What comes first, the pencil or the passion?
Thinking about the content for my second blog coincided with the start of the academic year in my school. Different teachers begin in different ways, but our efforts are united by the need to build a respectful community and enthusiasm for learning. I do this through my love of literacy: reading books aloud, telling stories as a ‘storyteller’ and getting excited about creative writing. My single aim is to inspire every student in the class, regardless of their special educational needs, to want to read and write. This means having fun with language and literacy.
Fun? Why bother?
Every educator, parent and professional knows that children (and us adults) learn best when they have fun. Yet, as children grow older there is more and more pressure on them to master skills, pass tests to prove they have acquired knowledge and manage school days overloaded with ‘work’ created by adults who are themselves overloaded with work. The fun leaks out of the education system. For everyone.
For children with dyslexia, they are already struggling to manage the mastery and acquisition aspects, along with their own interest in learning, which creates great danger of disengagement. I have seen this firsthand with my own dyslexic brother who left mainstream primary English education in the 1980’s to be taught in a ‘special school’ alongside mentally and physically disabled children (who themselves deserved to be integrated in the mainstream). His disengagement was so severe that he hated high school and played truant for almost two years before the police found him in a local park. He ended high school without a single qualification.
Good Practice is Good Practice.
In my last blog, I made reference to the heightened creativity of the dyslexic brain. All the more reason to establish a love for creativity in the classroom community. Making language entertaining, visual and stimulating inspires students who have advanced imaginary capacity – i.e., dyslexic students. Children’s imagination is their gift; dyslexic children doubly so.
While training to teach children on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder, I was told that the strategies I was learning are good practice for all students. This is true for children with dyslexia. Making language entertaining and all the activities I will outline below work for all students. That’s the key. Children with dyslexia are first and foremost children. The child needs to be addressed before the dyslexia.
Where to Begin.
The fun starts before the lesson begins and it starts with the layout and resources of the classroom. In order to have fun with writing every classroom should have:
1. A Class Library (or a home library or access to either a local or online library) bursting with a diverse collection of books, especially funny, anarchic and unusual texts. For example, the Mr Gum series by Andy Stanton or outrageous re-workings of fairy tales like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Stupid Tales by J. Scieszka and L. Smith. Fun writing stems from fun reading.
2. Paper Choice – as Lucy Calkins has been advising for years: give children the choice of what they write on. My students love small, plain unmarked booklets made of stapled together A4 sheets. Choice motivates more than dictation.
3. Always allow students to make independent choices – let them use their own ideas and encourage divergent, creative thinking.
4. Open Choice Writing lesson where students choose exactly what they write as long as they write.
5. Allowing children to sometimes write collaboratively, building relationships and sharing ideas through writing.
6. Having literacy ‘manipulatives’ to help children stuck for ideas, such as a set of inspiring pictures or postcards, story cubes, etc.
7. Opportunities for children to ‘act out’ their stories in motivating Reader’s Theatre or storytelling style. This connection between the words on the page and acting often inspires children to write more…so they or their friends can act more!
8. In reference to the first point, have ready your favourite book to read aloud to the class with enthusiasm, expression and love.
9. Care less about spelling and handwriting. Many adults are obsessed with it, thinking it is the key to writing. It is not. Having something to communicate is the key to writing, be that imaginative or informative or both.
10. See point 9. It is so important it is worth stating again.
Ideas for Reading and Writing.
Like any teacher, I have absorbed ideas over years of Professional Development Training, reading professional texts and working with innovative colleagues. I make no grand claim to originality here but neither can I source the many individuals who’ve inspired me over the years.
Below are ideas for games and activities that can take a part of a lesson or a whole series, and easily used at home or in other contexts. You will notice that many of the activities have no clean distinction between reading and writing and, in addition, there are a lot of ‘speaking and listening’ aspects to the ideas. All four elements are inextricably entwined, both in a pedagogical and practical sense.
1. Picking Your Own Books
It takes time and regular check-ins, but there are huge benefits to teaching children to pick their own ‘just right’ books. This means moving beyond reading levels, reading numbers and colours, and allowing children to select based on interest levels. What do you WANT to read? Children who have been handed books by adults for years often find this a difficult transition but it is worth persisting.
2. Book Talk for Fun
An increasing amount of teaching instruction involves assessment, which, as every student knows, is a test, be it a running-reading record or a standardized reading comprehension test. For dyslexic children, this could be a further experience of difficulty and failure. So try having conversations about books that aren’t even veiled tests. Share what you love about books, what you find hard or dislike, the books that amaze you. Model a love for all types of books. Be an adult who still loves picture books to help a struggling reader feel less self-conscious about their lower reading levels.
