Taking Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel to task. Learning is complex.

April 18, 2014

I read the Times Educational Supplement with interest today. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel seem to have all the answers as expressed in ‘Effortless learning is a dangerous illusion’. Learning does, indeed, require effort. However, I take issue with the suggestion that ‘repeated exposure [does not burn] new knowledge into memory’ and that ‘re-reading does not get below the surface of the text’. As always, learning is a complex matter and individual students acquire knowledge differently.
While I also subscribe to the notion that effective learning comes from manipulating the knowledge one wants to acquire, I also remember as a teenage student, reading and re-reading texts in preparation for exams. I was delighted when I recalled much of the language and its underlying concepts when I was writing my answers to the exam questions. It was more than fluency that helped me write those essays – I had acquired an intuitive understanding of how the language worked and of its inherent underlying concepts. It was different to the language I used in my daily life; it was language that was more appropriate for the academic subject and I had learnt it by reading and re-reading the text.
Spaced or interleaved practice is effective, as they say, but it does not need to be as haphazard as suggested. Simply extending the time needed to hold a piece of knowledge in the working memory can help to remember it in the long term. I used this method to teach spelling to a student who was having difficulties and simply by asking her to hold a number of words and related material in her mind for a while, helped her to learn the target words more effectively and permanently. You will find more of this idea in my book ‘The Spelling Game’. I agree that recalling the learnt material at a later date would help the learning even further, but it does not have to be an anxiety-ridden experience.
I disagree with their dismissal of the idea that if learning feels easy, it is not being learnt effectively. With some students a jumble of ideas or questions simply leads to confusions. Little is learnt and the sense of failure can make a lot of difference. Some students first need to understand the material that they are learning and this understanding needs to be presented in a way that it is easy for the students to understand. Only after this can they involve themselves in the more adventurous manipulation of the knowledge and practice in recall in the way we all suggest.
I also disagree with their suggestion that we are not good judges of what we know and don’t know. If we cannot recall something, we are immediately aware that we do not know it, we have not learnt it. This is basic common sense. However, I agree whole-heartedly with the effectiveness of testing. Testing and re-testing ourselves with material that makes us approach the same subject in different ways certainly aided my learning.
You may wish to have a look at my dissertation on ‘The development of language acquisition of a Mature Learner’ available free on http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/48/. In this, I studied myself learning a new language and discussed in greater depth how we acquire knowledge in the form of language.
It is a complex matter that cannot be easily described in affirmative, may I suggest ‘sweeping’ statements. There is no definitive answer, for our personalities and cognitive competence vary considerably. In this area of education, one-size does not fit all.
Rosemary Westwell

Vinidicated at last – my way of writing poetry is OK see my poem: The Fenland Sky

April 5, 2014

Originally posted on Ely area news:

I was delighted to find that I was short-listed for the position of Poet Laureate of Ely. My friends and I had a great time at the museum in Wisbech when we heard all the short-listed poets. I had never been to the Museum before and was amazed at how attractive Wisbech and its Crescent are. I found it interesting that they were showing cowrie shells and mother-of-pearl shells that reminded me of my beach-combing days.in my youth in Tasmania.

However, back tot he Poet Laureate competition. Fortunately for Ely, I did not get the post, but it vindicated me for some of my writing friends have suggested I change my style so that I rhyme or not rhyme – not put in a mixture of sounds the way I do. I love the challenge of playing with words so that they ‘sound right’.

I entered the following poem into this competition, writing…

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Word that sound similar but are spelt differently

April 5, 2014

Originally posted on Ely area news:

In preparation for my presentation at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate this year (2014) I have suggested that it is helpful for students’ spelling and reading to think about how words may sound the same but are spelt differently.

