Skip to content
March 16, 2018 / mareflynn

What is reading comprehension?

“My son was given a reading homework to do and one of the questions asked his to answer with his own ideas rather than just find the answer in the reading. How is he supposed to do that?” my friend asked.

Another friend responded to her, “that’s not comprehension!”

And then I simply said, “yes that is.”  As often when a group of friends get together, it is hard to keep up with the torrent of conversation.  Also, I didn’t want to be “Babara Boring-Pants” and go into a lecture about what reading comprehension is and isn’t on a coffee morning.  I go to coffee to chill out with friends–not to do my job which is teach reading and writing to children with special needs.

However, I can write about my thoughts on it here.  I started teaching reading in 2001 and have been an avid reader for years before that.  However, before actually teaching children to read I had no idea about the process of reading and the skills needed to be an effective reader.  It is a complex process, but this is intended to be just a beginning look at my understanding of reading.

Some of the earliest skills for reading start with learning to simply hold a book, knowing which way to turn the pages as well as an implicit understanding of the purpose of books.  In most middle class households reading to children is a given and parents hold their child in their laps reading books almost as soon as they are born.  Some children, unfortunately don’t get this and need to be taught this school in their nursery.  (Which is why early education is so important and is a whole other topic.)

Another early reading skill is listening to sounds and beginning to separate sounds and words into bits.  This is, in part, why there is so much singing in preschool and nursery settings.  Children can start out singing the alphabet not really knowing what it’s all about, but later when they are introduced to the letters visually they can begin to connect the dots when they are ready.  This is linked to children learning “phonics” and “sounding out words”.  A beginning reader often starts by sounding out words such at b-a-t and linking those to make words.  Children do a lot of this sounding out until there is a shift and they start to be able to recognise words as “sight words” or single units.  As an adult reader, this is why you can read so fast since you are fluent in what the shapes of those words are.

As a teacher of the visually impaired, this is what can slow a lot of children’s reading since their vision means they have less exposure to environmental text in their world.  In fact, one of my reading interventions with the children with VI that I do is to take them for a walk around school challenging them to find text on the walls.  Often they haven’t noticed these words around them and have had little motivation to read environmental text.  I try to make the text worthwhile for them so that they can get joy out of reading words.  I still remember being a child on the southside of Chicago and being excited to read graffiti on the walls that had been spray painted on the walls on our school.  It said “bird” and I can still see it in my minds eye.

So you’ve got a child holding a book properly, matching sounds to letters, sounding out words and recognising sight words like a champ.  Hooray! They are a READER!! I say, celebrate that, but now is the time to hone those skilful reading skills.  The child who can sound out and recognise words now needs to become a reading detective, picking up clues to read in between the lines using their own life experience and knowledge to understand what they are reading.  Some children might be able to this naturally, but many need to be specifically taught how to do this.

I used to begin teaching inference when I taught primary via pictures and asking children to answer questions about them just by using what they saw.  For example, looking at a photo of a girl with her mouth wide open and laughing, I’d ask the children to tell me what they thought she was feeling.  The would say “happy”, “silly” or something like that.  Then I’d ask, “why do you think that?” All of them could have a different answer–maybe she’d just been told a joke?  More often than not they would all have had experience laughing as they are children and laugh much more easily than us adults.  Some children, maybe who are on the autistic spectrum, might wonder why I am even bothering them with asking why this girl is laughing.  That’s fine.  I would have to address their needs in a different way that that is beyond my scope here.  For the children with VI and certainly those who are blind, I can do this with sound or touch asking similar “why” questions.

We do higher level reading when we try to figure out new words by using the context to make sense.  Through a grammatical structure we can make guesses as to what class of word it is such as a noun or a verb.  We can also use our background knowledge to make guesses at its meaning as well as thinking about the theme of the reading and linking it to what we’ve read already.  This is why I get children to talk about the titles of books and sections in their reading since they are there to give us clues to figure out what we are reading.

