All children are individuals, and therefore the answer, in short, to this first question is ‘in a multitude of ways’. However, in order to obtain an insight to this broad subject I will firstly consider the way children learn English by analysing models of general learning styles and theories. I will then address the National Curriculum for English, and investigate how the theories are applied to its teaching.
Research into Learning
Ginnis (1992) states that ‘Even now the way many teachers teach is out of step with the way most learners learn.’ (Ginnis, The Teacher’s Tool Kit, p.4). He believes that if teachers follow the ‘natural laws of the learning process’ (ibid) then progress will be made. In the past teaching has centred around what is being taught when, according to Ginnis, the focus should now be on how children are taught. Student centred learning, which is becoming the popular model in the twenty-first century, echoes the Government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ 2005 campaign and White Paper, where children are held in emotional safety, their self esteem is developed and they are given responsibilities. Bowkett (1999) wrote that the child’s emotional development is of paramount importance, and is the foundation on which learning can be built. Teachers must equip children ‘…with an emotional toolkit, and give them the right tools for the job’ (ibid, p.29).
Blackmore and Frith (2005) note that the theories to assist in facilitating learning are powerless if we do not take into consideration the individual’s social-emotional state. They cite a child who cannot do his buttons up on a coat. It may be that this is due to motor skill development, or merely that the child just does not want to do them up! (Blackmore and Frith The Learning Brain, p.94). As teachers, a priority must be to get to know the children and be able, to a certain degree, read their body language and verbal cues to determine what emotions they are experiencing. If a child has a particular problem or crisis, this will affect their learning greatly, and we must be flexible to differentiate our teaching to accommodate this.
Lefrancois (1997) believed that students should be assessed on entry into school to determine their specific preferences for learning (Ginnis (2002) The Teacher’s Toolkit, p.38). Once this is complete, these pupils may have a choice over the way their lessons are organised. This student centred approach gives the student the responsibility of determining when they are ready for exams, and having further responsibilities in the running of the
school. The responsibilities, as mentioned previously, help to develop the emotional side of the individuals; this in turn will help to facilitate learning. An emotionally stable and happy child is one that is open to a learning experience. I believe the ideology behind Lefrancois’ model would help to achieve happy individuals who feel valued. However, in practical terms the idea of a ‘free school’ can only take place in a small scale environment; the private sector is the ideal place for this practice, for example in the successful Steiner Education Centres.
In state secondary schools we can still find out what the children’s preferred learning styles are, and use the information to aid learning. An initial questionnaire may be completed by a class as part of an introductory lesson at the beginning of term. Gardner (1983) wrote a model of learning styles based on 8 different types of intelligence. These are:
2. Logical/ Mathematical
5. Body/ Kinaesthetic
6. Interpersonal (co-operates and understands people well)
7. Intrapersonal (Self motivated and self confident)
To define a child’s intelligence is to understand where their preferred style of learning, and their learning potential, lies. This method, as seen on Channel Four’s 2005 series Unteachables, is an excellent method of boosting the self esteem of children with Special Educational Needs. If children can firstly understand that they have an intelligence (i.e. a talent) in one area, they will automatically be interested in finding out more. Once the preferred learning style is used to teach, then this self esteem is multiplied by the child being able to access the learning in the way that best suits them.
When a class have completed the questionnaires, then the teacher can determine what the dominant styles of the group are and use a mixture of teaching styles to accommodate the children. For example, if a large proportion of the children show a leaning towards body/ kinaesthetic intelligences then lessons could regularly include dispensing of the chairs and completing a physical activity.
There are many physical activities and exercises that can be applied to English. I have recently taken a year seven, middle band group ‘On Tour’ (ibid, p.133) as part of a Key Stage Three writing course on fairytales. I divided the class into seven groups of approximately four pupils. Seven tables were set up in the room, and all the chairs taken away. On each table a large piece of sugar paper was placed with an original fairytale title, and a coloured felt pen. Each group chose a table, wrote for four minutes and then all groups changed. The stories evolved slowly, with each group adding to each story, and the class had an enjoyable time in the process. The success was assessed at the end of the lesson when the stories were read out. This method of writing produced stories that did not lose focus or stamina; in fact the amount written in the time given outweighed any exercise previously given individually. It seemed to me that the physical activity, group discussion, teamwork, visual images and colour inspired a range of students with varying learning styles, not those merely with a preference for kinaesthetic learning. The groups went on to correcting and developing a story each from the batch produced, allowing for more formal work to be completed for those who prefer this style of learning. It must be remembered that not all children will like to work in groups, and prefer self-motivated individual tasks.