Here is a suggested list to work from. Students may wish to add to this or the teacher may use this list as part of a lesson or forgames.

bed, head, said

card, bath, half

dot, watch, cough, yacht

fort, always, all, audio, caught, bought, bawl

book, full

food, two, you, rude, new, sue, who

cup, one, enough, dozen

bird, fern, rehearse

lemon, sugar, teacher, doctor, minus

rain, baby, bake, may, eight

coast, dough, host, open, snow, cope,

kite, buy, dry, height, high, lion, pie

cow, out, bough, doubt

coil, toy, buoy

ear, cheer, pier, weird

bear, bare, air, mayor

fuel, dew, music, queue,

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IATEFL Conference 2014 presentation by RJWestwell A Reason for Rhyming Summary

April 5, 2014

Originally posted on Ely area news:

IATEFL Conference 2014 presentation by RJWestwell A Reason for Rhyming Summary

First Question: Can you correct the mistakes in these common phrases?

book the cooks

haith feals

pining your lockets

a hin in a paystack

a tace against rime

Answer:

cook the books

faith heals

lining your pockets

a pin in a haystack

a race against time

Second question:

Why do we make this kind of mistake so often?

Answer: Words are stored in our memories according to sound

Third question:

Which words might our students confuse?

e.g. bat and pat

innocence and in__________

_______and an enemy

ceremony and __________

disparate and ___________

Answer:

e.g. bat and pat

innocence and insolence

anemone and an enemy

ceremony and seminary

disparate and desperate

Fourth question:

How can we use this understanding?

Answer: Students or teachers create exercises that use easily-confused words.

e.g. Choose the correct word:

If you marionette/marinade the…

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Review: ‘My IATEFL 2014 experience’

April 5, 2014

My IATEFL experience this year was every bit as interesting and useful as expected. With Carol’s sparkling personality introducing and closing the event, we could not help but enjoy ourselves.

I decided to play it cool this year, to go to the sessions I could sensibly manage and still remain relatively unfazed and awake. My relaxation was perhaps a little excessive for I did not practise my own presentation as planned so that I could get the timing just right. Fortunately the few people who attended seemed to appreciate the content at least. (The content was based mainly on the idea that spelling should be taught in clusters of words that share the same pattern and students should relate to the words by inventing sentences prompted by pictures before trying to recall the target words, if they were to retain them.) However, I rattled through my presentation like an express train late for arrival and ended it rather abruptly and far too early. Next time it will be better, (I trust!).

David Graddol’s opening plenary session was erudite, smooth and interesting – all about English and its economic effect, if any. Then, much time was taken with sorting out my accommodation – no one’s ‘fault’ – just life, but I did manage to slip into to ‘Initiating students to poetry: a task-based approach’ by Hans Osterwalder which introduced me to a fantastic poem: Kid by Simon Armitage. I’ve always liked Simon Armitage’s poetry. Hans gave us a lot of ideas of how to get the students involved enough in the subject, especially the emotions of past experience, so that they were motivated to write their own poems on the theme.

I’ll gloss over my session ‘Reasons for Rhyming’, if you don’t mind (blush) and I know I visited may other sessions but I’ll just mention the ones that stood out for me. My next major port of call was Felicity O’Dell’s ‘How to write a good task for a test’. I have known Felicity for some time, so that was one major reason for supporting her – I don’t mind admitting that I am a true fan of hers – and I knew that the session would be good. Indeed, her presentation gave much insight into the pitfalls to avoid when choosing and using texts for test material. (Her timing was spot on, too, I noticed.)

I needed a dose of humour – everyone needs a dose of the stuff if you are to survive teaching, and Dave ‘n’ Luke’s ‘Hard Times for English Teachers’ had me laughing my head off. It was great – more please!

Having not really put my mind to being the freelancer I claim to be, I felt obliged to get up early on Thursday and go to ‘How to become a successful freelancer’ with Mike Hogan. He was quite right with everything he said and I was inspired to be more determined to do more about working towards my so-called freelance profession. It’s like writing; you’ve got to actually DO something if you are to succeed at all. (Hence this piece being written so soon after hearing Mike’s words.)