Often the children I teach have had limited life experiences having been sheltered by well meaning parents or their parents may not have had the life chances to take their child on weekly trips to the zoo or museum.  Also, there may be chidlren who just don’t see the point of reading and have yet been shown the joys of it and motivated to read. That’s fine.  I can only meet the child where they are.

Reading is, simply put, a big puzzle and as readers, we are adding up clues in the text and trying to figure out the meaning of the whole from the pieces we do understand.  To do this really well, it helps to be comfortable taking risks and making guesses.  For the “why” questions, I tell the children to “make their best guess”.  I try to make them see that they know it already and that the right answer in their own answer.  It can be a daunting thing to be told just “take a guess” when all the time children are confronted with ticks and x’s on their work clearly showing their errors.  As a teacher, I aim to get children to begin to take their own thoughts seriously.  All children have opinions about everything.  How often have I heard my own children complain about the meal I’ve made them?  All children can read critically and have an opinion–with guidance they can begin to identify just what exactly they like and express their thoughts about a text.  Getting children to be comfortable to express that is a challenge, but well worth it.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Do you notice your deeper reading skills in  your own reading?

June 2, 2017 / mareflynn

A Bank Robbery at the End of My Street

It was said that a pregnant woman was in the bank at the time  four masked men burst through the doors of the Halifax Bank in Kings Heath, Birmingham.  She was completing a deposit slip for a cheque her mother had given her to start a bank account for the nearly born child in her belly.  The pregnant woman was not happy about having to do this, despite the fact that she knew she should be grateful to her mother for the gift. She’d tried to teach her mother about electronic banking so that she could avoid going into the bank at all, but her mother did not see the point.  The branch was only a few steps from her house, how hard could it be?

The four men wore balaclava masks and carried bats.  A car waited for them, however it is beyond belief that they had a space for their car on the crowded high street.  Bank personnel handed over an undetermined amount of cash to the assailants.

Luke, a barista at the coffee shop next door, explained that they had heard shouting but weren’t sure what was happening.  He wondered what the world was coming to as he sipped a mint green tea smoothing followed by a good bite of his thumbnail.

One woman was treated for shock by paramedics.

An elderly woman across the street knitted an octopus at a desk across the street at the All Saints Community Centre.  She noticed a child playing in the fountains while she chatted with an ex-army serviceman.  He’d lived in Kings Heath his whole life and had never seen the inside of the church until that day.  He commented that the wood work was a thing of beauty.

The bank will be closed today and tomorrow to reopen Saturday.

October 27, 2019 / mareflynn

Weekly Rundown: 27th October

It’s been so heartening reading all the blogs on the Weekly Rundown as well as inspiring for me. This week was the last week of our autumn half term and it has been a busy 7 weeks since the start of the year. So if I had to pick three words to define this week they would be: rain, leaves and high vis. Where’s your fancy high vis belt at?

Monday 21st October: foam role hips for about 8 minutes each side (roughly) while watching The Dublin Murders drama. It was quite intense.

On Tuesday, as it was my turn to take my son and his friends to athletics (track & field) I ran on the treadmill inside the leisure centre.* I listened to The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehise Coates, which helped me switch off from the busyness of work. After running I did 3 sets of arm lifts with 8 lb weights. 3.20 miles; 12:13 minutes per mile.

Thursday I met up with Caroline for a run around the back of Kings Heath. On the way to meet her I put on my headphones blasting Lizzo. Fortunately I still was able to hear Liz calling to me from across the street where she and her husband were waiting to cross. They both looked so happy. So, while Caroline and I ran we chatted about our pre-teen children. It would seem my 12 year old isn’t the only one who gets irritated regularly which was a relief. As we ran, engrossed in our chat, the sun decided to high-tail it out and it became night all of a sudden. I did have my bright orange Worcester Half shirt on so that helped me not get plowed over by maniac drivers. Next time I’ll bring my amazing hi-vis belt which is, as ever, fashion-forward. 3.63 mile; 11:07 minutes per mile.

