Monday, 24 November 2008

Practitioner research from LSDA Northern Ireland

There's an absolutely fascinating collection of 'perspectives on engagement in learning' available from the RaPAL site.

I am engrossed in working for my Level 5 Numeracy Diploma but this document has made me think seriously and optimistically about literacy again - the first time for quite a while.

So far, I've only fully read one article (of nine) but will be attempting to get a hard copy so I can sneak some quick browses from the comfort of my armchair.

Ever on the look out for resources, my eye was drawn to the appendix of research paper 1, 'Exploring text messaging from the perspective of the young people who use it', (Pamela McDowell). I love the idea of 'translating' from one form of text to another. Just wish I had time to produce something like this for my group of teenage Entry Level literacy students - but the Numeracy Diploma keeps calling!
I then backtracked and read Pamela's paper. It is full of eye-opening facts including a list of situations when young people would consider switching their phones to 'silent'; 'off' does not seem to be an option except during air travel.

All nine papers are related to such everyday topics or real-life classroom situations. If you skim the contents page (click picture left for an enlargement) I guarantee you will get pulled in.

Each paper ingeniously concludes with comments and reflections from the author / researcher. These have convinced me that getting involved in action research is not as difficult as I thought. Maybe after the numeracy diploma?

Can't Read Can't Write - a review in Reflect

I can't believe it's almost three months since I wrote about the July issue of Reflect magazine.

The latest October 08 issue arrived at my house last weekend: I was delighted to see and read Rachel O’Dowd’s review of the Channel 4 Can't Read Can't Write programme that upset and disturbed so many Skills for Life tutors over the summer. It's a well balanced and thoughtful critique and you can read it yourself as Reflect is available on line (pages 25-26) at the NRDC site.

I was also interested to discover that Linda Worden, one of Beadle's students in the C4 programme, now has her own web site through which she is available for 'appearances and interviews'. These include the recent National Skills for Life conference in Birmingham (and the one in York tomorrow).

If you missed the programme see my two earlier posts of July 10 08 and July 29 08 for some background.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Film industry numeracy resource - is it RICH or poor?

I've now had a chance to try out the Guardian film industry pullout that I wrote about on July 22nd. If you keep reading you'll also be able to locate a new Level 2 place value worksheet that I created last week to accompany it (can also be used independently). However, due to embarking upon the Level 5 numeracy diploma, I've now decided it might not be as good as I thought it was!

Level 2 place value session
The main topic of my recent Level 2 session was large numbers (i.e. place value) and I began with one of my favourite 'large number' sites, David Levine's world population clock at which can be used as a prompt for all kinds of questioning and board work. I recommend pausing it by selecting today's date (or maybe one of your student's birth dates?) if you are going to ask students to translate the digits into words - otherwise the whirring last few digits can be very off-putting.

I also wanted (in order to tick the 'equality and diversity' box on the lesson plan) to use a more complicated population clock (different countries, statistics for males and females, etc.) but unfortunately the numbers were too small for clear display on the smartboard so I had to move swiftly on to the film industry poster.

It was obviously not my day for using the smartboard. Again, I had visibility problems: the PDF did not display as clearly as I had hoped and only the large graphics and figures were readable. Fortunately I had printed off an A3 version and we made do with a couple of A3 photocopies (and the original newspaper) shared around the class. (I'm lucky enough to have an old A3 printer at home; don't bother trying to print it on A4 - you won't be able to read it.)

Most of my questioning was based on interpreting the data in the large pie chart or on asking volunteers to write numbers on the poster as whole numbers (e.g. writing 54.2 billion as 54,200,000,000). At this stage, if your students require further input you might find the Level 2 place value chart useful. You can find it on the Level 2 number section of skillsworkshop.

I then used my new worksheet to check and consolidate individual skills. The PDF version is available here or you can click the picture left for a quick thumbnail preview (don't look for it on skillsworkshop as I haven't yet had time to list it - it will appear there during October).

Having now marked 14 worksheets I can report that, as suspected, the extension question caused the most difficulties. In most cases the initial subtraction was OK but there was a lot of difficulty translating the answer of 0.11bn to millions, the most common answer being 11 million rather than 110 million. Another unpopular question asked 'How are the actors listed?' (The answer was 'alphabetically').

However, I was pleasantly reassured by the grasp of maths terminology and symbols: descending and ascending order, greater than and less than - no problems!

Level 5 Numeracy Diploma
In an effort to balance up my numeracy and literacy teaching qualifications (currently weighted towards literacy) I've just started working towards the Level 5 Additional Diploma in Teaching Mathematics in the Lifelong Learning Sector (commonly known as an ADTLLS).

I've really enjoyed the first two sessions but the bad news (for me, not necessarily for you!) is that last week's learning has left me a little deflated. We were introduced to the RICH task concept and now I'm not at all happy with my film industry worksheet. You can read about rich mathematical tasks on the NRICH web site. To borrow another phrase from this site I think my worksheet needs HOTting up. HOTS is an acronym for high order thinking skills and again you can read more about it on NRICH.

