As reports question teachers' literacy and SEN expertise, Paul Haigh calls for honesty and ICT solutions
As teachers our own education experience and academic success is probably key to us joining the profession. Our good – and bad – teachers have inspired us.
I didn’t realise how poor some of my education was until I became a teacher. I didn’t realise that I had problems with literacy that were never going to go away. Fortunately, new technology adds to the canon of coping strategies for literacy that prevent obstacles to learning and career progression. And now even severe dyslexics like Edward Vickerman can become award winning teachers (SSAT new teacher of the year 2009) today.
My own education during Thatcher’s 1980s wasn’t too bad considering. Books were one between two and tatty. Science equipment was old and broken. My sleepy, middle-class primary school had lots of old-fashioned learning packed with pre national curriculum content. Literacy was drilled into me daily in a traditional way some commentators say we should have more of: weekly spelling tests; endless, dull comprehension; lots of copying from the board and reading work.
However, there was very little assessment so it was not that apparent that literacy was somewhat weak for me compared with all other subject areas where I was strong; my end of school report gave me B in everything, plucked pretty much out of thin air judging by how much work was marked. I couldn’t recite the alphabet in full until the age of 12 despite a rote learning approach: activities to put things in alphabetical order or to look things up in phone books and dictionaries were no fun. I only coped with spelling tests by getting intense help from my parents.
The culture at my primary school was ‘shouty’. Despite the children being as nice as they come, class teachers and the head would shout at us every day. Spelling mistakes were “carelessness”, our fault. Messy handwriting was “naughty” and punishments included losing playtimes which were used for copying out and doing lines.
Mixed-ability teaching in English from the age of 4 to 14 meant I could look good compared to many in the class. So there was no need for any help, especially at the big city comprehensive where I was mixed with many weak learners. However, compared with those of my own cognitive ability I was poor on literacy.
The lack of assessment data was wonderful for me; I got away unnoticed. I discovered, and excelled in, science and geography, which lasted through to today – I teach both subjects.
‘This right-on approach meant I had no idea how I was doing’
The much anticipated new GCSE in English started. My course was 100 per cent coursework-assessed and my teacher went entirely down the new route of us learning by being assessed and evaluating our own work. We weren’t ‘taught’ anything, just spent the entire course handwriting assignments from week one. Feedback never included any marks or levels, just a one-on-one discussion of our pieces. Assessment for Learning it certainly was not. This right-on approach meant I had no idea how I was doing.
Learning difficulties were never mentioned, I couldn’t be "special needs" as I was bright and doing well, although no one in the school had an overview of my assessment profile to spot the dichotomy. In fact most teachers knew little of dyslexia: some believed it did not exist, and some Local Education Authorities even had policies stating it did not exist.
The dominant view was that some children might struggle with literacy because they were weak, while other, brighter children with poor writing and spelling were lazy, careless or badly taught. The outcome was that I did very well in all subjects except English which was my weakest and the only one I under-performed in.
I don’t blame the very traditional approach of the primary school or the too liberal approach of the secondary school. I would never be as good at literacy as my other subjects; there is a block there that could not be totally overcome. It’s the way I am, but I keep working at it and today I’m making far more progress than I ever did when I was at school. Now I enjoy reading and writing.
'I trust the computer'
It wasn’t until becoming a teacher in an excellent school in what was now a very different education system that I realised I was probably a mild dyslexic. As I learned about SEN I realised the mismatch between my non-verbal reasoning skills, that made the abstract concepts of physics and chemistry plain sailing to me, and my classic weaknesses in literacy, with blockages on the alphabet, memorising orders of letters and a word blindness over certain types of word, were typical of the dyslexia spectrum. To this day even, after studying a word like "definitely" for ages I still can’t write it down correctly. I look at the spell-checked, correct version in this sentence and can’t reconcile it as being correct: I trust the computer.
And that, you may now be gathering, is why this article is here. New technology has liberated me from my literacy problems and turned me into the most unlikely of things; a (part time) professional writer. You can’t see it in this version, but this article was formerly peppered with little red zig-zag lines under misspelled words by the spell-checker.
'It’s socially acceptable to scoff in public at people whose spelling is poor'
All dyslexics develop coping strategies; often covering up their problems, choosing words with care, steering clear of problem areas, avoiding reading aloud and keeping writing activities to an absolute minimum. I’m intrigued about how the education community treats people who are bright in other ways but have poor literacy. I’d gone from primary school where we were told off for carelessness to a more subtle intellectual snobbery at university and to my career where it’s socially acceptable to scoff in public at people whose spelling is poor.
Once, at short notice, I was asked to demonstrate a new IT tool to colleagues in the staffroom. This particular tool had no spell-checker so there were two spelling mistakes in my presentation. I was shouted down by an angry (English) teacher. It was “ridiculous” to have me presenting this as I “couldn’t even spell”. Do they speak to their learners like that?
This was more a backlash to the technology and the young upstart presenting it, but it’s no wonder dyslexics often avoid professional careers even though they may be exceptionally bright and creative; intellectual snobbery shuns them.
The coping strategies dyslexics use have become more sophisticated with new technology. Now virtually no one knows that I struggle with literacy. Part of the reason that I developed systems to computerise reports to parents were to benefit myself – speeding up the task and improving the literacy.
