Hi there tout la gang,

We don't have much to say about research in practice at the Café right now

but we are talking policy and practice over here now: Literacy Enquirers.

Monday, October 22, 2007

gone fishing

Just kidding!

We are over at the Literacies web forum until November 9.

Join us for a discussion about the joy, craziness, despair and love (not necessarily in that order) that is literacy work in the 21st century.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Yes ... it is turning into Sue Palmer week. This time we take an excerpt from Time to Teach.

...No one in teaching ever liked targets, but on the whole we went along with them because they were part of the initiative to raise standards, and that was clearly a good and necessary thing – five years ago far too many children were leaving primary school with appalling basic skills. [The] Labour [party]’s thrice repeated education pledge meant a real opportunity to improve literacy and numeracy teaching, including money to help failing readers, and information for teachers about phonics, grammar and spelling – essential elements of literacy that had been neglected for decades. Specific targets for pupil achievement were part of the package, and in the early days perhaps they did help focus schools’ attention and ginger us all up a bit.

And in those first few years we did make progress – gradually the numbers of children achieving the‘average’ score of Level 4 in national tests at age 11 rose from the 50s to the 60s to the 70 percents. So maybe the targets weren’t utterly a bad thing... Carried along by spin and good intentions, we all stuck with it.

As time went on, however, you couldn’t help noticing the ill-effects. Targets seemed to force teachers increasingly to teach to the test, sacrificing the ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ and the emphasis on creativity that’s essential if primary children are to learn. Stress levels throughout the profession rose, as priorities went cock-eyed. Headteachers, government advisers, officials at County Hall all seemed to be rushing around with rising blood-pressure, looking for some philosopher’s stone that would, in the second week of May, turn the base metal of a Level 3 into the shining gold of a Level 4. Some headteachers even tried cheating... statistics were the important thing now... and many excellent primary teachers decided it was time to leave.

Then, last autumn, the 2001 test results were published. Horror! We were no longer making progress. National scores had not improved on last year, and in maths they’d actually dropped.

The DfES did not pause to wonder whether their short-termism might have proved counterproductive. Instead, their response was short-sighted, swift and terrifying: new, tougher targets for 2004 and unprecedented levels of government prescription to meet them. Within weeks they’d developed scripted lesson plans for 11 year olds and published them on the DfES website – what amounts to the first volume of a national textbook. Since most Year 6 teachers have been reduced by all the target nonsense to grovelling wrecks, they’re embracing with tired resignation a level of state interference which, three years ago, would have been unthinkable: “OK, I’ll follow the government lessons to the letter, then no one can blame me if my kids don’t get their Level 4.”

For one who became a primary teacher because of a passionate belief in democracy, this was when panic set in. This was when I started waking in the middle of the night, wild-eyed and shivery, wondering how we’d got here. How had I, and countless other well-meaning teachers and educational professionals, managed to spend three years marching down this terrible educational cul-de-sac? How had we let statistics become more important than children? How had we allowed a focus on short-term solutions – based on a couple of highly questionable national tests – lead to prescribed lessons, stamped with the words ‘Government Approved’? And where might this subtly-crafted culture of dependence take us next....?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

the paradox of orthodoxy

More from Sue Palmer. This excerpt is from To prescribe or not to prescribe.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. In autumn 2003, five years after the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy, a colleague and I presented a series of conferences around the country on the theme of Literacy: What Works? We asked the 500 primary teachers who attended to list the three best and three worst results of the NLS. Since numeracy is not my strong point, I had no idea how long it would take to collate 2 x 500 x 3 written responses. Six months and ten floppy disks later, I’m still at it – and still puzzling over the paradoxical nature of the results, particularly as regards the prescriptive nature of the NLS.

On the one hand, teachers clearly appreciate some aspects of centralised prescription. Just under 300 comment favourably on the structure provided by the Framework of Objectives, the document which set out teaching objectives for each year of primary school. As many put it, ‘we now know what to teach and when’, and words like clarity, focus, continuity and progression crop up repeatedly. There’s also considerable praise for many teaching strategies introduced by the Strategy.