Today’s run very nearly never happened. Due to a trip down to London yesterday to visit with my friend Karen I was exhausted. So this, combined with the time change, made me think “oh for Pete’s sake Mare, just chill out”. However, I knew I’d regret missing the run I’d planned to do with with Liz, Trudie, Ruth and Jenny. These long runs just put me right, however there was talk of going through Holders Woods again for some luscious forest bathing. With that bait, I pulled on my new compression leggings and got out to the brisk, sunny day. Liz, met me on my street, shivering in the cold and then we met up with Trudie. We then ran down the Kings Heath High Street to pick up Ruth. It was good to see Ruth as she’s been a bit poorly of late. We then ran up the hill to Moseley to meet Jenny. After running through Holders Woods and getting some admirable mud on our running shoes I peeled off from Liz and Trudie as I had to get home to shop for sofas with the family (shops are only open until 4 on Sundays in the UK). 7.76 miles; 13.05 miles per minute.

Ooh! I should also mention that I had a sports massage from a fellow runner from a local running club who is training to be a massage therapist. In short, she was a revelation. Her name is Jo Whiting and she is on FB. I’m definitely going to book further sessions with her as she was able to tell me what was going on with all my niggles. Briefly said, my left side is a mess.

Here are some photos of the Sunday run. 1) Trudie & Liz looking up at the birds 2) a grand heron in Cannon Hill Park 3) gorgeous Chantry Road trees and BLUE sky in Moseley

*I should mention that I am originally from the USA, but I spell with the UK spellings as all my devices are set for it.

Thank you to https://kimrunsonthefly.blogspot.com/2019/10/stop-taper-time.html#comment-form

https://confessionsofamotherrunner.com/2019/10/20/weekly-run-down-fall-running-is-finally-here-to-stay/?unapproved=73370&moderation-hash=5b5a9368889e83b1533bc852b73c9df3#comment-73370

October 20, 2019 / mareflynn

Am I running? Round up 14th -20th of October

It’s getting colder and darker. This week I noticed a big change in the trees around Birmingham with all the glorious golds, reds and yellows so that is something that has caught my eye. I realise colour is so important to me–especially in winter. I managed to get outside during the day for one run this week and enjoy some of the colours.

“Speed walking to get a kink out of my back.”

Tuesday I went out on my own donning my high visibility (hi-vis) belt. This always makes me feel like a crossing guard or as they say here in England, a lollipop lady. I thought about putting my bright light to illuminate my way but it was annoying me as I ran so I turned it off. I ended up speed walking a lot of this “run” as I was having a niggle in my lower back. I took it easy rather than completely skipping it as I knew it was partly due to stress and that a good brisk walk would help me deal with it. Sitting still only makes my muscle pains feel worse. I did my usual 5km route taking me down the high street to Howard Road and then left onto Wheeler’s Lane. During this run my face was well covered in “soft rain” a phrase I learned from my dad’s cousin in Ireland that I love. It was the perfect antidote to mull over a stressful situation with a troubled child at work. By the end of this run, I felt marginally renewed, well at least some of my grumpiness had worn off and I was able to think some positive thoughts towards this child who is such a challenge. This is important for me as a teacher and part of why I can’t imagine my life without the outlet of running. 3.19 miles; 14:46 /mile

“Anti-stress run with Caroline, Sonya & Trudie”