The rest of the day was spent skiving on a trip to Hawarth Parsonage. I’ve always wanted to go and was not disappointed, although the impression I had of the Bronte’s, their home and their family was not quite right. The parsonage was not in an inhospitable spot way out in a flat bleak moor – it nestles cosily in a charming village on a very steep hill. The graves immediately outside their front door may have been a little depressing though and I was left wondering how the scene in Wuthering Heights with the tapping of a branch on the window turning into the icy fingers of the dead Cathy could have been imagined if there were no trees near the house in their time.

The title of Michael Hoey’s ‘Old approaches, new perspectives: the implications of a corpus linguistic theory for learning the English Language’ looked quite formidable and I geared myself up to be a little bored on the subject. However, there was nothing boring about this session. I could have hugged him for endorsing one of my favourites:  Krashen, for I can still remember vividly Krashen’s little video showing him teaching new vocabulary by simply mentioning the words often in a stream of approachable identifiable language. I remember when struggling to write the theory for my PhD dissertation how I wondered why Krashen was being dismissed so readily by so many. It crossed my mind that perhaps anyone who has a bright idea or two has to be gunned down by those who are limited in ideas themselves, but I have no proof of this, of course, and did not dare say anything like that in the PhD. I must look up more about Michael Lewis.

I decided I ought to make an effort to keep up to date with exams, so I appreciated the efforts of Annie Broadhead and Jill Buggey (Cambridge English) whose presentations were immaculate.

Herbet Puchta’s ‘Remembering new language: strategies that work – and strategies that don’t’ was very interesting and stirred my rebellious soul to rise again. He was probably right when he pointed out the research showed that re-reading texts and using mnemonic devices were not the best way for teenagers to remember. However, I can remember when studying for A levels as a teenager, I found that when reading a paragraph three times and then its constituent sentences three times, a lot of the language was retained in my memory that made writing essays in the exams much easier. As a learner now (admittedly, a rather mature one) I find mnemonic devices vital if I am to retain language and I do remember using them to good effect as a teenager, too. This might be proof that there is always the individual who proves the research ‘wrong’ and just because many students learn better in a certain way, this does not mean that ALL students MUST learn better in that particular  manner.

Friday night’s entertainment was a real winner. I never miss the Pecha Kucha, and this time is was just as good as ever. It was great fun hearing so many people say all those outrageous things that we know are true about teachers’ lives but that we don’t normally express. This was followed by an amazing display of fantastically talented people at the Open Mic Night. I was transported back to my early days in London, listening to gutsy buskers in the London underground, or milling with a host of strangers in a cellar somewhere in London where folk singers and players gathered every evening to revel in the magic of music. The evening went so quickly and I was particularly impressed with the haunting Japanese flute, an amazing intuitive jazz singer, a couple of great blues guitarists and a fantastic violinist, amongst others.

Sugata Mitra’s ‘The future of Learning’ kept me spell-bound with his amazing, seemingly reckless ideas of putting a computer in a hole in the wall for children to teach themselves how to use it  completely unaided. Sugata’s sense of humour shone throughout the talk and I could not help thinking that whatever he said about leaving the children to get on with it themselves, that the children could not help but warm to his personality. If I had the time, I would willingly subscribe to being one of his granny’s for he is dead right when he says that children learn better with regular encouraging words. (I keep telling myself this when I find a student hasn’t practised at all before their piano lesson. At these times, it’s very difficult to find something to praise, but I keep searching.)

I was interested in many other sessions, but, as always, you can’t go to them all. I planned to go to Michael Ward’s ‘Lesson observation using 21st Century technology’ for I knew him from teaching and from a teacher-training session I did at his school (Embassy). I was particularly impressed with the way he encouraged the staff to have a full say in what happened in the school i.e. he knew his stuff.

The talk on a ‘language MOOC’ (massive open online courses) looked good, although I already knew about this wonderful   invention, having already completed one on Forensic Science with Strathclyde University.  Their MOOC was fantastic and I recommend this university if this course was anything to go by. A look at www.futurelearn.com will reveal a host of free courses that are available.

I enjoyed Tan Bee’s ‘Creativity in ELT: from communicative to creative tasks’ and Ken Lackman’s ‘Getting students to do your prep’ was right up my street, although he could have added, that when he corrects students’ writing, he could get them to try to correct their mistakes in team games under his supervision. I have found students find this very effective for learning grammar painlessly – and, again, they are doing the work (under the teacher’s watchful eye, of course).

