Engaging Students in Wide Reading

November 24, 2012


This is the third and final post in a series exploring ways of engaging students in literacy learning. The first post emphasised the importance of understanding the strengths of students and the communities in which they live. In the second post, I discussed ways of using that understanding to teach literacy in ways that really matter to students. In this final post, I will explore why reading for pleasure is important and suggests ways of promoting reading.

Why Wide Reading is Important

The 2009 PISA report concludes that: ‘In all countries, students who enjoy reading the most perform significantly better than students who enjoy reading the least’ (p13). Furthermore, ‘In all countries, boys are not only less likely than girls to say that they read for enjoyment, but they also have different reading habits when they do read for pleasure…[the gender gap in reading performance] could be predicted to shrink by 14 points if boys approached learning as positively as girls, and by over 20 points if they were as engaged in reading as girls.’ (p13). And finally, the report concludes that ‘While factors such as predisposition, temperament, peer pressure and socialisation may contribute to boys having less interest in reading than girls, boys could be encouraged to enjoy reading more and to read more for enjoyment.’ (p14)

So, it is clear that encouraging students to read fiction and non-fiction for pleasure is important. Moreover, with a good understanding of students and their communities, the many possible barriers to reading for pleasure can be overcome.

Practical Strategies for Promoting Reading for Pleasure

While working with Shawyn Jenkins (2009), a 9 year old, African American male third grader, drew up the following recommendations for his teachers:

  • Teamwork helps my dream work, i.e. it helps when there is a group of diverse and trusted adults all working towards helping students achieve their goals
  • Build on my past successes
  • Connect book reading to my world
  • Allow me to help select books, topics and activities
  • Provide me with a variety of texts on a single topic.

This set of recommendations is derived from a very small sample, of course. However, much of what this student suggests is echoed in more extensive research. It’s easy to see connections with Jeff Wilhelm‘s research, for example, and it also resonates with the work of Parris, Fisher and Headley (2009:157-167) who recommend that engaging reluctant readers involves:

  • selecting student texts on the basis of students’ interests and needs
  • building relationships between students and adults
  • giving students choices through such strategies as literature circles, sustained silent reading, and alternative assessment methods
  • making text relevant
  • connecting fictional experiences to students’ lives
  • establishing inquiry-based literacy projects
  •  frontloading students with background knowledge and comprehension strategies
  •  modelling good reading and thinking behaviours through read alouds and think alouds.

These last two points are vital. There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of sustained silent reading by itself (see for example Hattie 2009: 138). Where this strategy is employed in isolation, the reading comprehension ability of reluctant and disengaged readers do not improve. Therefore, any wide-reading program for enjoyment needs to be run in parallel with explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies (see Rose and Martin 2012 for a particularly effective pedagogy), i.e. frontloading.

In short, we are talking about teaching reading comprehension explicitly, but also establishing a school culture in which reading is valued by all members of the school community. This involves all teachers across all subject areas (and other school personnel) working alongside students as fellow readers and writers. Moreover, any reading program needs to make the most of the social world of students: opportunities need to be provided for students to share their reading (and writing) with other students. My own experience is that students pay most attention to other students when it comes to reading recommendations. In addition, schools could try:

  • providing students with access to books at home, including conducting ‘summer’ reading programmes
  •  publishing brief interviews with members of the local community about their reading and writing habits
  •  exposing students to real writers through writer-in-residence programs
  • conducting and participating in reading and writing competitions and festivals – by the way, give out trophies as prizes (just like a sporting competition)
  • publishing student writing, e.g. through readings on assembly; posting work on bulletin boards in the school office, the school website, yearly anthologies, mini-books for class or class library, ebooks and audiobooks.

The ubiquitous nature of technology affords an enormous range of outlets for celebrating and sharing reading and writing. So, be creative!


Literacy is one of the greatest gifts that we can give students. The suggestions in these three posts have contained ideas on how to engage students and help them appreciate the power of reading and writing in their own lives. However, the lives of most teachers are extremely busy and they need help keeping a focus on promoting literacy. This post, in particular, points to the need for someone in the school whose central role is to promote reading and keep students and teachers informed of new opportunities for reading and writing. Sounds like a teacher-librarian to me. And yet, in a short-sighted move to save money, the role is being phased out of many schools. In the medium to long-term, this will have a negative impact on school’s ability to promote and improve literacy. There is no doubt that technological advances have changed the role of librarians and libraries. However, schools (particularly state schools) need to take a long hard look at universities and public libraries where the role of librarian is still recognised as crucial. Why, then, are schools eliminating the role?