Thursday was saved by Caroline, a woman in my running messages group who said she’d wanted to meet up for a 4 mile run at about 6 on Thursday. I am so grateful that she did this as with the stress and general tiredness of the week, I probably would not have gotten out. We had arranged to meet at Alcester Road and Wheeler’s Lane which was fine; however, I confused Wheeler’s with Howard the road on my Tuesday route. I arrived late, something that is always stressful, but my edginess did not last long with the lovely Caroline, Sonya and Trudie patiently waiting for me. With more “soft rain” on our faces that night we made our way through Kings Heath streets chatting about all sorts of things. Especially happy was news of new houses and all the excitement around that. I have to admit I mentioned my troubles at work dissipated on this run. There were laughs and just sound of my fellow runner’s voices was lovely as we travelled through the increasingly dark city streets. I can’t remember the roads, but we did end up near Kings Heath Park where we entered its dusky confines. Normally, on my own, I would not have ventured in but it was a joy to run in the dark with only flashes of our hi vis and the street lights glowing along the edges of the park. Exiting the park at the corner of Avenue Road and All Saints, I said good bye and pealed off. As I ran down Addison, I saw Trudie’s husband and he asked where she was. I assured him that he was with the other ladies and fine. I really like seeing fellow runners on the streets and thought it was particularly sweet of Dave to make sure Trudie was fine.

4.08 miles; 11:58/ mile

“Sunday Morning Run”

I wasn’t sure about this run if I’m honest. Myself and my family had had a 24 hour sickness the day before and I rested as much as I could. Feeling fit as a fiddle in the morning after a solid 8 hours of sleep, I woke ready to meet Liz and Trudie on Addison to start our run. I’ve run countless runs with these “sedate” ladies and we are quite comfortable with each other now. We three headed up Alcester Road towards Moseley to meet Jenny. The plan being we would do 8 altogether and Jenny would join us for about 4 of those. Amidst flashes of sun and even a bit of blue sky we met Jenny and headed down Salisbury Road towards Cannon Hill Park. Salisbury is a strange road in that it is a kind of vortex where it seems like you are going down hill but it feels like up hill at times. It may just be me, but this seems to be the case. Do you have any roads like this? We ended up running around the back of Moseley and stopped at St Anne’s church which has a tall spire and gargoyles! I’d never noticed them before. I’l try to get a photo next time, but i was impressed with just how impressive St Anne’s is. I’ve driven past it before but running by it meant I. could take in more of its details. It even has a wooden entry way so many English churches have that look old timey and Tudor. It made me think about the people who used to live here who would have used this church as it looked quite prominent. Times have changed and religion has less of a place in our lives, but I am glad to see this beautiful structure preserved.

Saying goodbye to Jenny, we headed back down Salisbury to enter Cannon Hill. The plan was to ultimately catch some “forest bathing” by running through Holders Woods at the back of the park. Before getting there, we were greeted by the colours of the trees and it was so lovely to run through the park. We even saw a bit of the Junior Park Run where children run a 1 mile route instead of the usual 3.1 miles. The marshals were so enthusiastic. One even had a red foam hand for the children to high five which Liz and I agreed we would need to get for the next time we work a cheer station. Other sights included puffy white birds with cute little faces and various ducks. Liz even spotted a black crow at the top of one of the tallest trees taking us all in from its perch.

We made it to Holders Woods and the forest did not disappoint. It’s another world in there, so green and verdant. Here is a photo:

I love that that is smack-dab in the middle of the UK’s second city. In the end it was a good run and I ended it feeling more myself after the difficulties of troubled boys and sickness this week. A good end to the weekend, it helped me have the patience to go shopping for a couch with the whole family. We haven’t decided on a new one yet, but I am just proud to have gotten out to go shopping in the first place. I even managed to get home in time to pick up my son and my husband from his footie (soccer) match. It’s walking distance from our house, but my son runs for a whole hour and doesn’t have the energy to walk the distance after. He got in the car and put the window down letting in the brick cold air. When I told him to close it, he said, “I just ran for an hour Mom!” I replied “so did I!”

