ALEA conference day 2

Day 2 of the Australian Literacy Educators Conference started with Gay Su Pinnell, a guru of Literacy and an inspirational speaker. The key point for me was that we need to help develop our students’ skills in thinking about what they read, rather than just decoding the print. I particularly liked the idea that comprehension of a text begins long before you begin to read – it’s about connections you can make to other texts/the world around you/your experiences, your understanding of genre and conclusions you might draw about the author’s intentions. All of this before you read a single word.

While digital technology rated only a cursory mention in the presentation, it struck me how much more this applies to reading or writing in more recently developed forms. Understanding why an author might write a blog and what they aim to get out of it is important to help gain meaning from their words. Reading an article on wikipedia requires a few supports that go well beyond just decoding – thinking about how it was created, how it links to other works on the topic, what the authors’ purpose was in creating it.

Another element that really resonated was that as well as reading appropriately levelled texts, they should also have the opportunity to read age/grade appropriate texts to allow them to participate in discussions with peers. It’s not always easy to facilitate this in the classroom but with flexible thinking, it can be done. Text to speech features on e-book readers, audio versions of books or other students/teacher recording a reading of the book can all help those students participate fully. As Pinnell said today, even if students can’t read at grade level, they are often thinking at grade level.

Another keynote I attended was by Associate Professor Susan Hill  who noted that multimodality is not something new, invented in a digital age but has been associated with storytelling for generations. This youtube clip she showed demonstrates how quickly a four month old baby recognises the multimodal nature of storytelling. Associate Professor Hill reported on some of the findings of teacher action research projects undertaken in oral language of pre-school students, comprehension in pre-schools and young children’s digital skills. An interesting finding in the study on comprehension was that, while exposing children to a range of language prior to school gave them a grounding for school literacy, being explicit about vocabulary and meanings in their formative years was more important to aid their comprehension. It sounds obvious but isn’t necessarily something we think about with younger children. Food for thought.

The final keynote for the day was Trevor Cairney who spoke eloquently about the power of words and the need for literature rich classrooms. In discussing this, he stressed that narratives are everywhere and aren’t just about printed forms but include oral storytelling, jokes, anecdotes and digital representations. However he distinguished literature as ‘the pinnacle of where narrative is seen.’ He shared some rich and beautiful picture story books with the audience and spoke of the potential affordances of e-books which, he believes, are as yet unrealised. He also questioned whether some students were distracted by the ‘play’ features of some of the gadgetry and not focused enough on the text. I think this can be a problem in whatever form a ‘text’ takes – how many times have you read a story with a young child and found them playing with the cover or overly concerned with the end papers? While there might be more avenues of potential distraction with a digital text, that also means there is more potential to hook in the reader. More food for thought.

Due to such a busy schedule, I have only focused on the keynotes in this post but I also managed to attend a range of other presentations. Throughout these, one thing I did notice was a leaning towards traditional, printed forms when talking about literacy. While digital bits were included and some great examples given, more often than not they were an afterthought or talked about in a vaguely negative light. As if accessing a digital text was somehow less worthy than opening a printed, bound book. Perhaps it is because of my own generally defensive attitude towards educational technology or it was just the presentations I chose to attend. Either way, I’m looking forward to another day and seeing what insights it has to offer.

Roll on Day 3. . . .