However, despite my smartboard display problems I've decided that all is not lost. My introductory warm-up, firing questions and attempting to promote discussion based on the poster and the world population statistics, might not have been very RICH but I don't think it was excessively poor. There's no time left today to get into a discussion about what makes a task or resource RICH. However this thought is now always going to be in my head. The film industry resource is aimed at Level 2 but I'm also very interested in applying RICH and HOTS to my Entry 1 numeracy class. I feel that this may prove to be even more of a challenge.

And I haven't given up on the film poster yet: the original has been sent to the Resources Dept for A2 laminating and will be resurfacing later in the year for work on percentages and representing data.

The poster is still available on the Guardian site as a PDF file.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Worksheet Genius for instant Entry and preEntry resources

I've just added a wonderful new link to the 'Other sites with printable resources' links page. This page lists about 200 sites that provide printable literacy and/or numeracy worksheets.

Worksheet Genius creates instant randomized worksheets. It's the work of a generous Midlands teacher, Simon Currigan, and all worksheets are completely free - no strings attached! Like Wordle, it's a Java based application - so you may need to speak nicely to your college IT staff and get Java installed on the machines you use in your office or classroom.

For Entry level spelling and phonics there are masses of word lists (or add your own) that can be used for flashcards, bingo games, word searches and much more. Other word lists cover common spelling rules such as -ed endings, take off the 'y', prefixes, etc.

The phonics sheets come with pictures - the clip art is aimed at children but most is also suitable for adults. If you don't like the clip-art/words that appear on your screen, simply click the 'Apply genius' button to make a brand new sheet. You can also create mixed up sentences, anagrams and really useful slide shows which are perfect for instant Look-Say-Cover-Write-Check work if you select the 'add a blank slide between each word' option. Note that the clip art can also be downloaded and used independently - very handy if you want to create your own linked materials.

The numeracy options are just as good. The abacus style place value sheet (top right) is one of my favourites and is earmarked for my Entry 2 numeracy group.

Again, each type of numeracy worksheet can be fully customised: clocks can be set from 1 hour to 1 minute intervals; subtraction can be horizontal or vertical, with or without carrying; and so on.

For preEntry milestone 8 you could use 'count and colour' (up to 12 items) or picture versions of adding on 1, 2 or 3.

Several options are also suitable beyond Entry level: percentages, division with or without remainders, long multiplication, etc.

If you have any specific ideas for using Worksheet Genius with you literacy and numeracy classes please leave your ideas as a blog comment or contact me by email via

I can't describe everything here so do please take a look.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Hilda Taba (part 2), Wordle, and numeracy

In one of my earlier posts (Aug 16, 2008) on Wordle I said:
"I reckon this idea could be adapted for numeracy: sorting out maths vocabulary words; ranking measures in order of size; sorting measures into length, weight or capacity; sorting shapes (well, names of shapes) according to properties; etc."

Well, site-contributor Dave Norgate has speedily proved my
point: he's created a set of numeracy Wordles that does everything I wished for and more! There are four Wordles in his resource – covering 2D shapes, maths vocabulary, odd and even numbers, and metric units. Dave has also very kindly provided fill-in charts for two word clouds: one provides a structure for straightforward sorting (maths vocabulary); the other demands sorting followed by ordering (metric units).

Linking this back to my previous discussion regarding Hilda Taba - you might like to think of a Wordle cloud as the collection of data (the first stage or strategy in her model) and Dave's blank charts as the next stage where data is organised so that students can visualise and attain concepts.

The number of ‘phases’ in each stage seems to have been extended since Taba’s work was published in 1971. It varies with each source that I look at (see references at the end this post). Here’s my attempt at a summary – but I make no claim to expertise in learning theory.

Stage 1 (three phases)
Concept formation – collecting data through class brainstorming (maybe into Wordle - see below!), individual lists, answers to questions, etc. 3 phases: list, group, label.

Stage 2
Attaining concepts - organising data using: whiteboard, smartboard, flip chart, fill-in tables, handout, Wordle (more on this below), etc.

Stage 3 (I’m not sure how many phases!)
Develop generalisations, compare, explain, apply principles (predicting).

Anyway – I must wander back to some practical uses of Wordle…

Of course you don’t have to start at Stage 1 - phase 1 (listing) to make use of Taba’s model. All the existing (as of Sept 6th 08) Wordle resources on provide pre-collected data in a word cloud; the words or numbers in the cloud may also be partially grouped. Examples of these include (all kindly contributed by Dave N):
Sorting nouns and verbs (and then listing alphabetically)
Identifying misspelt words
Identifying 2D shapes
Sorting odd and even numbers

In all these cases you are starting at Taba’s Stage 1 - phase 2 or 3. However, you could (assuming you have a PC, data projector and Internet access to Wordle) collect the data live in-class and start at Stage 1 - phase 1.

