Friday, November 21, 2008

ESOL Grammar Activities

I've added a new page for ESOL Grammar Activities to the Skills for Life website. Like the other activities pages, this contains direct link both to our quizzes and to quizzes on other people's websites.

This change reflects a change in some of my teaching this year. I am supporting a number of learners who don't speak English natively and I want to address some of their difficulties with grammar. In analysing their difficulties in initial assessment, there were a number of common factors: endings to words (both nouns and verbs), articles (or, more correctly, determiners), prepositions and conjunctions. Of course the internet is alive with quizzes and other activities for grammar for English learners, but I've not previously found them greatly useful for this group of learners. Some of these people may have been to school in the UK for at least some of the time, some may not be literate in their first language, some may not have been to ESOL classes. Moreover the mistakes are presented in English literacy, for me in their main courses, and so perhaps a literacy approach rather than an ESOL approach is needed.

The most acute difficulty is with the endings for tenses and plural nouns. I certainly don't want to teach tenses in a formal way, but I do want to help them recognise and correct their errors. So I have started writing some quizzes for endings. It has been hard work writing even a few. I have also found a few relevant quizzes for the other topics on other sites. I have used these activities for explanation as I go along, rather than for reinforcement which is how I usually use quizzes. So far the feedback from students has been very positive. I hope the page will develop in the coming months.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Literacy Changes Lives

Just a quick word to help promote the Literacy Changes Lives full report from the National Literacy Trust, (summary here.) This follows an American model to gather together a number of adult literacy-oriented statistics, particularly those from the research of John Bynner and Samantha Parsons. Two points:
  • Firstly, the document firmly reinforces the notion that people with poor literacy skills are particularly isolated from the benefits of our advanced industrial society. I often think that Government gets too obsessed with the idea that poor literacy skills hinder our industrial progress, whereas the real problem is that it hinders people's lives. I get asked all too frequently why is literacy needed to do hairdressing or to be a care worker or whatever, and I usually find myself answering that you will need literacy to write records and so on. What I am thinking is that I believe you need literacy for yourself and for the families you may bring up in the future, but it is rarely the right time to talk about this.
  • Secondly, it is great to have all these statistics in one place. I have done some sessions for trainee FE teachers in the past, and this document makes the whole issue clear.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Job Interviews - Video Quizzes for Support

I've added some activities to the website around job interviews, in the context of travel and tourism, which I hope will be more generally interesting. This is only part of a larger project to create learning materials for support using video as the focus. Those materials are primarily for the college Moodle site; they have been written to run using a Flash player which allows better resolution and has a working slider bar.

This project has taken a lot of my time in the past few months. The idea was to create differentiated quizzes with video; video because it attracts and keeps the attention in class and quizzes because they are easy to make and so can easily be made at differing levels to aid differentiation. I wanted to demonstrate that differentiated learning materials was a good route to go for support. Many of the learners in the target classes have difficulty with both spoken and written English. The idea was to use the same videos with a range of quizzes at different levels. Learners not being supported can do a task with the video while those being supported can do different activities which will help them do the task eventually.

I was not prepared for the range of problems this would produce. Here are just some:
  • Videos already available on YouTube or some of the specialist videos for teaching sites were either not suitable or so tied up in copyright to make adaptation impossible
  • Shooting our own videos was a major undertaking. After writing scripts we had a shooting day with a semi-professional crew and serious amateur actors. I did not realise how active I would have to be as producer/director and so a lot of mistakes (going off script) have come through and we are stuck with them.
  • Putting video into quizzes was difficult but I got there in the end. I needed a lot of help from the support groups for Hot Potatoes and Hot Potatoes on Moodle. I grappled with file formats and free conversion programs. I learned a lot and it took a long time.
  • There is then the problem of getting things working on college servers where the staff have their own ideas about how things should run and may not have been happy with the solutions I found.
If I were to do it again I might well go down the road of using students as actors, shooting very short scripts and using my digital camera to film. The results would be very different and not so generally useful, but it would be less of an investment in time.

As always I find it a delight to work with Hot Potatoes. I enjoy finding new ways to get different sorts of learning materials out of the basic software and extensions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New Numeracy Quizzes

I've started adding some new quizzes to the Maths Quizzes page on the Skills for Life Website, and to Maths Activities. I've found I've needed some extra teaching materials for learners who are supposed to be working towards Level 1, but have real weaknesses with things like subtraction, tables and division. In an ideal world they'd work towards an E3 end test, but some are already at E3 in Initial Assessment.

