Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Importance of Conversation

By Donna Klockars

Well Hello Dear Reader,

This week, we took time to sit with each child and really listen, watch, respond and celebrate the amazing things that our very young readers understand about how books work. What a joyful day! Before I share how Melanie and I went about our kid-watching, I wanted to share the thinking behind our approach to strength based assessment. I hope you won’t mind. I know I get a bit wordy, but I think I am on to something.

I want to title this blog: Mama Don’t Text.

I know I am very bold to think you will put up with more of my verbose ramblings around how the very young conceptualize all the things they need to know to make sense of black squiggly lines. But seriously, WE NEED TO TALK! That is we NEED TO TALK ABOUT TALKING!  First off, there is not even a real word that gets at the process I want to talk to you about. You may be thinking Early Language Development or Concepts of Print or Print Awareness or Print Concepts should be sufficient to get things going. I admit, it does sound catchy but there is not any meat attached to the bones of these phrases. I want to dig deep.  

I want to capture the big event-I want the ticket that will take me to the stage where a child’s complex dance of learning is revealed. Does anyone want to listen and gaze into the very young child’s thinking and construction process that they put to work when they decide how print works for them on that particular day... and then watch and dissect how it changes over the days, weeks, months and years?  How can this process be any different than the way they have gone about making sense of how language works?

Print is just language squished out onto a paper or screen. And if language learning (well any learning) is social/conversational; then why aren’t we all over the importance of relationship and conversations when we look to support very young literacy learners?  

So you see Dear Reader, if you are still listening, who of you out there are ready to give the discussion a big fat shake rattle and roll?

I think I have mentioned on our previous conversations that I have been tracking /observations the grandkids over the past four years and things are not fitting into the boxes used to describe very early literacy learning. I want to understand the hidden cognitive processes that are happening.

In an earlier post I made a flip comment about Marie Clay’s Big blue book titled Becoming Literate. I think I compared it to a telephone book with tinier print. Today I am begging forgiveness. Marie gets it. She defines reading as a message-getting, problem solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced. Her definition states that within the directional constraints of the printer’s code, language and visual perception responses are purposefully directed by the reader in some integrated way to the problem of extracting meaning from cues in a text, in sequence, so that the reader brings a maximum of understanding to the authour’s message.  

OMG!!! I think I can translate this! She must have been watching her grandkids. Her take on a successful reader is one where active construction never stops!  It is self-directed in response to real events and big conversations that are presented. In other words, each kid creates their own questions and generates their own rules through internal concept attainment exercises and through something I really can’t stop thinking about ...actively making analogies.

Let me just toe-dip into the analogy thing so you don’t think I just threw that term out because it sounds “brainy”.  I was thumbing through the November New Yorker and saw an article “The Man who Would Teach Machines to Think.” I think to myself, “Hmm, someone else in this universe is trying to uncover how humans learn to think!”  Then the name, Douglas Hofstadter, pops up and I am immediately transported through time to 1989-ish and remembered reading a big fat book called The Mind’s Eye. I flew to my bookshelves and it jumped right out and landed in my lap. It spoke to me then and HOLY COW, it still speaks to me.  Hofstadter talks about how he studies human thinking by looking through “colourful lenses” These lenses that reveal so much are the analogies and the linguistic slips – ups or conversation boo boos (mistakes) that every one of us use when we try and talk to each other. (Think of an analogy as when you compare things that are similar, but slightly different)  Now isn’t that the most interesting thing you have read? Hofstadter has famous quotes and my favourite of all is:  
“Analogy is the fuel and fire of thinking, the bread and butter of our daily mental lives."

Look at your conversations and you will see over and over again, to your surprise that talking to someone is just a lot of analogy making. Here is what I mean....Someone says something and this reminds you of something similar and you make a comment that connects with the first idea but is slightly different and voila you have a conversation

Now this emphasis on the word conversation triggers memories another favourite research/thinker called Wells. I quoted him constantly when I was an eager young speech therapist, back in the olden days. I embraced his findings about how kids learn to speak using turn taking and paid attention to his findings re: correlations between strong language development and the number of turns typically that are made in a conversations with caring adults.  The study found that those kids who maintained lengthy conversations with lots of turn taking were the most successful language users. Regardless of income, race, pre-school setting, divorced, not-divorced...regardless of any was all about the anatomy of the conversation. Good language users make lots of conversations and those conversations are made up of many connected talk-then I talk.

Language development and thinking for that matter is all about great conversations. You get smarter by talking to someone.  