This can be done through brainstorming and/or careful questioning. Before you start you’ll need a clear objective. What concept do you want students to grasp? It could be naming the properties of 2D shapes, distinguishing between odd and even numbers, recognising metric measures and selecting appropriate units, etc. The questioning is crucial if you want to avoid too many stray words or groups in your Wordle. You’ve got to get the balance right: to prevent a wild goose chase you'll need to elicit plenty of relevant data (words) that allow learners to make connections and ‘get’ (attain) the concept.

I recommend enlisting a willing student to type-in the words – or, even better, pass a wireless keyboard around. If accurate spelling is a prerequisite for your Wordle – get the students to type into a Word document (with spellchecker turned on) and then paste the list into Wordle at the end of the brainstorming session. This also keeps Wordle a secret until the last minute – assuming your students haven’t seen it before!

Now, a great feature of Wordle is that, when using it live, you can delete words one by one from your cloud by right-clicking on them. You can use this to facilitate Taba’s crucial middle stage 2 and whittle your data down to one group.

For example, if you were creating a cloud similar to Dave’s (right) you could firstly delete (or ask students to delete) all the words that are not names of shapes or objects (e.g. addition, weigh, perimeter). This could be followed (amidst much discussion about properties, etc.) by deleting all the names of 3D shapes (for example) until you’re eventually left with a set of 2D shapes. If your group is working at Level 1 or 2 - keep going! The possibilities are endless - ask the students how they could regroup and classify what's left. Perhaps they'll suggest deleting those with more than four sides, or those with only one pair of parallel lines.

Of course, I’m not saying that Wordle is the answer to everything! For more advanced grouping and ordering you may well have to stick to the traditional whiteboard, fill-in table, matrix or chart method – although maybe you could have more than one Wordle going on at once!

I’ll leave you to think about Stage 3 and its generalisations and predictions...

I'm guessing this was taken in the 1950s – Taba was born in 1902

Taba, H., Durkin, M. C., Fraenkel, J. R., & NcNaughton, A. H. (1971). A teacher's handbook to elementary social studies: An inductive approach (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Chapter 5 is available online at (I’m not sure if this is a summary or the entire chapter as unfortunately I have not read the original – out of print – I’d love to see it though!).

There's also good clear coverage of Taba's model in Teaching Young Adults (Gill Turner, Joe Harkin, Trevor Dawn) RoutledgeFalmer 2001
This book uses a useful egg timer depiction. I'd better not reproduce it here because of copyright issues but if you search for the book in you can preview various pages including the egg timer page 46.
The book also includes an extended Taba model (page 47). This extended version is great for planning: it's full of imperatives for learning objectives. For example, Stage 1-phase 1 not only suggests list but also collect, find, choose, bring, underline, highlight and tick. It also relates Taba's model to the Kolb / experiential learning cycle (page 48 - also viewable via Google books).

Friday, 29 August 2008

Do better qualified SfL teachers teach better?

Reflect magazine is published three times a year and is always a good read. The latest July 08 issue was delivered to my house about a month ago but I've only just finished browsing.

There are 17 articles. Seven are grouped together as a special report on family and community learning; the remainder range from 'E-learning in Uganda' to a well argued, down-to-earth plea from a Skills for Life tutor (more on this in a later post).

This is a VERY interesting question and the answers might not be what you're expecting...

To be honest, I found it very hard to tease out exactly what the results were but here's my nutshell version:

  • Better qualified (generic - e.g. Cert Ed, PGCE) SfL teachers enable learners to make more progress.

  • Numeracy learners make more progress if their teacher also has A level mathematics or beyond. In contrast, the progress of Literacy and ESOL learners is not markedly improved if their teacher has an English qualification beyond GCSE.

  • Students’ enjoyment of numeracy is higher if the teacher also has a maths degree or postgraduate qualification but beware: these teachers are also related to a decrease in learners' confidence about numeracy skills.

This doesn’t surprise me - I've met high level mathematicians who just cannot get back to ground level (but I’ve met others who can and do!). As a test try this: ask someone with a maths PhD what a fraction is (I’ve tried this myself with someone I know well…).

However, I am rather confused by the results of this research. I would have thought that confidence and progress in numeracy work hand in hand so am not sure what the ideal is here…

Maybe a teacher with AS level maths – who knows!

I should point out that this research is ongoing and the authors, Olga Cara and Augustin de Coulon, welcome feedback and comments.

You can read Reflect online at the NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) site
(Select the 'publications' tab). The magazine can be read as individual on-line articles or as a single, large PDF file. You can also subscribe and receive free printed versions.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Freebies from NIACE / Basic Skills Agency

I've been updating my links pages - a mammoth task that is only tackled once a year. There are three links pages (each with 200+ links) on skillsworkshop - and, thankfully, now just one of them left to check.

The Basic Skills Agency merged with NIACE (National Institute for Adult Continuing Education) sometime ago. This morning, whilst editing and removing the dead links to these sites, I was inadvertently diverted and sidetracked (you know how it happens!) into taking a look at some of the 'old' BSA resources. Now archived, these resources can be reached via the NIACE site and purchased online with a credit card (or by phone if you want to be invoiced).

