Q: Does it really matter that Jane doesn’t read much. Should I be worried. I should I just stop my nagging? (Jacob, concerned parent of two students in Year 7 and 9.)
A: Jacob: like most of us, there seems to be something out of joint in a world where children are not tuned into wonderland. But increasingly as the buttons and gadgets take over, it’s timely to wonder if we are not giving up too much. Reading not only helps us think, but also helps us to imagine our place in the world, and sympathise with others. From a selfish perspective alone, families (and parents) stand to benefit in the long run if children are tuned into that world, and lose out badly, somewhere, if they aren’t. So if we can nurture these qualities, (and some children will be more sensitive, intuitive and passionate than others), then, it will not only help to improve relationships with others, but conversely, reduces our intolerance for difference. Is this a good thing? Well, I guess yes, if we value the family as an antidote or protection from loneliness.
Iranian author, Azar Nafisi, bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran puts it nicely. “If we are preparing our children to face and confront life then we have to teach them to see and confront and imagine life at its best and its worst. That is one of the things that imagination does for us.” She also believes that the iPhone and iPad generation does not provide sufficient meaning or passion in young people’s lives. “When young people are introduced to books themselves, they become very excited and enthusiastic.” Books, she believes, satisfies their hunger for passion and for meaning that technological gadgets can never do. (See, “Passport to a better world”, Andrew Purcell, The Age, 27/6/15.)
Q: My daughter is okay at her opinion essays, but she doesn’t get very good marks for her creative essays. What should she do? (Janet, daughter Cassie is in Year 7)
A: Janet, it is hard to develop good creative writing skills and it is even harder to ensure that students do not just rehash the tried and tested stereotypes. It is important that students have a good bank of ideas, a variety of good anecdotes to draw upon and some thoughtful characters to describe. A good start is to read the Two of Us in the Good Weekend and explore characters. I also enjoy reading Benjamin Law’s piece towards the beginning of the magazine. His writing provides a good example of extended anecdotal first-hand reflective pieces.
Then of course, short stories.
It’s a good idea to start with a short description of character, place them in a problem and see where we can go.
A: Sandra, yes, Johnnie’s written expression does lack maturity, which is why you are worried. He is in Year 7 now and needs to step up to the mark. Teachers are now looking for more depth in thought and expression.
There are ways that you can help him. A first step is to develop and expand Johnnie’s thoughts. You can do this by encouraging him to think more deeply about people and their motives. Read some people stories such as the Two of Us, in the Good Weekend in The Age. Some of these stories feature younger adults and provide a good insight into people and their problems and triumphs. Perhaps get Johnnie to summarise some of these people stories and analyse their behaviour. Then we can use these stories as a compare and contrast tool. Using some general prompts such as “conflict shows us who we are” or “being different can have its advantages and disadvantages” write a few comments. See “Tim and Judy Sharp” and Brad and Pam Connelly for an example. See Stories from Two Of Us
Q: I’m worried about Jack’s expression. He doesn’t write very good sentences.
Q: He doesn’t seem to know the words to express himself.
Q: He doesn’t understand what he is reading.
Q: What books should we be reading?
Q: Sally doesn’t read enough. I buy her books but she doesn’t get through them.
A: It’s a common problem as we fight with the digital tools. If you can though encourage Sally to enjoy some books it will make a big different to her years at high school. I find a good way to get off on the right track, especially if they just can’t get motivated, and are completely out of the habit of reading, is to watch some of the all-time film classics, such as The Outsiders, A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird. Many of these films remain faithful to the book so that students can dip in and out of the book, read their favourite parts, and manage to follow the narrative.
In fact, I just watched To Kill a Mockingbird again so long, with my 13-year-old daughter. The main points scream loudly in the film version and help to reinforce Harper Lee’s key concerns, so there is plenty to gain from looking at the film. Always be aware though, that there are some sequence changes etc, so the film should never form the basis of a text response. And likewise with Outsiders. The film stars an early Tom Cruze and is thoroughly enjoyable.
One of my students was very reluctant to read The Outsiders, one of his school novels. It was deemed “boring” before he even started it and he was extremely reluctant to turn the first few pages. After watching the film, and after reading some of the significant passages, and talking about the characters, their backgrounds and their choices, he did start to warm to the book and even did quite well in his text response work in class.
He even stayed tuned in while we explored different descriptive words that helped to convey the character’s thoughts more accurately.
Q: My son, Jim, is sitting the scholarship tests and he has been going to a tutoring school, but I’m not really sure about his improvement. For his writing “tests” he gets a comment and a grade, but his essays all seem the same and he doesn’t seem to be getting much better. The classes are big so I don’t think the teachers have enough time for all the students. English is not my first language. So I’m not sure what he needs to do to enhance his English and to do better for the tests. (Emily Lao)
A: Emily; well done for your dedicated attitude to your son’s English. I’m sure Jim’s English is improving, but it is hard to keep going to the next level. Some extra reading helps. so that students are not just drawing upon worn, clichéd ideas from computer games and TV serials. Generally, the best creative essays at this age are personal or character-based, and are as insightful and fresh as possible. This is hard for students, and they need practice; we need to show them how to think about their actions and responses and explore their thoughts, emotions and feelings. It’s useful to read other short story writers; we can point out how they are building their stories, and developing interesting characters. It is also important for Jim to keep drafting his better stories/essays so that he can expand upon, explore and improve his good ideas.
To improve the comprehension part of the exam paper, the students need to keep exploring better books and new words. Once again, tutoring schools have a lot of comprehension exercises; some are interesting; some less so; some don’t always encourage a love of reading and some can be boring because they lack a meaningful context. I find it better to focus on current and interesting articles and people-based stories from the newspaper that foster curiosity in children and help them to think more deeply about people, actions and issues; this will also help their creative work. And of course, keep reading some better books.
Reading poems can help enormously with comprehension; they are often difficult and students need guidance to think more deeply, but it’s well worth the effort and also helps with reasoning skills. A knowledge of persuasive and reasoning techniques also helps with verbal reasoning, as does a good grasp of words.
I hope this helps. If you want to bring me a bunch of essays, I could give you some detailed feedback about where Jim is at with his English and how he can improve and go to the next level.
I am constantly asked by many parents of students, how can I help? What can I do?
There is a lot that you can do to help students as they progress from Year 7 to Year 12.
Early preparation is the key. The more reading your teenager does the better, and of course, better reading will also help. But please, don’t let them lose the knack of writing.
The Techniques of Persuasion is a good start for all students who are entering Secondary School. Encourage your child to read through an article each week and discuss the article and answer the questions. You can also choose an article from the newspaper that interests your child and apply similar questions.
As the student becomes more confident, there are also extension activities that help them extend their thinking skills.