Jenkins, S. (2009). How to maintain school reading success: Five recommendations from a struggling male reader. The Reading Teacher. 63(2). pp. 159–162.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

OECD (2010). PISA 2009 results: Learning to learn – student engagement, strategies and practices (Vol III). http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264083943-en.

Parris, S., Fisher, D. and Headley, K.  (eds) (2009).  Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

November 12, 2012


This is the second of three posts about engaging students in literacy learning. While this is a big topic, the first post focussed on the power of knowing students’ strengths and understanding the ‘funds of knowledge’ embedded in communities. In this second post we’ll examine how to use these understandings to teach literacy so that it matters to students, is connected to the their world.

The suggestions in these posts are about engaging students, getting them interested, nurturing motivation. Unless students are engaged, the best pedagogy in the world is not likely to make much difference to student results. However, student engagement is a starting point only; by itself it is not enough. In the final post in this series, I will explore this point in more detail.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

Jeff Wilhelm (2007) describes five actions required for transformative teaching:

  • Teach so it matters: what is a real problem worth solving and connects to student interests and concerns?
  • Help students how to think and act like experts
  • Shift your stance to show-how (as opposed to know-how)
  • Recast yourself as a co-collaborator
  • Teach for understanding

For the moment, we will focus on the first of these.

Like others, Wilhelm argues for connecting school learning and the teaching of literacy to concerns in the world of the students. One way of doing this is to organise units around ‘big’  enquiry questions. So, for example, when teaching Romeo and Juliet, Wilhelm and his students seek to find answers to a question such as: What makes good relationships and what screws up relationships?

Other such questions (for a variety of curriculum areas) might include:

  • What is the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency for Australians?
  • Why does it matter that aborigines are not recognised in the Australian constitution?
  • What can we do to help people in need (e.g. victims of drought)?
  • Do voters elect the Australian Prime Minister?
  • Why was the World Cup important for South Africa?
  • Why do organisms die?

I once visited a high school in central Queensland that was located in a very small town. Facilities for students were virtually non-existent. In the planing stages for a persuasive writing unit in Year 10, the English teacher asked his class what would make a difference to them as teenagers. The general consensus was the building of a skate bowl in the local park. Through a bit of research, the students discovered that this would require agreement from the local shire council. As a result, the ‘big’ question for the unit became: How can I convince the shire council to take my views seriously? To cut a long story short, this was an extremely successful unit with a real life focus that really mattered to the students. And while the outcome might seem trivial, it involved students in developing a deep understanding about the workings of democracy, using language effectively to promote change, and communicating with those who held more power and whose value systems were not necessarily aligned with their own. As a part of the unit, they made an official presentation to the full shire council and ultimately the skate park was built. So, while the unit started from the students’ interests, it led them on from there, developing deeper understandings about the world and their place in it. In this sort of transdisciplinary unit, of course, for English teachers the trick is to keep the focus on language, literature and literacy outcomes.

Once a ‘big’ question is in place, all the reading, writing, viewing and so on in a unit is focussed on discovering answers to that question (and related sub-questions). In other words, literacy tasks in the unit come to have a clearly defined purpose. An understanding of purpose is an important element in students’ reading and writing success (Beuhl 2009, Fisher, Frey and Lapp 2012 and Hattie 2009).

‘Teaching so that it matters’ is evident in other approaches used with disadvantaged students. For example, my wife encouraged me to watch a movie called Freedom Writers. It’s the type of inspirational movie that Hollywood does so effectively. If you look past the simplifications and keep your cynicism in check, however, it is based on the true story of an English teacher, Erin Gruwell, who gave disadvantaged students a second chance through encouraging them to tell their own stories, and through the promotion of diversity. There was also a strong focus on projects with tangible, real- world outcomes. The Freedom Writers Foundation which she established still operates today, promoting her positive and inclusive approach to internal motivation.