8.08 miles; 13.05 /mile

(I will figure out these link ups at half term, but am grateful for the link ups to other runner via:)

Thank you to https://kimrunsonthefly.blogspot.com/2019/10/stop-taper-time.html#comment-form

https://confessionsofamotherrunner.com/2019/10/20/weekly-run-down-fall-running-is-finally-here-to-stay/?unapproved=73370&moderation-hash=5b5a9368889e83b1533bc852b73c9df3#comment-73370 and

October 13, 2019 / mareflynn

My running week…7th-13th October

More than usual this week, I felt unmotivated and unready to run. It could have been annoying things going on at work or simply the start of a long dark winter. Fortunately, my son had athletics at fox hollies leisure centre, and it was my turn to drive him and his friends. This meant that on I would not be able to go to the Kings Heath Running Club run that night and would have to run instead on the dreadmills. So, even if I’m not in the mood, running on the machines is a better alternative to sitting on the couches in the reception area (trust me, not pleasant) or waiting in my car over an hour for the little ones to finish running loops around the track (even more unpleasant). I hadn’t been on them in awhile, but discovered a delightful feature about them which allows me to choose to run through various beautiful landscapes. I chose to run through a red wood forest in California so that made up for the misfortune of running inside. Heart beating and brow sweaty, I did feel better after four miles on the machine so mission accomplished I supposed. After that, I ventured into the weights room which was filled with muscly men taking long brakes in between reps of many kgs. I stuck to my ten pound weights (about 5 kg) to keep my muscles strong. When I’m tired at the end of a long race a lot of the time pumping my arms helps me summon up a little extra strength to get me to the end. (4 miles, 11:54/mile)

Thursday saw me combining an errand with trying to get some miles in. My friend Emma was lending me a kite so that I could use it for a lesson Friday morning. One of the boys I teach who reads Braille had read a story about a boys flying a kite, but had never touched or flown one himself. Emma would be home at 7:30 so I mapped out a route to run over to her house to get there at that time and with a mile under my belt. She is a runner too, so she understood. My need to run (or plod) after a busy day. The nights are getting darker and this is one of the first nights I put on my high vis straps over my running top. Along with the dark, the rain was making its force known as well. Living in the UK I’m used to running in rain. Often it stops and starts and does not bother me one bit. This time, however, it felt like buckets coming down. I had also worn my glasses figuring I’d just wear them since it was only a 3 mile run. Soon enough after leaving Emma’s I had to take them off they were so covered in drops. Arriving home my sons greeted me with hoots and teased me about going swimming. Still, I felt revived having gone out. (3.1 miles, 11:24 /mile)

I’d been thinking about mental health this week as it’d been Mental Health Awareness Day on Tuesday. I wonder what I’d be like without this habit I’ve acquired in which I go running around the neighbourhood for hours a week in exchange for some peace in my nervous body. Without it, I think it’s likely, I’d be hiding away on my couch too often feeling downright miserable.

Finally Saturday I had a long run planned with my sedate running friends Liz and Jenny. I met them at the barber’s on the high street and off we went towards the entrance to the Stratford Canal. Liz and I have run this loop several times and it takes us to about 4 miles. We wanted ten for the day and Jenny would be coming along for 4 of them. From the high street we ran down Alcester Road which is a lovely hill and combined with lovely company means the time flies. We then turn left onto a neat little entrance to the canal where we can run over cobbles that once made a good path for horses while we look at the handy work of our local graffiti artists (who knew Noks was a pedo?).

I have recently become fascinated with the Japanese idea of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” as a way of escaping the electric anxieties of our digital modern life. And though I live in the second largest city in the UK, we are lucky to have lots of Shinrin-Yoku type experiences available to us. The canals in particula provide a space in which lush green leaves and trees have been allowed to grown in their glorious greenery and it is a feast for my eyes. I feel like my eyes are thirst as I run through the bowed trees with the water beside me. Somehow we started chatting about Grayson Perry, drags queens and other things which suited me just fine.

