Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Noella McKenzie – Episode 2

Tim Bullard: [00:00:04] Hi, I’m Tim Bullard, and I’m the Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania. I think Tasmania might just be the best place in the world to teach, learn and live. In this series I ask some fantastic guests some big questions about how we can support learners to succeed not only in today’s world, but in tomorrow’s as well. We’ll talk about the role of education in our communities and how we learn to lay the foundations for connected, resilient, creative and curious lives. And if we’re lucky, we’ll hear a bit about our guests own learning journeys as well.

Kids: [00:00:42] Teach, Learn, Live, Tasmania

Tim Bullard: [00:00:47] We’re coming to you from lutriwita, Tasmania, so I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Tasmanian Aboriginal people who’ve been caring for and educating their children and young people here for tens of thousands of years. I pay my respects to elders past and present and to all the Aboriginal community members who work in our child and family centres, libraries and schools and our supporting teams. And of course, I acknowledge our Aboriginal learners right across Tasmania and Australia who will be the strong community members and leaders of tomorrow.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:23] Today’s episode focuses on our language and its role in literacy. And I’d like to welcome back our special guest for this series, Dr Noella Mackenzie, associate professor and educational consultant. Over the next few episodes, Noella and I are exploring some of the key themes around literacy and how parents and teachers can support children to develop literacy skills. So, Noella. Welcome back.

Noella: [00:01:49] Thanks, Tim. Lovely to be here.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:51] Can we start by exploring how important oral language development is prior to school and how it then translates into how children engage with literacy once they’re at school?

Noella: [00:02:03] Absolutely. And I’m really glad we’re starting with oral language. Sometimes we jump too quickly, I think, into reading and writing, for example. So it’s fabulous to talk about oral language because our language actually provides the basis for all other literacy learning. It also provides the basis for academic learning more generally. It’s where we learn how to think and how to understand our thought processes. And basically, oral language sets the individual up for success in life. And families are really good at scaffolding the learning of oral language. And I think it should be recognised that parents instinctively start to talk to their babies often before they’re even born. And there is an indication that children recognise voices that they heard before they were born. They will respond to music that they have heard regularly before they are born. And so that calming voice, the reason the parent’s voice is calming for the young baby is because the babies already you familiar with that voice. So that oral communication has started right from before the child’s born. And then once the child’s born, parents instinctively promote conversation. They talk to the baby as if they’re expecting an answer. They provide opportunities for an answer. And in fact, I’ve got a beautiful little video of myself talking to my granddaughter when she was three months old. And she already understands the rules of turn-taking. Now, how she’s like that is because of the interactions she’s been having with her family to date. So I would ask her a question and she would look at me and babble back to me, and then stop, and wait for me to say something. There’s an example of one of the important rules of conversation that children are learning from their families very, very early on.

Noella: [00:04:15] They learn about the structures of language, also beyond oral conversation, through the books that families read to them. Through the songs they sing, through the rhymes in the poems. You go into any home where somebody is changing a nappy, for example, and quite often you’ll hear them just instinctively start to sing a little rhyme. It might be something like using the child’s name. And if you ask the parent what they’re doing, they’ll probably say to you, I’m just trying to distract him while I change his nappy. But in fact, they are using oral language as a way of communicating with the child. One of the key structures for learning about written language is developing an ear for the sound of language and the language that we’re born into. And it’s referred to as phonological awareness. And it’s a key for learning literacy later on. But it’s developed through that oral language engagement at home. But I also want to put in there that oral language is also alongside another form of language, including body language, facial expression, tone. It’s not just words. It’s about how the words are used. And they’re important skills that children learn alongside the oral language at home. And I think this I’m going to read from some research here Tim, that early oral language has been identified as providing later importance of inferential skill, vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge and disciplinary knowledge for successful comprehension. So it’s been quantified and shown that early oral language development, that happens at home, is just critical to learning further along. And what early childhood educators and early teachers do is they build on the platform that has started at home.

Tim Bullard: [00:06:29] And I think what’s important here is there’s no rocket science behind this, it is just speaking to your children and listening to your children as much as you possibly can. And we were reflecting in the office today that it can be about anything. It’s sometimes the more mundane, the better. Describing to a small child how you took the bus and you bought a ticket and you set up the back. And what you saw out the window, is, you know, more important often than a really complex tale. It’s really just about what you want to talk to them about and make some time to do that.