Gholnescar Muhammad (2012) also reports on the success of a program in the United States designed for black adolescent girls: ‘The instruction was designed to charge the girls to use their pens in powerful ways. We wanted the girls to tell their stories to ensure their voices are heard’ (p204). One girl, Iris, speaks of ‘how the writing institute provided a safe space where she could openly express ideas without judgement’ (p209) and this contrasted with her school experience where writing instruction ‘that could help nurture her identities lacks depth or complexity of thought’. Muhammad goes on to observe that: ‘Often, teachers may select literature or writing topics that are relevant to the ethnic identities of students but fail to respond to other strands of their lives, such as their home life, culture, environment, language, or economics’ (ibid).


These examples demonstrate the importance of connecting school learning with students’ lived experiences, of teaching literacy in ways that truly matter. Moreover, the tasks undertaken and the text used must go beyond a superficial notion of relevance. This is not some simple, magic bullet approach and may require lots of persistence and sensitivity. Finally, as these examples also make clear, teachers may need to start where the students are, but it is important to move students on, to show them how to develop sophistication and independence in their use of language. With effective, mutually-respectful relationships in place, this can be achieved much more easily.


Beuhl, D. (2009). Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Fisher, D., Frey, N & Lapp, D. (2012). Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Muhammad, G. (2012). ‘Creating spaces for black adolescent girls to “write it out“‘. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56(3). pp203-211.

Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Enquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions. USA: Scholastic.

Improving Writing (and Reading) Part One

November 3, 2012


Currently, I am conducting workshops about how to improve student writing. In some cases, strategies for doing this have been developed to a high degree of sophistication; Reading to Learn and Scaffolding Literacy are two outstanding programs. One of their strengths is the way they integrate and relate the teaching of reading and writing. Both, for example, use special approaches to structured, explicit guided reading as a precursor to writing similar types of texts. Both approaches also seek to re-engage students by providing them with success in literacy rather than reinforcing and perpetuating literacy failure.

Whatever approach schools decide to adopt, there is no doubt that (re)engaging struggling and reluctant students is essential to success. Although this is a multi-faceted issue, in the next few posts, I will explore some of the research in three areas related to engagement and success:
• challenging a deficit approach to student improvement
• connecting teaching to the ‘real’ world
• the importance of wide reading for enjoyment.
In this first post, we will explore problems with the deficit approach.

A common way of approaching literacy improving is to identify student weaknesses and problems. Then, various school personnel set to remediating and fixing the student problems. This is the deficit approach. Some researchers have sought to challenge the assumptions underpinning this approach. Luis Moll and others, for example, have proposed the metaphor of community “funds of knowledge” and Pat Thompson the metaphor of “virtual schoolbags”. These metaphors were used as the basis of work carried out by Barbara Comber and Barbara Kamler (2005) in developing teaching methods aimed at ‘turning-around’ student failure and disengagement. ‘These positive metaphors’ the researchers say, ‘allowed [teachers] to see their students as resourceful.’ (p5)

Funds of Knowledge

According to the metaphor of ‘funds of knowledge’, all communities have resources that often remain invisible and under-valued in the school context, e.g. knowledge of mechanics, building, gardening, natural medicines, animal husbandry. Communities often have networks of practice that allow them to manage and solve such matters as care for the young and the old, financial assistance, transport, management of everyday life with meagre income and assets, organising and running large scale events (e.g. netball carnivals). According to Comber and Kamler, ‘if teachers knew more about communities’ funds of knowledge, this might inform teachers’ curriculum designs, build their respect for the community and thereby enhance children’s educational experience. Consequently, ‘an important first step [is] teachers learning to be ethnographers of communities in order to learn about the specific cultural resources of communities and how they functioned.’

Take two minutes now to write down everything positive about the local community in which you teach. Include such things as:
• available resources (human, knowledge and material)
• networks of practice.
Now consider:
• How did you go?
• What use could you make of the resources and practices that you’ve identified?
• What more do you need to do and/or find out?

Virtual Schoolbags

The second metaphor is that all children come to school with ‘virtual school bags’ that are full of various cultural and linguistic resources. However, only some children get to open their bags and make use of what is inside while many children’s knowledge, experiences and practices remain invisible and unused at school.

