Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Power of Print

A BBC B microcomputer  32 KB of RAM
The first computer printer to enter my life was a dot-matrix printer attached to a BBC computer in a primary school. When children entered my Reception class I used to sit down at the computer with them and get them to tell me stories about their lives, just a couple of sentences as a rule. Then I'd print the stories nice and big on a sheet of A4 paper and they'd draw a picture and I'd stick them all in a big book. Those books must have been read hundreds of times, each child reading their own story to anyone who would listen. From this simple activity they learnt a fundamental lesson. Writing was a way of communicating their thoughts and ideas to other people. Writing was important. THEIR writing was important.

Of course, the key thing here is turning the things children say into words on a page, and writing it by hand is almost as good.  But seeing the words in print does add something, and that was especially so when computers were new.

When I started writing my own stories I used a typewriter at first, before moving on to a word-processor which was like a typewriter with a two line LCD display and a floppy disc drive. That floppy disc meant that I could take bits and pieces that I'd written and print them out on the inkjet printers at work. I was amazed at how much more important my writing looked (to me at any rate) when it was printed out in Times New Roman 12 point.

When I wrote a whole novel and I was ready to send it off I wanted it to look important, and my neighbours let me print it out on their printer (I was still working on the word processor). I printed out a lot of drafts of that book on their printer—thanks Clare and David! I used to try different fonts, trying to see which was the most impressive. Years later I asked an editor if they minded which font a writer used. The answer, not surprisingly, was that it made no difference at all.

Still, children love to see their writing in print, and those simple stories we wrote at the computer were their introduction to publishing. As they got older we made a lot of books, among them little 8-page pamphlets, stories with a cover and a sentence on each page. I would photocopy these and make half a dozen books so children could sit round a table and read them together. This often confused them, and I had to take the to the office to show them how the photocopier worked. A few years later I was visiting a school, talking about the publishing process. I showed a group of children some copies of a book I'd written. One child put up her hand and asked me 'How long does it take you to make all those books? Do you have to colour in all the covers?'

I was able to set her mind at rest, but it goes to show, just because you tell a child something, it doesn't mean they understand.
(Or an adult, for that matter!)

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Learning to Read — the Tram Map Method

The Nottingham Tram Map
There are many different ways of learning to read and the route my four-year-old grandson has taken is a new one on me. He has learnt the names of all the stops on the Nottingham tram lines, together with the automated announcements that go with them, and now, looking carefully at the words, he is gradually learning to recognise them.

In the long ago, had he been in my class, he would have started a project on trams. We would have made a tram journey game to play with his friends. We would have played pelmanism and snap with cards with the names of the stops written on. We would have sorted them in different ways — lanes, roads, streets, vales. We would have made model trams.  We would have worked out how many people would fit on. We would have written stories about trams and photocopied them so we could read them together as shared reading books.

I could go on, probably forever, but at least for half a term. We always tried, back then, to start from children's own interests and, with a touch of creativity from the teacher, we could almost always cover everything that needed to be learned. And it was fun.

Even if other children didn't share an obsession with trams it was still possible for an individual child to follow their own path. And if you think that having thirty children all doing different things sounds like hard work, well, it is and it isn't. Children who have chosen their own field of study tend to be highly self-motivated, and anyway it was rare that thirty children were all doing their own thing all the time. But it was a given, when I was a young teacher, that if a child came into school enthused by ants, or trains, or puppies, then we'd try to build on that enthusiasm, often with the whole class, but quite frequently with the individual child.

Even with the onset of the National Curriculum it was still possible to work like this, especially in the Infant School. It was the arrival of the Literacy and Numeracy hours that really started to change things. Before the late 1980s very many Primary Schools were still the kinds of places described in my favourite government document, Primary Education (1959). I've quoted from this before, but here's another sample:

Statutory requirements are less exacting than they have ever been . . . The head is thus left considerable freedom for planning the daily programme. The timetable is an expression of his (sic) educational philosophy and that of his colleagues; it reduces to firm terms what they consider best for children, and demonstrates their beliefs about the relative values of what the school has to offer.

