Category: Gaeilge

Literacy – don’t do too much, too soon

It has been my experience that any of my pupils’ parents with whom I have interacted have always had the best intentions for their children’s education. The importance of supporting a child’s education and development outside of, and in addition to formal schooling can’t be overstated. There are many ways that parents and guardians can support their child’s learning. A quick chat with your child’s teacher should shed some light on this.

However, there is one particular issue that I think needs attention. Some children are being exposed to letter formation activities and phonics activities before they begin their primary schooling. This could be at home, or in a preschool setting. The idea behind this may be that a parent would like to give their child a head-start for when they begin school, and in some cases this may be what happens. In many cases it is not what happens due to a number of reasons.

  1. Keeping in mind that all children develop at slightly different paces and will reach their milestones at different intervals, it is often (but not always) the case that the child is not developmentally ready for these sort of activities. At the preschool age, a child should be engaging in play-based and socio-dramatic activities, they should be exposed to stories and they should develop their social skills (this is not an exhaustive list, rather it is a list of three areas which have come to mind as I type). There are always going to be children who will be ready at an earlier stage/age for expanding further with literacy development activities. What’s important is that these activities are carefully planned and delivered by someone with the skill-set to do it properly.
  2. Some children are being shown how to write with capital letters before they begin primary school. As well-meaning as this may be, it can prove to be unhelpful for a child’s writing as these letters may often present themselves in the middle of words and take away from the overall presentation. Capital letters are taught in the infant classes at a particular stage, a time when it makes sense to introduce them and with the appropriate teaching in place to remind the children when or when not to use them. Using capital letters instead of using lower-case letters during writing will slow down the process.
  3. It is the case that in some (not all) preschool settings, children are being “taught their sounds” (phonics). This is not a good idea and further, this should be left to a qualified primary school teacher. The preschool experience for a child should not include lessons on phonics (or writing letters), there is time enough for that in the infant classes. What’s important in a preschool setting is that children have the opportunity to explore through play and to develop by building on these experiences and interactions.

It may sound like a cliché, but the best advice I can give to parents is to make reading a regular activity outside of school, whether they haven’t started in school yet, whether they’re in school or whether they’re coming to the end of their formal education. During the early years, model reading for the child by reading a variety of stories out loud to them. Stop at appropriate intervals and ask a range of higher-order and lower-order questions. Ask the child about the words they hear you read – are there other words that mean something similar? Do they know a word that rhymes with the one you’re talking about? Ask the child to summarise what you have read. Ask if the child can predict what might happen next.

As the child gets older, these reading activities will develop. Gradually, as the child undergoes early years schooling, the child will work towards becoming an independent reader.

Reading should feel like a normal activity and should not feel like hard work if it is encouraged in the appropriate way. Children will work hard enough in school (believe me, learning is hard work and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise!) so it is best to let them enjoy reading and literacy activities without it becoming a task.

Parents are constitutionally the primary educators of their children. I think this is a great thing. The next big question linked to this – how can teachers support parents?

Doing a Disservice to Gaeilge

I follow a number of teacher blogs through Facebook and I’m quite interested to see what these blogs have to offer. Some offer sage advice covering the many aspects of primary school teaching. Unfortunately, I occasionally come across bad advice. The latest I’ve seen is a mention of using translation, with very little comhrá, during an Irish lesson. This bothers me as the blog in question is quite popular, therefore many newer teachers or student teachers will be on the receiving end of unhelpful, or possibly damaging, advice.

Comhrá should be an integral part of any Gaeilge lesson, at any level in primary school – from Junior Infants to Sixth Class. This sets the foundation for the reading and written work that will come later on. Gaeilge will be an additional language to the overwhelming majority of primary school pupils so it needs to be taught with that in mind. The way we learn our mother tongue is through listening to the language and by beginning to use the words that have become familiar to us. We build this up to a level where the foundation for reading and writing is solid. The same approach to Gaeilge, albeit in a slightly altered form, is necessary. From First and Second Classes onwards, pupils will have begun to use reading and writing in their Irish lessons. This does not and should not take the place of oral work. Pupils should get used to using the vocabulary orally before they attempt to apply their reading and writing skills. Using language is naturally an oral activity so this should be applied in the classroom – use language in its natural form before tackling it at a more abstract level.