I'm reflecting on why I've not felt a need to have these before. I suppose it's because I'm not able to work with these learners one to one this year and therefore cannot work with examples I hand-write off the cuff as the need presents itself. The published stuff is not much help: Maths the Basic Skills covers most of this need but progresses too quickly, Carol Roberts' Level 1 Numeracy assumes they've all got E3 well sorted and the examples are much too hard, and Skillswise also mixes harder examples on the same sheets, and the E3 part is not comprehensive enough. These learners, who frequently express that they do not like maths, quickly get too discouraged when they cannot do things.

Another direct issue is that multiplying and dividing by 10 and 100 does not enter into the curriculum until L1 (N1/L14 and N2/L1.6) , and you really have to be able to multiply and divide by 1000 as well in order to convert units in the same system (MSS1/L1.7). This makes the step up to L1 from E3 quite severe. Yet this skill underpins a lot else of Level 1.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Spelling and Predictive Text

I was struck when a student told me she used Predictive Text on her mobile to help her with her spelling. I've not come across this before, but it seemed like such a good idea. She added that a spellcheck on the computer was a better option but not so convenient. Of course, if you're trying to complete records at work then having a mobile in your hand is not too embarrassing. I remember when some students had Franklin-style hand-held "spellmasters," but spellchecks seem to have driven them away. I'm now trying to think of ways of using this in my teaching, but I'll have to learn how do it myself first.

Curiously, the only Google link I could quickly find for this idea was some report quoted in the Daily Record, which stated, I think, that predictive text was the favourite reason why people's spelling was poor. As if poor spelling was so recent.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Initial Assessment

For any support tutor, initial assessment is an important time. In my college we try to initially assess all full-time and important part-time courses during induction with the online bksb assessment. It's an intense and busy time, as you try to print out results and give at least a minimum feedback to sometimes anxious people. Then you try to analyse the results and see who might need support.

This year several curriculum and personal tutors have asked me what they are supposed to do with someone who scores E3 on bksb but got a C at GCSE - could be either English or Maths. Such anomalies are really rather common. I sometimes think that maybe as many as 10% of results are anomalies. I use the paper-based BSA Initial Assessment as well, and don't get quite the range of odd results, but some are still odd and it does not go above Level 1.

Initial assessment is a broad tool and bksb in particular is very broad. You quickly move on and judge the learner in a more person-centred way as you get to know them. And, yes, I do support generic basic skills initial assessment, because without that there would be much less support offered and taken up.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Literacy and Literacy Support

I was asked over the summer what I do and I answered mechanically that I teach literacy to over 16s. However it has bothered me ever since that I’m not sure that that is still true. Sometimes, especially when I work a lot with dyslexic people, I wonder if I am really helping people get by on their courses without improving their literacy. Perhaps a literacy support teacher becomes an anti-literacy teacher.

So I’ve been reflecting on what I actually do with my working life these days. I can give support which is classified as literacy, numeracy, dyslexia or language according mainly to the needs of the learner, though there are funding issues which determine the exact classification. Numeracy support largely consists of teaching the skills of numeracy. The rest largely has two outcomes: the learners do better on their courses and the learners improve their skills. I teach in two main modes, in class and one to one, and the emphasis varies between these two. With all the learners I have support plans detailing the skills to be developed and regular reviews to check how the skills are improving. For some there is a certificate at the end in literacy or numeracy but not for most. For the learner, progress on the course is usually more important, though not necessarily.

Additional Learning Support has become a fairly diverse speciality, defined largely by the funding which enables it to happen. As such it remains something of a Cinderella discipline, and it could all disappear with the funding at midnight.

Here are some observations:

* Status and pay differ greatly from institution to institution. I work for a college which treats ALS staff as equal status lecturers and encourages them to get Level 5 qualifications. I know there was a move to develop a Level 4/5 specific qualification for ALS, but I have lost sight of that. Some colleges use lower-paid, lower status learning support assistants to do some of the work.

* Our work is clearly less rigorous than that done by Skills for Life tutors, but it can also be more wide-ranging and perhaps more holistic. For me it is closer to the literacy work I was doing twenty years ago than to the modern classroom. Some will say that is a good thing and some will say it is a bad thing.

* It’s very easy for an ALS teacher to concentrate too much on the enabling part. Equally it’s very easy for an ALS teacher to read a diagnostic report off a computer and try to teach those skills highlighted for improvement in isolation.

* There is precious little published to support the work of Additional Learning Support teachers. There is nothing in the way of learning resources, strategies, quality standards, etc, at least nothing that has come my way.

