With Section 11 under threat Viv Edwards contemplates GEST 16 and reflects on her own training-pack approach
Chroniclers of education in the late twentieth century will no doubt regale their readers with accounts of blunders and missed opportunities. Not least of the omissions has been the failure to prepare teachers adequately for the needs of multi-lingual classrooms.
In the 1960s and 1970s, received wisdom deemed that new arrivals should be placed in special language centres. By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that `withdrawal’ was seriously flawed. Ironically, the mainstream classroom offered a far more effective language learning environment: plenty of native speaking models and opportunities for real communication, and access to the whole curriculum. Specialist teachers of English as a second language assumed a new role as language support teachers, working alongside class and subject teachers.
Just at the point when INSET on these changing roles was needed urgently, that mighty leviathan – the National Curriculum -raised its mighty head, and concerns about language learning were submerged by the more pressing demands of insecure historians, scientists and technologists.
Enter stage left, about 15 years too late, GEST 16. No – not a new magazine for teenage girls, but the latest DfE initiation to prepare class and subject teachers to meet the needs of bi-lingual pupils.
Cynics amongst us might be tempted to say that the larger than average sums of money earmarked for GEST 16 are a feeble attempt to calm the waters bestirred by attempts to cut the Section 11 budget which pays for support teachers. But whatever the political imperatives – and however tardy – this initiative should be welcomed with open arms.
Unfortunately, the fact that all things multicultural have been swept under the carpet for the last five years or so has serious implications for our readiness to respond. Aware of the serious shortage of suitable materials, I have spent the last six months preparing training packs on Reading, Writing and Speaking and Listening which I hope will address this problem.
Each pack contains a course leader’s handbook, supporting overhead transparencies, handouts and a teacher’s book – also available separately – which sets out and expands on the main issues covered in the course. In preparing the materials I’ve been guided by certain basic beliefs:
- Classrooms are complex communities. Often there are several possible courses of action. Sometimes there is no obvious solution to a problem.
- Teachers will have varying levels of knowledge, experience and confidence. It is very important to start from where they are and build on what they know.
For these reasons, the packs try to strike a balance between presenting information and engaging participants in activities that focus on their own teaching situations and generate a range of possible solutions.
The materials take a developmental approach to language and literacy learning. They address the needs of bi-lingual learners at all stages and can be used with teachers at both primary and secondary level. The intention, then, is to equip teachers to make sound decisions about classroom organisation, teaching strategies and materials in speaking and listening, reading and writing. Not always the easiest of tasks.
RESOURCES FOR READING
The question of selecting suitable reading resources is a case in point. In my work at the Reading and Language Information Centre at the University of Reading, we welcome somewhere in the range of 4,000 visitors a year, many of whom are looking for the solution to a particular problem: what scheme will work best for children with special needs? And so on.
Our response to queries of this kind is no doubt disappointing, but has the merit of honesty and realism. The line we take is that the crucial ingredient is the teacher – not the resources – and it’s more important to think about how and why you are using particular materials than to pursue that hopeless dream – the pack which does it all for you.
So how does this relate to books for language learners? We are dealing here, of course, with a very mixed group which includes:
- children who speak other languages at home and whose first sustained contact with English is on starting school;
- children who arrive at various points throughout primary and secondary school who can read their community languages but not English;
- children with little or no previous experience of literacy.
Certain principles should guide the choice of books. All second language learners need:
- books with a high level of visual support to help them cue into what the text is all about. Some illustrators are much better than others at providing a close match between the illustration and the text.
- books with a strong element of repetition and rhyme to help them predict what comes next and internalise the rhythms, sounds and structures of English.
- books which avoid ethnic stereotypes and present Black and Asian characters in a positive way.
Other bi-lingual readers have extra needs. They will understandably resist books which are too babyish, either in subject matter or in the style of illustration. But, by choosing humorous themes and photographic illustrations, it’s possible to greatly extend the `shelf life’ of a book.
Translating these basic concepts into training materials can be problematic. On the one hand, there’s no substitute for paging through actual examples to appreciate the principles in practice. On the other hand, by suggesting particular titles you may seem to be subscribing to the `literary canon’ school of thought – and de-skilling teachers in the process.
Most real-life situations demand compromises of some sort: in this case, the solution has been to work with Badger Publishing to produce book selections which demonstrate the basic principles, but to make it clear that the purpose of these selections is to show what works and why. The selections – ‘Books for beginners’ and `Moving on’ – are aimed at children in the early stages of learning English who still need a good deal of teacher support with reading.
MAKING GOOD CHOICES
Certain kinds of books are well-suited to the needs of all emergent readers, but are particularly helpful for second language learners. Where should teachers start their search?
Although caption – or concept books have tended to go in and out of fashion over the years, there’s now a general consensus that naming things is an important step in helping’ us make sense of the world. Caption books are certainly helpful for bi-lingual readers in the early stages: as children move into their new language, there is an urgent need to learn labels for both familiar and new experiences. The strong pictorial support which caption books offer is very useful in extending vocabulary.
