Stephen Graham – Literacy For The Middle Years

Stephen Graham - Australian literacy consultant.

These are my rough notes, captured as I went and as laptop battery and my concentration span allowed. No web access and he used a whiteboard and markers as well as the occasional OHP - I was sceptical about how up-to-date his literacy message would be - I think he stopped short of exploring that area so this workshop was definitely about exploring the literacies required to succeed in school as it stands currently.

Australian literacy level in schools is second in the world after Finland. Australian teachers are sought after around the world for their literacy expertise – with 1300 of them working as literacy consultants in New York. Australian teachers are generally reflective and will continually re-visit until students gain the skills or concepts - he believed that his experience in the US is that teachers feel pressured to move on regardless of whether all kids "have got it".

Talked about Content and Literacy – in our schools,rightly or worngly, it is always set against the conventions of White, Middle Class Anglo-Saxon values English (WMCASE). He gave an example of a child in Sydney in an underpriveleged school going through an assessment exercise where the required response to a question was “I am sleeping” - his response was “I am buggered”.

So, our LAN (Literacy and Numeracy) tests only look at whether kids can manipulate WMCASE, and not concerned with the content. Regardless of content there are hidden literacy demands that aren't immediately obvious to all students, for example you use past tense for a history recount and present tense for a Science report. Kids can know the content backwards but need the skills to get it down into writing.

What are the demands of literacy?

Made the generalisation that most students enter middle school with their literacy and writing predominantly based on narratives and stories. This means that pronouns have very different meanings depending on whether it is an information text or a narrative. Not enough to just learn how to decode or spell unless they are taught skills to pull it all together to make sense. Talked about teaching reading a text without referring to the content - more content is not needed, as the goal needs to be that literacy knowledge is transferable. Stephen then talked about the underperformance of boys in Australian schools, citing that one of the reasons being that boys are focussed on the content – being unable to tell the difference between discussion, reports, analysis etc.

Text type > genre = text forms (fairytales, science fiction etc.)

Suggested that in the high school lesson, you give ten minutes of your 45-50 minute lesson to literacy if you expect your students to complete your demands. Immersing kids in the experience is not enough - explicit teaching can make a huge difference in understanding purpose and how it all works. Talked about how some Asian languages show tense through tone – one example where kids from that sort of background need the explicit structural information about how to write tense.

Teachers carry a strong sense of equity with them - however most of society doesn’t. Literacy demands of the workplace have never been higher and will only increase. Kids tend to write expositions with their strongest argument first, down to their weakest. They need to be shown how to structure things differently so that their exposition doesn’t run downhill. “You can only write (or speak) down the language choices in your head.”

Put up a great example of Kevin with Centrelink. This was a man who had been docked extra social security money that he was entitled to. As Stephen said, "You can only use the language in your head." So when Kevin rang, his literacy skills caused him to say, "What the f*** are you doing down there?" Of course, Centrelink has a zero abuse policy so he was hung up on, until Stephen said that he became involved (I don't recall how) and rang on his behalf and solved the issue with his literacy skills. It's ironic that in Australia the main social agency that only deals with disadvantaged and disenfranchised requires its clients to use WMCASE to engage their services.

Modelled reading - show them. Use of writing scaffolds. When using a scaffold, use two columns (1) words I won’t write and (2) words I will use on either side of the sheet as they plan their writing.

Website is then go to Link to Primary then click on bookwebplus= then Download Writing Scaffolds. PM Interactive Writing interactive whiteboard software program.

Talking about the Conference process with students – Stephen pointed out the process is not practical in a classroom of 30 students as it doesn’t allow enough quality time with each individual student. Too much time expended for an equal amount of educational outcomes. One of his suggestions was to reserve a page for each text type in the student's exercise book and add points to it as the year goes on. Just handing them the list doesn't get them to cognitively engage with the requirements of each type and internalise their learning. Use silent editing time to look for the things that one already covered then the teacher can introduce a new aspect.

Comprehension rule - if a child is getting more than one incorrect word per ten, you cannot teach the next level of text. Talked about the bell curve and the bottom group of achievers comprise of distinct groups including boys, indigenous kids and ESL students. In these groups there or two strands – the aliterate students, who haven’t practiced reading and are out of practice but possess the decoding skills, and the illiterate student who lacks the skills to decode and therefore comprehend effectively. Different approaches are needed for each group. Critical literacy - especially on the internet, essential to ask who wrote it, why they wrote it and how did they go about constructing it.

3 types of questions - 1. literal comprehension (the answer is in front of you) - 2. inferential (reading between the lines) and 3. response questions (internalising the text).  Aust'n kids are good at one and three but terrible at two - there are ten key strategies (p.6 on the booklet given out - to be inserted here later) to use to solve that type of comprehension. Looked at comprehension, and viewed the Features Of Text Types table from the “Comprehending Stories And Facts” booklet. Gave the example of the use of text boxes on a page where the students aren’t sure how and when to read the information in the box. Teachers assume too much of students in this including bolding, change of fonts, italics etc. Do the students know the order to view maps, diagrams, images? Biggest issue for teachers when working with students is “transfer of knowledge” – doing something in one context doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to in another. Kids need background knowledge and they need to spell and understand the forms of punctuation in differing contexts.

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2 thoughts on “Stephen Graham – Literacy For The Middle Years

  1. faith powell

    Dr. Graham:
    Your seminar in Kingston, Jamaica was extremely effective. However, I feel handicapped as I am unable to `level’ the reading books for my ‘special’ class. Please advise me accordingly.
    Faith Powell
    Greater Portmore Primary

  2. Graham

    Post author

    Hi Faith,
    While my first name is the same as Stephen’s surname, we are not the same person! This was just my blog post from a day spent at a seminar that he ran for our school cluster here in Adelaide, Australia. If you want to contact him directly for more clarification, try the link at the top of the blog post to access his email address.


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