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I Read It but I Don't Get It

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I read it but I don’t get it[1]

The title of my article is a title of a book by Cris Tovani but more of that later!

I want to explore why I feel that Ken Rowe’s literacy report misses the complexity of literacy development in young people– at least from my secondary perspective. Of course he covers some bases and on the surface suggests a balanced approach. He is also right that teachers need to be better educated about reading practices. However, the emphasis on phonics which has been widely reported in the media appears disproportionate to its usefulness. Some students can manage to read and spell without phonics so why do we need to occupy their brains with phonemes or phonic practices. Others need them. The informed primary teacher differentiates accordingly. What Ken Rowe does not focus on is the literacy needs of young people in secondary schools where decoding is less of a problem than comprehension. For many students reading is meaningless – particularly fiction. The Four Resource Model of Allan Luke and Peter Freebody[2] outlines what students need to do as they read:
Effective literacy draws on a repertoire of practices that allow learners, as they engage in reading and writing activities, to: • break the code of texts: recognising and using the fundamental features and architecture of written texts including: alphabet, sounds in words, spelling, conventions and patterns of sentence structure and text • participate in the meanings of text: understanding and composing meaningful written, visual and spoken texts from within the meaning systems of particular cultures, institutions, families, communities, nation-states and so forth; • use texts functionally: traversing the social relations around texts; knowing about and acting on the different cultural and social functions that various texts perform both inside and outside school and knowing that these functions shape the way texts are structured, their tone, their degree of formality and their sequence of components; • critically analyse and transform texts: understanding and acting on the knowledge that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular views and silence other points of view, influence people's ideas; and that their designs and discourses can be critiqued and redesigned, in novel and hybrid ways.
The proposition here is that all of these repertoires are variously mixed and orchestrated in proficient reading and writing. The key concept in the model is necessity and not sufficiency - each is necessary for literacy in new conditions, but in and of themselves, none of the four families of practice is sufficient for literate citizen/subjects and also it is not a linear model. As a proficient reader, I am constantly drawn back to decoding when I read unfamiliar words. And indeed it is insufficient in itself because reading is not merely an instrumental process. It requires of people that they bring their own experience to any reading. Having context for reading, understanding the worlds that the texts are opening up, having the vocabulary/cultural knowledge to explore the text, having the vocabulary to talk about the text are all important cultural overlays which make reading meaningful. This short video clip from YouTube of James Gee is critical here. He talks about the importance of developing the kinds of conceptual relationships that reading a text in any genre depends on.
What I particularly like about the James Gee text is the notion that teachers are translaters for students and rephrase back to them what they say in EnglishSpeak. Let me explain through observations of student learning. My example is from a Year 9 class which I sat in on recently. The teacher was starting a new novel and asked the students what the cover suggested to them. The novel was called Boys of Blood and Bone (Metzenthen 2003) and had two images on the front which merged into each other. On top was a fire colour within which a soldier’s torso with gun was depicted. It merged into the darkness of an earth colour at the bottom of this half page The lower image showed a boy against the blue of the sea and the yellow of the land. His colour was the same as the torso above. It was an abstract rather than a realistic image.

The second student who put up his hand looked at the cover of the book and talked about the soldier at the top and the colours of blood and fire. He mused on the sense of the faceless soldier merging into the darkness at the bottom – a kind of ‘unknown soldier’. He picked up the life and death images in the words ‘blood’ and ‘bone’. He looked at the war, as opposed to peace, images. He mentioned innocence associated with the word ‘boys’ and linked the freedom of the boy at the bottom of the picture to the suffering of the soldier at the top. He talked of the boy in the image at the bottom seemingly carefree in the midst of bright yellows and blues but moving towards death as his body was depicted in the same colour as the image at the top. He looked at the colours as symbolic of the cycle of life: earth, fire and water. He talked about contrasting worlds which were related. This student had internalized the world of EnglishSpeak. Another student said it reminded him of fertilizer. This student spoke first and said it as if it were a joke and it was not followed up. An opportunity missed But the teacher’s role here might have been why do you say fertilizer – what do blood and bone depict. In what sense is blood and bone regenerating. This feeds back to that student a valuing of his comment and a different way of saying it It moves him closer to the world of Englishspeak.That is what we do as teachers.

Many of the students with reading problems I see in secondary school - and some of them I might add will get 90+ scores for their enter - have comprehension problems, particularly with fiction but also with text books. They cannot ‘participate in the meaning of texts’ and of course that means they cannot readily critically analyse and transform texts or use them functionally. Ben, for example, will read a book from beginning to end and not take anything in unless he makes a conscious effort to do so: however, I want to talk to you about Tom and what Tom has taught me.