Children’s understanding of how print can end up telling a story or give directions or make you feel good is through the same method. They make analogies. They have conversations with and about the sqiggly lines.  It couldn’t be more straight forward. Hofstader thinks conversations involve such phenomenal mental leaps he calls them stunningly complex and it is a computational miracle. Somehow the brain strips all of the irrelevant surface stuff and extracts the gist -it’s skeletal essence and then retrieves from a repertoire of personal stored ideas and experiences, and then comes up with a good response that is similar to the first idea put out there, but just a bit different.  Here is more on how he wants us to pay attention:

“Look at your conversations, You will see over and over again, to your surprise that this is the process of analogy making. Someone says something which reminds you of something else-THAT’S A CONVERSATION

Hafstadter says things like “Beware of innocent phrases like: "Oh exactly what happened to me”  He writes that behind this nonchalance utterance is hidden the entire mystery of the human mind.   And I say it is all ditto when addressing the most complex activity called reading. Through internal questions we constantly are looking for matches for our predictions about how squiggly lines work.  Marie Clay saw the whole thing clear as a bell. Like Hofstadter, Marie was all over miscues and clunks in children’s language. Douglas collected speech errors by the jillions. He says errors are what hold the secrets of how human intelligence works.

See...I am not out in La-la Land when I hold on to every weird phrase I hear from the kids.

Grandma, I want to be a barner like you...

Look I am army- I can lift the wheel barrow.

Ethan’s flipped question errors or lack of them, his recent trend of adding ish to certain describing words.

Ari, staking claim to the letter A . It is mine. No, Ethie can’t have it.

Grandma, it is not a J it doesn’t have a hat.

I mean there you have it. Linguistic errors and conversations are the coloured lenses that we should look through to reveal brilliance. Each kid is working through the puzzle (s) every minute of the day. It is their own journey and the way they go about figuring things out using the basic vehicles of analogy making. This is like that, but just a bit different.... We have to listen, respond and listen and respond to each of our learners. They need us to talk with them. Their learning journey is a social one and you are the most important person in their lives, so you need to honor their hard work! You need to talk with them.  I know, Dear Reader, you are thinking that I have really gone off the rails. For someone who is known as the Book Lady, it must seem like a ridiculous bunch of words! But I would be so happy if you would think about the importance of conversations and that the ability and efforts at keeping the conversation going are the building blocks of learning! You are the most important person. You know the most about your child. You can keep the conversation going the longest because you share so many experiences.

Ultimately, all this consternation, gnashing and wringing of hands is all in a sincere effort to prevent reading failure. I am firmly convinced that while most children progress with their gradual accumulation of achievements towards effective literacy others seem to suddenly struggle and they fall farther and farther behind.  I think that the problem is not that the struggling reader is immature or unwilling. Rather, their on-going, analogy making process has broken down or been sabotaged by ridiculous reading programs that miss the boat. When the very young are in settings that don’t celebrate talking and conversations, they are denied the process or method that all of us use to grow our intelligence. Boring, flat learning settings that focus on making kids come up with responses that please the adults just blocks their own construction process. If we want to prevent reading failure we should be watching the more important aspects of learning that are hidden from sight –things like cognitive processes that lead to comprehension and understanding. If we are to prevent the all too frequent spiral of events Stanovich calls the Mathew Effect where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer we need to talk!

So, Dear Reader, I decided to rewrite the book on this topic and decided to start by creating a rubric that spoke to the importance of three foundational strands that the young child addresses as he /she actively constructs their understandings that gradually contribute to the flexible notions (schemas) around black squiggly lines and how they can impact their lives. Then I wrote a story that was designed to uncover how these concepts were progressing and have been using guess who...yup...the grandkids to get my field data. Because, each one of my victims seemed to have their own unique story to tell about what letters or words or for that matter print itself is all about; all I could do was record and ponder... 

Does each child come up with their own idea about how reading works? 
Why wasn’t Ethan’s explanation similar to Jayden’s? 
Is it really of any interest that Ari, at two and a half, is adamant that the letter A belongs to her and no one else can have it? 
Does each child work hard to figure out how things work? 
Does the caring adult in a child’s life pass on the legacy of literacy?

I know Dear Reader, I have really pushed the blog idea of a short snappy snippet, but oh how I long to talk to someone about these things! And because you read this far, I treasure you and wrap you in a big cyberspace hug!

As always, in friendship,

Donna Klockars

Aka The Book Lady

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