Don't miss out on the free PDF downloads that are scattered amongst their more pricey cousins. To find these, select the 'Free downloads only' button in the 'Product search' area. Tip: no not select 'Resources from England' or you will miss out on many resources that are published in English and Welsh (within one document) including most of the resources I'm about to mention...

KS3 Text Type posters' is a set of 2 x 5 A4 posters (English/Welsh) - as depicted at the top of this page (click on this picture for a larger view). Great for classroom display or for passing around and general discussion. Aimed at secondary school students but perfectly OK for adults (Entry 3 upwards). There are also two related booklets for teachers, rather ungrammatically entitled: 'How to teach Information Text' and 'How to teach Instruction and Explanation text'.

'How to measure at KS3' is another good one for teachers. Common problems and misunderstandings are discussed and there are useful resource sheets such as this one (right) relating common objects to metric measures.

Last but not least is the 'Help yourself' maths pack - 20 pages of facts, clear explanations and questions for learners to improve and then check their understanding.

Note that if you don't have the facilities or the desire to print out glossy colour copies, most of the free downloadable resources can also be ordered online. The postage is fairly reasonable - especially if you are ordering many items (e.g. 1 item £1.50, up to 4 items £2.00, up to 10 items £3.50, etc.).

This is just a taster - there are many more freebies in the BSA archive.
If you discover any gems do share them by leaving a blog comment or emailing me via the site. ... likewise if you find any dead links on the skillsworkshop links pages!

Links pages
Useful links for tutors - professional development, teaching and learning, good books and software, government agencies and departments (inc. links to the on-line interactive curricula and resources), learning difficulties and disabilities, study skills, and more.
Printable resources for adult basic skills - our most popular links page (approx 2000 visits per week). Lists other resource sites with free printable resources suitable for adults. These are arranged under 6 categories: realia sites for good examples of real-life texts, educational clip art and web graphics, pre-entry, literacy and numeracy, literacy only, numeracy only, and ESOL.
Embedding ILT (information & learning technology): interactive sites for adult basic skills tutors and students - hundreds of links arranged under: general computer skills and accessibility issues, pre-entry, literacy and numeracy, literacy only, numeracy only, and ESOL.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Wordle and Hilda Taba

I'm delighted to say that, since my earlier post on Using Wordle in the Classroom, I've received some new resource ideas from site-contributor Dave Norgate.

Find all the prepositions.

Sort the words into two columns - correctly spelt and misspelt.

These ideas will be appearing on the site sometime next week - complete with instructions, answer sheets and curriculum links.

I really like the idea of 'sorting' in the second picture (and 'listing' in the first). It brings back distant PGCE memories of Hilda Taba and her 'concept development model'.

Of course you could give your learners either of the pictures above with no instructions.


Well - this gets them thinking about the words (and the concepts). If they come up with the sorting or listing ideas themselves they'll be more engaged and have ownership of the resource.

Here's a few questions you could ask if needed.

These questions were inspired by information on this site

  • What do you notice about these words?
  • Do any of these words seem to belong together?
  • Why would you group these words together?
  • What would you call the groups?
  • Could some of the words belong in other groups?
  • Can you suggest other words that you could add to these groups?
  • Can you make your own Wordle pictures?
  • What if....
I reckon this idea could be adapted for numeracy: sorting out maths vocabulary words; ranking measures in order of size; sorting measures into length, weight or capacity; sorting shapes (well, names of shapes) according to properties; etc.

For more on Taba:
The PDF above can also be located from this menu page: (select Concept Formation)

There's also good clear coverage of Taba's model in Teaching Young Adults (Gill Turner, Joe Harkin, Trevor Dawn) RoutledgeFalmer 2001 (one of my PGCE set books).

I’m sure there are lots more possibilities so I'll finish by repeating my request from the previous Wordle post: if you have any Wordle ideas you’d like to share please get in touch or leave a comment.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

July 08 Site Stats

I posted up the new site stats on Sunday; they're a bit late this month because I've been on holiday.

Just as last month (see the June 08 site stats post in this blog), I am again bemused by what's popular and what's not!

June's No1 (Andrea McCulloch's Dr Who resource) has been pushed to No 2 position by Laurence Fletcher's Entry 1-Entry 3 Health and Safety reading activities (1042 downloads).

I have no idea why Health and Safety should be so popular in the middle of the summer holiday period but the resource well deserves its pole position. Laurence has cleverly combined humour, cartoons, facts and fiction to provide practice in sequencing, prediction and comprehension - along with more standard health and safety instructions! The two stories are rather like modern-day fables - warning the reader of the dangers of shredders and bus windows - and will appeal to all ages and levels!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Teaching handwriting to adults

I have received the following message from site-contributor Andrew:

Dear Maggie,

I am a literacy tutor and have used your site on many occasions, as well as contributing some materials. I have a query about teaching handwriting for adults and wondered whether you might be able to post it on your comments page, as our internet security system does not allow us to access a ‘blog’.

