Sunday, September 30, 2012

Raising Children to be Readers

Many parents believe that the best way to help their children to learn to read is to teach them the alphabet. However, studies have shown that the best things they can do begin when the child is born. Raising children in an environment of love allows for their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional developmental goals to be met. A 4-year-old who is socially well-adjusted, has self-control, is well-behaved, who knows what he wants to do, has enough self-confidence to do it, persisting until he has completed the task; and is able to carry on a conversation, is ready for school and will not find learning difficult.

The first requirement for these goals to be met is proper nutrition—preferably breast-milk for the first 6 months of life, followed by weaning onto a balanced diet. The second is for his mother to respond to his needs, so that he learns to trust, and to show affection. A neglected baby feels emotions of disappointment and anger, which later lead to defiance, intentional hurting and feelings of guilt.

The third is for adequate stimulation, so that the baby learns the properties of objects. He learns that objects and people are still there when he cannot see them, and develops the ability to hold an image of objects in his mind. This is the beginning of memory. He learns that he can be a causal agent and can predict the outcome of his actions. This is the foundation of an adult’s ability to make a plan, carry it out and judge its success. When a baby can creep he should be allowed to explore a safe environment. Parents could baby-proof part of the house instead of restraining the baby.

In the toddler years (ages 2 and 3), a great deal of development takes place. I’m choosing four things to emphasize. Firstly, the importance of fantasy play, which children use to come to terms with their physical and social environment. Many children talk to imaginary friends. (They are not talking to duppies, as some people think!). When they make imaginary friends scapegoats, they show that they are learning the difference between right and wrong.

Secondly, the purpose of punishment should be to develop self control. When a child has misbehaved, parents need to explain why the action was wrong. Discipline should be administered as close to the action as possible, should be appropriate but firm, and brief. A toddler can be given ‘time-out’. Where the child is in a loving home, the occasional slap can be effective, but intense, frequent, harsh punishment leads to emotional distress (including depression) which later leads to arguing, disobedience and destructiveness. Toddlers learn by imitation, so will copy caregivers who behave in a violent manner.

Many children all over the world, including Jamaica, suffer from undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from abuse, loss of loved ones, fires and other disasters. In these children, the ‘wiring’ of the brain develops in such a way that they are on constant alert, and are unable to concentrate on school work. They need professional help.

Lastly, and of paramount importance for a child to be able to learn to read, is the development of language. Parents need to communicate with their children as much as possible, beginning at birth with non-verbal communication. By the time a child is 4 years old, he has learnt the grammatical structure and a sufficient number of words to be able to converse in his mother-tongue. While there are children who are bilingual in Creole and Standard English, the many who speak only Creole face the difficulty of acquiring literacy in Standard English. Much research has been done on this by Dr. Meta Bogle and Dr. Beverley Bryan (UWI).

A bedtime story

 I agree that one of the best ways for children to learn Standard English is to hear written stories read to them out loud, preferably every day. However, I doubt whether the parents of our at-risk students are able or willing to do this. Many of them are completely overwhelmed by day-to-day problems, and see nothing wrong with raising their children in the same way that they were raised. Studies have shown that mothers like these can be helped by social support, such as was given by the Rural Caregivers Programme and the Rural Family Support Organization operating in Clarendon.

Illiteracy in Jamaica is a national problem—it impacts all of us. Whole communities need to be involved, not just parents and teachers. For example, in addition to providing books, volunteer ‘reading aunts, uncles, big sisters and brothers’ could be on hand to read to at-risk children. Service Clubs, Churches and NGO’s need to mobilize to give social, emotional and economic support to the neediest families. Drama groups could present role-play, showing preferred methods of parenting.