It has already been said that young children thrive best on a regular routine, and that they respond to its rhythm and balance. But this does not mean that the timetable should ever be a tyrant which, by its fragmentation of time, encourages short-lived occupations, or which brings to an unnecessarily abrupt end undertakings in which children are profitably engrossed.  (My underlining)

And what did my grandson's teacher (who is very nice, by the way), say when she heard of his ability to decipher the Tram map?

'Well, he still has to do phonics, you know.'

Monday, 22 February 2016

Nature Study for Infants

In the long ago every infant classroom had a nature table.  'Nature walks' were a thing.  We went on them most weeks through the school grounds, looking for signs of Spring, or Autumn.  Most of the old teaching guides I possess are full of images from the natural world.  I would be very happy if my children had this kind of lesson at school, and I'd also be happy if they saw illustrations of this quality instead of endless clip-art.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sesame - a number game for young children

This is the title of a maths game devised by Zoltan P Dienes.  He thought up a lot of games.  This one is a way of gradually familiarising children with the ideas underlying place value.  To play, you need Duplo or Lego, though you could use any construction toy, and you need a dice marked with only the numbers 1, 2, and 0.  The players throw the dice in turn and collect bricks according to the number they throw.  When they have enough to stick 3 bricks together they must do so and shout SESAME!  If they don't, another player can say SESAME, claim their three bricks and make their own SESAME with them.

With very young children the winner is the first to make a SESAME.  Later on they can carry on playing until they have 3 sets of three when they must shout SUPER SESAME!

In the same way, the game can be played with money.  Using a dice marked, say, with numbers from 0 to 4, a player who has enough for 5p must shout SWAP! and change their 5 pennies for a 5p coin.  Once they have enough for 10p they shout SWAP! again.  And so on.

Using Dienes blocks you can play another similar game, this time with an ordinary 1-6 dice.  The first to collect 10 cubes shouts TEN! and trades them for a ten rod.  And so on up to a hundred (if you have plenty of time to spare.)  Or you can set a time limit and have fun working out who has the most at the end.  Is one TEN worth more than nine ones?

To quote Dr John Olive, and there's a link to his article below, "One of the key aspects of the Dienes’ mathematics program was the notion of “multi-embodiments” of the same mathematical structure (Dienes, 1960, 1971; Seaborne, 1975)."  Dienes advocated working/playing with different number bases with very young children, and this game demonstrates a very practical advantage of doing so.  The mathematically inclined among you will have noticed that SESAME is a base 3 game, and because of this you can play it quickly.  It doesn't take too long to get three bricks and put them together to make this new thing, the SESAME, and even a SUPER SESAME doesn't take an impossible length of time.  Thirty years ago most schools had a beautiful wooden set of Dienes Multibase equipment.  I would love to have one now.  More about Zoltan Dienes to come, but I'd recommend this article about one educator's experience.  (You'll have to download the pdf.)

Monday, 8 February 2016

Twenty Pence Giveaway

I love really simple ideas and simple activities for teaching.  I often see worksheets used in the classroom where more time is spent explaining the activity than in teaching and learning.  So, here is the Twenty Pence Giveaway game.  It is a powerful tool for teaching the concepts of exchange and place value, as well as providing lots of practice in counting and mental calculation.  It has the great virtue of needing very little equipment - a dice, a few 20p pieces and an assortment of 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins.

Each player starts with a 20p coin.  The object of the game is to get rid of your 20p.  The bank in the middle contains all the change, and that's where you put the money you give away.

The first player throws the dice.  Say they throw a 4.  They change their 20p into any combination of coins that will allow them to put 4p into the bank.  Beginners may well want to change the 20p into 20 1p coins.  They should be allowed to do this.  It takes ages and often other players will suggest simpler ways to do it.  I often find that even children who have appeared to understand the way coins work are not absolutely sure about how to make these exchanges, and the game gives them valuable, confidence-building experience.