In the past Liz and I have gotten lost in this no man’s land between the canals and Kings Heath but we are experts now at finding our way through green paths that wind and wend their way to the Moseley Rugby grounds. We said a cheery good bye to Jenny back in Kings Heath and Liz and I carried on for six more miles. To be honest, I really felt a magnetic pull to my house as I was tired from a long, hard week. This is where having a friend to run with really helps. I’d have to explain to Liz that I just wasn’t up to it and say goodbye to her. That was just too much work and, of course, the guilt would have taken away from the joy of putting my feet up at home. I didn’t want to leave Liz on her own just because of my whim. Also, I did want to run 10 miles to get me over my weekly average of 15 miles. So we ran, off towards Cannon Hill and back winding our way to 6 more miles. Towards the end, I was able to show her Holders Woods for a bit more of some lovely Shinrin-Yoku. I’m hoping that the greenery will get me through the grey skies of winter here. (10 miles about 13:00 / miles)

Finally I went to the cheer station with Kings Heath Running Club to support those who were doing the half today. Having recently run the Worcester Half, it is important to me to give some of the cheers back. I will say I am so in awe of all the different bodies and faces that you see in a running race. As I write this, I am remembering all the smiles and high fives from the runners. They were all champs –even more so since due to safety concerns the route was shaved to 11 miles. How was your running week? (Total 17.1 miles for the week.)

The Weekly Run Down is run by two wonderful running women and joined by lots of other inspirational women. Kim’s weekly wrap is  http://kimrunsonthefly.blogspot.com/2019/10/no-breaking-my-stride.html?m=1 and Deborah’s is https://confessionsofamotherrunner

April 16, 2018 / mareflynn

The Connection Between Sore Muscles and Children’s Progress

Think of something you are not quite comfortable doing.  Is it walking a certain distance everyday?  Saving money? Speaking in public?  Learning Braille?

When I started running, I could only run two minutes at a time.  My lungs burned from the effort of it, huffing and puffing down the streets.  I listened to the National Health Service (NHS) Couch to 5K app with the chirpy voice of the NHS woman calmly telling me to carry on.  Each run I did, I ran a bit longer, pushing myself to do it because I really wanted to be able to run for thirty minutes straight.  Slowly, with each run, my muscles were making little tears that, with rest, would make them even stronger the next day.  That pain would with time make me stronger.

What does this have to do with teaching?  Well, everything really.  The heart of teaching is knowing when to push a child properly out of their comfort zone so, at their own pace, they will grow.  At the start of my teaching career, I don’t think I really understood this.  Just like running a minute longer was just a little bit uncomfortable, children learning to read need to feel that discomfort in order to adjust to more difficult tasks.  A skilful teacher, who takes the time to get to know their students, will be able to carefully encourage their students to challenge themselves to progress.

I am aware, however, that the children I work with are not all well equipped to take on the challenge I give them and may require support to meet those challenges.  Whereas I have had past experience of getting back into shape  and can independently challenge myself– some of my students may not be able to handle huge challenges initially.  This is where our awareness of children’s needs and experiences to be able to carefully gauge how and when to challenge them.

Knowing how to challenge our pupils is even more important for  children with special educational needs and disabilities.  Understandably, many of our children have been protected due to their conditions by loving parents.  This is fine.  However, as a teacher I need to carefully challenge that while at the same time helping the child stretch their learning muscles.  Here are some strategies I’ve used in my practise.

  1. Assume that each child can be challenged in some way–no matter how small.  For one child this may simply mean stepping through the school doors each day other children can take on bigger challenges.  Assessments objectives are a starting point, but can be altered to best suit the learner. Never, ever assume a child is unable to be challenged.
  2. Take time to get to know children.  Respect what they have to say and take that as a starting point.  If they say they can’t do it today say, “ok, lets give it a break,” but silently keep it in mind to return to it again.  Keep at it. You will not know this in the autumn most likely but by January you should have gotten to know them better and formulated ways to challenge each child.
  3. If a child is resisting that is something to pay attention to however, know how to challenge children’s reluctance.  I teach a boy who routinely asks for help to read words. Gently I have denied him help only reminding him to sound out the words.  With him I say, “I hear you, but you still need to read.” He then reads the passage I’ve given him independently because I know that is his comfortable reading level.
  4. Be explicit with children.  I tell children in detail my story about learning to run.  I tell them how much my lungs hurt and that my muscles hurt for a day or two every time I ran farther.  I explain to them that it is OK to feel uncomfortable and unsure; we all feel this from time to time.  I want them to start being aware of their own doubts and carry on despite them.
  5. Create a classroom environment that prioritises risk.  I work in a special school where a lot of our children have been protected for very obvious reasons by family and friends.  In my classroom I celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities.  I show this by how I react to my mistakes.  For example, when I model a writing assignment I might spell a word wrong so that the children can tell me I’ve made a mistake.  I thank them for their feedback and explicitly show them how to draw a line through it and re-write it (with a smile). Another way of encouraging risk is allowing children to have messy first drafts.  In fact, I encourage them to write their worst bit of writing for that session since they will re-write it the next session.  I want them to feel that freedom of making mistakes and saying things wrong since usually that’s when the best thoughts come.