For example, a literacy researcher once told me about professional development that she and a colleague were conducting in a school. After a while the staff had become quite restless and inattentive. The presenters were forced to stop and discover what the problem was. “This is completely unrealistic and won’t work in our school”, they were told. So, knowing they were to return again in a week or so, they set the staff a challenge. “Who is the dumbest kid in the school?” they asked provocatively. With very little effort, the staff were unanimous in naming a particular student (let’s call him Josh). “Okay, our challenge to you is to find out as much as you can about Josh before we return. That includes visiting his home and speaking to his parents.” A week or so later, the view of Josh had completely turned around: the researchers were told that he was actually gifted and talented. His father was a jazz aficionado and Josh (in the time before ready-made blogging software and YouTube) had developed a comprehensive, on-line database about 1950s jazz, including biographies, discographies and the like. The problem wasn’t so much that he was dumb, it was that nothing at school connected with his life away from school, nor made use of his skills.

An interesting finding of Comber and Kamler’s work was that ‘Many teachers observed that when they reworked the curriculum to re-engage alienated students, their entire class became more motivated and committed to the newly negotiated approach. The turn-around effect extended beyond the ‘targeted’ students.’ (Comber and Kamler, 2005)

The success of this assets-based approach has also been demonstrated in other projects. One very interesting one occurred in the Central Community Development Center (USA) with their positive youth development program (Wright & Mahiri 2012). At the end of a real-life project involving disaffected and troubled youth from local schools, Pepe (a 13-year-old, second generation Latino boy) who could not even decode simple words such as date and age, was interviewed:

Dana (researcher): I noticed that, in the beginning, you didn’t read out loud at all, but then it seems now you read out loud. Why is that? Is that because you’re getting help outside of here, like at school?
Pepe: No, it was because of this project.
Dana: is it? Do you have a tutor, though, at school? [Pepe shakes his head no.] Do you read or write with teachers?
Pepe: No. Well, I write, but read? Not really.
Dana: OK. So, you say that it was because of this project that you read out loud more. Why do you think that is?
Pepe: Here, I learned to not be scared and [not to] hold in your voice – to just speak out.

As a result of their experiences, the researchers recommend that student success relies on:
1. create a safe space for learning.
2. using engaging team-building strategies.
3. using pedagogical approaches that identify and build on youths’ assets
4. employing youth literacy-development apprenticeships by adults and by young people.
5. connecting learning to the real world.

To get started on this approach:
What to look for: evidence of children’s capacities, interests, strengths and cultural investments
How to find it: speak to students, visit classes where s/he excels, watch him/her playing sport, visit home, make time to see parents after school
Then, think about how this information can be used to design ‘pedagogies to connect them to the literacy curriculum’.


Comber, B. & Kamler, B. (2005). Turn-around pedagogies: Literacy interventions for at-risk students. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.
Wright, D. & Mahiri, J. (2012). ‘Literacy learning within community action projects for social change’. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56: 2. pp. 123-131.

The sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson

May 20, 2010

the-sky-is-everywhere(Walker Books; ISBN 978 1 4063 2630 7)

Who is for? The publishers say 12-15 year olds, but some of the content may make it more suitable for 15-16 year olds if being used as a class reading book

What’s it about? After the sudden death of Bailey her older sister, seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker is left struggling with her grief. She refuses to pack up her sister’s belongings and spends many hours alone and writing poems about Bailey, poems which she leaves scattered around her home town. In the midst of her grief, Lennie is smitten by good-looking new boy, Joe Fontaine. Their developing relationship is complicated by Lennie’s seemingly inexplicable attraction to her dead sister’s boyfriend, Toby – an attraction that seems to be returned. Along the way, Lennie makes some moving discoveries about her absent mother and Bailey.