* There are alternative ways of delivering support. Some colleges have made a lot of progress with embedded skills for life. Some do it well and some not so well. It is also possible to have Skills for Life tutors delivering contextualised group learning. These methods put emphasis on the skills improvement. Learners may still need specialist help with their coursework.

On reflection, then, I feel renewed confidence that the work I do in literacy support is real literacy work. I believe it is a method which can be very effective. I hope it is a method of delivering literacy which can be supported and developed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dyscalculia Research

There was a report a couple of weeks ago (the NCETM report links other reports) that research shows that dyscalculia may be more common in schoolchildren than dyslexia. This is quite a revolutionary idea. If it is true, and people take up on it, we can expect big changes in the way that maths is taught.

First however some background. The research was carried out on 1500 primary schoolchildren in Cuba and shows that between 3 and 6 percent screened positive, as opposed to "the 2.5 to 4.3 percent who have dyslexia." I think these are dyslexia in the UK figures. The research used a screener devised by Brian Butterworth - more information about him here, and details of his published screener here. Brian Butterworth is evidently one of our leading experts on the subject, and the screener is meticulous in its definition of dyscalculia and in its efforts to exclude other causes for maths deficit. The screener is only normed up to the age of 14 and it is only a screener and exhorts its users to look at other causes before making a diagnosis.

The reports of the research do raise a lot of questions. Why Cuba? Were the schoolchildren also screened for dyslexia? (If not, the comparison with dyslexia is far from convincing.) Did the researchers look for other contributing causes? Was the screener similar to the published one?

I've always thought of dyscalculia as a comparatively rare condition, relating to difficulty with conceptualising numerical information. I've met a few, but only a few, people like that in my years of teaching. What I don't think it is includes:
  • disliking maths
  • not understanding maths after bad teaching
  • dyslexia - a lot of dyslexics have difficulty with maths
  • memory difficulties - cannot hold how to do things
You'd want to filter these things out, especially the dyslexia. Someone who cannot learn tables, or gets confused between multiplication and division, or tries to take the top number from the bottom one in a written sum, or confuses median and mean, and so on, most likely does not have dyscalculia.

Of course if the research proves to be true I may need to change my opinion. But I may find that all that has happened is that the definition of dyscalculia has changed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stick With It and ICT

A link to a new practitioners' guide "Using ICT to help Skills for Life learners Stick with it!" arrived in my in-box this morning. This derives from research undertaken during the Stick With It project, undertaken by NRDC, NIACE and Tribal/CTAD, which looks at "persistence" of Skills for Life learners, ie what helps them stick at learning. The guide is published by the QIA.

At first glance it is good to have a document which outlines all sorts of uses of ICT in Basic Education, which is well produced and laid out, which is glossy and freely available. However reading it this morning has brought out a whole lot of long-standing frustrations.

Firstly the only research quoted is the one which shows that among 34 year olds those with Entry Level literacy and numeracy are disadvantaged digitally by being the group most likely not to have a computer at home. The relevance of ICT to persistence is basically treated as self-evident. Maybe something more enlightening will come up further down the research.

The guide certainly gives lots of examples of using ICT. The categories are, in the order of presentation: photos, videos, audio, text (word-processing, presentations, etc), User-generated content (basically Web 2.0), mobile learning, and information management (webquests etc). Each section has ideas for beginners and more confident users and lists benefits and pitfalls. However I suspect that most beginners ideas will be far beyond the confidence of many literacy and numeracy tutors; the first suggestion in the document is to use a digital camera to record learner achievement. Even the order of presentation is a bit daunting.

Having a class blog is suggested first for beginners under User-generated content. Unfortunately this is the one area where there are more pitfalls than benefits listed, with the authors getting serious about online identities and linking up with undesirables.

My main issues are:
  • There is no mention of using computer assisted learning, interactive worksheets and so on. I still feel this is the main way forward to help people move away from the world of printed worksheets.
  • There is no effort to link things to the curriculum which so dominates the teaching of professionals in this country, and few if any examples of good uses for numeracy.
  • It would be nice to know how disadvantaged Skills for Life tutors are in theirICT skills, because I find that barriers start with tutors who know little beyond Word and email, and perhaps Google. Google is often the main way to find a site on the internet, even a site which is used regularly, even the main college website.
I could go on.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Literacy Blogs

I've been reviewing the current state of literacy blogs, after 18 months of writing this. I haven't found a lot to add to previous findings but it is all listed on the blog page. It is good to report that blogs are being written at all and read of course. There is a cluster of blogs in Canada, a couple in the US and one or two others. There remains only one significant current blog for literacy writers, but I kid myself that there are others which are not publicly listed. Bloggers come in all shapes and sizes and I enjoy reading personal tales as well as posts focusing on being a teacher.

