Mary Williams

MARY WILLIAMS:

I work at Brunell University which is in the west of London and I’ve been there now 12 years.  Prior to that I was a principle of an infant school a key stage one school with a nursery attached.  All of my career has been working in areas of London.

Yes um I taught first of all my experience as a principle of the schools back in the 80’s and at this time the importance of teaching children to read through their parents was being highlighted through lots of research and we decided to tryout in in our limited way in in this school.  Um this school was uh what I think you would call working poor somebody referred to yesterday in something that I was at and actually although within eight miles of the center of London and eight miles the other way Heathro airport it didn’t have a high number of children who we would consider as EAL, English as an Additional Language.  So in a way that the actual um sort of impotice was on us to care for very small numbers of children and in England there’s money attached and placed with it additional staffing into school that have large numbers of children with speaking different languages as their first languages.  In some areas as many at 200 being represented in a local authority but we had very small numbers.  So say in a class of about 30 there might be four children who came very young some of who was not speaking English at all and we fumbled around to be honest to to really find ways of supporting these quite frightened children because a lot of them had just been in their homes with Granny’s and very female dominated and suddenly they were into a big organization where nobody could understand them and the best we could do in those days is actually to find an older sibling very often and this was with the support of the uh head teacher or principle of the next aged school would allow that child to come for a few days and and sort of work along side their younger sibling because that was you know all that we could do.  And all these children whether they were EAL or working poor needed their literacy levels raised.  Uh I’m being a bit unfair to the background because there were some quite um middle class educated families and were well in and supported the work at the school very well.  But there were a lot who really didn’t understand the purposes of education and just really saw it as a place where you dumped your children for a number of hours each day to get them out of your hair and so we started by um first of all encouraging the parents to have written material, this was the first try about how you should read with your children at home.  I got absolutely nowhere because these parents were the were the ones who tended to put anything from school straight into the waste bin and so the next thing was let’s have them into school.  So on a morning or an afternoon when they actually had to come to bring their children to school so we weren’t asking them to make extra journeys.  We invited them in to actually read along side their child and there were the actual regular reading books plus some games on the table, literacy type games for them to play and that worked phenomenally well.  The the first day I opened it up the school was full of push chairs and parents I thought you know it was going to be actually too many for us to support but it it sort of evened out and every time we opened these up which was two times a week these parents came and some children always there are those whose parents still don’t make it because they have there children picked up by older children often I think of one family with eight children we rarely saw mom unless she was really uptight about something and these parents tended in the end to become confident to sit down at a table of children and didn’t really actually matter if that child’s mother wasn’t there there would be a mother or, it was mostly  mothers, would be there to assist all the children on that table.  After that we then went back to an idea of the book going home with the child with little cards that said please read this to your child because we were adopting a a sort of paired reading approach at the time I’m sure you understand yah so I don’t need to say anymore about that.  But tried to train them in using because we took up from uh the topping work that uh so often parents think the way to teach children is to pretend it’s school work it’s an old fashioned view of school so you kind of bang the table and get very dramatic but uh it was all aimed at really helping these children in a very supportive and positive way.  And they had little diaries to fill in.  We abandoned those after a while cause again that didn’t really work with our kinds of parents.  But if you have the slips in went uh uh please read to your child, please listen to your child, please read along side you child, which was the paired bit and I’m not really did work quite well.  We found with with our EAL children that the we didn’t set this up but actually the oldest siblings again were taking this role and I can report of one case where the mother was able to say to me that she was actually learning to read so she supported it by her presence learn to read herself but it was actually her older uh daughter if think it was who was helping the younger child in the family to learn to read.

Well I’m not so sure about your, the breath of your question, but one of the themes of my research at the moment is metacognition and as it applies to literacy and actually to learning in general but I’m obviously particularizing it to literacy because that’s my own interest and really getting children to think about how they’re learning and also um something I was talking about yesterday was actually trying to get parents to see that play is such a useful means of beginning this process and it’s those parents who actually talk about with children about how they’ve done something is not just the end product but how they’ve actually achieved a goal, asking them why the know they’ve, something to be the case.  That seeing these parents need to be the most successful in turning their children into um those who are able in terms of literacy.  Um on one of the themes I’m currently pursuing is how we can bring that without, we’ve got to avoid being patronizing because we, if we use big words parents turn off on the other hand if we treat them as though they don’t know any thing that doesn’t work either.  But bringing this um business of using play in the early years, literacy pursuits that happen in the home, going on car journeys, looking at the billboards along the way uh lots of families have nursery tapes in the car um just encouraging more but taking the extra question with them ask your child how they’re learning something and that that seems to be very very useful.  Um explore that as well with EL, EAL children and thinking of the work or Martin Kortesie who’s my head of department, he says that first of all we’ve got to be very careful because like all countries we’ve got third generation if not more now uh children particularly from Asian backgrounds who need no extra support but there’s a whole kind of continuum of needs within the EAL population and we have to um really talk to them compare what they are learning in literacy with how they are learning literacy in another language and so if you like how a metacognative debate about the differences between the two and seems to be helping.  Um these are older children but helping we were recording key stage two, elementary probably grade three up ------that kind of situation.