This is only a starting list meant to convey the skilled teaching that is needed in order to guide children to make progress.   We teachers need to gauge our children’s comfort and challenge it everyday so that they are just a bit uncomfortable with out being left feeling defeated.  This is a careful balancing act that a skilled and experienced teacher is always attempting in class.  I’m not perfect at it and am always trying to find new ways to challenge my children appropriately.  What do you think?  What do you do to create an environment of challenge and risk in your classrooms?

February 16, 2018 / mareflynn

English Spelling(s): It is what it is.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and accept that English spelling is a mess. I look at the children I teach with a compassionate heart and ruthlessly hand then their new spellings list. Most of them have learning needs in one form or another–most of which I am at ease with. However, as an English teacher I have to teach spelling. And by teach, I mean on a weekly basis bludgeon my pupils with rules that are inconsistent at best, and make no sense.

Growing up, spelling came naturally to me. The combination of loving words and meaning while also lacking interest in pattern helped with this. I am interested in words. However, many of my pupils are not as enamoured.

Early in my career, I taught in a bilingual Spanish/English classroom. This was my only experience teaching Spanish spelling and I am wistful when I think about it. Basically–(and I am not fluent in Spanish) the way Spanish words sound is how they are spelt. Take afuera (outside). Teaching a child this word would simply mean identifying the sounds and writing them down. That is it.

English spelling, as you no doubt know, is not at all as reasonable. Just this week I gave a group the -igh pattern of spellings for the long i sound. The week before I’d given them the “Magic e” words. You see this Magic e when placed at the end of words tells all vowels to say their names. A boy in my class who is a native Italian speaker asked, quite reasonably, when given the -igh words: “Miss, but what about the Magic e?” I told him categorically that that he was silly for expecting so much from English. “It will never make sense, my dear,” I told him. “Just accept this and you will improve your English.” Well I didn’t actually tell him he was silly, but I did tell him to not think so much about English rules.

This harshness is a product of over 20 years teaching English in one for another. When I taught English as another language in 1996, I would actually attempt to explain my students’ questions about grammar. While this shows my knowledge (& love) of grammar–it did nothing to actually improve their English.

As babies we accept the world around us and use what we learn to get what we want. We learn by doing. My students need to read and write to get better at spelling. Too much explanation muddies their practise of it. I hope want them to conserve their energy putting it to good use. I’m sure Yoda would agree with me in this–“Do or not do. There is no try.” Trying to do English is not doing it at all. So instead of explaining the multiple patterns of long i sounds to my native Italian speaker I told him simply to read the words and spell them to me.

Here are some (non-definitive) guidelines about English spelling–

1. When you think you have a pattern, an exception is just around the corner.

2. Knowing English sounds help, but not really.

3.Use all your senses to help you remember words. Sing a spelling out so it will stay in your head. Tap out the rhythm of a word. Use play dough to spell them. Do what you must!

4. Read more.

I’ll stop there because I’ll end up saying something “I before e, except after c,” or some other nonsense.

February 2, 2018 / mareflynn

Teaching Analytical Writing: a balance between structure and free expression.

