Friday, October 31, 2008

Never Fear Big Words

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you allHannah readingphoto by Mike Wood.

I attended an asTTle workshop last week. Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning - He Pūnaha Aromatawai mō te Whakaako me te Ako, or asTTle, is a resource for assessing literacy and numeracy (in both English and Māori). The University of Auckland developed it for the New Zealand Ministry of Education.

A helpful system:

Though the idea of assessing the reading level of a child was not new to me, I hadn’t realised how the
asTTle system worked. It’s based on the concept that knowledge of the reading ability of a child can assist in providing specific help when needed.

By providing appropriate assistance, the child is empowered to better understand the reading material relevant to the levels of learning they're at in different subject areas. The teacher is also better able to understand the reading difficulties a child may have while learning at levels of their ability and development in different curricular areas.

I have no problem with this, other than the intervention caused by assessment to establish where every child is at, through entire areas of the curriculum. I think it’s wonderful that we can provide assistance when it is needed.

Levels of literacy:

I had several discussions with the facilitators. They were very helpful.

We did not agree when I explain that, as a writer of learning resources, I used the simplest possible language, sentence construction and paragraphing whenever I could. I used the same technique in writing a paragraph in a Chemistry resource for a year 13 learner than I would for a resource in Biology for a year 9 learner.

Their advice was that I should match the reading level of my writing to the subject level. We had several aside discussions on this – they weren’t simple. We agreed that the language of the subject was obviously something that would progress, as expected, in shifting from a lower learning level to a higher level.

What the facilitators found fault with, was that I deliberately used simple language. Even using the terms and vocabulary appropriate to the area and level of the Science covered in the resource I was writing, was not meeting the needs of the student, by their way of it.

The purpose of writing:

My question to them was, “what is my main objective as a writer of Science?" Should I deliberately change an otherwise well written paragraph, so that its reading level matched the level of the subject content contained there? I was at odds with this supposition. What’s more, it conflicted with all I’d read on Cathy Moore’s great post.

I recalled a poem by Arthur Kudner, while I listened to the arguments from the facilitator.

Never fear big words.
Big words mean little things.
All big things have little names,
Such as life and death, peace and war,
Or dawn, day, night, hope, love, home.
Learn to use little words in a big way.
It is hard to do,
But they say what you mean.
When you don’t know what you mean,
Use big words –
They often fool little people.

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later


paul c said...

'I used the simplest possible language, sentence construction and paragraphing whenever I could.'

One of my favourite professors at university graduated from Oxford. He said the most valuable lesson he learned was to keep it simple.

An ironic statement from a learned professor?

Shaun Wood said...

I agree keep it simple. If the aim is to teach science, why make literacy a barrier to learning? Topic word knowledge grows with fluency in any discourse.

The bigger the words the bigger the barriers; for some to climb, and others to hide behind.

Laurie said...

Hi Ken,

Many thanks for your comment on my blog! Am delighted to have found your blog via the Working/Learning blog carnival.

Very much agree with your prior post on learning. Experience (my own and that of colleagues) has shown that self-paced learning seems to have a bigger impact when it includes collaborative opportunities, be it face-to-face or online. Exchanging ideas, adding additional context, and providing for discussion, are all necessary parts of learning.

Thanks, also, for sharing Arthur Kudner's poem.


Laurie said...

Hi Ken,
Okay, I'm back with a second comment on your blog. I have just spent the past ninety minutes exploring your posts and some of the cool sites you reference. This has been a most satisfying evening of discovery! Thank you for pointing me in new directions!

By the way, I've been appreciating the varied comments you left on my blog. I enjoy the poetry of your writing.

What with turning our clocks back an hour, it is now closing in on my "hit the sack" time, so g'night for now.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Paul!

Hmmm. I think your professor was very wise, despite his learning :-)

One of my professors at uni was a double MA in English Lit and Chemistry. He was amazing - very helpful.

He reckoned you should write everything in simple sentences - rarely used commas. His sentences were short enough not to need them. But his writing was always very readable.

Love the poetry on your site BTW.

Haere Mai, Shaun!

"Why make literacy a barrier to learning?"

That's a classic line! Can I use that?

I just can't fathom some perceptions in teaching. It would seem we (teachers) certainly don't all have the same aims, that's for sure.

Welcome to Middle-earth. I see you have several blogs! I'm going to enjoy these! Your latest hot-air balloon experiment sounds challenging. I'll look forward to reading about its successes.

Good luck with your study by the way.

Haere Mai, Laurie!

