Tuesday, September 27, 2011

HiLo Books

Hi Lo books are so called because they have high interest and low difficulty. Typically, the subject matter is suitable for the age-group of the children who are reading it, but the reading level is easier than the usual material for that age-group.

While researching this topic, the author Michael Dahl attracted my attention. He is the Editorial Director for Stone Arch Books based in Minneapolis, where his books have won national design awards and been selected by the Junior Library Guild.

He is the author of more than 200 books for children and young adults. His nonfiction books get kids excited about reading. His fantasy series, The Library of Doom, is the most-read series by hi-lo readers across the US. Some of the titles in that series and the one that followed include The Book that ate my Brother, Sea of Lost Books and Cave of the Bookworms. Mr. Dahl himself lives in a haunted house! (Does that help him to write these scary stories?)

Apart from these, most of the books classified as HiLo are geared towards children described as reluctant readers. They are older children reading at grade 3 level or above. I didn’t find much for beginning readers, particularly for boys living in Jamaica. Do you know of any?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Boys' Reading

I’m following Hazel Campbell and Diane Browne in a discussion on why boys don’t read fiction, sparked by a NY Times essay ‘Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?’ by Robert Lipsyte (August 19, 2011). The article focused on boys who can read but don’t. The bigger problem we have in Jamaica is so many boys not learning to read at all, or reading far below their level.

Boys find the early stages of reading to be a chore, not enjoyable activity because of the circumstances in which they are taught. Classrooms are often overcrowded, boys are punished for making mistakes and are hardly praised for effort. Not liking to read, they don’t try, so get stuck in the slow lane.

The content of reading material for children is geared to a reading age which corresponds to chronological age, so is too childish for boys who learn to read late.

Their role models are not reading, so reading is considered by boys to be a ‘girl thing’. Boys would prefer to be outside playing football, or if they are inside, playing video games, computer games, or watching TV, but they do like to read comic books.

As long as boys are reading something, I don’t see that preferring non-fiction to fiction should be frowned on. They often step up from comic books to computer magazines or other magazines suited to their interests.

A more fundamental question to be answered is whether boys are uncomfortable with the feelings which reading fiction arouses. It’s okay for girls to have these feelings, but not boys. Is the inability to deal with these feelings a reason for antisocial behavior? Robert Lipsyte explained that discussing fictional character allowed freedom to express feelings the way girls do. If they can’t read, should we read to them and discuss?

Useful stories for discussion, especially ‘Slater Minnifie and the Beat Boy Machine’, and ‘The Man Who Loved Flowers’ are in FLYING WITH ICARUS by Curdella Forbes. Two other Caribbean boy’s books are LEGEND OF ST ANN’S FLOOD by Debbie Jacob and THE BOY FROM WILLOW BEND by Joanne Hillhouse.

Link to Hazel Campbell's blog:


Friday, September 9, 2011

Celebrating International Literacy Day

      I celebrated International Literacy Day on Thursday, September 8, by reading to students at Chetwood Memorial Primary School.
 To each of 4 grade 1 classes, I read 'Beautiful Blackbird' by Ashley Bryan. This delightful story, with its rhythmic prose and adequate repetition, is adapted from a tale from 'The Ila-speaking peoples from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)' by Edwin Smith and Andrew Dale, (1920). The bold illustrations could be seen by the children at the back of the class. (Thanks to Pam Witte for sending me this book.) Several children asked me to read the story again, and I got a big hug from some of them as I was leaving.

       To a grade 5 and a grade 6 class (all boys!), I read excerpts from 'Delroy in the Marog Kingdom' preceded by my usual introduction with the frog and the pot. As usual, the students listened attentively.
Chetwood Memorial Primary School, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Class Size and the Teaching of Reading

There is a common misperception in Jamaica that the high pupil teacher ratio is the main reason why some children don’t learn to read. I too was of that opinion until I read the results of the Grade 4 Literacy Test published in The Daily Gleaner, in 2010, when I was surprised to see that the average ratio for Region 4 (St. James, Hanover and Westmoreland) was 31:1. A closer inspection of the data revealed that the ratio in St. James varied from a high of 37:1 in urban schools to a low of 13:1 in deep rural areas. The latter would seem to be ideal. Which teacher would not want a class of 13? Each child would be able to get individual attention and excellent performance should be expected.