I believe that it is helpful to teach cursive writing to learners to improve spelling ‘automaticity’, but was wondering what the current thinking on this is within the adult teaching community – is it beneficial to teach this skill at any level, or should I aim to integrate this skill at a specific level, say E2 and above? Would it be counterproductive to teach this skill at all to adult learners? I have had some good results with some learners, but obviously this may not be the case in general and I would like some guidance in this area.

I would really appreciate some insight into this one.

Best regards
I have also posted this query on the comments page. If you can help please respond either by using 'comments' on this blog (which I will forward to Andrew) or by emailing Andrew (or me) via the skillsworkshop comments page.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Can’t read, can’t write - episodes one and two

The original post and comments about this Channel 4 programme are now way down the blog (thread started on July 10th). Rather than bury the comments, I am posting the latest comment here (received last night after the second episode of the program was broadcast).

Rachel Simpson writes:

“Hi Maggie! I'm ranting watching the second episode of this programme tonight. Yikes. He should have spent six months with some Lit tutors before spending six months with students. Doesn't he realise that the curriculum is not the recipe book that they have in schools for literacy hour? Does he want to come to my house or yours or anyone else who teaches SfL (and many other folks I'm sure) and see the piles and piles of stuff we have to help people read and write better?

There were moments when it was really obvious that he usually works with children who have no option but to accept his behaviour as they can't easily get up and go home.

There are so many times that I feel that no-one knows what we do or cares what we do other than ourselves and the learners and the bean counters. This programme just confirms that we are invisible :( ”

Before I respond, can I just say that unfortunately I have no time at the moment to reply in huge detail. This will be redressed in mid August when I’ll have more time for blogging and generally letting off steam. In the meantime I hope this new post will provoke others to share their views.

Rachel, thanks so much for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. I feel the same – that no one much knows or cares what we do…

Does PB really think that we (literacy teachers) don’t know about different learning styles and teaching methods? Doesn’t he realise that he can use kinaesthetic methods (for example) without resorting to treating adults like children (and behaving like a child himself).

Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order, about week 1 of the programme – I'm still so hopping mad (no space-hopper-related pun intended) and speechless about last night’s programme that will have to comment on that later.

True - the Skills for Life literacy materials are not brilliant – although I still think they are better than what we had before from the government (which was nothing!). To be fair to PB, this is, of course, no reason to justify them and I agree that the coverage of phonics (in the free government provided teaching materials) is terrible.

True - the depicted lesson looked more like an ESOL lesson but in that case why did he choose that one to visit / portray on the programme? And I thought showing a lesson where class members were asked to read a piece aloud to the group was again biased and gave the wrong impression of a ‘typical’ adult literacy class.

False – there is copious coverage of phonics in the Adult Literacy Curriculum, indeed the ‘title’ of the entire Word Level - Reading section throughout Entry Level is “Vocabulary, word recognition and phonics”. There is also extensive coverage of phonics in, what was, the Level 4 Certificate of Professional Practice for adult literacy practitioners. I know, from the popularity of phonics resources on my site, that phonics teaching is alive and active in many adult literacy classes. Although from the other perspective, the fact that the phonics resources are so popular is also further proof that there are no decent phonics materials available in the DfES SfL materials.

False - it was unfair to read out and focus solely on the Rt/E1.1 text level element (”Follow a short narrative …”) and to suggest that just because this is the first thing in the curriculum it is the first thing that has to be “done” and in isolation. For all its shortcomings – the curriculum does indeed state that “it is not intended that these three dimensions [text, sentence and word focus] should be taught one after the other; teachers will draw simultaneously on all three….” (page 7)

False – the materials (or the curriculum) are not supposed to be used from beginning to end as implied and we are not compelled by the government to use the learning materials.

I don’t really think it's fair to comment on the students involved but some things just did not ring true and were clearly over-dramatised (so I’m going to comment anyway!).

For example, the ‘can’t find the ham in the shop’ – I find it hard to believe that someone who is clearly very resourceful and has brought up a large family cannot find and recognise a packet of ham in a shop. The bit in the children’s library made me cringe – I suppose because it goes against everything I've been taught and believe about ‘not treating adults as children’. Although others may well look at it from the view that the learner wanted to read to her grandchildren and so it was therefore relevant.

There's a lot more I could say about episode 1 - inappropriate use of paper based intial assessment materials; misguided, inappropriate and insulting use of children's reading ages with adults (with no regard for language development); etc. - but I just don't have time at the moment.

It’s good to see that there has been a response from the Government about the first episode of the programme. John Denham (Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills) had a letter in the Independent on Sunday (July 27, 08) and has also written a piece in the Guardian Education (Monday July 28, 08).

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, results from this programme. If it encourages more adults to get help that can only be a good thing – my fear is that it will have the opposite effect.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Guardian Eyewitness - numeracy resource for film lovers

As mentioned yesterday, I feel this blog has been biased towards literacy lately.

So here's a quick snippet for numeracy teachers.