Is it any good? It’s hard to summarise the story without it making it sound somewhat sordid or silly. In fact, with a few minor reservations, this is one of the best and most moving teen books I’ve read in quite a while. For a start, it’s physically pleasing to read: the flexiback cover with blue elastic gives it the feel of a journal; the inside font is blue; and there are colour plates and poems throughout the book. More than that, it is well written. Although a first person narrative from the point of view of Lennie, the language is a nice balance of authentic-sounding colloquial teen and more poetic passages with some lovely use of imagery, including metaphor and simile. Like Shark Girl reviewed previously,  this is a novel with a hopeful and realistic, but not overbearingly positive ending. My reservations? While the book is generally nicely paced, there are a couple of chapters where the love-triangle sub-plot becomes a tad annoying. However, more aggravating is the character of Joe – he’s just too damned good to be true. Okay, I don’t want to deny anyone the right to fantasise a bit, but how high are we setting expectations when the perfect guy is not only a gifted musician and is stunningly handsome, but his father makes guitars, he has two equally good looking brothers, and he’s French! Pleeaase, give us a break. Finally, there is some coarse language used in the book and Lennie’s sexual awakening is dealt with fairly frankly (e.g. there’s talk about boys’ boners), although this is done with sensitivity. Teachers should certainly preview the novel carefully.

What can I do with it? The sky is everywhere would be a welcome addition to units exploring the way teenagers are represented or for issues-based units (e.g. relationships education or dealing with grief). Like many books reviewed on this blog, extracts could be used as models of effective, literary writing. This is also an interesting example of an author (and publisher) pushing the bounds of the book with its use of multimodality. Finally, the book includes references to a range of classic literature and, in particular, very interesting use is made of Wuthering Heights. So, the novel could be used as a gentle introduction to the ‘classics’ and a critique of traditional romantic fiction such as and Pride and Prejudice. Overall, this book is highly recommended.

The secret adventures of Charlotte Bronte

May 14, 2010

the-secret-adventures-of-charlotte-bronte-by-laura-joh-rowland1The secret life of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland (Pier 9; ISBN 978 1741969139)

Who is it for? Well read teens

What’s it about? After success with the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte is accused of breach of contract and travels to London with her sister Anne to clear her name. On the train, she meets a governess, Isabel White, who is subsequently murdered brutally (of course!). Against her will, Charlotte is drawn into events that could change the course of English history, and brings danger to her beloved family in Haworth.

Is it any good? This was a really enjoyable tale set in Victorian England. Although completely fictional, Rowland does draw on knowledge of the times and the life of the Brontes in a way that adds authenticity and believability to a suitably melodramatic plot. One of the best features of the book is its tight editing – so rare in much contemporary fiction. Consequently, the story moves along at a brisk pace that rarely flags. While the writing attempts to capture Charlotte’s style, it is a bit clunky at times. This is more than made up for by the rich picture painted of Victorian life, with its sense of both promise and hypocrisy. A particularly admirable aspect of the novel is the way that it ties together the history of Europe at the time into events transpiring far away in China. A writer of Korean and Chinese descent, Rowland manages to keep the reader well entertained while encouraging them to reflect critically on English history. Like most books in the espionage and adventure genres, credibility is stretched at times, but for readers willing to suspend disbelief, this is a really enjoyable novel.

How might it be used? There is a growing number of novels in the market that take the classics and have fun with them. This is more serious than most and explores issues of gender, class and race. The Secret Adventures would serve well as an accompaniment to Charlotte Bronte’s work, and could even be used a way into the works of all three Bronte sisters. The multi-generic storytelling technique used may be worthwhile as a model for students’ own writing. Overall, a worthwhile book to use with students – although certainly not to everyone’s taste. Check out Rowland’s website: www.laurajohrowland.com/charlotte.

Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham

May 9, 2010

sharkgirlPublished by Candlewick Press; ISBN 978 0 7636 4627 1

Who is it for? Teenagers (12 years and up)

What’s it about? Jane Arrowood is fifteen years old when she loses her arm to a shark attack. The incident receives nationwide media attention thanks to video of the attack shot by a by-stander. The public is swept up in the dramatic events and, while recovering in hospital, Jane begins to receive (unwanted) mail from strangers offering their sympathy, support and prayers. Overhwhelmed and grieving the loss of her arm, a promising artistic talent and her previous life, Jane eventually returns home and begins school again, continuing the journey towards recovery; frustratingly, she has to relearn even simple tasks such as doing up shoe laces and buttering toast. Even more, with her dreams of artistic success seemingly shattered, she must search deep inside herself to discover who “Shark Girl” really is.

