Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Noella McKenzie – Episode 3

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 asked 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: [00:01:22] I’d like to welcome back to the Teach, Learn, Live podcast, Dr. Noella Mackenzie, Associate Adjunct Professor and Educational Consultant. And in this episode, we will be discussing what writing is and how it can support children to be successful. Over the upcoming episodes, Noella and I are exploring some of the key themes around literacy and how parents and teachers can support children to develop key literacy skills. Welcome, Noella. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:01:48] Thank you, Tim, and lovely to be back with you. 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:52] So writing is something very dear to my heart. In fact, I could say, reflecting on my career, that I’ve made an industry out of writing in different forms and formats and for different purposes. But if we go back and look at children, when do they start to write and how does that process begin? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:02:09] It’s actually very interesting that children start exploring writing in almost a similar way to starting to explore oral language. Or it’s a connection I make. Not everybody makes this connection. But when you think about children starting to learn to speak, they start with babble. They make lots of babbling sounds for a long time before they actually speak in words that others can understand. And with young children and writing, I see a parallel with their early exploration of scribble. Where they first start making marks with whatever they can get their hands on. And sometimes it’s the food that’s on their tray in the high chair. Other times it’s out in the dirt, in mud, in any possible way that allows them to make marks, they start to explore that process. So I see a very early connection between exploring scribble and the babble associated with oral language learning. But I’d just like to go back a little step, I guess, into history where we think about the historical beginnings of written literacy. And if you think about how it was the wealthy, the elite, that were allowed to write. Who learned to write and learned to read. But then there was a direct attempt to educate the masses so that the masses could read and initially read the Bible. And that was so we could get a consistent message. That the leadership of the country could get that consistent message. But educating people to write, the masses to write, came much later. And I want you to think about that from the point of view of the power associated with writing. You mentioned that you’d made an industry of writing because as an educated person in today’s world you know the power of writing. That when you write something, you can influence others. And so educating the masses to write was not encouraged as early as teaching them how to read. 

Tim Bullard: [00:04:25] I think that is a very, very interesting reflection, that reading was, absolutely the focus as you say, so that you could spread the biblical messages. And I wonder whether in history people are actually a little bit afraid of democratising writing. Because it sort of handed that power over to others. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:04:47] They absolutely were. And there’s been some really interesting research done in this area by Deborah Brant in the US. Her work has been both a longitudinal study of adults writing in the workforce and how their roles have evolved so that people that she mightn’t have expected to be able to write well, are now required to write well. And how historically that wasn’t the case. That the power of writing was limited to a small amount of elite personnel. 

Tim Bullard: [00:05:25] I’m actually reading her book and writing at the moment, and I think you might have recommended it to me Noella. So, yes, I’m reading it and it’s absolutely fascinating looking at that history and the development of writing, and the empowerment and expectations on more people to be able to write well. So I suppose moving to that automatically as a parent, that raises the question of what should children be able to do before they go to school in terms of writing? Is there any expectation about them being able to know or do things? Or is that something that you start to learn in a formal context on entry to school? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:06:02] Formal writing instruction doesn’t need to start before school. Absolutely. But there’s a lot of informal learning that takes place before children start at school. And the first element of that is knowing what writing is all about. So when children see their parents writing, and if parents then explain why they’re writing. And that can be as simple as ‘I’m writing a list of things I need to get from the supermarket so I don’t forget’ or ‘I’m writing an email to Auntie Susan to arrange our Sunday lunch’. Or ‘I’m writing a report for work’. That’s a really important piece of information. Now, early on, children just observe, and they sort of absorb this process that all so writing is just part of what people do as they grow up. And I think seeing it and then and hearing it, I’ve got a beautiful little video of a little girl who’s two and a half and she decides she’s going to write the shopping list. So she’s saying to her mother, what do I need to put on the list? She’s two and a half, but she already understands the purpose of a list. The Christmas cards, the birthday cards, the birthday invitations. If when those come into the house, if there’s a discussion about the writing of those, then I think that’s a really important place to start. The other things I like children to learn about before they start school is to express themselves through drawings. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:07:40] Now, if they’re drawing, and that’s a genuine visual literacy process, they’re also developing a range of dispositions that will help them with writing. As well as skills like fine motor skill development and pencil grasp. A child who draws a lot before they start school already works out how to hold a pencil with a little encouragement from family, before they start to actually learn to write words. Most children want to learn to write their name in that later stage of preschool. From four on they’re often interested. They’re experimenting with symbols and letters. So they’ve worked out the difference between drawing and writing. For a parent to teach them how to write their first name, that’s a lovely thing for them to know. But there’s another side to this writing in the prior to school period that I’d like to mention. And that’s the development of gross motor. The core strength that is needed to be able to sit at a desk, for example, is not developed after they start school. It starts early on. It’s the playground equipment. It’s the climbing. It’s the swinging. It’s the tumbling. It’s all of those gross motor activities. I think they’re really important in preparing children for school, but also preparing children for a healthy life. And they’re helpful for being able to write. 