The coffee breaks became a major part of the day – so many FREE wicked cream cakes, coffee that you could actually get hold of and, of course, so many new people to get to know, albeit, very briefly. Food being one of my major life-interests, I eventually worked out that if you had an entrée and a side plate of salad, you could have a proper meal for lunch or dinner in the Classic Bar in the hotel for a reasonable amount of money.

Jackie Kay’s final plenary was highly entertaining and inspired me to take a special interest in poetry. Maybe I’ll try and do a presentation on poetry next year in Manchester (if I’m allowed).  After such a wonderful conference this year, I’m determined to go again – I’ll see you there!

Rosemary Westwell

poem: ‘At the graveside’

February 20, 2014

You are always with me,

sitting quietly by my side.

You made me, you know me,

together, we dream at the dark-cloud sky.

 

When I rave against rages

rising from time’s ravenous beast ,

your calm patience waits,

waits until my soul is at peace

and you and I stay still in our eternal silence.

 

You are always with me,

wrapping your warmth

around my restless sleep,

soothing seething thoughts

that wrangle and jangle in the night.

 

You are always with me

savouring Spring’s new-born glow,

suspended in time while murmuring bees

fetch nectar from flowers on your eternal home.

You, are always with me.

Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

January 6, 2014

Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

I was first entranced by this writer when I read her poem of the same name. She captured exactly the feelings that a trapped bird ( or person) might feel.

Thus, when I approached her first of six autobiographical novels I was looking forward to it. I was not disappointed. This writer knew how to engage the reader with smooth flowing, evocative text. Never did I stumble over awkward phrases, yet anyone who is a stickler for ‘correct grammar’ or literary language could easily have felt disappointed. It was obvious that the writer knew her grammar and vocabulary, so much so, that the vocabulary reflected perfectly the voice of the author as a child and the language was shaped to create the unique, expressive and almost breathless thoughts of an imaginative child. It was always easy to picture this young black girl growing up – a girl, like any other girl of any colour, would feel the same in the circumstances and colourful background she described. The characters lit up the page. I felt I really knew Momma who had so much to do with bringing up Maya, especially in the love she gave that child and in her pride and competence that helped so much to shape Maya’s early life and thinking – thinking that was not always in agreement. Maya’s allegiance and affection for her brother and her reaction to her negligent parents were vivid. She did not see her parents as ‘negligent’, they were who they were and she accepted them as such. Many bland descriptions of Maya’s background led me to expect a text full of terror, anger and horrific drama. However, although her experience of rape was dreadful indeed, her description was couched in words of puzzlement, guilt and the helplessness of immature feelings not fully understood. This text reinforced the notion that nothing is always clear cut. There are many aspects to a situation.

This book was not only a testament to the ill-treatment of the blacks by the whites, but there were often moments of joy, love and triumph that demonstrated the capability of Maya’s people. Her determination and success in becoming the first black worker on the San Francisco trams was symbolic.

This was a most enjoyable and moving book that I highly recommend.

 

A look at May Angelou’s style.

Looking at the first words of the novel, I realized why I enjoyed her style so much:

 

Two incomplete lines of a poem begin the text. Why? We are immediately curious. Then we are immersed suddenly into the complex thoughts of an intelligent little girl. She hadn’t so much ‘forgotten’ the poem as her mind had been overtaken with other, more ‘important’ things. This profound thought is reinforced by the following moving description:

‘The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists’. We can picture her, empathize with her embarrassment and know that we are about to share the life of a child who reminds us of our own childhood and all the misconceptions, childish beliefs and embarrassing moments that crowded our own young lives.  

Instead of merely stating that all she could think of was her lovely new dress and how her hopes that everyone would be very impressed were no dashed, she says:

‘The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.’

Her great dreams of admiration for her in her new dress are shattered because she has ruined her moment of fame and could not bring herself to say all the words of the poem she was supposed to.