The parameters of the solution to the literacy problem are much wider than simply teaching children to read.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Volunteering at Chetwood Memorial Primary School

Chetwood Memorial Primary School
Since September 2011, I’ve been helping some grade 2 children with reading at Chetwood Memorial Primary School. This school was started by Fransiscan Sisters in what is now the church hall. The current school is also built on land belonging to the Catholic Church. It is a government primary school with 4 streams in each of grades 1-6 with about 45 children in each class. The school is located near the centre of Montego Bay and accommodates children from various social backgrounds. Although it is now one of the more sought after schools, there are 150 children who qualify for free lunches.
   I offered to help Grade 2, because those children who enter grade 2 below the reading level for their grade, are unable to follow the text-books on which Grade 2 work is based. The Principal, Mrs. Campbell was most appreciative of my offer, saying, “We need all the help we can get.” Seven children were referred to me and I met them in three groups for half an hour each, one day a week. I wanted to recruit other volunteers to come on other days, but as it turned out, there was only one, a young man from Montego Bay Community College, who chose this avenue for his voluntary service. He had a positive influence on the children and I noticed a real improvement after a week when he came every day.

New block housing the library and computer room
    My philosophy when teaching reading is to teach with kindness – to respect, pay attention to and show affection to my pupils – and to praise frequently. I’m not a reading specialist, but have devised my method of teaching reading from research and experience. Children should hear, say, look at, and write—these 4 activities for every letter, word and sentence, using a mix of phonics, and word and sentence recognition. I also try to emphasize meaning and that the purpose of reading and writing is to communicate.

In teaching phonics, I find out what letter sounds they know and start where they are. Most of them know the consonant sounds, but need revision. The vowels are more challenging, as they have so many variants. I start with the short vowel sounds using flash cards, rhyming words and words starting with the same consonant, followed by long vowel sounds, then sounds as in er-ir-ur (the rooster’s call) ‘aw’, ‘ar’, ‘ow’, or, ‘oo’ and ‘ew’.

For ‘look and say’ words, I use home-made flash cards, which I also use for revising consonant sounds and for games. I found that Pelmanism, a game recommended for such children, was too challenging for them. Also, games, such as sound Bingo, have to allow for all of them to win. They take losing very hard.

I take ‘look and say’ sentences from their reading books, Literacy 1-2-3 books, sentences I write myself and some the children speak or write. I start with sentences such as “What is your name?” and “My name is ….” Then we write the sentences on strips of card and cut them up into words. Their challenge is then to identify the words separate from the sentence. After a while they can use these words to make new sentences.

Was I successful in assisting these children in learning to read? Yes and no. Of the seven, three progressed at a faster pace. One girl reached the point where I thought it would be more beneficial for her to remain in her class. To her that was a punishment - she passively resisted by downing her tools, so I took her back. Two other boys gave me the most trouble, with mischievous behavior, especially when they were together. I’m still trying to persuade one of them that, yes, he can learn to read – he had demonstrated that he could, but his progress was slow. He told me that his father beat him because he couldn’t read. No wonder he has negative attitudes towards reading! One girl had such poor attendance that she made little headway; while another needed special help, which I’m not qualified to give. However, Ms. Brown, the grade 2 coordinator, was appreciative of my efforts which she thought had made a difference.
Computer Lab
      Fortunately, Chetwood has a modern computer lab and an Academy of Reading programme, which they use with children in grade 3 and up. Children who haven't yet learnt to read get a second chance, and those who are already reading use it to improve their literacy skills.
A mural on the stairway

Why did I choose to volunteer to help children with reading? For some time, I’ve been pondering the causes of high illiteracy rate in Jamaica, and its social effects. Can we as citizens do anything to improve literacy? Since retiring, I’ve had a number of pupils wanting help with reading, and I wanted to see children in the school setting. My observations confirmed my view that children learning to read
    1. need individual attention every day (although I wasn’t able to commit to that, and their teachers aren't able to give that either), and
    2. need encouragement, praise and affirmation.
Together, we can fill these needs. I started with a new group of grade 2 students today. If any of you reading this would like to help, please let me know.
   Children also need access to plenty of books at their reading level. This presents a logistical challenge but is not impossible to achieve.
   The other vital ingredient in the reading recipe is motivation. Children who want to learn to read will (as long as they have no specific learning disability), but unfortunately many who lack this vital ingredient will not. While we can contend that improving literacy levels will lead to a more educated society, and improve the standard of living for all, some of the very families who want to improve their status, don't have the reading culture necessary to inspire their children.
from Book Community Board by Lucia Luz

