Saturday, 14 July 2012
Letter from a teacher
Firstly I want to thank you for the blog posting and letter writing; the journalism and speaking that you engage in on behalf of the children in our country. We need all the voices we can get, although they fall on deaf ears much of the time.
I have no research to offer you, merely observations and experience. For the last five years I have been teaching in an inner city primary school, following a first career in the book trade. I work in a school that has over 85% of children with English as their second language; many children starting with no English at all and entering school at different ages. In the foundation level we often have children with little oral literacy in either English or their home languages; our foundation teachers frequently having to develop skills more able children acquire before coming into school. By the end of year 6 we are able to present data that shows over 80% of our children make the much vaunted two levels of progress and a high percentage of level fours.
In my (short) teaching career I have observed several interesting phenomena. Primary school teachers have regular spelling tests. Yet none of these “spellings lessons” impact on the daily writing of the same children who [rote learn and] score 10 out of 10. We have an etymological language, not a phonetic one, therefore all the spelling tests in the world will not teach a child to spell. They need to understand the words to be able to apply them.
Quality of writing and levels of grammar: this is a knotty problem. Every school child learns their oral literacy from their home and tribal environments. My class speak pure school yard English, most of which Michael Gove would struggle to comprehend. This has a grammar and etymology all of its own. The language model supplied by the home environment is informed by the dictats of home language, parental oral literacy and the language of TV and games. I defy Michael Gove to SPAG test Eastenders!
We teach children whose home language does not have a definite article (Urdu doesn’t have a, an or the). We teach children whose home language model is colloquial. I regularly have arguments when I correct children who are “going Goose Fair”. As far as they are concerned I am wrong to call it the Goose Fair. Teaching the more formal requirements of grammar and spellings in this context comes from modelling by me, and the other adults around me.
It is interesting that the most able writers in my classroom are the children who love reading; who borrow my books regularly and give me little notes asking me to read certain stories for class story. They are the children with parents who want them to learn, who support and encourage them and talk to me about ways they might help. They are the children who know where the local library is, use it and come and tell me about events they have been to.
Like I said, I have no research to back me up, no sample studies to support my opinions. Instead I have the examples of four classes of children and conversations with colleagues to back up what I think. My classroom is my research; like most teachers I am constantly assessing and adjusting the models I use to teach for the children I work with.
Keep on being the stone in the shoe; make the powers that be uncomfortable. We need to continue to impress on as many people as possible that the prescriptive methodologies being imposed are hindering not helping the progressive learning of our children. How many times have we sent groups to Finland, Sweden or Canada to see why they triumph in the literacy of their children? Only to ignore the lessons learnt. I can offer firsthand experience of this too, being married into a Finnish family. My cousins-in-law are tri lingual. Most Finns I meet can speak English to a degree that allows me to function in their country. Their model of teaching is one of the best in the world and we would do well to learn from and follow it.
Year 6 teacher