Helping teens with reading

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Professor Peter Freebody
AUDIO

Listen to one of Australia's foremost English experts, Professor Peter Freebody, talk with James O'Loghlin on helping high school kids who struggle with reading.

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Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.
Transcript

At a glance

  • Parents and teachers think that children who are mucking up in class or who have lost interest in schoolwork are simply de-motivated when they could actually have a problem with reading.
  • Children often attach reading and writing to school work only, whereas everything going on around them is virtually dependent on the ability to read and write.
  • Even though you may not feel confident in your understanding of high school subjects, helping out with your child's homework – and showing them you're interested in it – makes a big difference to how they can improve their reading and writing.
  • Encourage your child to read/use any kind of material on topics that interest them —websites, books, social networking sites etc – and don't pressure them immediately to then pick up on their school work. Be patient.
  • Let the school know you are committed to helping your child improve their reading skills.
  • If you struggle with reading or writing, know there is a community of support out there to help you.
  • If you struggle with reading or have a language background other than English, use the help that's offered through the school and local community centres. Don't be scared to  help your child – just being there with them, even if you're struggling together, will provide them with valuable support to help overcome difficulties.

James O'Loghlin

Hello I'm James O'Loghlin and welcome to School A to Z.

Now one of the big assumptions that our society works on is that everyone can read, or everyone above a certain age can read. But of course, that isn't the case. Many people can't read, have difficulty writing – they may be people for whom English is a second language, but there is a proportion of high school students who struggle with reading and writing, and it is of course something that should be addressed as quickly as possible so that the disadvantages that flow from it are minimised in later life.

Professor Peter Freebody is a professorial research fellow at the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney; good morning Peter.

Peter Freebody

Good morning James.

James

It can be a difficult thing to address, I would imagine many people who have difficulties reading and writing find it easier to bury their head in the sand – why is it important to address as soon as you can?

Peter

What we've got in societies like ours, more than any other point in history, is that our society's not only saturated with literacy, but the place is run by written text and online and everything, and increasingly, if you can't handle the reading and writing demands, and increasingly the online demands, you simply won't be a participant in this kind of society. You won't be able to contribute to it, you won't be able to have your wishes fulfilled or expressed, and so on and so on. So the whole notion of participation, much more than for our grandparents, in just the daily stuff of life, independently of school, is becoming more and more dependent on you being proficient at literacy.

James

Anything more about why it's important?

Peter

It's also important because kids that are struggling and kids who may tend to avoid it – I mean, imagine being involved in a classroom with 28 of your school mates, and everything's going on, and as the years go on, you're starting to realise that you're just missing a whole lot of this stuff – what happens? Well, kids do avoidance. They've got to survive, they can't just sit there and keep sticking their hands up, so they will muck up, or they will avoid, or they will behave OK but they'll check-out intellectually and so on. So what parents experience – a lot of parents experience their kids' new teen years, or at 11, 12 years of age, starting to lose interest. And parents and teachers alike can make the potentially dangerous assumption that the kid's just lost motivation—

James

Yep.

Peter

—the kid's checked out, they're lazy, they're not engaged, it's all boring because teenagers hate this kind of stuff, or some teenagers do, or their peer group won't let them look interested in reading or something like that – that may all be true, but it may also be the case that this checking-out that we see, this lack of engagement is a function of just trying to cope with not being able to keep up with the reading and writing demands. So, you know, don't be faked out by the fact that your kid is just saying "I'm not interested", that there could actually be, one of the issues could be that they are actually struggling with keeping up with the reading and making sense of it and being fluent and meaningful readers.

James

OK. So if you suspect that your high school son or daughter might be having difficulties reading or writing, firstly, how do you work out whether you're right or not?

Peter

Another aspect in this is that as the middle years and the high school years progress, the parents start to think that the business of education is more and more the school's business rather than theirs. It's a well known fact that it's much harder to get parents involved in the high school stuff than it is when their kids are little – partly because a lot of parents wouldn't feel that they knew a lot about the high school curriculum, and that's one thing that you have to kind of put aside, is to stay involved, to actually muck in and try to help with homework and stuff like that – even when you're pretty confident that you don't know much about Year 8 biology—

James

Yeah [laughs].

Peter

The fact that you're there, you're prepared to help with some of the basic literacy, getting the assignment together or looking through the reading materials, just expressing an interest in supporting your kids' homework activity, regardless of how you feel about your expertise in these things, you being there and saying you want to help, that is a really major significant thing for a lot of kids. And a lot of parents don't do it because they think, it's a bad thing to do or anything, a lot of parents just think, "Well, that's the school's job and I don't know the material and I'd just make it worse."

James

Yeah.

Peter

And that's patently wrong. The signals will come from the school. If the parent is attentive, the signals will come from the school that this kid is struggling, and unless there is some really specific reason that the kid has a genuine cognitive impairment, or an intellectual impairment, or a sensory/visual impairment, if there's no apparent reason for it, then probably what you've got is this kid gradually checking out because they're just not being supported in their literacy. From a parent's point of view, the simple act of moving into that zone as a supporter of the kid's homework is a really big important step that a lot of kids never had. The second part of that, though, is the golden rule – and here's a ‘don't' rather than a ‘do' – is that don't be impatient with this.

James

Yeah.

Peter

Just keep your foot on the pedal—

James

It's pretty much a golden rule for everything to do with parenting, isn't it? [Laughs]

Peter

Well the quickest way for a parent to get a kid to drop out of ballet or violin or piano is to stand over the shoulder and bark orders—

James

Yeah.