Tim Bullard: [00:09:10] Yes. And what we can see in our data, unfortunately, is that there’s a drop in gross motor skills. Which you can assert might be around having more screen time and being more sedentary. But certainly we do know, don’t we, that children that come to school with really good gross motor skills flourish for a whole lot of reasons. And I’m really interested to hear, I hadn’t actually thought about that actually being able to sit and probably exercise your fine motor skill is directly tied to whether you can hold yourself straight and sit at a desk. So that’s a very interesting reflection. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:09:43] Some of the elements of fine motor skills people don’t realise can be developed through simple games like Incy Wincy Spider, and those kinds of early rhymes and fingerplays that involve the hands. Learning how to cut with a pair of appropriate size scissors as a four-year-old. That’s a really important skill to develop in terms of fine motor. But a lot of those skills can be developed through drawing and through painting and through playing with small objects. All of those things prepare children for writing and the informal instruction can start when they move into prep. 

Tim Bullard: [00:10:22] And what about writing in its support for children’s learning to read? Or is it actually the other way round that reading supports children’s ability to write? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:10:33] Well, that’s a really interesting way to put it. They’re actually reciprocal processes. So I think you learn about writing through reading, and you learn about reading through writing. Their two sides of the same coin. But there are some specific things about writing that I think help early learners notice detail in a whole different way. And if I use an adult example, if you or I were to look at a word like ‘the’ that we’ve both read a million plus times. We just glance at that word as a bit of a picture. But if we had to write the word, both of us, no matter how many times we’ve written it, we still have to write a T H and an E. And that writing of the letters requires us to look at the letters in a detailed form. And learning how to write those letters develops a bit of a physical memory that can help us to remember. So learning to write letters helps children to learn to remember letters. If I think about the reading process, one of the ways it supports writing is that the written structures we learn about through books, we then develop control over as a writer. So we learn the different structures of written language through being read to early on. Because oral language is different. We speak in conversational ways that are different to the ways that written text is created. So I see flipsides and advantages. The more children read, the easier writing becomes. The more they write, the easier reading becomes. So the two things absolutely come together. 

Tim Bullard: [00:12:20] And I actually am reflecting that that goes through your whole life, doesn’t it? Because some of the best lessons I’ve had in improving my writing have been in reading some really, really good pieces of written work that I’ve thought, oh, that’s just such a good way to structure or put that together or to explain a concept. And then I suppose I’ve gone off and mirrored that in the work that I’ve created. And of course, when you think about it, that’s what children are doing too. They only know the structure of a sentence because they’ve had sentences read to them. They don’t magically or innately know it. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:12:52] Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Tim Bullard: [00:12:55] So I’m thinking about today and even in the time since I was at school, it’s digital tools everywhere. You know, there’s auto correct spelling, things that translate our speech to text, etc.. And I think you could come with an argument to say, well, maybe writing is over and done with. There is so many ways to use oral communication to communicate. What do you think about that? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:13:17] Oh, that’s really controversial 

Tim Bullard: [00:13:20] I’m trying to be controversial 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:13:21] Tim. I know. I know. And there’s a word that’s missing from that particular question that I’m going to be equally radical, and say the elephant in the room there is handwriting. 

