Review: Literacy – Commas, colons, connectives and conjunctions (Phil Beadle’s How To Teach Series)

 

 

You’ve got to love a book which starts with: “I am 49 years of age, have no interest whatsoever in the vagaries of social nicety and speak in my own voice, not some anthropologically esoteric academic code”.

As a teacher who spends her life avoiding anthropologically esoteric academic code, this was music to my ears. It took me a very short time to realise I was going to enjoy this ride in a “let’s go to the pub and discuss what really works in the classroom” kind of way. Stuff that is really important. Stuff that really works.

Beadle tells his own story at the start of this book, which he modestly says he understands if you want to skip – but I would recommend that you don’t. It sets the tone. He is going to break his rules because he has a different purpose and he is going to do this in the accessible way that many similar guides fail spectacularly in trying to do.

He highlights the importance of literacy for making you think, allowing you to progress and, most poignantly, as a way out of the ghetto – “with literacy you can articulate your anger” – with the way that 2016 is going I would argue that this is more important than ever.

 

He begins with the uncomfortable truth that many of us don’t have literacy skills which are up to scratch. This is put sharply into focus when he asks for a definition of a sentence. I’ve been teaching English for more than 10 years and I had to really stop and think about this. Even when I did I’m not sure my response would have the clarity that most of my students need. This immediately poses an obvious and uncomfortable question.  What chance do our 11 year olds have if we can’t provide a hard and fast rule for this?For me, this established the tone of the rest of this book. It is uncomfortable and challenging in the best possible way. We are teachers and we should be challenged. We have no right to be in any kind of comfort zone. The hard truth is that if we don’t force ourselves to think about these questions we are failing our kids and shouldn’t be in the classroom.

 

These truths are mingled with refreshing and original teaching ideas. An example of such being a discussion of the music of language which uses weatherman Daniel Corbett as the third greatest artistic genius of the twentieth century – YouTube him, I did and Beadle is right.

 

The book is divided into barriers we face followed by some solutions which could help our kids get over them. For example we have a barrier of “Poor literacy skills amongst teachers (particularly in terms of their understanding of punctuation)” followed by the solution of “Learn the rules of punctuation; teach them to the kids”. Sound obvious? Insulting? Perhaps. But at the heart of this text is the reality that many of us aren’t confident enough in the basics to help our kids succeed. Many of us weren’t taught this stuff in school and, even if we were, that might have been a rather long time ago (*cough* twentyfiveyears *cough*). If you have 100% faith in your literacy skills I’m pleased for you, but I have a sneaky suspicion that most of us aren’t and that this needs to be addressed.

Using the metaphor of music this book guides us through the range of punctuation marks we are probably unwilling to admit we aren’t sure of the rules of. He does this with some entertaining examples to ease the pain of learning / revising the basics. He also advocates persistence and trying different things in (and outside) of the classroom. I’ve always believed that these are the fundamentals of good learning. Try something new. Keep at it. At best it’ll work and inspire them. At worst it has failed in the same way the safe worksheet will inevitably do. As he says “I’d recommend you don’t second guess kids’ abilities to understand what you teach them. Just teach them it, and if it doesn’t stick teach them in a variety of ways until it does”.

 

The book also made me think about the importance of correct / Standard English speech in the classroom. Oracy isn’t taken seriously enough (and if we are brutally honest we have all at some point seen it as, as Beadle phrases, “a dossy lesson that generates no marking”) and needs to be the most fundamental and most important skill. Beadle puts forward and entirely convincing argument that oracy has to be put at the top of the agenda.

 

The book is also bursting with brilliantly simple techniques (and yes, ones which take little planning) to ignite learning – such as using one appropriate and one inappropriate adjective in a sentence (have you arrived at a succinct definition yet?). The results of this are miles apart from the rote “an adjective describes a word” that, as Beadle points out, means absolutely nothing in terms of learning. And which class wouldn’t love a game of adverb charades and a preposition rap?  Having fun with language is a key thread throughout this book.