The game continues until someone manages to give all their money away.  Sooner or later someone will say, as they start to change their 20p into ones in order to give away 4p - "Hey, I don't need to take 20 ones and give back 4.  I can just take 16 and it's done."  It can take a long time for children to get to this stage, but until they do you can be sure that they do not really understand the idea of 'change'.

As children get better at playing they can try playing Fifty Pence Giveaway, or £1 Giveaway.  And if you have access to some place value equipment - cubes, tens rods, hundred squares as invented by Z P Dienes you can play exactly the same game with them.  One Hundred Giveaway takes quite a while, but if you run out of time the person with the least amount left is the winner.

Once children know the rules they can play in pairs or small groups on their own.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Tin of Words

The tin of words is a symbol of the innate conservatism of the infant teacher.  When I was training as a teacher I studied plenty of different methods of teaching reading, but no one told me that I would need to start collecting two-ounce tobacco tins.   I'm not suggesting that the 'inventor' of the Look and Say method, the late Fred Schonell, specified an old tobacco tin for the transportation of words to and from home, but when I started teaching they were to be found in most infant classrooms.  Children in the real world learnt to read using a reading scheme and a tin of words.

The system worked like this:  using a graded scheme like Sheila McCullough's '1, 2, 3 and Away' featuring Roger Red-hat, Jennifer Yellow-hat et al teachers simply gave the children the new words from the next book to learn as flash cards at home.  Next day, all being well, the child returned to school, read the book to the teacher, and took the new one away with a few more words in the tin.  The Ladybird 'Key Words' reading scheme could also be used like this, and there were many others, including Schonell's own 'Happy Venture' scheme, written with his wife, Eleanor.  I learnt to read with that one.   It was cutting edge back in the fifties, and Schonell's book, 'The Psychology and Teaching of Reading' was a staple of teacher-training courses, but even when natural language schemes like Oxford Reading Tree came along teachers still used the same method.

When I started teaching in the nineteen-seventies the tobacco tins were still going.  They were still in use in the eighties and nineties when my children were at school, despite the advent of Guided Reading and Paired Reading and Apprenticeship Reading and Real Books and even despite the resurrection of Phonics.  I bet they are lurking in the back of long-serving teachers' cupboards even now, hoarded against the day when Phonics goes out of fashion and Look and Say makes its inevitable comeback.  

The funny thing is, the system worked quite well.  It was simple to administer and most children learnt to read.  If they got stuck and couldn't learn the new words then teachers would try something different - another scheme, some phonics input, some extra help.  It's worth remembering that infant teachers used to be expected to hear every child read every day.  It could be done, but it required teachers to resort to the kind of approach I once saw my mother using.  She sat at her desk with a child reading on either side of her while she marked books at the same time and kept an eye on the rest of the class.

Thursday, 12 March 2015


Here's another passage from Primary Education (1959):

"The 'Normal'

As children grow up, the differences between them increase in every way.  Even the youngest differ widely in their natural endowments, their upbringing and their experience, and these are influences which produce a great diversity of talents and temperaments among individuals and make each child a unique person.  These differences and the diversity to which they give rise are not always obvious; they can only be discovered through patient study of individual children.  Yet their discovery is supremely important for the teacher since they show how wide are the limits of normal development and how varied its forms. (...) It is quite normal for children of the same age to develop at different rates and for some children to develop quickly in some respects and more slowly in others.  A child may be more gifted in art or music than in other fields, slow in learning to talk and to read but precocious in learning to walk and in making friends.  Moreover, it is normal for a child to develop not at a steady rate from year to year, or even from month to month, but at an uneven pace.  An education which attempts to provide fully for such a diversity of aptitudes and abilities must develop practices to deal with these diversities."

All teachers know the truth of this.  Most human beings know the truth of this.  So why do we now say that all children have to reach a certain standard by a certain time?  They are even expected to move on by a certain number of 'sub-levels' each year, and some have their learning 'accelerated'.  It is normal for us all to be different.

Schools claim to celebrate difference.  My impression is that most of what they do - or is it what government wants them to do? - is aimed at making everyone the same.

The picture at the top is of a five-year-old attempting to make a bird's nest.  I posted about this some time ago, but only just found the photo.