Gregorc (2001) also believed that flexibility and variation are the keys to successful teaching. In creating a model of learning styles based on sliding scales of how individuals store experiences as information in their memories, he found that in a class of 30 children, most teachers will encounter a ‘whole spectrum of styles’ (ibid, p.41).. Gregorc saw people being sequential and structured, or random in the way they store information. He found that people are either abstract in their ideas, or preferred a realistic approach. These are placed on sliding scales to cater for responses from extreme to very subtle.
Structure: forms, lists etc
Concrete random Abstract sequential
Open ended practical work———————————————– Academic Research
Unstructured group work
In English, these styles can be easily accommodated. ‘Abstract random’ children will prefer the activities such as ‘On Tour’, so long as they have a creative input into the themes and headings of the stories. ‘Concrete random’ children will like project work that does not include a frame for writing. Therefore, with GCSE coursework these pupils will be self motivated to get on with the work. In my experience of a year ten group completing coursework on The Merchant of Venice and also the poetry of Blake, the majority do prefer a frame in which to work within. This fits into Gregorc’s ratios; the majority will not like open ended work. The ‘Blake’ work has been completed using a variety of techniques. I have provided charts for the pupils to complete; this accommodates both the ‘abstract sequential’ and ‘concrete sequential’ learners. Unstructured group work, for the ‘abstract random’ learners has come in the form of group discussions and feed back sessions on specific poems. Once again, this only completely satisfies approximately one quarter of the group, and therefore is not a popular activity with the majority. In learning for coursework, students are under pressure to make notes on as much as possible in order to achieve top marks prior to the exam. This actually creates an artificial atmosphere to use as an example for preference of learning style. Pupils, once given the assignment prefer, as a group, to copy or have information dictated; if the pupils were responsible for their own learning and lessons they would be ‘spoon fed’ information in order to gain the best marks possible at GCSE. This, of course, is not learning. By copying a paragraph we are not constructively learning anything.
The most poignant statement that Ginnis (2002) makes is in relation to Constructivism. This echoes the model of making children feel safe by taking what they already know as a basis for learning. This means that children feel comfortable with what is being taught as they have an access point of entry to the learning cited in their existing knowledge. Looking at this from a psychological perspective, new information is embedded into the memory within an existing ‘living web of understanding’ (ibid, p.19). If children can make meaningful relationships between new and existing information, then it is far more likely to be learnt. Ginnis can see very little point in giving students ‘ready made learning’ (ibid), and rather demands that teachers get the children to work things out for themselves wherever possible. Piaget is the main proponent of Cognitive constructivism, which is concerned with thinking and learning, as explained above. Vygotsky also researched constructivism, but on a social level, stating that learning is a ‘social, collaborative and interactional activity…’ (Cohen et al (1977) A guide to Teaching Practice, p.168). Vygotsky believed that the teacher must be there to facilitate, and provide scaffolding for learners, but once confidence has been gained, this scaffolding must be removed to allow learners to develop within the social group, and think for themselves.
According to Galton et al (1980) there are three classifications of teaching styles:
1. Class enquirers (Teaching the whole class with control/some individuals working alone)
2. Individual monitors (Teaching pupils individually within the class)
3. Group Instructors (Teaching groups of pupils within the class)
These styles focus on the dynamics of the classroom (Cohen et al (1977) A Guide to Teaching Practice, p.184). Flanders (1970) investigated these styles and found that teachers who were able to shift between techniques and naturally change from being observers to proactive ‘counsellors’ were highly successful (ibid). This notion echoes the needs of the children highlighted in the research completed on learning styles: variety of work and responsiveness of the teacher.
Variety and responsiveness of the teacher are highlighted in The National Curriculum’s main values, aims and purposes: The curriculum must ‘…develop enjoyment of, and commitment to, learning as a means of encouraging and stimulating the best possible progress and the highest attainment for all pupils’ (The National Curriculum (1999) p.11). I will now address the three branches of English teaching in The National Curriculum: speaking and listening, reading and writing.