Readers not familiar with the format of blogging will benefit from subscribing to RSS feeds and displaying these. There are a number of different ways of doing this. I like the look and feel of Google Reader and this is usually reviewed well. For myself I use Pageflakes and would find life online difficult without that application. I have put some of these current literacy blogs on the published Skills for Life Pageflakes page I have made, so anyone interested can see how easy it is to scan RSS feeds.

There are a lot more ESOL blogs and many of these are of interest. Over the next couple of weeks I will sort and consider these.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Speaking and Listening Page

I've added a Speaking and Listening Page to the Skills for Life Website.

This is not quite like an "activities" page, because it does not necessarily go directly to online activities. It has come about because I increasingly work with learners needing to improve speaking and listening skills while being supported and with tutors providing this support. There are quite a few relevant audio files published or activities containing audio to listen to, but they are not very easy to organise while planning. So I have linked all the component parts of the excellent Skillswise resources for a start. I am also listing relevant units from the published DFES packs and from the newer NLN resources. I cannot link to the NLN resources outside of college because of copyright, although I can put links on our Moodle site. The DFES ESOL packs have good resources which can be run as as Moodle courses from Moodle to Go, and this works smoothly. It would be nice to have the same facility for the Literacy packs, but the CDs provided can be ripped to Windows Media Player or similar and preferably labelled for easy reference.

I wonder how much these Literacy audio files get used. As a literacy tutor I have always put the emphasis on reading and writing skills, but the needs in support are different. Learners have very different support needs and may be receiving support for literacy or for language. I have found the process of sorting out suitable learning materials difficult, and I hope that by listing everything on one page it will make the process of planning a bit easier for me and for others.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Seeing Yourself in Print - Reflect 10

Reflect 10 is out in print and pdf download from the NRDC but not yet online.

There's a piece on elearning for ESOL which covers a number of applications, including blogs and captioned pictureshows, but does not go into much how to do it detail. The ideas would have application usually for literacy as well, though I suspect some tutors would ask for advice on how to fit the idea into the curriculum.

Seeing Yourself in Print is a nice piece about publishing learners' writing from the past (Write First Time and Gatehouse) to current initiatives such as NRDC's own Voices on the Page. The authors stress the confidence coming from seeing your writing in print.

Elearning tutors may help by allowing learners to see their writing in virtual print (online) as well, through things like Skillswise's Your Stories and blogs in general. The Skills for Life website started with a magazine, which the learners liked to show family and friends, and that certainly contributed to confidence.

When I worked in Adult Education as a literacy tutor in the 80s, I ran a poetry class in the evenings for any Basic Education students who wanted to do something in May and June after the year's classes had ended. The real confidence came from the writing itself. We were able to put the emphasis on expression and technique rather than on correcting and producing acceptable English, and the learners found this liberating. And, yes, they did take pride in seeing their names in the magazine, produced with a BBC B and a dot matrix printer.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

E-Book on Literacy and Dyslexia

Hugo Kerr’s highly recommended chapter on dyslexia from “The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching: Reading, Writing, Spelling, Dyslexia (& a bit more besides)” brings me back to the ongoing debate, at least in my mind, about the “reality” of dyslexia.

Hugo is truly sceptical about dyslexia, without going quite as far as to suggest that it doesn’t exist. I might have agreed more fully a few years ago, though I would never have read the amazing quantity of literature quoted, which covers the field. In those days I really was more anti-dyslexia, I believed that it didn't matter to the way I delivered my teaching; I wondered about trying to put those views into order. Looking back now, I remember a few people in particular who came to me for help with spelling, but their needs were great and they never seemed to make as much progress as others.

Now I feel I am more of a believer. I have written in this blog before here and here ideas around the definition of dyslexia. From Hugo’s quoted definitions I am probably closest to the Moray House definition; I certainly do not like the idea of the primacy of reading or literacy difficulty.

I wonder about the other, perhaps secondary, “symptoms” of dyslexia, which include:
  • Memory difficulties
  • Organisational difficulties
  • Difficulties listening to two people at once
  • Mis-saying words
  • Difficulties with maps
  • Difficulties with maths
I wonder about the idea, in Cynthia Klein for one, of difficulties with different sorts of processing, motor, auditory and visual, and the different sorts of literacy problems consequent; I have done these analyses and find them useful.