I bought the Guardian this morning (admittedly, to see if they had a view on last night's 'Can't Read, Can't Write' - more on that at a later date...) and really got hooked in by the graphic appeal of the Eyewitness page (i.e. the centre double page spread).

It's all about the UK Film Industry and there's lots to look at and discuss - from straightforward ordering (top 20 films) through to a giant pie chart (British films from comedy to horror). There's also plenty of percentages, loads of very large sums of money expressed as decimals (e.g. £4.3 billion - estimated contribution of the film industry to the UK's GDP in 2006), currency (some figures are in dollars) and horizontal bar charts. The accompanying article by Helen Pidd also contains further 'numeracy' (intertwined with literacy, of course!).
Printing tricks for PDF files
Don't fret if you didn't buy the paper. The good news is the film graphic is also available as a PDF file.
Now the great thing about PDFs is you can use the 'reduce to printer margins' option when printing. According to my PDF reader / writer (Acrobat) the original Guardian PDF is 25" x 18". This will indeed shrink to A4 but I recommend printing onto at least A3 if you, or your college, has A3 printing facilities.
Of course it's ideal for data projection, and as the file is not write protected you can use the Acrobat snapshot tool to select any area (for example a pie chart) and copy it into another document. This could be useful as the 'whole thing' could be rather overwhelming.
If that's too much trouble then Adobe also has a very useful 'current view' option (under 'print range' - which is by default set to 'all'). This means you can just zoom in (or out) to the bit you want and then whatever you see is what gets printed!
Yes - but how do I use it?
Well I'm running out of time here - my family will starve and the cupboard is bare - but here's a couple of ideas for a quick starter.
Split class (L1-2) into pairs or small groups. Give each group a topic: box office takings, top ten films, genre, Harry Potter (they may have to read the accompanying article for some of these). After an agreed time (10 minutes or so?) each pair to present / talk about their findings to the group.
Or for a quicker activity. Ask each student to compare two different films. E.g. Harry Potter and Stardust, Die Hard 4 and Hairspray, etc. This will involve (amongst other things) subtracting large sums of money.
More ideas
By chance there's also a short article The Guardian gives teachers the full picture (page 2, educational supplement) that describes how several other teachers (not of literacy / numeracy) use the Eyewitness pages in their classes.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Using Wordle in the classroom

I’m addicted to Wordle and, in an attempt to justify the time I’ve spent on it lately, have come up with a few ideas for using it in literacy classes.

Wordle takes a list of words or a piece of text and creates a ‘word cloud’: the more times a word occurs in a text the larger it appears in the cloud. So, if you type ‘the [note lowercase initial letter] cat sat on the mat’ into Wordle the word ‘the’ appears (once) in a font twice the size of the other words.

I first came across Wordle about a month ago and I used it to create a thank you picture for all my site contributors. I extracted the names of all contributors (since January 2005) from the latest
popular downloads listing. I’ve just made a new one (above) which includes all contributors’ names up to July 16 2008. Of course this is just a bit of fun and it does not mean that those who make one or two contributions are any less appreciated than those who make dozens!

A month on since my first use and I see that several improvements have been added: Wordle can now strip out common (i.e. Dolch) words, accept text from live feeds (RSS / Atom) such as a Blog, and can display the word cloud in a separate window (this allows you take large screen grabs, as I have done here, using the Print Screen key).

So, if you ever wanted visible proof that Dolch words are indeed the most common words simply paste a piece of text into Wordle and select the ‘do not remove common words’ from the ‘language’ menu.

Using the live feed feature I input the first 500 (different) words from this blog and you can see the results here. One with Dolch words, one without.

The first thing I noticed was that the word 'numeracy’ does not appear. I’ll have to try to redress that in future posts!

You can do lots of other fancy things in Wordle such as click on and delete particular words from a cloud; play around with fonts and colours; choose between vertical , horizontal or mixed orientation; and ask for words to be in ‘mostly alphabetical order’.

So, to return to my opening sentence...
Here’s just a few ideas I came up with. None took me more than 5 or 10 minutes to prepare and I’m sure there are lots more possibilities - if you have any you’d like to share please let me know.

Write two sentences using as many of these words as you can. (Entry 2 upwards)

Use coloured pencils to circle the matching words. (Milestone 8 – Entry 1)

How many compound words can you make? Tip: the larger the word the more times you may be able to use it. (Entry 3 upwards) Answers at the bottom.

Which of these words and phrases would you be most likely to use in a formal letter? (Levels 1 and 2)

Now admittedly, you might be thinking that any of these could just as easily be created in a standard word processor. Well yes, they could, but if you have access to a data projector in your class room and have the text file ready to paste into Wordle you can create instant ‘exercises’ for your students. It adds a little pizzazz to the lesson and can prompt students to use Wordle for themselves – they could make up their own word games, devise lists of synonyms or difficult spellings, or perhaps even analyse their writing for word repetition.


This is the list of compound words I used for the resource above but there may well be other possible answers.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

What is complete illiteracy?

