Learntablism 1: Listen to Your Students’ Writing

"In Pine Effect" by U-ziq. It is my intention for this blog post to be fully appreciated by listening to this album whilst savouring my words.
“In Pine Effect” by U-ziq. It is my intention for this blog post to be fully appreciated by listening to this album whilst savouring my words.

It’s time to slap a hot wax disc of reflective practice on the learntable…. ONE TIME!

As I write, I’m cupping a set of very big and expensive Dr Dre headphones to one ear whilst laying a fat scratch across my vinyl introduction to a series on small changes that have had a big impact on my development as a teacher. SELECT!

[It may shock you to read that, despite the authentic ring of my hipster patois, I am in fact 73 years old and completely bald. I try to keep up with the latest developments in teaching and learning, but am most often found eating satsumas next to a bin in the staffroom (it’s more efficient as I can peel the fruit and immediately put the peel into the bin).]*

Anyway, back to the fray! I shall relate this first instalment of Learntablism in the form of a flashback to my days as a primary school teacher in 1973, in the fabled Autumn of Seduction (when it was my want to sidle up to ladies, claiming to be the bassist in Can and asking in fragrant German to look down the front of their tops).

It was the autumn of 1973, the satsumas were late in season and the peel held particularly well, meaning that I could stand approximately seven metres from a bin, without having to continuously drop small pieces of peel into said bin. On this day, a close day I remember, with the great scent of Brut thick in my classroom, I was sat at my desk, having set the children a-work on a persuasive piece.

Their task was to write a short sales pitch for an invention (“Dog Umbrella”, I recall), using a range of persuasive devices. It was a year 6, Key Stage 2 class, or “11 year olds” as we used to call them then. As each of them finished, they dutifully filed back to my table to show me their work.

As the first of them reached me, I put out my cigarette and lent forward to him. “What is it, son?” he said.

“Mr Whatonomy, to you!” I barked back, through a cloud of Mild Shag. “Show me your work.”

He held out his writing, a wiry script bereft of full stops and woefully lacking in capital letters or the like. I made a mental note to begin teaching these things, perhaps next year. I was about to read his work and reached into my breast pocket for my vermillion pen, when a powerful notion struck me.

No, damn it, I shan’t read his work! I simply can’t be bothered. Why not get him to read the blessed thing to me? So I did. And he did.

Spluttering through the afore-mentioned haze of Shag, this little scamp (let’s call him “Fernando” for argument’s sake) recited his piece to me.

Having finished, I asked him this: “As you read this to me, Fernando. Did you notice whether your speaking matched your sentences?” He looked down at his work, thought a bit and said, “Well, Mr Whatonomy, I’ve missed out a capital here and a full stop here.” He looked back through the work and corrected two or three sentences. Then he went back, a merrier young thing, to his desk and his chums.

So, as the “purple haze” of 1973 England recedes, and I find myself back next to my bin in 2014, what did I glean from this seminal moment? Well, let me share this with you. When a child shows you his (or indeed her) written work, you have a number of choices: a less-experienced teacher might simply read the work and comment on it; a more experienced teacher might read, then question the student about it. However, an even more experienced and adept teacher as I am (and then was) would let the student recite their work to him (or indeed her). In reciting the written piece, the student is guaranteed an opportunity to “hear” the sentences and check the work for any little hiccups in punctuation (or indeed spelling and grammar).

The next time you find yourself perusing the work of a young person, think twice about reading it. Get the little rascal to read it to you. And if you’re feeling energetic (and have the hearing) – listen.


*Note the elaborate use of bracketing in this section. It is a particular forte of mine (although finding shortcuts for accented vowels is not) – and I like to think of it as an essential component of “my voice”.

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