I wonder about the continuum, about dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

I wonder above all about all those people I have worked with who find great relief in the diagnosis of dyslexia; once it is accepted, there can be release from the anxieties remaining from school and there can be a new addressing of current priorities. As a support tutor I can move away if desired from teaching spelling to supporting writing and expression.

In the UK the diagnosis of dyslexia is crude and unsatisfying, and open to abuse. However it is very often needed for funding to ensure support, and therefore necessary.

I found the book from Maggie Harnew's site, as so often. I'll read more of it, when I can find when I get used to the idea of an e-book - I don't find it easy on a landscape monitor.

Read The Words

I've added a link to Read the Words to the Dyslexia Resources page on the Skills for Life Website. I know that dyslexic people sometimes use or are recommended software to turn text into speech. This is a free version and might be attractive if you don't want to use it a lot. I find the slurs between words difficult sometimes, but a dyslexic student pointed out that you have to learn to use software like this so that you become used to its peculiarities; I don't need to use it so I am not a good judge. Just don't try to read a web page from the url; cut and paste the text instead. I can see how this could be a really useful tool.

Another purpose of the site is to embed speech on your web page, so here goes.

It sounds pretty good to me, though I did have to switch to Internet Explorer to get the embedding to work.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Video Jug Punctuation

I found the videos on videojug for punctuation interesting. The explanation is very straightforward and rapid, but as it's a video a teacher could keep pausing and starting again. A teacher might even find it easier to find out about punctuation from this than a book, as it is so straightforward. I like the easy English accent; there is a comment complaining about the voice over's mispronunciation of "haitch", but actually I like it as it is the way that most teachers and learners in my institution talk. The content makes it mostly Level 2 however.

I wonder how much teachers will actually use little bits of video like this. You'd need to be confident and well-equipped to switch a little bit of video in, because you don't want to make a big thing of it - it's just an alternative way of presenting learning. However, I can see from my teaching and that of my colleagues that video is becoming more and more important.

I'm working on creating videos at college for use in supporting in mainstream, and that is creating interest. I seem to be adding video links regularly, but this is the first time I've added something to the interactive activities pages.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

ESOL Scotland and Teachers TV

Both these sites have something of interest.

The ESOL Scotland site is a new site, so the potential is not clear yet. It's a general portal site for Scotland. It does have now a raft of usable learning resources, many of which will be useful for literacy and those in .doc format will be easy to adapt. There are also some listening resources which may be useful in Literacy or ESOL Support.

I'd been aware of the Teachers TV site, linked to the digital TV channel. I hadn't noticed that there was a section with Skills for Life Videos for 14 to 19 year olds in the FE section. I immediately found these useful; maybe it's very much my job, but I work with apprentices in Social Care and in Hairdressing, and these videos will appeal to my learners. They demonstrate Skills for Life (Key Skills really) in practical situations, which are realistic and relevant. They are also well made. I've been looking for videos recently with a view to using them with quizzes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Activities on Website

I've written a couple of quizzes for Level 1 students working towards the End Test (Grammar). I've had a few people recently doing practice tests asking me what "grammatical" means, so the quizzes are there to give practice after the explanations have been given. I may also add the PowerPoint I've used to help in the teaching, though I've not posted this sort of resource before. I found the quizzes quite difficult, partly because the practice tests cover the issue in a number of different ways, but also because I am not at all sure how it is presented in current real tests. The quizzes may then get altered with more experience.

I also like the Handling Data resources from the Gold Dust Resources from the QIA. The for Interactive Activities were written for tutors learning but are great for some Level 2 learners. I like the way they show all 4 averages together subject to change as data changes. It is such an easy idea but I don't recall seeing it before. Many learners, especially the dyslexic ones, find remembering which average is which confusing, so a new resource is very welcome. This one shows it clearly, and you can hide the bar chart and frequency table if they interfere.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Blogs from Canada

I have been following a couple of blogs from Canada recently, and have added links for Literacies Cafe and AlphaPlus Blog on the Blogs page. I have been aware of the AlphaPlus Centre in Toronto for some years, but only came across the blog recently. A recent post points to this class blog which is a splendidly straightforward place to publish literacy learner writing. Literacies Cafe relates to Literacies, a research magazine and links to other Canadian blogs.

I think what is most impressive about these organisations publishing blogs for different purposes is the immediacy, helped by the accessibility. Literacies Cafe enabled me to participate in a forum thousands of miles away which was relevant to my day to day work. I have tried publishing student writing in a few ways over the years and have read student writing in a number of different contexts but the writing linked above is so current and immediate. This is a true Web 2.0 way of seeing what is happening around the world.