I think I think perhaps a little bit of background of the U.K. is necessary here.  I started out as an educator very much influenced by a book called “ Play with a purpose for under sevens.”  It was on all under graduate courses and that was I not going to own up to how many years ago but it was a long time and we were very much inbude with the notion that play was the way with younger children.  But we’ve gone a full circle in the U.K. particularly starting in 1990 with a national curriculum which has laid down very specifically what children should learn in all subjects and rapidly coming up more recently to now we’re not only teacher and not only being told what to teach but being told how to teach in form of the national literacy strategy which came in 1998 and it’s got some very specific um frame work of objectives around which teachers are suppose to frame their lessons.  The result of that was that there was a downward thrust really for more formal approaches in the early years of schooling which the early year lobby has tried buy only now our government sources beginning to wake up to the fact that you can’t over formalize the early education of these young children.  So what we want to do is build on the experiences that they have that the children have in families that are literate and and bring them into school for those who don’t and that’s kind of a different thrust because we know from all our work that those children who’ve experienced print in the environment had stories wrote to them are allowed to um experiment with writing and use it in purposeful form such as writing shopping lists with mom or menus we know that that all works.   We equally know there are some children who arrive at school who’ve not had those experiences at all and lots of schools are going to go back to my own experience would set up what they called nurture groups for these children who didn’t have these experiences in the home in fact sometimes they would be extremely basic because it would be things that you would think most parents would offer like how to tie your shoe laces and hold a knife and fork but it was much wider than that.  The role of these people, often classroom assistants so not highly trained people but was to talk talk talk with these children and learn that we didn’t want closed responses from them to really try to open them out to verbalize their feelings and thoughts as much as possible.  So in a sense bringing the home into the school, I as a head, use to have a little group of children who were never picked up after school so I always read them a story I always use to say I have my extended arms because there were about three each side and we’d have an extra story time because I know that wasn’t the kind of thing that they had much of at home.

Well again one of the things we do with our students, our undergraduate students, is to talk a lot about how you’d have visual support for everything you do with these children.  So if you’re talking about um should we say fruit, you don’t just say we take an apple, we cut it in half, and you might be doing something numerical with that, but you would have the apple there and you show it and you as much as possible you have the actual object failing the actual object, you have a picture.  Equally when it come to writing and this again is from Martin’s work, it’s good practice for any child but even more so for those who are learning English as an additional language you’d have some sequencing activities first of all in pictorial forms so putting a story that maybe has be read to them by the teacher into the right order then doing some kind of emergent writing attached, eventually moving on to perhaps ordering sentences, verses of well known rhymes.

They are just so much, I think I would say why a partnership . . . .

The partnership business is intrical to all of children’s education but I think nowhere is it more important than literacy because after all the the key to the child’s total education is dependent on their ability in literacy.  Um also I think families that show that they acknowledge literacy as being important we’re back to our metacognative theme um actually give the children some sense of purpose from a very very early age.  I mean some of my research I’ve got a music anecdotes, where very able children, because that’s one of the other things I’m interested in, pick up the reading material say a dad and apparently in on instance it was a bit risqué but it was this child reading, trying to read an adult novel but because the home had all of that in it then it was just normal it was not true to take part in literacy events.  If you can’t establish that ----(?) you are actually starting the child off with a deficit.  So I think that there is actually nothing more important that taking the parent with you and the other point with EAL is that all teachers have got to understand the literacy cultural practices of the the children they are working with so say things like directionality, the usual example, uh explored the Chinese child will be reading completely different direction from the English reader and I think that’s something still in the U.K. we feel we’ve got to tackle is teachers actually do more to understand not saying that these children  got to become English readers which of course they have but understanding what they bring with them because they bring a richness and they also bring lots of thinking that’s gone on in a different language and we want to kind of transfer that over into a metacognative level about their literacy in school.