Tom is in Year 10. He is sharp, witty, and talks intelligently about ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ which he is presently studying. He has great visual literacy. He has recently done his work experience in an architect’s office and his work demonstrates his giftedness in this area. He wants to be an architect but his work in English which goes across all his subjects will prevent this unless we can help him with his literacy. Here is the piece of work he did in one of his first English classes this year when asked to compare Dorothea McKellar’s My Country with Oscar Krahnvohl’s My Country:

Dorethea see’s Australia as a country place where it only rains once year. Most of the time she see’s it as a brown and beautiful land but Oscar see’s it as a busling country expanding all the time popluting and paving the land making this a waste land big and grand

He see’s and love’s tall buildings and music and see’s the rivers as waste dumps with bottles and papers everywhere.

Dorothea loves her country but does not judge any other to it because her hart will always be their.

Oscar believes we made this country big and better than any other known to him.

Immediately, you may be drawn to the mistakes in punctuation and spelling but I would ask you to hold your fire at this stage. Too much emphasis is put by teachers on these things and there are much more fundamental problems with Tom’s work that need to be dealt with before this. I believe if Tom gets these more fundamental things right he will take pride in his work and the mechanics of language will improve. So what is wrong with Tom’s work? It is the paucity of Tom’s thinking and his lack of engagement with the task reflected in this short skimpy piece of work. Krahnvohl’s poem is a parody of McKellar’s but Tom makes no mention of this. Tom has just hit the surface of the poems and has not seen what either poet is exploring.

In my first session with Tom I sat with him and went through the poems and discovered that he had not read either of them after class. His writing on the two poems was based on what he heard. Time and time again I hear of students moving through classes and picking up the gist of what something is about from their friends, from discussion or from cramming notes when they get to VCE level and using this as a replacement for reading. In interviews we are presently conducting we find students who are weak readers avoid reading the novel. Tovani quotes the voices of her students in her reading class:

How can Lisa pass her courses without reading? I ask her how she does it. ‘It’s easy’ she says. I sit in the back of the classroom and wait for one of the smart kids to answer the teacher’s questions.’
‘What if no one knows the answer?’
‘It doesn’t matter’ says Lisa. ‘If no one talks, the teacher gives us the answer’.[3]

When I talk to teachers about what they do to ensure students experience the book, I hear time and time again, ‘We read the book in class’ or ‘I read it to them’. Not good enough even if it is well-meaning! Because it merely puts off students developing their own strategies. When I ask Tom what strategies he uses for reading, he tells me that he uses two: he visualizes and he reads every second word. I probe for reasons for the second strategy and discover a teacher told him to do that because he could not retain the sentence in memory until the end of the line. It is obvious that Tom’s strategies are not effective enough. It is the work of Cris Tovani which has helped me to help Tom. She advocates a methodology which is metacognitive in approach. But first let me digress about my own reading practices, and the reasons why I had difficulty in articulating what I did, and how that must have impeded the Toms in my class from reading for many years.

The teacher
I have always been a reader. As a child I visited the library every night and took out two fiction and two non-fiction books. I never read the non-fiction books but obviously it was part of library policy at that time to encourage the reading of non-fiction or perhaps they did not have enough fiction. I read the fiction voraciously and developed reading strategies which were to stand me in good stead for life but my reading strategies were not evident to me. They had become automated and I realized this when I looked at the research of the Leiners in Neuroscience:

• The ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ capabilities in the human cerebro-cerebellar system make it possible for the cerebellum to perform parallel processing on the information sent to it from the central cortex, and to send back to the cerebral cortex a wide variety of complex messages about what to do and when to do it. • With successive experiences, the cerebellum can learn which messages to send to specific places in the cerebral cortex, and when to send them, thereby helping to automize some of the sensory, motor, cognitive and linguistic skills which are characteristically human[4]

My reading was deeply embedded and automated to a large degree. I took it for granted and therefore I was not explicit with students about reading practices and many of my students did not need me to be because they had automated processes. Working with Tom helped me to understand what I did when I read and how articulating that would help him. Here are the strategies I believe I developed as a child:

• I started the text with a context for reading it. It might be reading the blurb or my experience of another book. After all once I had read one of the ‘Wells’ books or the Pony books or Georgette Heyer or Enid Blyton I had a context for reading others. I can still remember going into the library and picking up the book, looking at the cover, reading the blurb, and reading the first page. That was important because it not only helped me make sense of the book but it set up an expectation of enjoyment • I had an experience of enjoyment in reading. It was my private world and I can still remember the places I lived in with Enid Blyton. A new Famous Five book was treasured! • I linked the text to memory. This was a constant ongoing process. and in this way the text became a vital living thing. Let me make it clear, these were not memories which crowded out the narrative of the book: they were memory moments and sensory moments which vitalised the narrative of the text into complexity. • I built the text through accumulating information about characters, and places and plot • I asked questions of the text • Sometimes I deliberately skipped over whole chunks of text • I sometimes stopped and went back if I felt I had missed out on a vital chunk

It is, however, the third dot point – linking the text to memory which was most important. It was a glimpse here, or a word there, and my visualization became a sensualisation – I smelt something, I felt something, I heard something, and something joined the text in my mind and gave it breath. Later, of course, when I studied for my English degree other ways of looking at texts joined my repertoire of strategies but these were the strategies I used at Tom’s age. How could I help Tom use them?