Writing a literary essay is not something that comes naturally to many people. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and proclaim that no twelve year old has written an essay to analyse a work of art spontaneously simply for the joy of it. There, I’ve said it.

What comes natural to nearly all of us, however is having an opinion. New-born babies scream and cry to communicate their displeasure at the fact they haven’t had any milk in a while. Toddlers break down, writhing on the linoleum to let you know their opinions about the vegetables they are expected to eat. My own sons, aged eight and ten, are full of opinions about everything from having to share a room to what programmes to watch. This is what is called making a “point” if you’ve ever taught paragraphing according to the PEE method (point, evidence & explain). God I love a PEE paragraph–they really get me going. (More on that later.)

Making a point is easy to do.  My year 8s have been reading Macbeth and they are all alight with opinions about its characters — especially Lady Macbeth.  “Miss, she is evil,” one boy stated.  When I put forth the idea that Lady Macbeth would not have had a lot of power at that time Janie (name changed) confidently asserted, “Miss you can’t just go around murdering people–even if you don’t have power.”  Another boy in the class said that he thought Lady Macbeth bullied Macbeth into doing things he did not really want to do.  These are all valid points and to be honest, I love when the children I teach make such astute comments, it really makes all those early teacher mornings worth it.

So how do we get these lovely children with their clever points to be able to then back up their ideas with evidence and explanation?  If you are a primary teacher, you have probably used writing frames in your lessons.  These are structures designed by teachers to guide children with their writing to remember what to mention and know what features to use.  One of my favourite writing frames is a Point, Evidence, Explain “Burger” (see photo).  When I taught in a mainstream setting it gave a strong visual for my pupils practising paragraph writing.  The point is the top of the bun while the evidence is the burger and the explanation the base of the bun.  A beginning writer is guided when writing their ideas and can structure their paragraphs so that they are effective.  I’ve since adapted this for my pupils who use large print and braille.  Here’s an example:

Point–Lady Macbeth bullies Macbeth to do things he doesn’t want to do.

Evidence– In Act 1 Lady Macbeth says to Macbeth,  “Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.” Also, in act 3, scene 4 Lady Macbeth taunts him saying, “Are you a man?”

Explanation–Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth challenges her husband to act like a man and ignore his feelings.  She undermines his confidence in his own thoughts and opinions by declaring their weakness.  If he could only be a man, she contends he could be king.

To help my year 8s move on from their statements, I gave them a writing frame in which I supplied the quotes.  For some of them I also gave them the points since I wanted them to learn how to explain their points.  The more able children were given just the quotes and then they had to write their own points and explanations.  I had to decide what they needed to focus on and that is what they will write.  However, all of them have to follow this format so that they can learn how to back up their points in a structured and coherent manner.

Their writing frame consisted of the following:

Paragraph 1–Introduction–Write a summary of the play.  (I modelled how to write a good summary since this is a tricky thing to do for learners.  They have trouble knowing what to include and what to leave out.)

Paragraph 2–What is Lady Macbeth’s role in the play?

Paragraphs 3-5–PEE paragraphs featuring points about how Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband into murder.

Paragraph 6 — Conclusion

So far this week, the children have written their first three paragraphs and they writing frame is allowing them to concentrate on getting their thoughts organised and clear in their mind.  They are able to be successful in their writing and are picking up a structure from which they will be able to add to and change in future English essays and exams.  The children who are large print users tick off the sections they complete as they go, while the braillists simply use a piece of Blu-tac to to keep their place on the writing frame.

In the end, in teaching our pupils to write essays we ultimately want to teach them how to think.  This structured approach aids them to do this by freeing them up to think only about the aspects that they are working on at the moment (such as learning to explain what their evidence means).  It is terribly exciting to see them moving from stating their points about characters to really starting to look for evidence of what they’ve said.  Teaching writing is a balance of providing structure so that the pupils can learn to think and allowing them freedom to express their thoughts in their own way. Having used this structured approach my aim is that one day the children will cast the frame aside and write fluently.