Tim Bullard: [00:13:34] Yes. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:13:35] And I’d like to take a bit of time to explore that. But first, I’d like to put in the caveat that I sit in front of a keyboard pretty well all day. Most days. I’m not anti-keyboard, but I’ve got a pencil in my hand and I’ve got a piece of paper in front of me as well. Now, handwriting is something that sort of has been neglected in perhaps the last 10/15 years. And interestingly enough, a lot of the research around handwriting in the last decade has come from outside education. There’s been a lot of people across the world who are in a range of different fields, from neurology to paediatrics to occupational therapy to physiotherapy. There’s a range of them who’ve become very nervous about the neglect of handwriting. And they’re nervous about it because they understand that the neurological pathways that are developed through learning to write by hand are then used for other purposes. And it’s interesting to think about how when we write by hand, where it’s that physical, as well as the cognitive coming together. And so working with the linguistic areas of the brain, the visual areas of the brain, it’s a very complex process. And it’s very helpful for brain development. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:15:07] The similar brain development being researched, associated with learning a musical instrument, for example. And again, it’s the physical and the cognitive. So I think if we just park the handwriting there for a brief moment, and then I want to draw your attention to some research that came out just recently about nine students whose NAPLAN results in writing were the strongest predictor of how they would do in their HSC. So I’m just putting out there the importance of writing for our young students. And not just when they’re in early years, but when they’re in high school and moving into the future careers. So if we think about the importance of handwriting to learning, to thinking, to expression. We then need to think about the keyboards because I’m not anti-keyboards. What I believe is that our children in this era need to be taught to write by hand because there is specific developmental learning processes attached to that. Then we need to teach them how to use a keyboard. And if we do that, we give these children the choice of the right tool for the writing task at hand. Which is what you and I have. We can pick up the pencil, we can pick up the keyboard. But I’ve conducted some research with year seven students who have managed to get through to high school with not strong handwriting and not strong keyboarding. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:16:43] And what those children have said to us is to quote one boy, very smart boy, who said ‘I didn’t learn enough of handwriting to write by hand, and I didn’t learn enough keyboarding, and I can’t keep up in class. So I guess I’m in a bit of a pickle now’. Very articulate student, very bright student. So I want us to think there about this whole process of digital learning. Yes, we can use voice to write with. And I do I must admit, I do that with my phone when I’m out walking and I’m answering emails. But that’s different to when I sit to write something for publication. So I guess what I’m saying is, that writing is more complex today than it’s ever been. Far more than when I went to school. We write on a phone, we use text-speak. We write an email and we use a particular text style for an email. If we write for a report or for a publication, it’s another way of doing it. If we write a letter, do you want a letter from a friend at Christmas time? I mean, be honest. Do you like those typed ones or do you prefer the shorter handwritten one? 

Tim Bullard: [00:17:57] Definitely handwritten. Definitely. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:17:59] Absolutely. Do you get excited when you pick up a card and you see the address on the outside and you think, oh, that’s from so-and-so.  

Tim Bullard: [00:18:07] Yep. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:18:08] You recognize their writing. It’s part of their identity. You know, if we all hand something, pass something over that’s written in Ariel twelve point font, it’s just, there’s no personalisation there. But if we write something by hand, it’s attached to our identity. They say handwriting is as different as fingerprints. So I guess I’m saying I’m not anti-digital tools at all. But I am a strong advocate for the research that tells us that we first need to teach young children how to write by hand. Singapore actually removed handwriting from their curriculum quite a number of years ago, thinking it was going to be old technology. And they went back to it. And so if we look across the world, we’ll see that there isn’t a country that I know of that isn’t prioritising handwriting in the early years. But then there’s a mixed approach to what happens with ‘do we go to cursive in grade three’? That’s becoming an optional thing in a lot of places. And in some places they’re going from printing to then teaching keyboarding. With the idea that the children have both those skills. Printing, but not cursive, and keyboarding, Long way around a short question. 