Noella: [00:07:03] Actually, what you mentioned there, though, that trip on the bus is actually a really good example of complex language because you’re talking to the child about something they cannot see. So they have to imagine, they have to have an understanding first of all, of what a bus is. They have to know what it’s like to get on the bus. There’s a whole lot of experiences that actually facilitate that particular conversation. And the other way to do it is to ask the child to tell you about something that they did during their day that you weren’t part of. And then you ask questions about that. But which corner did you get on the bus? What colour was the bus? Did you see anybody on the bus that you knew? That kind of conversation develops language in a way that – it’s time to go to school, get your toothbrush and clean your teeth, grab your school bag, get in the car, we’re running late. That’s a different level of conversation. So I think the conversation around the bus is absolutely perfect. What we need to understand, though, is that parents are scaffolding something that we’re actually hardwired to do. Oral language, because we’ve been speaking for so many centuries, our brains are wired for learning language, which is why children can learn new words so quickly, so rapidly.

Tim Bullard: [00:08:35] And it’s amazing, isn’t it, when you are working with small children, and I’m lucky enough to go into schools and I love going to kinder and prep, around some of their vocabulary and the way that it’s used. I’m often very surprised around the complexity of some of the concepts that they want to describe to me.

Noella: [00:08:54] Absolutely. And a classic example would be walking with my five year old. The other a couple of weeks ago, we were in a cafe and we’re sitting at the front of the cafe and she wanted to go to the bathroom. And it meant walking around through another area where they have seating. And as we walked through, she turned around and she looked and she said, ‘there’s literally nobody here’.

Tim Bullard: [00:09:19] And you think, where did that come from?

Noella: [00:09:21] Exactly. Well, where it comes from is that children have the capacity to learn words so easily because of the way the brain is developing at that time in their lives. And that’s why parents who’ve got two year olds can always just blow me away when I ask them this question, I’ll say, well, how many words did he know, say, six months ago? And they’ll say, oh, he knew these five. And then what happened? Well, it just exploded. At about 18 months, suddenly, every time he spoke, he knew another word. And some of them I wasn’t too keen on. But at that age, they had the capacity to take on a new word, having only heard it once. It’s quite phenomenal. It does drop off. But even at school, children have the capacity to learn five to ten new words a day. Well, if I asked you to learn five to ten new words every day Tim, you would find it hard work because our wiring is set. Theirs is still quite plastic. So that capacity is the reason why we need to talk to our children. We need to read to them. We need to give them opportunities to hear as many words as they possibly can when they’re little.

Tim Bullard: [00:10:37] So what a great observation. There’s a real sweet spot in terms of biological development. And, you know, the challenge you can set yourself is how can you kind of maximise that with your children to ensure that you’re giving them opportunities to learn new words and saying to me, how would I go learning new words a day. As someone that tried, not too long ago, to re-engage with my schoolboy French, I found it very challenging to get my vocab back up to even where it had been when I when I left school. But good fun nonetheless.

Tim Bullard: [00:11:10] So you’ve talked about some things that we can do prior to school and obviously a really big emphasis on talking and listening to your children. What about once children have started school? How can we support their oral language and literacy development then?

Noella: [00:11:25] Ok, what I’m going to talk about actually starts before they start school, but it continues. And that’s the read aloud. Reading aloud to your child is one of the best ways to introduce vocabulary that isn’t in oral language. It’s the vocabulary of written language. And it’s quite distinctly different. And if you read to your children, you will expose them to that kind of vocabulary, but you’ll also expose them to the written structures which are different to the structures of oral conversation. So reading aloud, sometimes people think, oh yes, that’s something I do when my child is at three and four. But what I want people to think about is reading aloud to children right through, even after they’ve learned to read, making read aloud an experience that a shared collaborative family experience. Screens are very tempting, they’re very seductive. They’re very easy to hand over. But they quite passive, and read-aloud is a different kind of interaction. It’s an interaction between the reader, the children and the book, and the topics. And what I would initially suggest is that when you read a book for the first few times, and I’m saying a few times because we should reread favourites, is that you just read it for the pleasure of reading it. Don’t turn it into a test. What does that mean? What is that? Just read and enjoy, and respond to the children’s questions.