Welcome to my 6 month old blog. It is great to have met you through the Carnival - grateful to Dave Ferguson for that.

I agree about learning enhanced by collaborative opportunities, online or not.

I like the space that blogging gives me for reflection. It seems inclined to permit this. A big part of learning effectively comes through taking time to reflect on what's gone before.

Great to find your blog too - some really absorbing stuff there. I'm going to enjoy it!

Ka kite

Shaun Wood said...

Hi Ken, thank you for your kind words, I am finding that people like yourself are becoming my online mentors and you don't even realise it.

I have to agree on blogging promoting reflection. I have grown as a teacher through reflective blogging because it is fun. I am hoping my students will catch the same bug.

Daisy said...

Simple doesn't always mean easy, however. I taught 6th grade for nine years, and one of the great pleasures of my job was reading young adult novels. Those who "dumbed down" the language were inevitably boring. Simplicity and clarity have a beauty of their own, and Big Words can be part of it.

V Yonkers said...


I think the problem is that you are equating (and perhaps the facilitators did also) literacy with writing style.

I learned in my ESL courses that there are 5 levels of literacy. The simplest level are simple symbols that do not require any previous knowledge to follow them (such as pictorial directions). The highest level of literacy (writing or reading level) is the abstraction of ideas in which a high level of prior knowledge is needed to take the ideas on a written page and abstract them (taking into considerations author's assumptions, interpreting what the author DID NOT say, and connecting those ideas to prior knowledge).

Literate adults are exposed to and use each of these levels of literacy every day. The sports page, for example, is said to be written at the second level of literacy (readying level) and therefore is a good place to start when teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language.

However, cultural knowledge comes into the reading/writing ability. The sports page for a non-American, for example, could require a lot of "thinking" and cultural knowledge in order to understand American Football scores.

So it is not how simple the vocabulary and grammar is that is important, but rather a reader's knowledge of the subject matter and understanding of the communication patterns within a culture or field of study.

Writing for a 12 year old with no science background and a maturing ability to abstract ideas means you will need to give more context, more tangible examples (painting a picture with words or augmenting with a visual) that they can relate to in their own life (i.e. the science of their home such as chemicals used in cleaning solutions or soaps and shampoos).

On the other hand, a 17 year old will begin to be able to abstract ideas so it is not necessary to give as many concrete examples. In addition, jargon with a common understanding can be used without having to define it necessarily.

Ultimately, good writing requires understanding your audience including their assumptions, level of knowledge of the subject matter, ability to connect to other ideas, and ability to recognize and understand a profession (or culture's) language patterns (vocabulary and use of sentences, paragraphs, and format).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere Mai Daisy!

I take your point about the big word being interesting amid simplicity and clarity. Great poets are aware of the beauty of small words and simple language. But they are also aware of the power of the long word in its place.

William Wordsworth, in his sonnet of grief, 'Surprised by Joy', used this to good effect in the use of the word 'vicissitude' in the 4th line. The word seems incongruous - but its presence and the impact of its depth of meaning brings a focus to the whole poem:

Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport--Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?--That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Thank you for taking the time to drop by.

Ka kite

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

I agree in part with you about the need for context at a level of writing. I'm not so sure that I'm mixing up reading level with style though. For instance, you know a bit about my writing from what you've read on my blog. This is the style that I have (often) used when I write for young learners. Do you find it too simple or boring? You might well do. I'd like to think I wasn't boring you.

In Science, for instance, I wish to present no other barrier when I write, than possibly the difficulty of the concept I write about. My belief is that (as you say) there is a difference between style and so-called reading level.

How much easier is it to understand rich, ebuliant complexity in writing - the nuances, the explicit description, the convoluted scenes, the elucidating metaphors - that can seed inspiration in the imagination of a tired reader by the strained ornamentation of a verbose writer, who generates long and exhausting sentences?

Or is it better to describe the complex in bite sized portions?

I'd hate my students to give up Science because of my writing style. I'd actually feel happier if they gave up because they found Science too difficult. For me, that would be a better way for them to find their true ability in the subject.

But, others may have a different view. After all, I might just be a rotten Science teacher :-)

Ka kite

Giuliana Guazzaroni said...

Simple words are impressive :) I agree with you Ken!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere Mai Giuliana!

Welcome to Middle-earth. Thank you for taking the time to drop by.

I enjoyed Thea's poetry on your blog. She uses her words very well, and with beautiful effect.

Ka kite

V Yonkers said...

Ken, in the hopes of limiting the size of your comments and clarifying my remarks, I have written a new
post (hopefully) that is a bit clearer.