On the other hand, well over 300 responses in the ‘worst things’ section relate to the ill-effects of prescription from on high, pointing out that many teachers now think in boxes, follow plans blindly, feel insecure and deskilled, and are afraid to innovate. The general impression, reading through these dispatches from the front, is that teachers may know what to teach and when, they may be equipped with worthwhile strategies, but all too often the final outcome is not better teaching but the dead hand of orthodoxy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

just clever enough

Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist from the UK and writes about impact of technology on children. In 2002, Sue became convinced that social and cultural changes underpinned by technological progress were affecting many children’s potential to learn, especially to learn the skills of literacy. Her research expanded to cover other aspects of child development, culminating in 2006 in the publication of Toxic Childhood: how modern life is damaging our children…and what we can do about it.

She writes about children and teachers of children but I find some of what she has to say quite relevant to our profession as well ... what do you think?

Here is an excerpt from Sue Palmer's article Too Clever to Care. Replace 'teaching assistant' with 'volunteer tutor' and doesn't this sound a little familiar?

Nurses ‘too clever’ to care said the headline. Apparently nurses today are so highly qualified for managerial and clinical tasks that basic nursing care is often delegated to unqualified ‘healthcare assistants’. Some nurses are unhappy about this, as they believe close contact with patients is important to understanding their medical condition.

It’s a familiar dilemma. In our own profession, where teachers are increasingly caught up in bureaucracy and additional responsibilities, much day-to-day contact with children now falls to teaching assistants. I often meet teachers who feel they’ve been dragged away from the job they love, and consigned to long hours of planning, target-setting, record-keeping and so on. Some even take early retirement and come back as teaching assistants, so they can enjoy working with children without all the attendant bureaucratic chores. ...

...Over the last few years, however, it’s been increasingly accepted that teaching assistants should assume more of the hands-on element of teaching – and the workload agreement points the way to even more of this. At the same time, our government seems obsessed by the prospect of using information technology to assess and track pupils’ progress and, through the medium of the forthcoming digital curriculum, even to take over some aspects of teaching.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

and why, sometimes, we can't

Here are some quotes from The Working Conditions of Adult Literacy Teachers: Preliminary Findings from the NCSALL Staff Development Study by Cristine Smith, Judy Hofer, & Marilyn Gillespie

For us it was a major struggle to get full-time jobs and get health benefits . . . I think we had clear concerted efforts about the development of solid jobs - where this could be a real job for people.
-Program director

If anything were to happen to my husband there is no way I could support a household; there's no way I could support myself on that wage. I'd have to go on food stamps.
-Family literacy / ESOL teacher

I just don't see how you can expect people to commit to any kind of staff development and find out more about best practices when you pay them for four hours a week . . . I don't go for paying someone 40 hours a week and expecting them to work 80 or paying them for 20 and expecting them to work 40. I just don't believe in it and I think it's been done so much to women.
-Program director
As a teacher, we are always looking toward making sure that learners' needs are met. I can't do that if my needs are not met . . . No wonder learners are giving up. No wonder they're afraid to go talk to administrators when teachers are even afraid to follow up on their issues . . . If I'm going to teach students to voice their opinions and to make changes, I need to do it also.

-ESOL teacher

Friday, October 12, 2007

so why do we do it?

The work of community-based literacy and workplace education is one of the most fulfilling and exciting experiences of my working career. I have found that at the core of each educator in this field is a deep sense of caring and dedication to the learner. As a community of educators, we build a strong sense of partnership by providing a foundation of support for one another and therefore our learners. We listen to each other, we talk about our experiences, we share resources and we are innovative because resources and funding can be scarce. We believe in and are drawn together by our vision of a well-educated community.

Margan Dawson, Literacies author
We need to feel valued and respected for the work that we do:
Workplace Educators speak out

Good teaching offers love. Not only the love of learning and of books and of ideas, but also “… the love that a teacher feels for that real student who walks into a teacher’s life, begins to breathe, and then walks out.” As Beidler [Professor of English at Lehigh University] says, “I teach because, being around people who are beginning to breathe, I occasionally find myself, quite magically, catching my breath with them.”
from Why I teach by Bruce Saulnier

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Sorry, gentle reader, to be so long between posts but I have been quite under the weather this week. The cursed ailment comes and goes like allergies but feels like a head cold with all attendant nasties.

Back in writing form next week.

