael Gove may have missed about KIPP is that their whole approach to reading is different to ours.  Reading in a KIPP school is central to everything – classrooms are decorated using themes from books, words are displayed everywhere, there are sofas for children to sit on and read quietly and until students reach the required reading age, the curriculum is solely designed around Literacy, Mathematics, Science and Social Sciences (what we would term Humanities).  Social Sciences lessons are literacy lessons in disguise – they teach reading skills through History, Geography and Religious Education.  So, with all this in mind, how did Michael Gove come back from that visit to the KIPP schools and decide that a reading list and synthetic phonics were the biggest ‘take aways’ from that experience?

The students surveyed by the National Literacy Trust listed reading emails, text messages, websites and newspapers amongst their reading material, which just goes to show that reading is not, and will never be confined to reading books recommended by the state.  Reading is a skill that needs to be used in the decoding and comprehension of everything that is written.  It is not just a skill that allows someone to pass an English Literature GCSE (although, believe me, it helps), it is the difference between entire socio-economic statuses.

The findings from the National Literacy Trust are extremely interesting considering the screaming headlines in June, where the Evening Standard announced that a large swathe of young Londoners are illiterate, have no books in their homes and have parents who don’t read to them.   At the risk of sounding like a TV presenter from a well known family quiz show, the survey says that only 3% of young people surveyed stated that they don’t have a single book in the home.  The survey also points out, again, that young people from the poorest backgrounds, those receiving Free Schools Meals, are much less likely to have read a book recently.  My own experiences, and those of my colleagues, show that the majority of students in our secondary classrooms can read.  Their single word reading, their reading rate is not the reason they fail to achieve a chronological reading age score.  It is their level of comprehension of what they are reading and a lack of exposure to language that causes an achievement gap.  This gap that widens, almost unstoppably.

Richard Rothstein, Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute in the US and Board Member of the American Education Research Association, has written extensively on the achievement gap in the US, especially in ‘Class and Schools’ (2004).  He is quick to point out that a lot of the findings from his own and others’ research in the US is mirrored here in the UK and his key point is that the achievement gap begins before the age of 3.  Socio-economic differences – the gap between a working class child’s experience and that of a middle class child – make or break a child’s educational trajectory.  Rothstein draws on his own and others’ research to assert small, but hugely important facts  – the amount of words middle class children are exposed to can be a third higher than the amount of words a working class child is exposed to.  How parents read – the questions they ask while they are reading to a child vary between the classes. Reading, for him, is not just about those who can and those who can’t.  In other words, a phonics programme does not solve poor standards of literacy because the issue is so much wider and more complex than Michael Gove could even imagine.  We cannot create a nation of literate, confident individuals by giving them a reading list and making them recite phonemes.

I believe that true teaching of literacy, in all of its many forms, cannot occur with any degree of success that we can be proud of until, like in KIPP schools, reading becomes central to everything.  Reading, and the teaching of reading is more than just the ability to read the words on the page.  In my department, we have been using Reciprocal Reading strategies developed by the Hackney Learning Trust – a programme of developing comprehension and vocabulary based on the excellent work of US educationalist and reading specialist, Lori Oczkus.  We test our students to see whether it is their single word reading that needs development – and therefore a phonics programme is put in place for that child – or whether they have difficulty comprehending what they have read.

Even though I know the programme we have used is successful, I also know that it is not enough.  I correct mistakes already made – what I would like to do is make sure that we don’t have to compensate for these mistakes.  We have a strategy to deal with the symptoms of the problem, but we do not deal with the root causes of low reading ages in schools.  We haven’t recognised yet in this country that we need to be bolder in our approach to raising literacy standards – that maybe we have to ignore accusations of being a ‘nanny state’ and intervene earlier in the relationship between parent and child.  What could be wrong with explaining that simple adjustments to the way you read with your child could change their approach to reading later in life?  What harm could there be in sharing some of the wisdom of organisations like the National Literacy Trust with would-be parents in an organised, state-delivered format?  Can we not even begin to think how we could develop programmes, in school, in partnership with the NHS, in partnership with Social Services, to show parents of all backgrounds some of the skills they could easily employ in conversations with very small children?  Is it not cheaper to teach a parent how to engage with a child through different reading materials than to maintain a prisoner in one of our jails for however many years?

As a teacher and professed literacy geek, I cannot explain how terrifyingly unambitious government approaches to raising standards in literacy can be.  It feels like we have the knowledge of how to begin to deal with the issue of low literacy standards, but it’s like a jealously-guarded secret that we can’t share with the masses.   What exactly are we afraid of?