Friday, September 14, 2012

Presenting Books donated by #1 Love Medusa Reunion

At Mt Alvernia Prep with Mrs. McPherson, Principal and Mrs. Frazer
 In July, persons visiting for Jamaica 50, donated copies of Delroy in the Marog Kindom to the school they used to attend, or another school of their choice. Now that the new school year has started, I had an incentive to arrange visits to schools to deliver the books. My first stop was Mount Alvernia Preparatory School where I presented books donated by Richard Lam and Robert Chin. There I talked to teachers about their book club and the problems that Jamaican and Caribbean authors have in getting their books known about and into schools.

With Mrs. Forrester
 On Thursday,  Sep 6, I visited St. James Preparatory School, where I read to Grade 6 from Delroy in the Marog Kingdom. The childen obviously enjoyed the excerpts and were full of questions. I presented to their teacher, Mrs. Forrester, the copies donated by Karen Lue and Audrey Tenn.

With Mrs. Dalley
The following day, which was being celebrated as International Literacy day, I read to grades 5-5 and 5-6 at Corinaldi Avenue Primary School. They too enjoyed the reading and I was sorry I didn't have more time to spend with them. I presented to Mrs. Belinda Dalley, Literacy Specialist, the book donated by Justin Lue.

Mr. Jones receiving a book
Monday, Sept 10, saw me at Barracks Road Primary School, where I spoke to the students at assembly about the importance of reading. I presented to Mr. Jones, Principal, the book donated by Pam Morris. After the presentation I visited all five grade 1 classes, each with forty-five students (down from fifty the previous year!). My message to them was that they should (1) read as much as they could; (2) study their spellings and (3) ask for help if needed. A few years ago, I would have put less emphasis on spelling, but given the inconsistencies of spelling and pronunciation in the English language, I have realized that studying spellings is a reliable way of learning to decode words, which after a period of time a child will recognize instantly.  However, it's not much use telling a child to study spellings if, when he gets home, he can't decipher the words on the list. Hence my suggestion to ask for help.
   I spoke for about ten minutes to each class, but even for that short time, I was unable to hold all their attentions. I don't think I had the attention of some of them at all. It was the first time I had been asked to give a 'pep-talk' to six-year-olds. In hindsight, I think it would have been better to read them a short story, with props, to illustrate that reading is to be enjoyed, and have a short Q & A session.  Given the number of children who have to be accommodated in limited space, I don't think the teachers have much option but to teach the children in the way that they do, but for some of the boys, this is clearly not best way to interest them in education. More opportunity for free movement and hands-on activities might suit them better.
   The final presention, for the time being, was made by Mrs. Fay Chin to Mrs. Campbell, Principal of Chetwood Memorial Primary School. This is the school where I volunteer to assist with reading - more about that in another post.
Mrs. Fay Chin donating my book to Mrs. Campbell at Chetwood.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaching English as a Second Language to Jamaican Children

I’m no linguist, so I can’t put forward an academic argument to support the moot that Jamaican patois, or creole, is a separate language from English, but my own experience tells me that it should be treated as such. If I attempted to speak patois, any Jamaican would recognize instantly that I am a not Jamaican by birth.

When I first arrived in Jamaica to teach, I couldn’t understand patois speakers, some of whom took delight in exploiting my ignorance. After about 6 months, I was able to follow some conversations, but I was strongly discouraged from attempting to ‘speak bad’, especially with my students who needed to learn correct English. As patois is difficult to learn and my attempts to speak it were greeted with peals of laughter, I gave up trying. More helpful people pointed to what I should listen for in patois, such as ‘oonu’ for ‘you’ plural, and the use of ‘dem’ after a noun to make it plural.

One of the many Ladybird books available today 
My next patois lessons came when my daughter started school. “She talks such nice English,” said the teacher after her first day. It was the last day she spoke such nice English for a while, but she gradually learnt the usefulness of both forms of communication. I subsequently started my own prep school, where I became fascinated by the process by which children learn to read.

