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Reading, writing and reality

Teachers should work from their students’ strengths, not their weaknesses, was the message from visiting educator –Beth Critchley Charlton.

By Jessie Moniz

Ms Charlton was recently on the Island to give a lecture at the Bermuda College about re-engaging disengaged learners.

She is a Bermudian living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and is a literacy consultant, literacy assessment coordinator, and lecturer at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

She also teaches a distance learning course in education through Mount Saint Vincent University to Bermuda College students.

Her lecture at the Bermuda College was aimed at parents and teachers of school age children.

“Re-engaging young learners has been an interest of mine for quite a few years,” she said. “I started out as a special-education teacher.

“Then I became a classroom teacher and then a reading specialist.

“Over the years I have seen so many students who I knew had it within them to do well and just weren’t.

“I thought it can’t be that this many children have learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. There has to be something I can do as a teacher.”

She realised that when it came to children who were struggling with learning, or who were not engaged, teachers always tended to look at what the learner couldn’t do.

“We would do all of these assessments and say what the child couldn’t do,” she said. “So we started teaching all the things they were weak in. It seems to be counter intuitive.

“If someone was teaching me something new, I wouldn’t want them to start with something I couldn’t do at all.

“I would want them to start with something I could do and work from there.”

She said when she teaches reading and writing to struggling readers, she first of all tries to get to know the learner.

She finds out what they are interested in, and listens to the way they speak. She starts out with reading material on their level and tries to take them forward.

“My feeling is that all children can read, you just have to find out what level they are reading and writing at,” she said. “Then you have a sense of the difficulty.

“Because these children have already shown us that they are not really interested in what we are doing, you find topics for them to read and write about that they are interested in. You find reading material that is on their level.”

Ms Charlton said in her career she has been strongly inspired by her father the late David Critchley, who was at one time Permanent Secretary of Health and Social Services in Bermuda.

“My father was a social worker,” she said. “He was very interested in the dynamics of social interaction and how people learn and get along.

“Dad first introduced me to the world of effective listening. With effective listening, you allow yourself to relax and take in the person’s message and then respond to that message based on your knowledge of the person rather than your own preconceived notions about where you should go.”

She said you build on what the student already knows, but you never want to lower your expectations for the learner.

She said a lot of young people who have struggled through their early years of education mentally give up in their teen years. They go to school to avoid truancy charges.

“They are just going through the motions,” she said. “I have shown some of these children that they are able to read and within a few seconds their whole posture changes and they have a smile.

“It is the first time they have heard themselves read in maybe eight or nine years. They quickly know that what they are reading might be easier than what the other classmates are reading.

“I am telling them that they can read, and it is my job to move them up to the next level. It has been quite wonderful.”

She said she has experienced a lot more success with young people after learning to approach things from this angle. Part of her job is to help other teachers in Canada also experience more success.

In Nova Scotia she is heavily involved with assessing literacy levels in primary schools.

“When students are eight-years-old in Nova Scotia we do a literacy assessment,” she said. “The assessment is built to look very much like classroom work. It is not intended to scary. It is a lovely little story they read.

“There are some questions. When they write there is a certain amount of conversation. The teachers score the assessments together.

“I meet with every single grade three teacher in Nova Scotia. There are about 350 of them.”

She also discusses student writing with Nova Scotia teachers. She encourages them to look at writing as about more than spelling and punctuation.

“I travel around for about two weeks, and meet with groups of 40 or 50 teachers and we have conversations about student writing,” she said. “By having these meetings we are changing practice at the classroom level as well.

“Teachers are leaving these sessions saying ‘I never thought about the fact that writing isn’t just spelling. I always thought that a student whose spelling was bad meant he couldn’t write’.

“In these sessions we were saying the spelling might be bad, but the student in question has the most amazing ideas.

“He is actually organising his ideas well and using interesting words. He has those pieces under control.

“Yes, he does need to spell. We can teach him that, but not only that. We can find some interesting little ways to infuse the spelling instruction into real writing. That has made a significant difference.”

Beth Charlton (Photo by Akil Simmons) March 6,2012

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Published March 12, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated March 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm)

Reading, writing and reality

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