Speaking and Listening
Des Fountain (1994) noted that ‘Teachers in the National Oracy Project found that some aspects of the ‘teacherly’ role of guiding and supporting pupils’ learning could be in fact provided within well planned and organised group work’ (Des Fountain (1994) in Teaching English, p.56). The year nine class that I have been teaching have completed book reviews, and these are presented at the front of the class as individual formal reviews every week, four at a time in a lesson. I initially noticed that the class, when asked to listen and ask questions at the end split into two categories: 1. those who listened and asked questions and 2. those who did not appear to listen. Therefore I consulted the National Strategy for English for help. The result was focusing on the listening rather than the speaking in the lesson. I split the class into four groups, and gave each group a focus for their listening. The focus for each group was to listen for specific techniques used to make the speech interesting, or listen for certain parts of the content to comment on its effectiveness. The groups then had to make notes during the speech, discuss among themselves and comment at the end; any individual may have been asked to comment. The focus gave what Des Fountain calls a purpose to the talk, and assisted me in assessing the group’s ability to listen. The whole class focused and stayed on task for all four speeches each week. They made appropriate comments (with a few exceptions) and feedback after the lessons indicated they enjoyed the task. To Slavin (1990) ‘…one of the greatest benefits from co-operative learning is the raising of self esteem’ (Cohen et al, A Guide to Teaching Practice, p.180). This was certainly true in this example; emotionally happy children who are focused are able to learn. However, it must be remembered that although group work has benefits such as noted by Slavin, there are also problems that may occur. These include pupils failing to get on with the task, or pupils failing to get on with one another. Detailed planning by a teacher who knows his or her pupils well can overcome these (ibid).
The teacher’s own speech is vitally important in a learning situation. Whorf (1956) believed that a pupil’s world is constructed through the language used in his or her society. This theory is known as linguistic determinism, and impacts greatly on learning (Fox (1993) Psychological Perspectives in Education, p.61). The development of language directly affects the pupil’s ability to think and learn. As teachers, we must consider our language use carefully as we assist to construct the pupil’s world.
Traves (1994) sees reading as the actual ‘…process [of reading] or a response to a literary text’ (ibid, p.91). The way in which pupils can follow the aims of The National Curriculum in order to achieve the best results in both progress and attainment is through Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTS). These activities give a specific purpose to reading in different contexts, whether it is for relaxed reading or critical analysis. Traves believes that ‘…reading ought to be a dialogue between the reader and the text’ (ibid, p.95). DARTS activities teach skills to enable pupils to differentiate between different types of reading and become critical readers and thinkers.
In classroom practice, DARTS activities are easy to construct, and are well received by pupils as they enable the learners to think for themselves and really engage with the text. I have practised DARTS with a year eight group who have been reading Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales. The group are of a foundation level, and include a number of EAL pupils. Therefore, in order for a text to be enjoyed and understood, the pace must be at an appropriate level, whilst still making the lesson interesting. I have found that the DARTS activity of predicting what will happen next is an ideal technique in this situation. The activity of stopping to write predictions as the reading is taking place gives the pupils time to really think about what has happened in the text. They are unable to predict without a sound understanding of what has happened previously. The EAL pupils find predicting a text challenging, but interesting and worthwhile, as the ‘fun’ element of this activity breaks up the process of going through a lengthy text. The EAL learners receive extra support in the lesson through scaffolded pieces of work, and table to write within. For the Twisted Tales work, I provided the children on the SEN Code of Practice a table where they could place their predictions alongside the actual events of the story. This enabled the group to sequence the tale in a clear and straightforward way. EAL students, under Whorf’s linguistic determinism model, see the world differently to the students who were born and raised in the UK. This is because, according to Whorf, the pupils construct their world according to their language (Fox (1993) Psychological Perspectives in Education, p.61). Therefore in teaching the language through English lessons in school we are also changing the way the pupils view the world.
Sequencing texts is a further activity within the DARTS programme, and is an excellent way for a group to draw together all the learning from a particular project, or reader. In a year 7 foundation group I have coupled this idea with work on paragraphing. I cut copies of a familiar text (a famous tale) into paragraphs, and the pupils had to stick them into their books into the correct order. This kinaesthetic exercise allows the children to really engage with the words as they sequence the story. Piaget believed that a ‘…major source of learning is activity by the pupils’ (Fox (1993) Psychological Perspectives in Education, p.57). By dealing with concrete materials, pupils are far more likely to learn through physical interaction and having the opportunity to experiment. As an extension for those in the group who were ready to write in paragraphs, the reason for each paragraph change had to be placed in between each piece of paper stuck into the book. This allowed for the children not only to revise the story, but also revise the technique of paragraphing. Children who prefer to learn from visual stimuli were aided by having the reasons for paragraphing on the board as a series of pictures based on the acronym TIPTOP (time, place, topic and person). The pupils were asked to write TIPTOP in their books, and draw a small doodle by the side, e.g. an alarm clock for ‘time’.