There was no alternative to teaching reading in standard English. I used the Ladybird books and a mix of phonics, whole words and sentences. I made a point of listening to every child reading every day and keeping careful records of their progress. I remember the day when a little boy looked at the words in his book, then the picture and said, “See de bud deh”, when what was written was “Look at the bird.” He had seen the words before and been told what they were, but had translated them.

Today's Ladybird books are more multicultural than in the past

Further patois lessons came when I was teaching communication at Montego Bay Community College. Early in the course came a unit on Jamaica’s two languages, which I confess to not teaching very well. It was not until I retired and started writing stories with dialogue in patois that I felt I needed to know more. For the first story I wrote, I had my daughter correct my patois, but when I sent it to Joanne Johnson, in Trinidad, her first response was ‘Tame the patois.’ When doing an online course at UCLA and subsequently being part of an online critique group, the readers told me they couldn’t understand parts written in patois. It would be pointless to write books with dialogue comprehensible only to Jamaicans, and expect an international readership. As a compromise, I write my dialogue in non-standard English. This lets me off the hook in relation to improving my patois for the purpose of writing dialogue.

So, if patois is a separate language from English, and is the only language spoken by many pre-school children, doesn’t it stand to reason that English is their second language?

In his article ‘Stop demonising Patois -From a semi-lingual to a bilingual Jamaica’ in the Sunday Gleaner, August 26, 2012, Hubert Devonish professor of linguistics and coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit, UWI, Mona, mentions a project undertaken by that Unit:

“In the Jamaican situation, a fully bilingual or dual-education programme would involve the use of both Jamaican and English as languages of education, in the same roles, side by side. This is what took place in a Ministry of Education-sanctioned Bilingual Education Project run in a Corporate Area primary school between 2004 and 2008 by the Jamaican Language Unit. Textbooks for mathematics, social studies, science and the language arts were translated into Jamaican. These were made available alongside the textbooks written in English….. The pupils learnt to read and write in both languages.” (my italics).

(Does he mean that non-readers were taught to read in both patois and English, or were they first taught to read in patois? I would welcome an opportunity to see material they used to teach reading.)

A fully bilingual programme as designed by Dr. Devonish would involve the preparation of a great deal of material and the training of thousands of teachers, which is not likely to happen any time soon. Furthermore, the suggestion of teaching children in patois has given rise to a flare-up of protest on the talk shows and in the print media.
There are other possible methods of teaching a second language, including ‘complete immersion’ in which all subjects are taught in the second language. There are schools in other countries where all students, who come from different language backgrounds, are taught in one language. In French-speaking parts of Canada, some children, whose home language is English, attend schools where all classes are in French.

What is the difference between this method and what obtains in Jamaican schools, where all classes are taught in standard English? I submit that it is in how children and teachers perceive the home language. The child who speaks only patois may be told he ‘talks bad’. He thinks he is talking the same language as his teacher, but is given the impression that there is something wrong with the way he expresses himself, thus lowering his self-esteem. An English-speaking child in a French-speaking school in Canada would not be given the impression that his mother tongue is inferior. I think from the outset, it should be explained to children that patois is their home language, the language they use to talk to their friends, the language of music lyrics and so on. The school language, English, is another way of expressing ideas, and is the language of books, of business and commerce, of science and engineering and which is spoken by hundreds of millions of people the world over.
Philip Clarke

Philip Clarke, lecturer in Communication Studies at Montego Bay Community College, carried out research into why some students of above average intelligence performed so poorly in CSEC English. He found that there was a link between how students feel and how they learn English – sensing that their home language, patois, was regarded as inferior lowered their self-esteem. He also found that they resented English, which they regarded as the language of the colonialists and oppressors. They saw the use of patois is an act of resistance by dub poets and singers. They regarded English as a subject to be studied rather than means of communication which they needed to master. His remedy for these attitudes was to include patois in his classes and then to focus on teaching them how to communicate effectively and appropriately. He also recommended that strategies be designed so that teachers in a creole-speaking environment can effectively teach students to communicate, be proud of who they are and have a love of learning.

This I feel should be the substance of our discussion on this subject, with the emphasis on how to teach communication, not on whether patois is a separate language from English.