Noella: [00:13:07] I’m going to use an example of how the language differs to conversational language. This is a book called The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson. And it’s one that was, became of favourite last year for my granddaughter. Because my husband and I were babysitting our granddaughter one day a week in the year before she started school. And it’s quite old school in the way the story is written and illustrated. And on one particular page, it says, ‘for a dizzying moment, it teetered on the brink and then down it plunged’. Now you can hear how that language is quite different to conversational language. So after I read that book for, I don’t know, over a matter of weeks, half a dozen times, to Ruby, I was doing a workshop with teachers that afternoon and I was just curious because I hadn’t talked to her about any of the words in the book. And when I got to that brink, it teetered on the brink. I just said to her, Ruby, do you know what that means? And she said, yes, it’s wobbling on the edge. Keep reading. Isn’t that remarkable? You know, no conversation, these are words teetered, brink. She’s not using those in daily speaking, but she’s learning them and she’s understanding them. So I really want to stress that. And it’s something I’m talking to classroom teachers about. In fact, I ask Prep teachers to read five books a day in their classroom. So that’s something to think about.

Noella: [00:14:47] Singing songs and reciting rhymes. Dig up the rhymes that you knew as a child. Children love them, but also make them up using their names. I used to sing to Ruby as I’d push her in the pram. Little ruby red shoes, red shoes, red shoes. And I would just make up the words as I went along. As they are a little older and they are starting school or just before school, play word games. When you’re out driving or walking, I-spy for example, or talk about looking for sign, who’s the first to spot a stop sign, who’s the first to spot a give way sign. Talk about the street names. Oh, that street is called Forest Drive. Why do you think it’s called that. So having lots of conversations with children, singing songs, talking about books and rhymes. I think all of those are things that start before school, but should continue when children go into school.

Tim Bullard: [00:15:53] I think to going back to an earlier conversation that we had around needing to build motivation and maybe even pleasure from learning to be literate, the reading of books as you move through primary school especially, having the books read to you, I think is a really pleasurable experience that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Noella: [00:16:12] When you read to children, you bring the children together. You might have a seven year old and a nine year old and a 12 year old. And the seven year old and nine year old cannot read this book. But the 12 year old might be able to. But conceptually, they can understand. All three of them can enjoy that book with you. So it’s bringing them together.

Tim Bullard: [00:16:37] I’d like to turn to phonics because it is the buzz word of the day. And I think that people who are following literacy discussions will see that often in the media we hear talk around phonics and phonological awareness. Can you give us the layman’s description of what are we actually talking about when we’re talking about phonics? Because my reflection is that often it’s it’s confused with literacy or it’s confused with reading more generally. So what is phonics?

Tim Bullard: [00:17:10] Thanks Tim. Phonics, is simply the study of the relationship between sounds and letters. We have an alphabetical system. Our language is an alphabetic system. So we have letters that represent the sounds that we make when we read. So what we need children to understand is those relationships. And so phonics instruction helps students to learn the correspondence between the written letter and patterns of letters, because it’s not just single letters, and the sounds that we make. And in our language we have, English is what’s called a deep orthography. And we have 26 letters, we have 44 sounds and around about one hundred and twenty different ways of representing those forty-four sounds and those forty-four sounds, they’re often referred to as forty-four phonemes. So phonemes simply mean sound. In contrast, languages like Spanish and Finnish have shallow orthography. If I use Finnish for example, there are twenty-seven letters and twenty-seven phonemes or sounds. So it’s quite a contrast to the English language. It’s important for our children to learn phonics. Absolutely. But what we need to understand is that reading and writing are far more complex than just phonics alone. Phonics plays a part in reading and in writing. If it was an easy ‘phonics equals reading’, I doubt that we would have had fourteen hundred peer-reviewed papers published in the last ten years on the teaching of reading and writing. So if we think about phonics as being that important understanding of letter-sound relationships, an important part of the reading and writing processes, but there’s more to both.

Tim Bullard: [00:19:22] It sounds to me like it’s an important precondition, but in itself it’s not going to make you literate.

Noella: [00:19:29] No, it’s not. But it is important. And it’s I guess it’s what Scott Parris in his research called an important early skill or constrained skill. You know, we learn it quickly and early and then we integrate it with other skills that allow us to be readers and writers. So we’ll talk a bit more about that when we do the other podcasts. But on a simple level, spelling, for example, phonology is key. But we also, in English, we need morphology and etymology in order to be able to spell. Our phonics would only get us so far. Likewise with reading, because of our language that is very rich, we need more than just phonics in order to be able to read well.

Tim Bullard: [00:20:18] And just reflect that we were lucky enough to have you working with the executive in person recently and you stumped us with some words that phonologically did not actually make sense for how we were trying to decode them.