Until then, check out this job description for
Teacher Adult Literacy

"Many adult literacy and remedial education teachers work part time and receive no benefits; unpaid volunteers also teach these subjects."
Sound familiar? What about this?
Working Conditions

A large number of adult literacy and remedial education teachers work part time. Some have several part-time teaching assignments or work full time in addition to their part-time teaching job. Classes for adults are held on days and at times that best accommodate students who may have a job or family responsibilities.

Because many of these teachers work with adult students, they do not encounter some of the behavioral or social problems sometimes found with younger students. Adults attend by choice, are highly motivated, and bring years of experience to the classroom—attributes that can make teaching these students rewarding and satisfying. However, many adult education programs are located in cramped facilities that lack modern amenities, which can be frustrating for teachers.
Isn't it nice that the authors are so right about adult students?

Monday, October 8, 2007

working in literacy

Our forum blog is ready. The discussion does not start until October 22 but you can visit the pages and get ready. The articles are on the Literacies site. Here is something to get us in the mood for the forum:

The face of adult literacy has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. In addition to literacy/upgrading, programs are being called upon to offer employment development skills, family literacy, life skills training and various short courses. Practitioners are also expected to offer expanded needs assessments as well as counseling supports. Literacy has expanded to include the workplace and the family as well as the individual. Clearly the roles of literacy practitioners have changed.

When asked why they stay in the field, practitioners consistently report that they enjoy teaching, feel gratified to see learner progress, enjoy the challenges of adult education and feel they are making a positive contribution in an area of great importance to society. It appears that one of the greatest strengths of the programs is this base of committed experienced practitioners. Learners consistently report that one thing that keeps them coming to class is the relationships they have established with the instructor, and the supportive atmosphere that a skilled instructor can create in the classroom. The commitment and skills of the instructor and the relationships he or she nurtures in the classroom lie at the heart of the successes of all literacy programs, whether adult literacy, family literacy, or workplace education.

From the Millennium Project Final Document. October, 2000.
Stevenson-Britannia Adult Literacy Program (Manitoba).
Janet Regehr, Project Consultant

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

evolving literacies

These days adult literacy work is a delicate balancing act between what people in our programs say they want and what funders say they should do. Since before Canada was a nation, education has been used to build a particular kind of society. As Harvey Graff writes in 'The Moral Bases of Literacy':

Approved books spread the doctrines of order, harmony and progress, ignoring conflict and inequlity....one key role for literacy. Yet we must also recognize that the child did not need to be proficiently literate to read and comprehend the moral message and thus be instilled with the desired values. At mid-century, before silent reading was valued as a pedagogical tool--and for some years thereafter--oral reading dominated the classroom...

In a recent essay, educator Emilia Ferreiro points out that the biggest technological development in the history of reading was not the printing press but the separation of text into words, paragraphs and chapters using spacing and punctuation. She argues that:
Texts written during the classical period were made to be 'spoken out loud' just like a sheet of music. And, also like music, the letters were the least of it....What really counted was the interpretation. And then came social control over interpretation--a badly done reading would become equivalent to heresy a few centuries later....

Silent reading nourished two unforeseen consequences: heresy and eroticism. The new intimacy with the text set off two complementary movements in a single act of complicity: the freedom of the reader, whose interpretation was for the moment out of reach of censorship, and the freedom of the writer, who could allow himself to express, in the intimacy of his cell or his bedroom, what no voice could express out loud.

But, she warns, perhaps the advent of the computer screen will have even greater impacts on literacy and society. Reading on computer screens "transforms the act of reading into a public act" and requires readers to assume rigid postures to relate to text. What does this mean? Ferreiro believes that
The real challenge is that of growing inequality, for the chasm that separates the illiterate from the literate has grown ever wider. Some have no newspapers, books or libraries, while others are flying with hyper-text, e-mail and virtual pages of nonexistent books. Will we be capable of coming up with policies to reverse this growing inequality? Or will we let ourselves be carried away by the vortex of competitiveness and profitability, even though the very idea of participatory democracy perishes in the process?

Great questions.

Ferreiro, Emilia, “Past and Future of the Verb ‘To Read’”, in Past and Present of the Verbs to Read and to Write. Toronto: Groundwood, 2003, pp. 37-56.

Graff, Harvey J., “The Moral Bases of Literacy: Society, economy and social order”, in The Literacy Myth: Literacy and social structure in the nineteenth century city. New York: Academic Press, 1979, pp 21-48.

Monday, October 1, 2007

a thought to start the week

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

e. e. cummings