Speaking and Listening: Teaching Articulacy is Our Responsibility

The average number of words used in response to a question asked by a teacher in some classrooms?  Four, I was told.  Now, I know what you must be thinking when you read this statement masquerading as a statistic – teenagers have always been surly and unresponsive, right?  Teenagers aren’t supposed to actually talk to adults – look at Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ caricature.  That’s pretty close to reality, right?  We don’t need to worry about this issue.

The Rose Review, published in 2006, made clear the links between the ability to speak and listen effectively, stating that “Speaking and Listening, together with reading and writing, are central to children’s intellectual, social and emotional development.”  I am aware that the National Literacy Trust, an organisation in which I have absolute faith, has been trying to address the issue of articulacy for years.  Their ‘Talk To Your Baby’ campaign was practical and dealt in its entirety with the concept that unless very young children have the ability to express themselves, serious problems will occur later on in their education.  In my time as an English teacher, I have seen the skills of speaking and listening dealt with really well and, as you may expect, also really badly.  The idea that teaching a child how to be articulate is extremely important isn’t new but it remains an afterthought in some teaching.

For many in education, it comes down to this: can a child give me the answer – in four words or fewer, it doesn’t matter – or can they explain how they got to that answer?  In the current climate, league tables create pressure to raise levels of attainment, which means that all too often, the skill of articulating an opinion or thought is left to one side.  It is entirely understandable, but incredibly frustrating.  We want to develop those skills, but in limited timeframes, with modular exams bearing down on us and changes to coursework now adding to the treadmill of assessment, often the choice has to be made to do things quickly instead of well.

Recently, it has been made horribly clear that you can have a GCSE or two and still not be able to get a job.  Sky News interviewed masked youths, apparently involved in looting in London, who said that they had their qualifications and still didn’t have jobs.   It seems that both Boris Johnson and I agree on one thing: developing literacy skills is the best tool we have in our belt against the kind of civil unrest we have seen this month.  What Boris doesn’t understand is that is not just reading that creates citizens who can engage in society; it is being able to explain what they have read and how that relates to their own experiences.  It is the ability to formulate complex sentences in speech and writing.  Explicitly teaching the skills of speaking and listening is just as important as delivering front line reading recovery.

In all of this, it can be argued that there is a direct link between the lack of ability to articulate oneself and the perceived lack of opportunity in society.  People don’t give jobs to those who can’t construct a sentence, verbally or in writing.  People who can express themselves clearly and with reason are listened to, those who shout or stumble over their words, often not – it is a harsh reality, but we would be naive to ignore this uncomfortable truth.  If you aren’t confident enough in your own ability to explain your qualifications and skills in an interview, or to interact with colleagues, or to present in public, what are the chances that you are going to try and find a job in the first place?

Over and over again, recently, I have heard the rioter’s refrain: “We’re not being listened to!” and while I imagine that is true, the matter of whether you are listened to or not involves deep-seated ideas about language and speech.

Whether we like it or not, people are judged on their ability to speak and listen effectively, especially in a public forum.  The training for a life of being listened to begins in our classrooms.  This year, the exam board introduced a spoken language study as part of the English Language GCSE course – and watching students confront their own language idiosyncrasies was fascinating.  They understood the superfluous nature of sentence fillers and how that makes you sound unsure, or hesitant in certain situations.  They also understood that using conventional – and by that I mean, socially acceptable – language ensures that you can be part of a wider society.  Speaking in a highly localised dialect means that you choose to alienate some listeners, who may not understand certain words or phrases used by teenagers speaking what they call ‘Hackney’.

What does this mean for speaking and listening in schools?  Unfortunately, the concept is often only dealt with by English Departments, who by the very nature of the curriculum develop those skills – sometimes inadvertently.  Then they remember two months before the exam that speaking and listening coursework needs to be completed and artificial scenarios are used to tick that exam board box.  The issue becomes speculative because there are very few schools in which there is a real and relentless focus on developing children’s abilities to speak and listen in all contexts, in all subjects and in all situations.  What if the expectation was that Science, Maths and IT teachers also taught speaking and listening skills? What if we all said that we wanted more than four words in response to a question?  What if we asked better questions that meant that students had to develop responses?

For my students, so much of their confidence is related to whether they feel they can make themselves heard and express what they mean.  Inevitably, so many behaviour issues stem from those students’ lack of verbal skills.  Schools need to begin questioning themselves as to whether they have a policy on the development of oracy and how it relates to every subject taught.  Children are asking to be listened to; let’s give them the skills they need to make themselves heard.