3. The Chapter Book With No Rules.
This is a highly enjoyable writing activity that can be individually, partner or group written. Chapters can be as long or short as you want. Chapters can argue with each other, be out of order; chapters feature characters that talk to the reader, act uncooperatively and change their minds. The sillier and more anarchic, the better. I always make it clear that ‘toilet’ humour is not acceptable. An inspiring read-aloud could be The Book Has no Pictures by B.J. Novak.
4. The Character Who Argues Back.
Inspired by the wonderful Melanie Watt Chester series (which should be read aloud beforehand), allow students to invite a character that argues with them as they write. Literally using a difficult colour on the page, as Chester does, adds to the enjoyment. The naughtier the trickster character, the better. This could be a great activity for a parent to do with their child (and the child is playing the role of naughty trickster, of course!)
5. The Three Ingredients Short Story.
Ask students to write down random ingredients for a story: a banana, a talking mountain, an unhappy pirate. Put all the ideas in a bag and lucky dip three. Now write a short story involving all three. A step before this is for children, in groups, to orally devise a story in a short time period and then present it to the class as a short piece of theatre. The randomness of the stories elicits a lot of humour, one of the main sources of inspiration.
6. Mixed Up Story Books.
In the same vein as the excellent Mixed Up Fairy Tale Book by H. Robinson and N. Sharratt (which students spend hours reading), students create a book with moving sections and then write different story parts. The reader then moves the different sections to change the flow of the story. Hard to describe here but once you see the book and a student doing it, you will love it.
7. Mixed Up Sentences.
The same as above but tackling sentences. So each page contains a complex, richly described sentence. The moving panels alternate the verb or adverb or noun, creating hilarious alternative sentences.
8. WOW! Sentence Writing
You write a terribly dull, boring sentence on the board and the students – in class or for homework – have to turn it into a WOW! sentence. This can be easily differentiated for different age levels and sentence level expectations. This can be adjusted to make a game out of writing ‘Opening Chapter Sentences’. Challenge younger writers to write a better start than ‘One day…” Challenge older writers to all write their best genre specific opening. The focus is here is on ideas and vocabulary, not grammar and spelling.
9. Secret Sentence Game.
There are many alternatives to this and it can started as an oral speaking game and move into writing. One student starts a story with a sentence. They then hand it to another to continue. They keep swapping back and forth. This can be done in partners, with one or two stories going back and forth. I have also done it in-the-round in small groups, which adds to the variety and fun.
10. Fortunately Versus Unfortunately
Again, this is a common oral game in which one student (or you) starts a story where a fortunate or lucky thing happens, and a student then continues the story with an unfortunate event. For example:
Fortunately, it is the start of our writing lesson and I am going to read some amazing writing.
Unfortunately, all the pencils have grown legs and run out of the class!
This is my students’ favourite listening and speaking game and, inspired by one student, we turned it into a writing game. One parent recently told me about the famous Taoist Chinese folk tale, A Blessing in Disguise in which bad luck keeps changing and becomes good luck.
11. The New Class Rules.
Great fun for the end of the year – ask the children to write a new book of class rules. Whenever you enter the class, thank the door. Tap your head three times when you sit on the carpet. Stroke the table so it’s happy.
12. Dictionaries and thesauruses
Schools are full of chunky paper dictionary and thesauruses but these can be challenging and off-putting for dyslexic students. Instead, use electronic versions or the online sites, such as http://www.dictionary.com (which has a thesaurus tab). Take it a step further with educational technologies, such as k3000+firefly, who have talking dictionaries and picture dictionaries.
13. Building vocabulary
Spelling should not be the focus when building vocabulary as this could undermine the enjoyment of mastering new words. Take a familiar word like ‘happy’ and start brainstorming alternatives. Students will have a range already known to them, but then more can be gained by using an electronic thesaurus.
14. Ban Erasers.
Erasers have their place – in publishing hand-written work, in art lessons, etc. But in writing lessons they can often be connected to a culture of perfectionism in spelling and handwriting, which inhibits creativity and slows down writing. Instead, model crossing-out words, underlying words that might be wrong and just not worrying about this aspect until the editing phase of writing.
15. The Spectacular Spelling Story.
Don’t have a spelling test! Tell the students to use their week’s words – spelt correctly and in the proper context – in any story they want. Students can also draw their spelling words, build them using plasticine or playdough, make word searches using them, etc.
Be Open with Your Mistakes.
Having fun with reading and writing is a two-way, participatory activity. It can be discreetly used as assessment by a teacher or adult, but that is not the primary goal. The teacher/adult must be enjoying as well. This enjoyment is infectious and inspiring. It is also important for the teacher to always be open and accepting of mistakes. Model crossing out words, not deleting work. Model yourself chuckling at your own errors, asking other people or tools to help.
But above all, model fun and love for reading and writing. With that, you and your students can go a long way.
Bring these activities to life with talking dictionaries, graphic organizers, and other reading and writing features in k3000+firefly.