I’ve been thinking about Chris Jackson’s comment. In fact, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time going round and round the web, finding more and more to ponder…

Since I started teaching I’ve thought quite a lot about Skills for Life literacy levels and how they really compare to the survival, functional and operational descriptors they are matched with.
The screenshot right is taken from a PPT I used at Oxford Brookes in 2005 – it’s
still available on site but be warned that many of the references and links may be out of date.

However, I admit that, despite being a literacy teacher, I had not previously reflected on what ‘complete illiteracy’ means; the image in my head was simply that of an anonymous figure signing his name with a cross.

My search for a single, superior definition has not been successful but I’ve certainly got a clearer image now than I had a week ago!

The first explanation (found via the ‘type-illiteracy-into-Google-then-click-the-definition-link’ route) was: The exact nature of the criterion varies, so that illiteracy must be defined in each case before the term can be used in a meaningful way.
"illiteracy." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003. 12 Jul. 2008.

So… nothing new there then!

However the same source continues with some helpful history, explaining that in 1930 the US Census Bureau defined ‘illiterate’ as anyone over 10 years of age who could not read and write.

At this point, I diverted to the UK Statistics Authority and the UK-Census Online but could find only scant references to literacy – and certainly no UK definition of ‘illiteracy’.

So, I continued with the Columbia listing which went on to say that by the 1940s the idea of functional illiteracy (unable to engage in social activities in which literacy is assumed) was alive and well in the US and that in 1990 the US census results showed that 5% of adults were considered not to be functionally literate (which was then classed as the expected level of attainment after attending between 6 and 8 years of school).

Columbia continues with this: The United Nations defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple message … ‘Ah ha,’ I thought, ‘now perhaps I’m getting somewhere! Although how do you define a simple message?’

Further use of Google took me to a table of statistics from the United Nations Statistics Division site. There was no mention of the UK in the table (or the US) and if you scroll down (below the footnotes) to the technical notes you will find a list of possible reasons:
For many countries or areas, literacy rates are not available for one or more of the following reasons: (a) illiteracy is believed to have been reduced to minimal levels through several decades of universal primary education, (b) it has not been possible to establish revised estimates following recent mass literacy campaigns, (c) not even a minimal database is available for making rough estimates, or (d) countries have preferred that no estimate be published.

But, hey presto, there was also some useful information in the technical notes: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines a literate person as someone who can both read and write with understanding, a short, simple statement on his or her everyday life. A person who can only read but not write, or can write but not read is considered to be illiterate. A person who can only write figures, his or her name or a memorized ritual phrase is also not considered literate.

Now, as someone who loves the Language Experience Approach with beginning adult readers I rather like this definition of a literate person!

After this I got completely sidetracked (still on the UNESCO site) by information about the LAMP (Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme) project which measures reading skills over 5 levels in three different text categories (prose, document and quantitative). The ‘International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding What Was Measured’, Irwin Kirsch (2001), PDF is an absolute mine of information on this and I hope to return to this in another post.

Finally, to get back down to earth, I tried Wikipedia. Functional Illiteracy is defined as ‘the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills efficiently in everyday life situations’ and Illiteracy as ‘the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language’. (Note the mention of IT skills here).

By this time I’d almost forgotten that the original spark for this discussion and research was my uneasiness with Phil Beadle’s sweeping statement that ‘people who work in adult literacy’ say that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist.

So, I’m still not sure what ‘complete illiteracy’ means but I am very sure about something. Using any one of the six definitions listed, here’s one person who works in adult literacy that has never said that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist. Surely I’m not alone?

Sunday's Independent (July 13, 08) had an interesting article
'We've seen the future ... and we may not be doomed' which talks about a new UN report '2008 State of the Future' to be published later this month. What first caught my eye was the large accompanying world statistics graphic (unfortunately not included in the online report) in which one of the headings, under 'Where we are winning' (rather than 'Where we are losing') is Literacy. It says: '[Literacy] is a key factor in countries being able to move towards democracy and enjoy economic growth. The number of people aged 15 or above that can read and write has increased from 72 percent in 1985 to 82 percent today and is projected to reach 85 percent by 2017.'

So we've got that report (6,300 pages!) to look forward to as well as the upcoming Can't Read, Can't Write programme...

Sunday, 13 July 2008

wiki How to draw an 'S' from straight lines

I use iGoogle as my home page (after being introduced to it by my youngest son about a year ago).

One of the things I enjoy about my current iGoogle desktop is the ‘How to for the day’ listing (see middle column on screen shot right).

Everyone knows about
Wikipedia and Wiktionary - but it seems that wikiHow is not so well known (as an aside, I have just today discovered that although it is powered by MediaWiki, it isn’t actually part of the Wikimedia 'family' of projects).

I have no idea how long it’s been around for, but something on the daily ‘How to …’ listing often catches my eye. Yesterday it was
How to Draw an S Made Entirely of Straight Lines. If you’re thinking the same as me - that it looks more like an 8 than an S - keep reading.

Now the trouble with being a basic skills tutor is that you tend to look at almost everything, especially texts, from the ‘can I use this in my classes’ or ‘would this make a good resource?’ point of view.