This is a prime example of how much of Maya Angelou’s prose is sheer poetry. Here, in the opening of this book, the strong metaphor in ‘breathe out shame’ and the rather dramatic simile ‘sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses’ fit exactly with the exaggerated immediacy of a child’s vivid imagination and heightened emotions.

 

I am certainly one big fan of this writer!  

 

A poem that seems to descibe what it is like to begin to suffer from dementia

January 4, 2014

I was astounded to find that my husband’s experience of succumbing to dementia was beautifully expressed by someone who lived in the same area where John was born – Peterborough and by all accounts, could have succumbed to the same disease. I looked at the poem by John Clare called ‘I am’ which I expected to be a poem that would comment on the enigmatic nature of existence.

While his poem did, indeed, do this, I couldn’t help feeling that he was expressing exactly the same emotions and thoughts my husband could tell me about before he became too seriously ill. I can still sense the chill I felt when my husband said that it felt like his brain was ‘scrambled’.

If you’ve the time and inclination, you might like to read my description of what I think the poet is saying. This is quite different to the usual analyses, I believe.

(You’ll find the poem at (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-am/ accessed 04/01/2013)

I believe John Clare may have been on the edge of his illness and says:

‘I exist. Yet, even though I know I am here, and I am part of the world and people know I exist, no one wants to know or cares that I am here.’

His friends have left him; he feels he cannot enjoy the friendship he once had with them. He uses a simile to liken the loss of his friends to a memory, something very distant that happened long ago and is lost to his and their consciousness. He could also be referring to his own condition in which he is starting to lose his memory. The memories of the times he once had with his close friends are now distant or even lost to him.

He is saying his troubles are self-contained, only within his own thoughts. Only he really knows what he is suffering. His problems ‘eat him up’ and no one else could really understand what it is like to experience his suffering.  

At times his problems greatly increase or disappear into the ether of existence where nothing is known, where they completely disappear into a place which is kept by a ‘Host’ or God who holds everything that is or has been known so that the poet’s distressed thoughts sink into ‘oblivion’; they are no longer a significant part of him or the whole scheme of things.

He uses a simile to liken the effect loss of his memories of previous heightened experiences (especially those of love) to mere shadows in the world and within in his own memory; these memories are doomed to come to inevitable finality in death, which brings about the loss and obliteration of a person and all that they have held dear.

He uses the conjunction ‘and’ and the word ‘yet’ to emphasize that even with all of these worries, he does exist, he knows he exists and thus it matters. He knows he is alive although living with dark memories that are thrown about within his troubled mind.

In his difficult life that has been full of the derision and fuss of others

In his life as it is, full of jumbled, disturbing thoughts he does not really feel alive or appreciates the joy he may have done once.

His hopes, desires and achievements have fallen to ‘wrack and ruin’ indicated by the metaphor ‘shipwreck’

Even the people who have been those he has loved the most,

even they seem different, not like they were, even more changed than everyone and everything else

He wishes he could go to places no one has ever been to before, where there is none of the noise and worry of that has come upon him.

He wants to be where he doesn’t have to feel or remember the impact of a woman and her emotions and the effect she has or had on his feelings.

He wants to finish it all, to go home and return to where he came from to be with God.

He is so tired, he wants to rest, to sleep as soundly as he did when only an innocent child.

He wants his worries to cease. He wants to be no trouble to anyone else, nor suffer from the unhappy anxiety that he is experiencing now. He wants to rest, and be still and unaffected by his problematic mind.

He wants to lie down on green fields or ‘grass’ leading us to imagine him finally at rest on the ‘green pastures’ from the 23rd psalm – pastures where he can metaphorically rest in the arms of a caring God. Such pastures are more important and on a higher plane than the sky itself. The ‘grass’ could also refer to his grave. He wishes to die and be free of all his difficulties.

 

What do you think?

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

January 1, 2014

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I’m a great admirer of the work of P. D James. I have devoured every book of hers I could lay

my hands on. She captured me as an avid reader when she described the atmosphere and

character of Cambridge so perfectly. Her characters and plots were always interesting and

the books thoroughly enjoyable.