Peter

—and overheat the situation because it becomes damaging to the relationship. So I think don't do that, but just have a lot of patience and a lot of positiveness and a lot of belief that the kid will get there.

James

OK. Now specifically—

Peter
Yeah.

James

—what can parents do once they're aware of it to help address a reading or writing difficulty their kid might have?

Peter

I think two of the things they can do – one of the things is to open up a relationship with the teachers, with the school itself, to talk to the people in the school who do this sort of stuff for a living. To open up a conversation that says first and foremost, "I am a parent of this child and I am interested in this. I want to commit to helping with this." To actually make that statement, and to make the commitment to the school staff where they will respond to that as best they can. The second thing is to recognise that the kid will actually be interested in a lot of things, a lot of things the kid's friends do online with their hand-helds, or with, you know, online and the web in the social websites and things like that, that these are entrees into helping the kid read and write.

James

So if they love skateboarding?

Peter

Go for it!

James

Or get them a book on skateboarding.

Peter

Websites or books or whatever.

James

Yeah.

Peter

But the way in is the way that is most open to start with, and to start with that and to build up the kid's interest in that and the kid's belief that there is knowledge and fun to be had through these things — and not to try to build the bridge back into schoolwork immediately.

James

Yeah, so it's not about saying, "We've got to get your English mark up to, you know, 51 per cent"—

Peter

No.

James

—it's about encouraging them to find the joys of reading because it's joyful.

Peter

It's joyful. There's so much pleasure to be had.

James

Yeah.

Peter

There's so much more fun to be had. There's so much more fun in being involved in a virtual community of kids who love skateboarding who are in Canada or France or everything, and the only way you can do that is Skypeing or getting online and getting into the websites and being able to read, you know, being motivated to read the thing. In the long run, of course, what we hope is that the English mark does pick up, that the interest—

James

Yeah.

Peter

—flows through, simply because there is a proficiency that's developing, and the kid is starting to realise that they can and they're interested reading some of this material. But there's the bigger question as well, and I think what parents also think of is that sometimes the daily work of running the house and of getting stuff going – even stuff that the kid is interested in, the clubs the kid might be in membership of – a lot of that stuff is literacy stuff; it's reading letters, writing things to the club, filling in a form, getting the pamphlets, finding out where to go for the concert and so on and so on, and actually have the kid start to see more of how the day-to-day running of this household is entirely – well, not entirely – but in a large part dependent on our ability to read and write and be part of the world that way.

James

Yeah.

Peter

And I think a lot of kids don't get to see that. They attach reading and writing to school work only, and they don't necessarily see very well how it is that all of what's going on around them is dependent on our ability to get online and make a doctor's appointment.

James

Yeah, it's very interesting you say that because a lot of people we've spoken to about many different subjects—

Peter

Yeah.

James

—have said keep relating the school subject back to—

Peter

The real world.

James

The real world. Show that it's relevant.

Now finally, any special comments for parents of kids who themselves struggle with literacy? Maybe English is their second or third or fourth language, or maybe English is their first language but they've struggled with reading and perhaps writing through their lives.

Peter

Two things. First of all, be aware that there is a large and informed and highly-skilled professional community that can support you, ok. And that can be accessed through the school. And it can be accessed through other community groups as well. Don't feel that this, no-one's ever had this problem and that we're here, we're isolated because how many people speak, you know, Croatian, or how many people speak Khmer or whatever, that there are communities out there, so make use of what we have in this society to support you. Secondly, be fearless in your own attempts to learn with the kid—

James

Yeah.

Peter

—on how we do, not just the homework, but the day-to-day things as well; how we cope with this sort of thing. One of the things that we learnt from the first post-War migration waves from Italian and Greek communities that came to this country, and have given so much to it, is that it got to the point where the younger kids were actually teaching the parents and the grandparents how certain things worked with the reading and writing in English. That will happen, but it will happen because they stay committed to participating and doing the best they can, and not feeling isolated. Knowing that there are people out there, and the school system will begin to really support the kid, the more you can help the school system know about the kid, but there's also just the personal aspect of not being scared—

James

Yeah.

Peter

—of showing the kid that we're doing the homework together and neither of us know much about this topic and we're both struggling with our reading, but here we are together.

James

Yeah.

Peter

And that's a really powerful point for a kid to not lock down and think, "I'm not good at this and I'm going to shut down and do everything I can to avoid anybody knowing that, and just hope I can make it through."

James

Yeah.

Peter, thank you very much.

Peter

You're very welcome. Thank you.

James

Thank you for listening and for more information you can check out the website at www.schoolatoz.com.au

 

 

Professor Peter Freebody
Professor Peter Freebody

Peter Freebody is a professorial research fellow at Sydney University whose interests include literacy education and educational disadvantage. He has been published in international journals such as Harvard Educational Review has also contributed numerous entries in international handbooks and encyclopaedia. Peter is on the editorial boards of many Australian and international journals. He has served on numerous Australian state and national advisory groups in the area of literacy education and curriculum design. He was evaluator of the Australian national online curriculum initiative conducted by the Australian Curriculum Corporation, a co-founder of the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, and lead consultant in the development of the Australian English Curriculum. He is a member of the NSW State Literacy and Numeracy Advisory Board and is the Australian Commonwealth Government's nominee on the National Literacy and Numeracy Expert Group.

 

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