The Little Bad Wolf and the Big Chocolate Cake

David Rose
          Last week I was talking about the importance of story-telling  to literacy.

          But more formal lessons are important too. This link will take you to David Rose’s site,where he explains some of the techniques he’s used, in Australia, to ‘accelerate learning’ across all backgrounds and ages.

          First, the teacher prepares a text.

          This means choosing a text which interests and engages the students and reading it with them. Terms new to the students are explained, and any background or context needed is also supplied. For instance, a wolf may be big and bad, but what is a wolf anyway? Students may never have heard of one before. (My aunt taught Black Country children of primary age who didn’t know what a cow was. They knew only one word for any kind of four-legged animal: ‘dog.’ I wish I could believe this would be impossible now, but I fear it's not.)

Not a dog. Pig fancier.
          After preparing the text comes a detailed reading of it. The teacher gives students a lot of help in identifying words and groups of words.
           For instance, say the class are studying the story of the three little pigs. The teacher might say: 'Let's look at the title first. That's this line at the top. It tells you what the story's about. It says, 'The Three Little Pigs.' Who can find the word 'pigs'?
     "Yes! That's right. It's the word at the end. Let's highlight it.
      "What kind of pigs are they?
     "Right! Excellent! They are little pigs. Can we find the word that says 'little?' Great! - let's highlight that one too.'
          And so on. Lots of looking at the text, lots of praise, lots of repetition of a fairly simple task. But the repetition is driving the lesson home. If you repeatedly search for and look at something, you are going to remember it. The students are being 'laddered' to improved reading. You don't leap from the ground to the roof of your house in one mighty bound - but you can climb up there, one rung at a time, on a ladder. And you're more likely to keep climbing if, at every step, you're given reason to feel pleased with yourself.

The late Michel Thomas
          This has a lot in common with Michel Thomas' method of teaching language. Thomas insisted that the student should be completely relaxed and stress-free. They should not attempt to remember what they were being taught, or do homework. It was the teacher's responsibility, Thomas said, to structure the lessons in such a way that the student learned. Any kind of stress or anxiety, he believed, makes learning harder. Haven't we all experienced that? I know that I can type fast and accurately if I'm alone, but if someone's watching me, I might as well be typing in mittens

          Above, I've used 'Three Little Pigs' as an example, and assumed that the children are quite young.  A considerably more difficult text might be used with teenagers, one far beyond their reading-age, but not beyond their comprehension, if all the references, metaphors and irony are explained.
          (Older, well-read people tend to forget, I think, about the perfectly natural gaps in the knowledge of younger folk.)

          Students highlight words and word-groups. My cousin asks his students to identify ‘Who or What’ words in red, ‘Process’ words in green, and ‘Circumstance’ words in blue.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs.

                  The little redhen and her threechicks baked a cake.

(Not having studied with Alan, I may not have this quite right, but you get the idea.)
          Students would be given detailed help with each of the above sentences. 'Now this sentence says that the little red hen and her three little chicks baked a cake. What's a cake? How do you bake one, do you know? (Either the students or the teacher explain these things.)
          'Now, what was it they baked? Yes, a cake! Can you find the word, 'cake' right at the end of the sentence? Can you find 'a cake'? Very good! Let's highlight that in red.'

          Once students are more familiar with the text, the sentences are taken apart and played with. Words are cut out, moved around, and used to make new sentences – either on pieces of paper or a computer screen. The students are spared the chore of writing and can concentrate on the words.

          Once upon a time there were three little pigs and three big wolves.

          The little red hen and her three fluffy chicks baked a big chocolate cake with chocolate icing.

          You can mix it up.

           Once upon a time there were three fluffy big wolves who baked a little chocolate hen.

          My cousin tells me that his students enormously enjoy this, producing long, long sentences. The pigs can be little and pink and dirty, the wolves can be big and grey and hairy and fanged. The cake can have chocolate icing, and sprinkles, and candles, and cream and a red bow. Without realising it, by simple repetition and gentle correction, the students are learning how language bolts together. The little red hen can become a giant blue hen, or an enormous green cat. The chicks can be yellow as well as fluffy, and there can be three of them or three thousand.

           Sentences can be turned round. A tasty chocolate cake was baked by three little chicks and a little red hen. There were three little pigs once upon a time.
          Sentences can be formed by words on a card (or by dragging words about on a computer screen.
          The farmer rides his horse.
          The horse rides his farmer.
         Such reversals cause great amusement - these games are fun!
          The cards might have folding sections - or if the computer might offer a choice of other phrasings. You can then unfold a section - or drag in a phrase - to make:
          The horse was ridden by the farmer
           The farmer was riding his horse.
           The more I learn about these methods, the more I learn how complex and demanding devising suitable teaching materials is - but with this approach, the onus is on the teacher to make learning easy and relaxed for the student. And it works!

           Spelling is tackled by being broken into ‘startings’ and ‘endings.’

          So you can take the starting, ‘str –‘ and add -eet, -ing, -ap, -ong.

         To the starting 'ch', using cards or computer, you can add - ick, -urch, -um, -ap, -ina, -ip.
          The teacher draws attention to these 'startings' and 'endings' repeatedly. Repeatedly. Drip, drip, drip. It's the teacher's job to take the trouble, not the student's job to memorise by rote.
          The colour-coding and the use of images and games where words are moved to match the pictures exploit the fact that our memories are far more visual than verbal.

          Once the students can all read the passage fluently and understand it, they move on to writing.

          They are set the task of writing a passage closely based on the one they’ve studied in such detail. Notes are made on the board, and the students collaborate, supporting each other, and being supported by the teacher.
          They discuss the purpose of their writing - remember, reading and writing are social activities. Is the purpose of their piece to instruct, to pass on factual information, or to describe atmosphere or feelings?

          Using the notes, and working together, the students write their own version of the text.

          Next they move on to individual writing. Working alone, they write their own version of the text they’ve worked on as a group. Stronger students may move to this stage earlier, while the teacher continues to help the weaker ones.

          The final stage is Independent Writing. Here each student is set the task of writing a new passage, but one similar to that they’ve been working on - that is, a series of instructions or a description. They will use many of the words and phrases they have learned during the previous stages.

          The students then move on to a new text, and the cycle above is repeated. Of course, many of the words and phrases they’ve already learned will be used in the new text, and the students’ knowledge will be reinforced. Their confidence will increase as they encounter words and phrases they recognise.

Alan Hess
          This method has been found highly effective in both Canada and Australia – and my cousin, Alan Hess, has seen for himself, over the last four years, what an improvement can be made in the standards of both literacy in students’ own language and the speaking and understanding of a foreign language.

          In a relatively short time, it ‘ladders’ children up from having weak language and literacy skills to a point where they can ‘read to learn’ with confidence.

           And also read for pleasure, of course. What writer could fail to be enthused by the idea of a growing market of eager readers?

          Just for interest, here's a link to a fascinating Horizon programme about Michel Thomas and his teaching methods.

          This week Blott is in memory of Alan George Price, 1928-2008.