Is it any good? This is a novel that deals in the psychology of loss and, in one sense, there is not a lot of ‘action’. However, the novels moves briskly, helped in part by the choice of Bingham to write in prose poetry. I’m not a big fan of the genre, but it works very effectively here, focussing as the story does on the innerworld of Jane. Moreover, Jane’s first person reflections are interpolated with news articles and letters from concerned strangers, giving the reader public and private perspectives on Jane’s brush with death. In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is to encourage the reader  to see the way that intense public interest in private tragedies can affect victims – for better and worse. Finally, while the novel moves towards a hopeful ending, it is, all the same, an uncertain future that Jane faces when the story finishes; Bingham avoids a happy-ever-after ending and opts, instead, for nuance and an air of authenticity. This was, apparently, an Oprah’s Book Club Kids Reading List Selection – and who would argue with Oprah?

How could it be used? This is an easy to read, but well-written novel likely to appeal to many teens. The horrible events of the shark attack are never described explicitly, but that starting point is a great hook. As well as being used as a text that explores grief of a particular kind, the novel can also be used to demonstrate the use of prose poetry for narrative and the use of multiple genres to provide different perspectives. Overall, this is a good book with positive, realistic messages  – recommended.

The Night Fairy

May 2, 2010


Who’s it for? Children (particularly girls) aged 8-12

What’s it about? Flory, the Night Fairy, is attacked by a bat when she is only a few days old and her wings are badly damaged. As a result, she must take shelter in the garden of a kindly old lady who never learns of her existence. Very quickly, Flory must learn to fend for herself against all sorts of dangers that await a creature such such as herself who is only the size of an acorn. Along the way, she must forge some unlikely alliances with a silly squirrel an unfriendly hummingbird.

Is it any good? This is a beautifully illustrated, well written tale that will appeal to younger readers, especially girls. After only a brief introduction to fairy lore, Newberry Award winning author, Laura Schlitz, moves quickly to the crisis in the young fairy’s life, the damage to her delicate wings. The story moves along briskly, with little time for the reader to get bored before Flory is entangled in another adventure. Angela Barret’s exquisitely detailed illustrations help bring Flory and her miniature world to life. At 117 pages, this is a brisk, delightful and at times humorous read. My only quibble is that the main character, Flory, is fairly self-centred and bossy – even at the end – and the other characters are not all that likeable. Nevertheless, the story has a happy ending (although not entirely predictable) and Flory learns valuable lessons about respecting others and the importance of friendship and reconciliation.

How can it be used? This would certainly be a welcome addition to any school library or class reading collection. It is also a book that would work well read aloud. For all students, extracts can be used to model effective literary writing techniques. Schlitz shows what can be achieved with carefully chosen, but simple vocabulary, for example ‘Spring drew closer to summer. The tulips dropped their petals, and the peonies bloomed, fat matresses of milky petals and rich smells.’ Finally, there is an excellent website: www.thenightfairy.com. This is also worth studying for its use of visuals. All in all, a highly recommended resource.

Reading unit for older students

June 14, 2009

Boy reading on grassGetting boys to read is a struggle faced by many teachers. Here is a unit designed for and implemented originally in an all boys school; it’s aim is to promote the value of reading. The language and format are based on the Queensland 2008 Senior English Syllabus (Open Trail version), but the unit could be easily adapted for schools in other authorities. (In fact, orginally the unit was designed for the 2002 Senior English syllabus in Queensland and only minor changes had to be made for the new syllabus.)

Download unit here: Business of reading: sell a book

This unit has been taught successfully in the classroom and was enjoyed by the students.

Comparing The Great Gatsby and The Truman Show

January 31, 2009

The Penguin Classic Gatsby

Do you love teaching The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald but want to freshen up your approach? Try teaming it with a study of Peter Weir’s film, The Truman Show (starring Peter Carey). At their heart, both explore the corruption of the American Dream.

The table below provides an outline of some interesting parallels between the contemporary film and classic novel.

Obviously, the two stories are executed very differently, but the table offers a starting point for a comparative study.