Noella: [00:20:34] There’s many of those. And I think what are the examples that I used was the little village outside home, Hobart, called Ouse. Which has the combination OUSE, that in house and mouse makes a ouse sound. So, you know, our language is complex because of the way it’s been structured. It’s actually a very exciting language to explore. And I’ve recently been involved in some workshops on spelling that look at spelling from that notion of the base word and where does it come from and what does it mean? And then, then we add the suffixes and the prefixes, and you learn so much about language and the history of words that is far beyond ‘what do these sounds sometimes make?’

Tim Bullard: [00:21:24] So the emphasis in the media on phonics at the moment, is it warranted?

Noella: [00:21:29] I don’t think so. I actually think it’s quite confusing for people. Phonics is has been around forever. You know, we have an alphabetic system and phonics has been an important part of the teaching of learning and reading, certainly throughout my career, but for much longer before I started teaching. So I I’m confused as to why it is suddenly a big topic. There is no teacher alive that’s taught classrooms full of children who hasn’t taught phonics within their classroom reading and writing program. Their literacy program. It’s just part of what we do. But I don’t understand why it is being emphasised in the way that it is.

Tim Bullard: [00:22:17] So just in closing, I know that a number of our teachers listen to this podcast. I’m really interested on what your advice to teachers is around oral language and how it’s important in a classroom setting.

Noella: [00:22:31] I think it’s sometimes underestimated, Tim, but if we think that oral language provides the foundation for beginning reading and writing, then it’s going to be a key element of any classroom program. But I guess there’s a history of quiet classrooms. You know, the good teacher is the teacher that has the children all heads down, busily working. And I think we have to shake that tree for the community that, if our language is so important, then children need to practice their oral language, not learn about it. And so in the approach, as I like to encourage, children are encouraged to speak and to listen and to develop their language for particular purposes. It might be to explain something to somebody else that they don’t know about. And it’s it’s far more than just news day or show and tell. It’s if you ask a child to explain a concept to another child, that is developing their ability to communicate that’s really powerful. So I guess what I would be saying to teachers is don’t assume they know everything they need to know about speaking and listening because they can speak and because they can listen. That we need to actively teach vocabulary, and not just the subject we’re doing, but to develop rich language with our children. To give them precise language so that when they are writing, they can be unambiguous. They can instead of saying, I’ve got big or small to choose from, that I might be able to look up at a chart and see oh these our size charts. Oh, I could go from minute, minute would be a better word than small.

Noella: [00:24:29] So developing that kind of vocabulary for writing and then for reading. If you have heard a word, if the word is in your vocabulary, then when you do start to decode that word. When you do start to work it out, it triggers memory of that word. And so the reason we often mispronounce a word even as adult readers, we do this. I know it might sound as if we shouldn’t, but adult readers mispronounce words all the time. And it’s not because they’re phonics is a problem. It’s because that word is currently not in their vocabulary. So we often walk around with the word in our head and we pronounce it a certain way. And then one day we hear it on the radio or we hear it on the news and we think, oh, is that how you say that? I didn’t know. So the more teachers work on vocabulary expansion, the more they help with that specificity in writing. But that understanding and reading also they are helping children develop something that is going to support them for their in. Highlights their ability to communicate orally, but I’d go back to what I mentioned before in an earlier podcast, and it’s also about developing the body language, facial expression, the ability to use tone, volume. How do you express yourself so that people aren’t thrown by your you know, it’s not the words you say, it’s how you say them. So there’s a whole lot there that should be incorporated into our classroom literacy programs that is about oral language

Tim Bullard: [00:26:22] Noella I think that’s a great place to finish. At the end of the day, as you said in previous podcasts, the aim of this is not to be literate, it’s to be able to communicate and comprehend. And as human beings, we just so hard-wired to be sharing concepts and ideas and we know that that is actually important to our future. So I love that idea about building vocabularies to allow people to actually express what they want to say, not what they can say through the limited vocab that they’ve got. So thank you so much for your time today. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m sure our listeners have as well. Join us for our next episode. And I’m looking forward to this one too, where you and I are going to be talking about the critical role of quality writing. As well as how we’re supporting students through Tasmania’s literacy framework. Thanks so much.

Noella: [00:27:14] Thanks, Tim.

Tim Bullard: [00:27:23] I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation, stay up to date with all our latest episodes by subscribing to Teach, Learn, Live through your favourite podcast app. You can also find all our past episodes on the Department of Education website.

Tim Bullard: [00:27:39] Do you know an inspiring learner, family, teacher or community we should feature on the show? Then please let us know at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au