The answer is yes, and two ideas spring to mind.

For numeracy I would adapt the instructions to include measurement (e.g. Draw three parallel lines, each 2cm apart and 4cm long, etc.) and insist upon a ruler. I might even be generous and provide some 1cm squared paper!
Depending on the learner group, I would either read the instructions aloud, or display them on the board (with or without pictures). It makes a good crossover from ‘common measures’ to ‘shape and space’.
MSS2/E1.2 Understand everyday positional vocabulary (e.g. between, inside or near to). MSS1/E2.5 Read, estimate, measure and compare length using common non-standard and standard units (g) know how to use a ruler to draw and measure lines to the nearest cm. MSS2/L1.2 draw 2-D shapes in different orientations using grids (e.g. in diagrams or plans). MSS2/L2.2 solve problems involving 2-D shapes and parallel lines.

For literacy the instructions would make good paired listening practice. You know the thing: students sit back to back, one reads and other attempts to draw (without being told the title of the piece). SLlr/E2.4 listen to and follow short, straightforward explanations and instructions.

Alternatively, I might read it to the whole group, see how they fare, then show them the picture.
SLlr/E3.2 Listen for detail in explanations, instructions and narratives in different contexts

or, give the ‘speaker’ the finished S (or 8!) picture and ask them to make up and deliver their own instructions to their partner SLc/L1.3 Express clearly statements of fact and give short explanations, instructions, accounts and descriptions

or, compose, write down and edit their own instructions then swap and check carefully for ambiguity, conciseness, etc. Wt/L2.7 Proof-read and revise writing for accuracy and meaning (a) understand that, as well as checking for errors or spelling, grammar and general sense, proof-reading enable the writer to spot: unintended ambiguity (where meaning can be taken in more than one way); long-windedness or repetition (where the same point could be made more concisely); compression (where too many points are pushed into to few words and the sense is muddled).

or, you never know, I might just give out copies (or ask learners to go online) and use the text for some good old fashioned reading practice! Rt/E2.1 Trace and understand the main events of chronological and instructional texts.

Any or all of these is bound to lead to discussion of why a picture can be worth a thousand words.
Rt/E3.9 relate an image to print and use it to obtain meaning Rt/E2.4 Use illustrations and captions to locate information (a) understand that illustrations contribute to meaning and can help locate and interpret information.

Of course, the thing about Wikis is that they are editable by all. This idea is itself a lesson in the power of group proof reading! Wt/L2.7 Proof-read and revise writing for accuracy and meaning b) understand that revising these might involve rewriting some sentences as well as adding or removing individual words.

I started writing this last night - this morning I noticed that the text in question had changed. There’s now an extra picture at the bottom showing how to draw transform the shape from an 8 to an S, and the introductory paragraph has also been changed to reflect this. So, I recommend that if you find a good wikiHow text that suits your learner group (or you), you make a copy of it because it might be completely different next time you look – or not even be there at all!

A final note. Just as I’m about to post this, what do I see on iGoogle?
A new “How To of the Day...”:
How to Spell

If you have any teaching ideas that involve wikiHow – please share them via this Blog or email them to me from

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Can’t read, can’t write

This Channel 4 series (3 x 1 hour) starts on July 21st. In the meantime Channel 4 is inviting interested parties to come to a public debate about this topic (July 15, London, 6-9.30).
‘Can’t Read Can’t Write is a shocking and moving Channel 4 series, which reveals the hidden realities of Britain’s adult literacy crisis. Nine illiterate adults enrol for a six-month reading course taught by inspirational, controversial and award-winning teacher Phil Beadle, which they hope will change their lives. Each has spent over ten years in the education system and yet has failed to learn the most basic skills.’
At the bottom of the ‘
event listing’ some well-known names appear. These include Alan Wells, former director of the Basic Skills Agency; Ursula Howard from the NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy); and the series presenter Phil Beadle (whom I had not heard of until yesterday).

Now, if you want to hear more about PB he was interviewed by Andrew Marr in his
Start the Week Radio 4 show on Monday (July 7th). Don’t worry if you missed it – you can listen, like I did, to the podcast. The podcast is 45 minutes long but if, after listening to the introduction, you press the 15-minute fast forward button twice you’ll get to the start of the interview (it follows on from an interview with David Blunkett).

Parts of the interview are rather alarming and I await the TV show with interest. It begins with a brief mention of the kinaesthetic methods (pipe cleaners, plastic, and balletic hand movements) used with an Oxford woman, Linda, who had a library of classics but was unable to ‘read a single letter sound’. After working with PB for 6 months she was ‘…reading Shakespeare and writing Shakespearean sonnets’ and ‘literally danced her way into literacy’.

PB goes on to state that ‘people who work in adult literacy’ say that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist and that ‘they have an interesting approach to the truth’. The discussion also covers synthetic phonics, skewed funding and quite a bit more! If you’re interested PB also has his own web site and he writes for the Education Guardian.