The Great Gatsby

The Truman Show

Central character: Jay Gatsby Central character: Truman Burbank
The name is a fiction which he created as part of a larger re-invention of his own life. The name if fiction, granted to Truman at birth as part of a larger invention and control of his entire life.
‘Father’ dead; no contact with parents. ‘Father’ dead.
Living the American Dream, but unfulfilled. Living the American Dream, but is dissatisfied. His ‘dream’ wife is corrupt – paid to live with him and interrupts their lives with commercial endorsements.
Daisy Buchanan who lives across the bay is Gatsby’s object of desire. Wears white. Lauren who supposedly lives across the seas in Fiji is Truman’s object of desire, even though he is ostensibly married. Lauren is wearing a white top when we first meet her.
This object of desire is symbolized by the greenlight at the end of Daisy’s pier. This object of desire is symbolized by the green, tropical island of Fiji..
Everything about Gatbsy’s world is an illusion – largely of his own creation. Everything about Truman’s world is an illusion – he is part of a massive, reality television program run by a commercial media organization.
Poverty is hidden and/or ignored in Gatsby’s world. Christof’s society has no place for poverty or vagrants.
The eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleberg (God?) loom over Gatsby’s world, ever watchful. Christof (Christ?), the shows director and creator, looks down on Truman’s world, ever watchful.
Ultimately, Gatsby’s world is corrupt and crumbles. The fabric of illusion can’t be held together and reality inevitably breaks through (the accident, and George Wilson and his gun). Ultimately, Truman’s world is corrupt and crumbles. The fabric of illusion can’t be held together and reality inevitably breaks through (the light that falls from the ‘sky’).
Gatsby is unable to escape the consequences of the ‘foul dust’ that floats in the wake of his dreams. Truman eventually wakes up to the illusion and escapes.

For good measure, you might also like to throw in Peter Carey’s early short story, ‘American Dreams’. It tells the (ultimately tragic) story of what happens in a small, country town in Australia when the townsfolk’s dreams of fame and fortune come true. A copy of this story can be found in The fat man in history (first published in 1974 by the University of Queensland Press).

Improving literacy results in Queensland schools

September 14, 2008

Queensland students have not done as well as their counterparts in other states when it comes to literacy – at least on the raw data. There are a number of unavoidable reasons for this, including:

  • the later school starting age for student
  • the number of  students in living in remote and isolated areas.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that lack of educational leadership from the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) has much to answer for in this regard.  In pandering to the prejudices of politicians, journalists and a small but vocal minority of academics, the QSA has ensured that there has been no statewide syllabus for English since 1987 (yes, 1987 – that’s not a misprint!).  To make matters worse, the QSA no longer employs experienced English Heads of Faculty in order to provide advice about teaching English to schools and, recently, a Physical Education teacher was given the task of re-writing the Senior English syllabus.  A number of consequences have flowed from this situation:

  • a lack of a coherent, educationally sound approach to teaching English and literacy
  • confusion in many teachers’ minds about what is the right way to teach English and literacy – with the result that they have often fallen back to outmoded teaching methods.

The situation has been worsed by funding cuts to the QSA by the state government – according to reports, all work on new syllabuses in the early and middle years has stopped until the next financial year due to a redirection of funds to the health system. Providing lists of essential learning targets is only partly helpful.

So, what are teachers to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a good knowledge of English grammar (traditional and functional), and can apply that to practical strategies for helping students read and write?
  2. Do you understand the range of factors that will assist students to undertake reading and writing tasks, including cultural knowledge and understanding, knowledge about language, thinking processes and attitudes?
  3. Do you consistently and effectively use all aspects of the teaching-learning cycle: modelling, guided practice and independent practice?
  4. Do you understand the various roles of the reader (code breaker, meaning maker, text user and text analyst) and do you understand the implication of these for teaching individuals and groups of students in your care?
  5. Do you structure your teaching of reading effectively with appropriate pre, during and after reading activities?
  6. Do you structure your teaching of writing effectively with appropriate pre, during and after writing activities?
  7. Do you effectively and explicitly model all significant written tasks that students are required to undertake?
  8. Are your students trained to reflect effectively on their own work and that of others?
  9. Is your approach consistent with the approach taken by other teachers at your school?
  10. Are you part of a professional learning community that seeks to strive for constant improvement?

Next Page »