'When I do slip up, the children never scoff or sneer – often they help me out'
I never use a phone book or dictionary; Google does both far faster. Google’s “Did you mean?” feature (below, left) that directs searchers to a properly spelled term based on common mistakes of its millions of users is inspired. That doesn’t mean I’m a slave to a computer; my iPod Touch and mobile phone are at hand when I’m not working at a computer. The way I have been treated by my own teachers, lecturers and senior colleagues when I was a young teacher inspired me to go on to be a school leader who is honest about his literacy problems to children and parents, to show them it need not hold them back. Some would say teachers with poor literacy aren’t fit to be teachers, but that’s not giving learners realistic role models.
It’s only the children I teach who see my raw, unedited writing on the board who know about my poor literacy. I don’t make many errors: pedagogy and modern schemes of work don’t have much "chalk and talk" these days, and where they do it’s all content I know inside out. But when I do slip up, the children never scoff or sneer – often they help me out. I take pride in being honest with them and showing you that you can get on in a career without being perfect in all areas.
Exams – 'the only place and time in people’s lives without access to technology'
I believe new technology has much to offer people with far more profound literacy problems than mine but its potential is often overlooked. And not always through ignorance – often it is deliberate. The reasoning being this: that using technology is a ‘get out’, is only postponing the problem. The notion that learners won’t always have a computer device and should "stand on their own two feet" is becoming increasingly ridiculous – the formal examination is perhaps the only place and time in people’s lives when they can’t get access to technology.
Just as some people could never read a map but now have their satnavs to save them the anguish, we need to get over intellectual snobbery and embrace technology that can allow a dyslexic to become a teacher, and even a writer.
Literacy for everyone needs to be functional, and beyond that I say bring on the new technology to help. How many learners realise their computer has built in "reader" software? Highlight the text, click a menu and it can read it aloud to you. The teacher’s work sheets as digitally published PDFs can be listened to as well as read, but most teachers don’t know that.
When writing and editing in tools like Microsoft Word few teachers and students understand the full capability of the application for literacy, and not many use the "look up" tools to replace the slow and cumbersome dictionary and thesaurus.
Many teachers believe in the primacy of physical books like dictionaries. These are valid, but some think using an electronic version will somehow de-skill learners, even though they won’t use 'real' dictionaries when they leave school, just like professional research scientists who will probably never use the mercury thermometers and Bunsen burners we still give them at school.
'Schools must think about letting students use the wonderful mobile devices they own'
Some teachers think that moving with the times means adopting fads and discarding the tried and tested, but too often they forget to take a closer look at the work and society we are preparing learners for. Thankfully that’s not the case with the English department at my current school which has turned the entire GCSE poetry anthology into video podcasts that students can listen to on a range of devices, including their own mobile phones. They can listen to their teacher read the poem while seeing the text and and even annotations appear over the text.
Schools must think hard about letting their students use the wonderful mobile devices they own, and showing them how they can help them learn. The best learning platforms are now not only giving learners sound files of the spoken word as a resource; they also allow the learners to speak back, recording their voices or musical performances and submitting the sound files back to their teachers.
I’m not saying we should let learners who have difficulty with literacy side-step their issues, but we should recognise that we absorb information through a full range of media now, text being only one of them, so our learning should be multimedia. We need to prepare learners for the world they occupy. The teacher’s rant “How will you ever look up anything in a phone book if you don’t learn this?” will soon be met by the question “What’s a phone book?”
ICT literacy is increasingly more important than knowing whether K comes before M. Alphabetical order may underpin everything from filing, book indexes, class registers as a way of helping us manually navigate the static paper databases of the old days, but we meet them increasingly rarely – files are in virtual folders on computers, search boxes let us look up things and lists are on screens with icons to sort them how ever you want.
We need to train learners who have literacy problems that will never go away that new technology provides some of the coping strategies they will need throughout their life. It serves me well. Right, now I’ve a few hundred little red zig-zag lines to deal with...
Paul Haigh is senior assistant headteacher at Notre Dame High School, Sheffield, and also a writer, speaker and consultant on ICT issues in schools. Paul is the author of Social Network Websites: their Benefits and Risks. A guide for school leaders and he writes a blog. You can also find him on Twitter.
My personal use of ICT
- Keep a word processor open all the time when typing into forums, chat and blogs and even when writing with a pen and paper to quickly check spellings.
- Makes heavy use of "look up" tool in Microsoft Word (highlight word, right hand click, ‘look up’) to check that the word exists and means what you think.
- I use Google search’s "Did you mean?" function as a spell-checker as well as a way to accurately search the internet despite poor spelling.
- I use Dictionary Apps on my iPod touch and my Nokia phone.
- I never look anything up in indexed paper pages if I can avoid it – eg I use the internet as a telephone directory.
My professional use of ICT
- I convert worksheets to PDFs and encourage weak readers to listen to the document as well as read it with the reader tool, plugging their own headphones from their MP3 players into the school computers.
- I make increasing use of multimedia, from video clips of the teacher teaching to online tools like video podcasts and also interactive tools where children can submit work as spoken-word sound files, using Nanongong on our Moodle VLE or often using their mobile phones and emailing me the sound file. This has turned one Year 7 child in particular from one unlikely to attempt homework (so little can he enjoy a writing task) into someone who wants his homework played to the whole class over the AV system – and it's excellent! The confidence he now has as a child succeeding in the subject is now being transfered to better behaviour, concentration and better... writing!