However, this was not the case. In that particular school, out of an enrollment of 7 children in Grade 4, only 4 sat the test and none achieved mastery. The total enrolment of the school was 40, indicating that there were 3 teachers, each teaching 3 grade levels, as this was an All Age school.

In another All-Age school, with a ratio of 15:1 the total enrolment was 45, indicating 3 teachers for grades 1-9. In that school, 11 children were enrolled in grade 4, but only 6 sat the literacy test, and only one achieved mastery.

At the other end of the scale was a school in the heart of an urban area, with a total enrollment of 1,720 and a ratio of 37:1. This school has a 6-stream entry, with about 48 children per class, for which 36 teachers would be required. With the stated ratio of 37:1, the school could employ 46 teachers. Why not a 7-stream entry? Because there is no space—all the classrooms are occupied. 268 of the 277 students enrolled in grade 4, sat the literacy test and 62% of them achieved mastery in 2010 (down from 86% in 2009), meaning that more than 100 children had not achieved mastery.

In contrast to these, there are schools in which 100% of the students in grade 4 sat the literacy test and achieved mastery. These schools are not limited to either urban or rural areas, they vary in size and in pupil: teacher ratio. Perhaps we should focus on these schools and follow their best practices.

My own opinion is that the system is capable of performing much better even with existing limited resources. The teaching of reading should be the priority. For children who have problems with reading at the end of grade 1, the emphasis in grade 2 should be on basic literacy and numeracy skills, until they are sufficiently competent to embark on the grade 2 curriculum.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nipping Illiteracy in the Bud

Parents who read story books to their children, have books in their homes, and themselves read, ensure that their children have the best chance to learn to read. Once their children begin to read, they listen to them and assist them, opening the doors to a world of books and information. Parents who can’t read do few of these things, so their children are among the 70% of Jamaican children who aren’t ready to learn to read when they enter grade 1.

What happens in grade 1? Often, classes are too big. How can a teacher possibly give individual attention to any of 50 children in her class, especially when many of them exhibit behaviour problems? Learning to read is supplemented by endless spelling lists, but some children don’t even know their alphabet and can make nothing of a spelling list. Children who’ve never been turned on to reading must certainly be turned off in these circumstances. Many of them never learn to read at all, so are denied access to a world of information. In turn, they become parents. On the whole, parents who cannot read have more children than literate parents, compounding the problem.

What is the Ministry of Education’s response? In his International Literacy Day Message¹, September 8, 2009, the Honourable Minister of Education Hon. Andrew Holness, M.P. stated “The Ministry’s National Literacy Programme for the 2009 – 2010 school year will see fifty (50) new cluster-based Literacy Specialists being deployed across the island. Twelve (12) of the literacy specialists will be assigned specifically to provide support at the secondary level… The Ministry of Education has budgeted $500 million dollars this year to bring the number of literacy specialists up to 90…” How far can these specialists reach in 800 schools at the primary level? These disadvantaged children need individual attention on a daily basis.

The Minister of Education has also made pronouncements about giving a book to every child at birth, but will that solve the problem? Not if the parents cannot read and have little respect for books. Along with books, children need caring adults—I will call them ‘Reading Aunts and Uncles, or Reading Big Brothers and Sisters’—who love books and are willing to spend 15 to 20 minutes a day reading to a small group of 3 to 5-year-olds; or listening to an older child reading. This is where every literate person can help, one child at a time. The challenge is to find these children and make a start. In future blogs, I will make suggestions about games which prepare children for reading and methods of teaching of reading. Let’s get a discussion going. Please click on the word ‘comments’ which will take you to a different page. Enter what you have to say in the box. Looking forward to hearing from you.

¹ http://jfll.gov.jm/speech-literacy-holness.html