 

These ideas are different, brilliant and, most importantly, they will have your students learning. The final chapter addresses the issue of there being nowhere near enough poetry in schools which is another “nail-on-the-head” observation. If our students are not relentlessly exposed to language at its most beautiful, how will they ever learn how to appreciate it?

This book has revived my commitment to the classroom and my learners. Beadle says “I am for the working class being held worthy of intellectual respect, and I am also for teaching children the stuff they need to know to attain this”, which is pretty much my educational philosophy in a nutshell.

 

In many ways this is quite an uncomfortable read. It gets right to the heart of our weaknesses as teachers and makes us confront them. But, of course, this brutal and honest reflection can only make us better practitioners. And God knows the education system needs more of those.

“Use this book to teach children to speak, to write, to read well. Use it to alter their destinies”. I will. Thank you, Mr Beadle, for renewing my focus and faith in my profession.

I promise you you won’t regret it if you read this book. Neither will your kids.

 

 

AQA Anthology of Poetry: Power and Conflict

 
One of the first things that you notice when you open the book as a useful chart on the inside cover. On one side there is a list of the Power and Conflict poems and along the top are the main themes which can be compared within the poems. I find this is a really useful revision resource for students. For example, they can use it as a starting point for revision mind maps.
The text itself is split into five sections: The poems, themes, poetic techniques, exam advice and improving and marking sample answers.
The first section on the poems gives a brief overview of what the poem is about, some examples of form, structure and language and some of the feelings and attitudes which could arise from the poem. The necessary Assessments Objectives are therefore covered. Each poem has four questions to help students to develop their own ideas about the poem. The layout is pretty useful too, as the (annotated) poem is on the left of the double page and the analysis on the right. There is also a short and relevant context box on the poem’s page. They’ve managed to get a lot of information on the page without making it look too cluttered or unappealing. The ideas are not massively developed, so this would be better as a starting point for higher ability students, but the basics are covered well and would be a useful resource for building student confidence in handling the sometimes challenging poems. I’d also suggest that this section is useful for teachers who are teaching these poems for the first time. There are a few in this anthology that I have never taught before and this guide has been a useful starting point for developing my lessons. Parents or care givers who want to help with revision could do a lot worse than starting with this too. At the end of the section there are some practice questions on each poem which could serve to consolidate knowledge. There are also some exam-style questions and we all know how useful those are.

 

The second section deals with the themes of the poems. Again this is well organised. The theme is mentioned at the top of the page then underneath are a couple of general ideas relating to this theme. Underneath that are the poems which relate to that theme. There is a wide range of themes covered, some examples include Power of Nature and Loss and Absence. Again at the end of the section are some practice questions on each poem and some exam-type questions. If students worked through these they would be pretty well prepared for the exam.
The third section follows the same pattern and deals with poetic techniques, which is particularly useful for Assessment Objective 2. Each page mentions 4 or 5 poems in which a particular technique (or techniques) is / are demonstrated. Again there is a lot of information on the page. None of it is really in depth but is great for an overview or springboard for the development of ideas. The section again finishes with a set of useful revision / consolidation questions.
The fourth and fifth sections takes the students through what to expect in the exam and how to approach the questions. It includes a section on planning which I am always very keen for my students to do before they start their response. It also has a range of extracts and a whole response for students to mark, which are invaluable resources. It is worth mentioning again that if students worked systematically though this book, they would be well prepared for the exam. The book ends with a useful glossary which could again be useful for creating revision flashcards, quizzes etc.
Overall this resource is useful for students, teachers and parents. It is a cohesive and user-friendly revision guide which, if used properly, could give students a very solid foundation of knowledge of the exam. It has the usual quirky CPG style which in my experience can engage learners. I would highly recommend this book as an inexpensive but comprehensive revision tool and preparation for the AQA Literature exam.