Tim Bullard: [00:19:32] I think it’s a very good answer to quite a quite a controversial question. And one of my reflections would be that the slower pace of handwriting lets you think more clearly about the structure and the sentiment that you’re trying to convey. And the sort of automatic nature of typing can sometimes mean that you miss out on some of that processing. So I can see having obviously grown up handwriting and then I suppose I was in the generation where I was probably twenty or twenty one before I learnt to type as computers came on, I can see that there is a place for each. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:20:08] There is a place for which there is some research to indicate that we remember more of what we write by hand, than we write on a keyboard. That is some of the research. I’ve been interviewed by a lot of radio journalists about this topic over the years. And I usually ask them how are they’re taking their notes when we do our preliminary discussion? And I’ve only yet had one to say that they were taking their notes straight on the keyboard. All the rest, and there’s been numerous, have said that I’m jotting down in my notebook. And I’m the same when I’m doing an interview with someone. I’m taking notes by hand. And then I’ll often transfer those over to the keyboard and elaborate. But it’s tools for purpose. And what I want us to do is first recognise the brain development research, in terms of handwriting for young children. But then recognise that our children, that writing is critical. And Deborah Brant has come out and said she thinks it’s the more critical element of literacy, over and above reading, in today’s world. But I want us to equip our students so that they have the power, and the skill to say, ‘OK, this is when I use a pen, this is when I use a keyboard’. 

Tim Bullard: [00:21:28] And what a great thing to do, more things in the tool kit, Noella. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:21:32] Absolutely more things in the toolkit. And if you think about children. I’m working with a PhD student who’s researching Year 10 students. And one of the traps he’s found with the use of the computers and the Internet, is that they are cutting and pasting chunks from Google. And in some cases, they’re not even reworking them. They’re not even reading them. They’re just using keywords and grabbing a snippet and popping it in to their answer. You can’t do that if you’re writing by hand, unless you’re directly copying. But it’s I guess it’s a more personalised approach. That doesn’t mean I’m not saying that Year 10’s shouldn’t be using computers. But I think we need to think about the tools that we’re asking them to use for particular purposes. And thinking about that, if you, and I know you’ve been into lots of schools and lots of classrooms, Tim, so I’m sure you’ve noticed that once they turn about eight, you go into any subject area. Any discipline. Half of the time they’re writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s science or maths or history or English, there is writing involved. So if our children are not equipped to write efficiently, then they’re disadvantaged. Not just in literacy, but in all their other learning. 

Tim Bullard: [00:22:57] So last time we spoke about phonics and we tied it back to oral language, where does phonics fit with writing? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:23:07] Oh, it’s so important. It’s an absolute key to writing. We have an alphabetic system. So, of course, I actually think that we put too much emphasis on phonics with reading, when in fact, in my teaching experience, I’ve found a lot of the time that I really taught phonics was through the writing process. And that’s when children are learning how to spell. They’re learning how to record their ideas. So they’re listening carefully. This is where the phonemic awareness comes in. They need to be able to hear those sounds and then translate them to the letters that they need. And in some cases, there is a phonological relationship between the letters and the sounds. In other times we need to learn morphological patterns, and more about the orthography of spelling in English. But early on, it’s, to me if I want to know how a child’s phonics is developing. In other words, their ability to hear and record sounds. I look at their writing. And if you look at the invented text of a young writer, you’ll pick up, are they hearing initial sounds. Are they hearing final sounds. Are they hearing medial sounds. And then if they’re hearing them, are they choosing a grapheme, or letter, which is appropriate for that particular sound? So I actually see a really strong relationship between learning letter-sound relationships and early writing. 

Tim Bullard: [00:24:44] I absolutely agree with you, and I think it’s fascinating, isn’t it? When you sit with small children and they’re writing. There’s an automatic feedback loop about what they’re hearing, That’s what I see. Or hearing as the case may be. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:24:58] Absolutely. And initially, for some children, people don’t realise that when they’re looking at very early invented text, it’s often the final sound that a child will record. But if you think about it logically, if they’re saying the word cat. The last sound that comes off their tongue is that T sound that becomes dominant. And so you’ll often see children who will record the final sounds, those final consonants. Then you’ll see the initial consonants come in. Vowels are always much harder. And of course, our language is, I mean, it’s easy to say we’ve got forty-four sounds and we’ve got twenty-six letters. But when you add dialects, there’s actually more sounds than the forty-four that we talk about when we’re talking about linguistics. Even just the other day I was talking to a young academic from another university and he was asking me some questions and I just said, where did you go to school? And he said, Oh, in Victoria. So I said, So you grew up with castles, not castles. And he said, yes. I said were they pasties or pasties. And he said, pasties. And we racked off a few others. Examples. You know we lived either side of the border, the New South Wales/Victorian border. But I grew up with castles and pasties he grew up with castles and pasties. So it’s that complexity, particularly for vowel sounds. You can really pick that up when you look at children’s writing. 

