Q & A with Professor
Heather Lotherington

Question # 5:

My son, now 9, is in Grade 4 in South Africa. We are English-speaking South Africans, but he is having some major problems reading. He struggles to read with confidence, and is reading very slowly. This year, they started doing tests where he must read a question and then answer it. He is getting very low marks as he does not finish the exam paper. He also does not comprehend what he is reading: if I ask him questions verbally, he can answer them, but if he reads the question he does not understand it.

I have been looking for solutions on the Internet, but I was hoping you had some solutions. I know we are in South Africa and you are in Canada, but I am hoping you will be in a position to help us. -Ben

Answer:

Hi Ben. Your query from South Africa is very welcome. I think the problem frustrating your son is probably not the English language, but the way we write it on paper.  It sounds as if your son might have a difficulty perceiving letters on a page that should be diagnosed by a psychologist who works with learning challenges. He will also likely require closer attention by a specialist educator who works with learning problems if he is still having problems at age 9, which is at the edges of the normal curve in reading acquisition. This is not a question of intelligence or language but of the brain’s hardwired pathways in perceiving written text or possibly using memory. I am sure this is very frustrating for your son; there should be special education professionals around who can help him. There are plenty of computer programs available to help children with various learning challenges but the learning problems must first be diagnosed, so it is the special education professionals who are better placed to help you with specific software recommendations.

Our understanding of language as literacy reflects how schools operate. Schools are based on literate learning, focusing particularly on book learning as if everything important has always been written down using language. But we can encode images (photos, drawings), music (scores), land masses (maps), mathematical symbols (equations) and action (movies) just to name a few other kinds of literacy, and these forms of text construction and information storage can and should be used in education.

Let me suggest that you focus on what your son does with ease and interest in terms of learning and expression—such as speaking and listening and using verbal means of communication—to reinforce what he can do while working with what he has difficulties doing. I hope your son’s particular learning problems are professionally identified soon so he can catch up in his learning.

Heather

Question # 4:

My unilingual English speaking 5 year old has been accepted into a unilingual French public school (not French Immersion). I have older children who are in French Immersion and I have not been 100% impressed with the level of fluency in French they have gained in that system. We live in an English community and speak English at home. Will my 5 year old attain complete fluency in both languages? -Una

Answer:

Hi Una. I have heard of an increasing trend of non-francophones sending their children to French Public School as a kind of beefed up immersion but I am surprised to hear that your daughter was accepted without a francophone background. The intention of French Public School is to serve those who already speak French, and the presence of children who do not will mean that the teacher must effect a kind of immersion situation in the classroom. Having said that, this is parallel to what happens in English public schools which cater to large percentages of children who do not speak English.

Your child’s English will not suffer if you and other family members and friends are reinforcing it with her, and duplicating early literacy with English materials. We swim in a sea of English: she will be bombarded with English socially.

Though French immersion does indeed have difficulties and shortcomings in terms of the level of French that children learn, the teachers are prepared to teach across languages, with English at the heart of both stated and unstated translations. Your daughter’s entry into a French-only educational environment may be trying for her. I would recommend that you furnish what support you can for early French literacy at home as well. Perhaps you can press her older siblings into helping their little sister get a grip on initial French literacy.

Bonne chance!

Heather

Question # 3:

Several years ago, I read an article about a reading-related research study. The article stated that the researchers had found that reading fiction improved emotional intelligence. Do you know anything about this research? I’m a high school Teacher-Librarian in a school which is getting a regional Autism Spectrum Disorder Diploma Support Program. We also have a Communication Program for students who are certificate-bound rather than diploma-bound, and most of these students also have ASD diagnoses. If this research really exists, and if the findings have been confirmed, then I’d like to put together a brochure or newsletter article for these students and their parents, given that understanding emotion, picking up on social cues, etc. is something with which these students have great difficulty. -Brenda

Answer:

Hi Brenda. This is an interesting question. I must tell you, first off, that there are specialists in autism spectrum disorder (not my area), and I do encourage you to ask this question of someone who specializes in this area as children designated ASD do not react to communication as do others. Indeed, this is the major problem. Literature is a kind of communication, so I would suggest you talk with the consultants inevitably attached to a program offering ASD support.

I don’t recognize the study and in a quick search did not locate it, but it sounds a reasonable proposition: reading novels induces empathy—shouldn’t this activity bolster emotional intelligence? Certainly we all recognize the “tear-jerker” story, which hones in on our emotional understanding. This experience provides us with background for thinking about emotional situations, cues and reactions which can be applied in interpersonal experiences.