Well I think you’re asking a research type question there and I know we have different attitudes and different times of growth.  Um but I mean some of the research is showing that the parent reading of approach is with again uh not specifically but have been developed to incorporate children who are learning additional language.  Uh the gains are not as um supportable as you would hope for in a research sense, lost all the interest is into the project, yes it’s fine, but when it peters off then it’s not quite so good.  I think it is but it’s more subtle than that I think what you’re actually wanting is to stop in many instances the divide between home and school and I think if you take literacy as an example most people can deal with it.  It’s on one level or another.  We do more than just actually train children through incorporating their parents into school, we just kind of move the whole business of education forward and make it a collaborative venture.  And it’s not very measurable there.  I I couldn’t quote reading, I’m not to keen on reading ages in schools anyway, I think you can you can actually blow those to pieces on all sorts of counts.  What I do know is that children who have lacked confidence I think that’s the biggest point emerge as people who are interested in and engage in the kind of school curriculum through sort of getting everybody involved and we even try with grandparents you know to anybody who will come and help, why not?  I feel that’s why I didn’t talk about it.  It’s actually having parental helpers in school well but I’m sure you have that here as well.

You’re asking a very loaded question in the U.K.  A teacher could sit here and say I’m not allowed to think anymore, I’ve been told what I’ve got to do.  And in our courses though we reserve the right to give them a theoretical underpinning of the work they’re doing.  And I am convinced because another one of my little things is raising standards in literacy that you’ve got to have teachers, you understand, for example the reading process is intensely complex and yet some people could actually think it’s a little more than having a child by the side of you and hearing them read.  They do actually need to have models that underpin the process and understand and a lot of our work with inservice teachers is to is to do the exploring those models in more depth.  I think we introduce them in initial teacher training but I think you’ve got to go out there and have some experience with children for two or three years before you can actually really make sense of them and and then it’s when you begin to understand what it’s all about and how it all comes together and how you take what a child can do not what they can’t do and see how they more forward uh both in terms of reading and writing.  We have a problem with writing at the moment in terms of our national schools.  The goal of children reaching level four by the year 2002 which we’re now in is not going to be met and so there’s a great deal of input from the DFEA, that’s our ministry of education via the national literacy strategy, but they’ve learned along the way that you can’t tell teachers what to do with out involving them and having them as copartners and the recent work that’s coming out about writing is powerful, it’s good.  Where as in the early days teachers we very very resistant to some of the, the early materials because they haven’t had any sense of ownership at all of them.

As an additional language um very much again I think I mentioned you know children having support, visual support.  Being actually allowed to have more than one form on the go but you’ve got to be able to recognize that.  Um it was only a few years back that I put up one of my overheads in an emergent um piece of writing from a small child that was mostly what we would call squiggles and squirrels and one of my Asian students oh there’s some good Gerarti (?) in there and you know I didn’t have that knowledge of other writing forms so I think this is again something that we’ve all got to be aware of.  We had in our uh talk in IRE yesterday somebody from Japan, where the children have to learn four written forms of the language, it seem almost simultaneously, and that seems quite a tall order.  And I was to explore there, do they sometimes use one form and a bit of another and a bit of another because that actually how it actually happens.  But if you’re not aware of that then you’re not going to pick that up and you just think it’s another scribble and yet it is actually a contribution from another form.

The only thing that I think that I’m interested in in addition which you may be interested in um we have currently um undertaken an evaluation for British telecom because if you like I talked about he 80’s when there were lots of volunteer getting parents involved in reading in schools and with their children more recently um starting with the national literacy strategy 1998 we have the year of reading, blazoned everywhere, football stars were suppose to help but some of these big multinational companies took up the challenge and B.T.  had this thing called school friends and they allowed people from all types of work with in the um telecommunications industry to go into local schools and we have the contract to evaluate that at Brunell and um what emerged from that was was the importance, particularly the boys, we have lots of worries about boys underachievement and that’s across all cultural backgrounds but perhaps it’s most endemic in African-Caribbean um boys maybe because a single families there are not the male role models around and and it came through in this that it wasn’t just male, yes that was that was kind of authenticated having somebody come in from work who was male and read with you was good but these children also were having role models of women who were business career orientated women.  And I can think of one example where this woman went frequently abroad on business sent her two little children that she worked with postcards and they saw a completely different type of woman from their some what drunken some what drugged mother at home and this all again they they couldn’t wait for these volunteers to come.  We couldn’t again do any measures about actual literacy development it was too short a period of time because the initial one was only a six-week period.  But what all schools were reporting was growth of confidence, enthusiasm in literacy pursuits.  We gone on to just do a second evaluation we hope out of that to be able to say something a bit more um about actual reading in terms that we can equate it with our SAT’s, standard assessment tests, which we have at seven and eleven to see if there are any moves forward but that’s the next stage of this piece of work.