Translation is a useful skill in and of itself but it is not the sort of skill that should be encouraged during an Irish lesson. Translation slows down the thinking process if it is applied to the use of a language in a natural setting. The (bad) advice I read on a particular blog encouraged teachers to get their students to translate verbs as a part of a game. In the same breath the advice was not to do this in front of an inspector, so the question is – why bother suggesting translation in the first place if they know it is unacceptable?

Translation is a tedious way for children to learn or to practise a language. If the teacher is going to translate everything, that’s what the children will wait for. Why would they pay any attention to the Irish vocabulary if the translation to English is on the way? Their exposure to Irish will therefore be extremely limited because there’s no real motivation to listen to it. Translation is not real teaching and should never be considered an effective methodology for use with primary school pupils. The more effective way to teach Irish is through Irish, which can appear difficult at first but with some thought and consideration in advance, it won’t pose a problem. Speech should be clear and not rushed, with altered pitch when appropriate. Gestures should accompany speech where possible and visual aides will be invaluable. Will the pupils understand every single word you say? Most likely not. Will they get the gist? Highly likely. Give the pupils an opportunity to use what they have been taught with a partner or in a whole-class setting. Don’t be too worried about their mistakes because every language learner makes mistakes. When the focus is on encouraging use instead of correcting mistakes or just translating everything, you will begin to see success.

It is doing a huge disservice to Gaeilge  – and to the pupils who are learning it – if it is taught without the effort required for success. Teaching Irish properly in school will not answer the question of why some people choose not to use it in any other context – this is a discussion for another blog post. However, providing the best conditions for learning the language will at least give children the opportunity to make a real choice.

Primary Languages Curriculum – A Review of an In-service Training Day

I attended training for the new Primary Languages Curriculum yesterday. The focus for this year is on the Oral Language (Teanga Ó Bhéal) strand for classes from Junior Infants to Second Class, while next year will see training of some sort in the Reading and Writing strands. An overview of this new curriculum is available here.

From the outset, it appeared that the facilitators were eager to address the concern that many viewed this new document as merely an assessment checklist, with individual tracking for each pupil. They pointed out that this was not the case and that the Milestones (from ‘a’ to ‘h’) were not to be applied to each pupil, rather they were to be applied to the class from a general perspective of where the group as a whole is currently at, with other milestones only being used specifically where differentiation was required. This was some relief.

The next clarification was that long-term and short-term planning does not need to change straight away. We are to continue planning as we normally would and to continue teaching as we normally would. This makes sense as it would be a complex task to rethink a curricular area in such a manner with just over one term left in the school year.

It wasn’t all positive unfortunately. I was particularly unimpressed with how the Gaeilge elements were presented. I heard nothing that teachers didn’t already know from the 1999 Gaeilge curriculum. “Make Irish interesting” was put forward as the answer to teaching it effectively – this isn’t new thinking! There will always be challenges when teaching Irish, and in fairness, a question on this was put to participants. School and local context will always decide whether you have an easy or a tough time teaching Irish. This point was acknowledged but not dealt with in any depth.

We were shown some videos of activity in a classroom, which looked normal. What I found unrealistic were the follow-up videos where the teacher was asking questions of individual children in order to assess what oral language milestone they were at. I call this unrealistic because I couldn’t hear the sound of any other children in the background. Where were they? What teacher could assess like this on an individual basis with a large number of pupils in her class? If a video of an unrealistic situation is being shown to me during a training day, I can only deem that particular element of the training to be without merit. Idealistic and realistic are two completely different things.

When it comes down to it, I won’t be teaching a curriculum, I’ll be teaching children. I will continue to use my professional judgement whenever the situation requires it. All this curriculum does is ask us to look at things from a slightly different angle. Teachers have always done this – it’s nothing new to us.