The labels used in caption books are often nouns, though sometimes they are verbs and adjectives. Very often the illustrations are babyish and therefore unsuitable for older readers. But there are many notable exceptions. The Longman Photo Dictionary labels photographs of items that will be of interest to most teenagers, including VCR, tape deck and clock radio under the heading of `Electronics’. ABC I can be,– by Verna Wilkins, is an alphabet book about people’s jobs which suggests that anything is possible! Help! and other books in Allan Ahlberg’s ‘Red Nose Readers’ series will also appeal to a wide age range. In these, Colin McNaughton’s amusing illustrations combine with labels, speech bubbles and simple phrases to convey jokes, ideas and uncomplicated stories.
Another solution to the problem of the very young `feel’ to many caption books is to use them as the starting point for children’s own book-making activities.
Wordless picture books
Wordless picture books allow beginners to tell the story as they see it, and to develop an understanding of basic features such as sequence and climax. They vary both in style and complexity. Eric Carle’s Do you want to be my friend?, for instance, is a simple story about a mouse who encounters a variety of animals while searching for a friend. The identity of each animal is hinted at by a visual cue on the preceding page.
Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is slightly more complex. Similar in layout to a comic strip, it requires the reader to work from top to bottom, left to right to make sense of the unfolding story. This classic might seem to have little relevance for, say, a child from rural Bangladesh. But, no doubt because of familiar resonance’s with their own isolation and the need for friends to help, it has a strong appeal for recent arrivals.
Many wordless picture books need a high level of visual literacy, which makes them particularly appropriate for older readers. Take Philippe Dupasquier’s The Great Escape, an action-packed pursuit story in the style of the Keystone Cops, full of visual jokes. Or Jeannie Baker’s Window, which tells the story of a baby gradually growing into manhood, whose window looks out on to a beautiful natural landscape which changes over time. Stories of personal history and environmental issues are skilfully woven into this sophisticated wordless text.
Wordless picture books are ideal for ‘reading’ in any language. Secure in the knowledge that their version is as valid as any written text, children can use the books independently, share the telling, `read’ in English or their first language.
Repetition, rhythm and rhyme
Good examples of books which combine repetition with strong visual support include Rebecca and Brian Wildsmith’s Look Closer, which invites the reader to search for something hidden in the picture and gives the answer on the following page. Many simple retellings of traditional fairy tales work in a similar way. Jan Ormerod’s The Story of Chicken Licken is particularly impressive. The story is told in picture book format by a group of children performing the play on stage. At the same time, a wordless story is in progress as a baby in the audience makes a break from his parents and crawls up on the stage.
Books such as Quentin Blake’s All Join In or Michael Rosen’s Freckly Feet and Itchy Knees use rhyme as well as repetition to help children predict what comes next and carry them along with the natural rhythms of the language.
Putting together selections of this kind is not an easy matter. Very often books fell down because the subject matter or the illustrations were culturally insensitive. For instance, the all-pervasiveness of the pig in British picture books, is quite astonishing (if you don’t believe me, do a quick survey for yourself!*`). Because some Moslems find pigs offensive, we found this automatically excluded many otherwise excellent books. Sometimes books were culturally appropriate but uninspiring reads. And sometimes, to our complete exasperation, the perfect book had just gone out of print.
So much for resources for reading. This, of course, is just one of many issues which need to be considered if teachers are to meet the needs of children in multi-lingual classrooms. The accumulated experience of the last few decades may not have generated all the answers but has certainly pointed us in the right direction. Hopefully GEST 16 will allow us to rekindle the enthusiasm for diversity so cruelly stifled by the ERA (Education Reform Act, 1988).U
[*Er… beginning, perhaps, with the front cover of this very issue, – Ed.]
Viv Edwards is Professor of Language in Education at the University of Reading where she is Director of the Reading and Language Information Centre.
Details of books mentioned (paperback, unless otherwise stated):
The Longman Photo Dictionary, Rosenthal and Freeman, 0 582 89371 2, £7.50
ABC I can be, ill. Zoe Gorham, Tamarind, 1 870516 12 5, £3.95
Help!, Walker, 0 7445 1496 7, £2.25
Do you want to be my friend?, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12359 3, £8.50hbk; Puffin,
0 14 050284 X, £3.50
The Snowman, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10004 6, £8.99hbk; Puffin, 0 14 050350 1, £4.50
The Great Escape, Walker, 0 7445 1365 0, £3.99
Window, Red Fox, 0 09 9182114, £3.99
Look Closer, Oxford, 0 19 279920 7, £3.95 hbk; 0 19 272250 6, £1.95
The Story of Chicken Licken, Walker, 0 7445 0989 0, £3.99
All Join In, Red Fox, 0 09 996490 2, £3.99
Freckly Feet and Itchy Knees, Harper Collins, 0 00 663579 2, £3.99