Tim Bullard: [00:26:32] So exploring that a bit further in terms of teaching or supporting children and young people to write well, what are your key messages to teachers about the teaching of writing? 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:26:45] I guess the first thing I’d like to do is to work with teachers to develop their own confidence in themselves as writers. Because if we go back to John Hattie’s work, it’s the teacher that makes the difference. No matter what area we’re talking about. And so if a teacher is a reluctant writer themselves, and it’s surprising how many people can get through high school feeling a lack of confidence in themselves as writers. They avoid writing. And so if they have been an avoider of writing themselves, it means that it’s very difficult for them to become confident teachers of writing. So my first process with teachers is to work with them on their own writing skills, and we do some processes that put them through the creation of a text for a particular audience and a particular purpose. And I love to do that collaboratively, to put adults together. Then I think it’s a case of understanding the writing process at all levels. In my work with Janet Scull from Monash, we focused particularly on the authorial and the secretarial or transcription elements of writing. In order to have a broad-brush approach to this complex process. So if we think about the authorial skills that teachers need to teach, it’s the text structures, because we have different structures for different purposes. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:28:16] A letter is very different to a report, which is again different to a reflection or a journal entry. Then we’ve got sentence structure. It’s really important for children to learn how to construct sentences that are grammatically correct. And so combining the text structure in the sentence structure to create cohesive texts. Then if we add vocabulary choices so that the precise message can be created. Not just a close enough message, we need vocabulary choices to help that explicit understanding of how to write something that’s unambiguous. That really gets my message across. Then we have the transcriptional or secretarial skills of the handwriting or keyboarding, whichever is appropriate. Spelling. Spellings a big-ticket item. And spell check does not get us out of that. The more we understand about words and how they’re created, the more power we have in the process. It’s very embarrassing for an undergrad to choose a word that they think looks right that has then changed the whole meaning of the text. And then, of course, punctuation. Which is totally reliant on sentence structure. You know, you don’t do punctuation in isolation. Punctuation and sentence structure come together. So I think there’s those elements. The notion of drafting, of developing something as a cohesive piece for a particular audience is something that children need to learn. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:29:54] The ability to take feedback, and learn from others is another skill we need to teach children. Now, your first draft, it might be fine for your note to your mate, about when to pick him up for hockey. But it’s not good enough for the report that you’re writing on a particular topic. So I think there’s a lot for teachers to teach. Writing is very complex. It’s messy. It’s often not as straightforward to teach as reading. And we have to also understand that I’ve never had a teacher say to me that they’re not a reader. But I’ve had lots of teachers say to me, I’m not a writer. And so if you think about that, I think teachers need some more help, more guidance and confidence-building in the notion of teaching writing. I’ve had many teachers tell me that if something falls off the timetable because of interruptions, it’s often writing. And when I say why, they say because it’s messy, it’s complex, it’s hard. I feel confident teaching reading. I don’t feel confident teaching writing. So I think we’ve got some work to do to support our teachers in the area of teaching writing. 

Tim Bullard: [00:31:12] I think that’s a really great reflection, especially around levels of confidence. And then how that translates into where people are willing to, or feel comfortable putting their energy and effort. So that’s certainly given me something to think about, Noella. So that really brings us to the end of our session on writing. And I’d just like to thank you again for a really fantastic episode. It’s not over yet, though, is it? We have another episode coming up focusing on reading and its links to literacy. And I’m really looking forward to spending some time exploring that with you next time. Thank you so much. 

Noella Mackenzie: [00:31:47] A pleasure. Thank you, Tim. 

Tim Bullard: [00:31:57] 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. 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. 

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