The difficulty is that the reader must respond in a calculable way: this does not happen for children with ASD. So we are back at square one: you need to take this up with an ASD consultant. On the bright side: it is a wonderful area for research. You could plan a reading program around novels fostering empathy. As a librarian you have excellent knowledge of age appropriate novels to start with. Together with an ASD consultant—or maybe a doctoral student in educational psychology working with ASD–draw up a plan for children to read X number of these novels with follow-up activities, and write about it yourselves!

Heather

Question # 2:

How does one measure the effectiveness of multi-media / multi-lingual approaches, such as the ones you’ve been using at Joyce P.S., in terms of promoting literacy? Do you rely on EQAO scores or have another metric?

Answer:

Aha! Developing appropriate assessment is our next step in research because the nature of the kind of literacy we are learning about and learning how to teach—one that enfolds different ways of creating and accessing communication on screens as well as pages—is not what is tested in EQAO tests. So we cannot assess the products children have created and are creating using tests that assess old literacies—grammar, spelling, punctuation. This is not to say that those aspects of literacy do not have a place in education, but making digital books, videos, plays, and cool digital tools, to name a but few products, cannot be fairly evaluated with a test of spelling and grammar.

There is another problem. People often work in teams nowadays and that is how we work as teacher-researchers and with the children. New technologies facilitate collaboration—you network online and off. This means that much of the work children do is collaborative. We distribute parts of the big learning task so children have some choice in applying what they know best for each project (not total control, of course, but a say in what they are doing). In this way, they are very motivated, and they learn from each other, rather than competing with each other. For example, I am a crummy artist so I would always be a lousy drawer compared to someone who is good. But I am a good writer. So if I can pair up with a good drawer, we can make a great production, and I learn from the good drawer in a nonthreatening way and they learn from a good writer in the same way and we can help each other. This cannot be tested with current models of testing that test all skills on each individual child competitively.

So I am all ears for your suggestions here! How would you test the kinds of wonderful multilingual multimodal products you see on this site?

Heather

Question # 1:

The rules of English pronunciation have always perplexed me–I found it challenging to teach my child to read English because I couldn’t explain to him why this “o” was long and that “o” was short, why night, thought, have a  “gh”, why ther-mom-eter is not thermo-meter (it is a meter of temperature after all), colander is collander and not co-lander (I’m still being teased over that one)….  What available technological solutions are there for parents and kids to work around situations where you have to know how a word sounds before you can read it? 

p.s. Multilingual classrooms sound amazing!  It was equally surprising to me that while I couldn’t explain to my child why things sounded the way they do, it didn’t actually matter much.  He learned to read French and English at the same time. -Bri

Answer:

Hi Bri! You ask an important question and I wish I could turn my answer into an easy way to spell in English! I can’t.

You are reading English in print today as it was written hundreds of years ago when it sounded different–when knight did not sound like nite but more like kniht complete with ‘k’ and the breathy sound Scottish people make with the word loch. We can read English from hundreds of years ago. Here is a sentence from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the mid-13th century, 300 years before Shakespeare, and more than a century before the first machine made book!
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne. (And at a knight then will I first begin.) Pretty close to today’s spelling!

After the invention of the printing press in Germany in the mid 15th century, books slowly became more available to ordinary people. The spelling used had to be standardized, though, or the books couldn’t be easily read. Shakespeare reputedly spelled his own name in several different ways. This makes word recognition hard!

So we are reading English as it sounded long, long ago. To make things worse, the alphabet we use to write English is the Roman alphabet, which is a great fit with Italian, but not nearly as good with English, which has different sounds. Between the fact that spoken English has changed a lot over the past millennium, and that English has spread around the world, giving us all different accents, we are left with a writing system that tries to put old-fashioned pronunciations into someone else’s alphabet. What happens is that we have an awkward fit—and horrible spelling.

In English what is preserved is the root word. For example, nation sounds different from national, though they are related in meaning and this can be seen in the spelling we use. An alphabet is a system designed to represent 1 sound with 1 letter. This doesn’t work well in English where nation would look like neishun and national like nashunel, losing that root word meaning connection. So we need to know how letters map onto sounds (sometimes very wobbly fit!), how words relate to each other in meaning by understanding all those little add-ons to root words, such as un-, dis-, pre-, and – ed, -ing, and, unfortunately, how that history of hundreds of years has filtered down into the spelling of words such as laugh, or sword.

So my answer—read stories and enjoy them with your child—in any and all languages you feel comfortable reading. Don’t worry about explaining how the word is spelled because we learn to read words according to word shape as well as letter-sound connection. Teachers are educated to work through the many rules of English spelling with children. Give them this responsibility, and read for pleasure with your child. Encourage him or her to write and enjoy the invented spellings they use in doing so. This encourages imagination which is a lot more important than spelling words like light or enough correctly. Children will amend their own spelling over time with exposure to print, and experience writing with the help of teachers, and, yes, even spell-checkers.

Heather