Cris Tovani teaches students strategic reading. I believe her explicitness is critical to the Toms of this world... Here are some of her ‘fixit’ strategies:

1. Build a context in which to read the text 2. Make a connection between the text and your life, your knowledge of the world, or another text 3. Link information in the text 4. Ask questions about the text 5. Make predictions about the text

They were similar in kind to my strategies but she gave me a way of working with Tom to make it explicit. She suggests using highlighters or sticky notes. I used sticky notes with Tom. I asked him to put a sticky note on the book every time he connected something to his own experience. This was valuable because it pulled out the strategy. I did the same for characters – to pull out what he was learning about characters as he went along and I did the same for questions or what he wondered about. This was time consuming but Tom started to become aware of the strategies which you need to use for fiction and therefore the narrative devices that writers use to make meaning. He had no idea about these things. However, I found that the book chosen to do this mattered. It was much better for Tom to use a work of literature which used symbolism and which had patterns so that he could see the value of reading properly. He was better with Animal Farm than To Kill a Mockingbird. This metacognitive awareness helped Tom take advantage of the good English teaching in his classroom but I freely acknowledge how much easier that teaching of Tom was in a one-on-one teaching situations and that has cost implications.

I don’t pretend to have solved Tom’s problems but he now has a way of solving them for himself and he has a long way to go. His success has motivated him. He had already decided he would do literature at Year 10 because he had difficulties with reading and he is now working on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in that class. I asked him how he was going. He told me he was ahead of the others because he was reading the ‘sub-text’ using the strategies he had developed. I gave him the word ‘sub-text’ and Tom has added that to his metacognitive vocabulary about texts suggesting that it is now a framework he can work with in reading. His strategies are starting to become internalized. Now Tom needs practice to consolidate his skills. He also needs practice in listening to what he writes.

And what of Ben. Well Ben is using strategies too and I model reading with him and discuss the texts and also look explicitly at the narrative devices the writers are using. After a discussion, he does an amazing amount of thinking and next time I visit he has internalized and transferred this learning to other parts of the text. He has the capacity to get a high score in English. He has recently got A+ on his issues SAC. He is becoming fascinated with his texts because he has suddenly seen the layers and realized what reading can be and how much he can make the meaning and not be the receiver of a fixed reading from the teacher.

These are just the stories of two students. We need more research as to why there are literacy problems at Secondary School. I suspect a lot of it is to do with a lack of practice, a growing focus on ICT, a lack of understanding of what reading is and therefore the strategies needed, a lack of explicit teaching of literacy, and for a small percentage auditory, visual processing, or decoding problems. We have embarked on literacy research at The Geelong College because we believe that literacy is a key to improved outcomes for our students and also will enable them to have better lives. We have presently identified students who are good readers, moderately good readers and poor readers using the International Schools Assessment from ACER on which PISA is based and we are about to interview a randomly selected group of students to find out about their reading habits, strategies, home reading and so on. We have more boys than girls who have reading difficulties. I am looking forward to finding out what are the literacy blocks for our students and then working on ways in which we can work with student groups to improve their literacy.

A great aid to my thinking has come from Cris Tovani’s book I read it but I don’t get it which is available from the Curriculum Corporation. It is written by a practising teacher and is full of useful strategies. If you have students in your class like Tom, you will find it very helpful.

Mary Mason
Director of Teaching and Learning
The Geelong College
[1] I am grateful to Tom and Ben for their help in understanding literacy
[3] Cris Tovani I read it but I don’t get it Stenhouse 2000 pp 14 -15

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...caused? It is important to come forward when building damage is caused because: 1. If you don’t come forward, everyone in the entire dorm will get hit with a fee for something they had nothing to do. For example, if you break a washer and don’t come forward, everyone will have to pay for a new washer even if they haven’t even used that specific washer before. 2. Also, if you don’t come forward you will always have that monkey on your back that you caused people to pay for something they never did. 3. If you don’t come forward, eventually evidence can arise that you broke the specific object. Your punishment will be significantly worse and your reputation will be destroyed. Community billing charges and procedures To expand upon building charges and procedures: 1. Once a situation arises, everyone involved will be processed and given a chance to state their side of the story. For example, the person who committed the crime will make their statements, while the witnesses will also come forward and state exactly what they saw in the specific situation. 2. Once all possible information is gathered and observed in full capacity the RDs of the building will come out with a statement illustrating who will be paying for the door, along with a series of other punishments. 3. The one excused will pay for the damage through direct payment or they can choose to get the bill added to their tuition (Student Account) at the end of the given semester....

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