However, when I bought ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ I was mystified. Why would someone

who can provide her own vivid characters borrow someone else’s - characters that

are already familiar to many of us? Why would she try to change her style of writing

when her own was brilliant?

I’m afraid I couldn’t finish the book. As I am want to do, I decided to look at

the first few hundred words and analyse what was wrong. Was it me? Was I being too fussy?

I’d remembered Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from school days, so I looked up

‘Pride and Prejudice’ on the ‘Gutenberg’ website (well worth a visit). Sure enough,

I could see why Jane Austen’s writing was so attractive.

Her first paragraph starts with a single stark sentence that sets the drama of the whole book.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune,

must be in want of a wife”

This book is going to explore what happens as the society around him endeavours

to ‘catch him’ as a husband.

Jane Austen then immediately introduces one of the main, strong characters,

the unforgettable Mrs Bennet and her dramatic busy-body, control-freak ways. She announces to her husband that someone new is coming to

Netherfield Park.

Mr Bennet character is also immediately revealed as he hardly

answers his wife and lets her ‘rabbit on’.

A thoroughly good beginning.

Now to ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’:

I was expecting a similar introduction or re-affirmation of the characters.

There is no statement of a general truth

to indicate the drama that follows. The first sentence describes

where we are, giving the precise day and year,

just in the way you would expect a modern whodunit to begin.

The character is introduced with statements about her preferences with

the decor of a room. I looked in vain for the dialogue of Jane Austen,

so I sadly put it aside.

When the TV programme was advertised I decided I must watch.

The problem is obviously mine. Sure enough I enjoyed the three programmes.

The acting was very good, the costumes and settings were wonderful.

I could believe I was there in that past century. Also, of course, with P.D. James,

the plot was full of interest.

However, the whole experience felt surreal. It was P.D. James all right,

but what were the Darcy’s doing there? It didn’t feel right at all. It would have been

great if fresh new characters had been involved. Maybe next time P.D. James

has a whim to write another whodunit she could be persuaded to revert

to her usual, brilliant, original, self-made, whodunit style? Please?

A look at style in Nicholas Shakespeare’s ‘In Tasmania’.

December 14, 2013

For ever searching for a sense of style, I am want to analyse the first 500 words of anything I read.  So, for what it’s worth, these are my musings of Nicholas’s style in the first words of his book ‘In Tasmania’ :

It opens intriguingly with someone telephoning Nicholas to tell him there is another ‘N. Shakespeare’ in Tasmania. This introduces the book perfectly. We know that he will be on a quest to search out his family roots.  

However within the first paragraph we are distracted from Nicholas with an aside that tells us how his friend had discovered another N. Shakespeare.  Then immediately in the next sentence, Nicholas mentions Argentina and its connection with another near namesake. I would have preferred a slower, more focused presentation of the facts that also included personal reactions.  I would have liked, for example, a paragraph about his friend and his experience when he first came across N. Shakespeare in Tasmania followed by a new paragraph about Nicholas’s previous searching for his namesake. This would have led me more smoothly through his experiences and I could have related more readily to his tale.

When Nicholas meets his namesake, we are given details of what mode of transport was used (a motorbike) and how this meant a great deal to its rider. We are told where we were (in the drive of a house behind an estate) but it isn’t until later that we are given a description of what his namesake looks like. I would have loved to have known what he looked like first, followed by a description of Nicholas’s reaction to meeting him, and then, finally, if he must, mention of the importance of the motorbike. The description of his namesake, when it comes, is excellent, I can picture him immediately, but then I feel cheated. How does his appearance relate to other members of Nicholas’s family? What did Nicholas feel about this encounter? The feelings presented are those of envy for the motorbike i.e. I feel I am being distracted from what appeared to be Nicholas’s initial goal: to find out more about his ancestors but then, who am I to question these things?

Having reacted this way I now resolve to present my characters in a slow, smooth and connected way. A description first, personal reactions next and information given during the encounter, rather than bland statements added in between.  We’ll see …


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