Maybin (1994) differentiated between two major approaches to teaching writing in schools (ibid, p.186). In the Process Approach, pupils write for actual audiences, and have a specific purpose for their work. This may be a book to be held in the school library for other pupils to read. Pupils are seen as ‘apprentice authors’ (ibid). In the Genre Approach the focus is on constructing a particular kind of text. Pupils analyse an actual text provided by the teacher, they deconstruct it and then write their own version.
When I started teaching, an experienced colleague shared her thoughts on the way English writing is taught in schools. To her, we take a text, deconstruct it to find out how it is written, then attempt to construct our own version. She felt that this process is rather like an ‘Airfix’ model kit. You know how the model on the box is made, but your own version never quite matches up, and inevitably leaves you with a feeling of disappointment. The year 10 group that I have taught were given a piece of GCSE coursework written by a top grade student which was published in a Sunday magazine. The text was about her life, and how she spends a day. Needless to say, her life was interesting; she had a role in the National Youth Parliament. The students in year ten dissected the piece of writing, and then set about composing their own piece for coursework. The example given inspired some, and showed how a top grade may be received, but many students felt disillusioned and inadequate. In the light of this I feel that a compromise must be made in order to maximise learning, and leave pupils with a sense of satisfaction at the end of the process.
The National Curriculum favours the Genre approach, and the writing framework is set up in triplets that form different types of articles. The SATS tests for KS3 are designed to test the children’s ability to write in a specific genre, according to the triplet noted in the question set. Models must be used to show pupils what is expected, but may be completed on the spot by the teacher, using ideas from the pupils. This organic approach enables the teacher to support the pupil’s self esteem and develop their ideas in order to have an open dialogue in the classroom where pupils are learning from each other. The genre approach, used sporadically is valid, but examples must hold relevance for pupils; those who can connect with the text will be able to plan their learning around their existing knowledge, making it easier. According to Maybin (1994) those who are ‘proponents to the genre approach argue that… pupils [will] understand more fully how knowledge is constructed in different academic disciplines’ (ibid, p.192). The idea that pupils are empowered to deal with a wide range of subjects and the adult world must be a positive outcome, but pupils must retain ownership of their work by granting them some freedom of expression.
The year seven group learning about fairytales were taught the conventions of the oral story telling traditions using ‘Mind mapping’¹ before being given the first chapter of a modern tale. The first chapter was read to them in order for them to make notes. In this example, the pupils were not focused on a text, but on their perceptions and notes relating to the text. They were then asked to finish the story using the conventions of traditional dark fairytales. The pupils were given a stimulus, but not expected to rely on it word for word, enabling a freedom of style to develop. This process follows the Social Constructivism model. Further exercises could be used to develop the pupils’ independent learning, for example writing their own tale from their own initial idea in a future lesson.
Through this small scale investigation into the way children learn English, and how teaching reflects this I have been able to draw some concrete conclusions. Learning ‘style’ is a much debated area of study. Prescribed models that dictate a preferred way of learning for each individual are becoming out of vogue, and are being replaced by a model that allows for greater flexibility. The children we teach have many varied learning styles, but even with a preferred way of being taught these children still benefit from a degree of variety in their school day (Griggs (1988) in Psychology in Practice: Education, p.72). This humanistic approach echoes Ginnis’ view that the focus in schools should be the student and the way children are learning, rather than what is being taught. If children are treated as individuals with preferences and needs, the teacher is far more likely to become proficient than through the practice of trying to get the children to fit into an existing system of education.
Lessons need to have pace, variety and provide a two way interaction between the teacher and pupils. New ideas need to be delivered in a way that pupils can identify with and fit into their existing knowledge bank. The techniques I have practised so far have been on the whole successful, but I realise that teaching develops with experience, and problems faced in my first term will be easier to overcome in future. As Piaget suggests: like the pupils, teachers learn from experimenting through concrete active exercises! The more teachers learn through experience about teaching their subject, and more importantly about their individual pupils, the more the pupils will learn.