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Keeping it real...

Young people

A research project with four FE colleges shows that students prefer reading and writing that is shared, has a purpose and a clear audience, and gives them an active role. Researcher Candice Satchwell shows how teachers and lecturers can use this information to improve learning.

While the discussion about students and literacy, particularly in further education, is often negative, with a focus on what they don't or can't do, students actually do engage in all kinds of reading and writing outside school or college.

During a typical day, an average student may listen to a podcast on an MP3 player, update a blog and look up information on the web. She or he most likely will send any number of texts and may correspond with several friends simultaneously through a chat room or instant messaging.

Perhaps, then, the real issue is that the type of reading and writing required by their courses is often very different to their everyday experience. As students go to school or college they are often expected to leave behind their own preferred ways of reading and writing (or 'literary practices') for more 'academic' pursuits.

Our research suggests that if students' own preferences are taken on board, it can enhance their learning.

Through the Literacies for Learning in Further Education project, colleagues and I have been talking to 100 students in four colleges - two in England and two in Scotland - about the reading and writing they do in their everyday lives.

The students were of all ages, although mainly 16-19, on courses including child care, painting and decorating, catering, history, and science.

We have found that they read novels, magazines, newspapers, journals, web pages, computer games instructions, both on computer screens and on paper; they write diaries, song lyrics, text messages, emails, blogs, and websites. Often their tutors have no idea of the extent of their students' everyday reading and writing activities.

Students' preference

By talking to students in depth about how they read and write, we found a number of characteristics that seem to help explain why most students prefer these methods. Students' everyday reading and writing tends to be:

  • Shared: often collaborating with others physically or virtually

  • Purposeful

  • With a clear audience

  • Self-determined: a choice of activity, time and place

  • Multi-media: involving variety and a combination of paper and electronic media

  • Multi-modal: including a variety of language, symbols, pictures, colour and sound

  • Non-linear: with complex, varied reading paths

  • Generative: involving meaning-making, creativity

  • Agentic: having an active role for the person

In contrast to the variety in students' daily lives, we found that the reading and writing on their college courses tend to be relatively restricted, with a particular focus on assessment.

Students are expected to take down notes from whiteboards or PowerPoint presentations, to read handouts and textbooks, to write essays and reports, and complete log books.

On lower-level courses in particular, students also make leaflets, pamphlets or posters, often in an attempt to make the content more 'interesting'.

As it happens, this can mean that students on lower-level courses engage with a wider variety of literary practices than those on higher level courses, where the reading and writing is restricted to more 'academic' types.

On the whole, the reading and writing required on courses, particularly for assessment, do not resonate with those in students' everyday lives. 

Bridging the gap

After collecting information about the different kinds of literacy practices, the tutors involved with us in the project began to try out changes in practice.

These changes connected to what they had come to know about their students' everyday lives. Each change in practice was situated in time and place, according to the particular students, the subject and level of the course and the future held out by the course - for example leading to higher education or a particular job.

Having analysed a number of these scenarios and their outcomes, we found that two broad principles emerged.

First, when classroom and assessment activities incorporate modes of reading and writing that resonate with students' everyday lives, they are more likely to lead to learning.

Naturally, pedagogic literacy practices do not have to be exactly the same as students' everyday lives: if they were, they might not lead to much learning. A little 'dissonance' is necessary for learning to take place. However, there is often dissonance in the content of the reading and writing, so the more consonance in other aspects with students' everyday lives, the better.

The second broad principle is that there are five key factors which seem to underlie successful changes in practice. There are as follows.

Contextualisation: It is important that classroom reading and writing are meaningful for students. A catering student is more likely to learn how to write a menu when it is for a real audience and an identifiable purpose.

Identification: A 17-year-old student may identify strongly with a particular kind of music or dress, and therefore with the literacy practices associated with it: reading or writing song lyrics, writing web pages, communicating with a particular group of people by MSN Messenger. If a student can identify with the future - real or imagined - held out by a course, there is more chance of them engaging with the material.

Situating reading and writing in 'doing': Our research showed that students who are actively involved in creating something and making meaning enjoy their activities more and learn more from them. For example, students making their own handouts or booklets based on their understanding of concepts and ideas were more likely to remember the content than those given reading matter from a third party.

Sociability: In everyday life, students' reading and writing is often about maintaining relationships, and this happens in pairs or groups. For coursework, in and out of the classroom, many students reported a positive effect from opportunities to talk about texts, to collaborate on reading and writing and to interact with others, such as producing an exhibition or a presentation.

Conceptualising learning as 'design': A music production course we researched required students to produce their own biographies to fulfil one of the criteria relating to marketing. As a change, the tutor allowed the students to create them using whatever technology or media they chose. Several students chose to use the web, linking to video and sound clips.

Moving forward

Teachers and tutors wishing to build on this project might begin by considering the nature of the reading and writing they expect students to do. This will include identifying what the content is, who the students are doing it with and for whom, when, for how long, with what tools or artefacts, and for what purposes.

If the answers to these questions are unclear or are noticeably dissonant with students' everyday reading and writing, even small changes to one or more dimensions can make a big difference to students' experience.

By also taking into account contextualisation, identification, sociability, situating reading and writing in 'doing', and conceptualising learning as design, these changes can significantly enhance the creation of learning opportunities in the classroom.

Dr Candice Satchwell works with the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University.

Travel and tourism

Context: We looked at students aged 17-18 on a Travel and Tourism level 3 course at a college in the north-west. Outside class, students communicated with their friends by texting and MSN Messenger. On the whole they preferred to watch films or DVDs rather than read novels, but this was not true for all. They read magazines and used the internet to find information on music, clothes and other interests. They liked to work in pairs or groups, and preferred talking to writing. They said they preferred "active stuff" and visual work - not "just black and white". Most students envisaged a future working in the tourism industry.

Problem identified: The students found writing assignments boring and repetitive. They were required to write several assignments to fulfil specific requirements from the awarding body, and assignments took the form of reports or essays.

Action: Although the content of the course was specified, it was possible for assessments to be presented in different ways. The tutor decided that she would give them a choice of producing a PowerPoint presentation, an exhibition or a report.

Outcome: Although the students had said they preferred talking to writing and they did not like writing extended texts, for their presentations and exhibitions they still produced slides, posters and leaflets with substantial amounts of text, and wrote scripts or copious notes for themselves. 

The students we spoke to all preferred producing a PowerPoint to writing an essay, seeing it as "more visual" and "less boring". Producing materials for an exhibition also meant they could be creative and display their work to an invited audience. When it became part and parcel of an activity that chimed with their own sense of identity, the purpose was clearer and they were more fully engaged.

In practice: Making a difference to learning

Hospitality Context: A second group we visited was an HNC Hospitality class at a college in Perth, Scotland studying a unit on food hygiene. The students were a mix of male and female, aged 16 to 56. Most of them worked in the hospitality industry and therefore read recipes, menus and charts in their work. The wide age range meant that their literacy practices were quite diverse, and some students felt less comfortable using technology.

Problem identified: The unit on food hygiene had always been considered boring by students and they found it difficult to engage with the topic.

Action: The tutor decided to have students produce booklets on the sorts of bacteria that exist in a kitchen and how to manage and control them. Taking this one step further, students designed their own kitchens around food hygiene principles with cleaning plans written to accompany them. The students could do this by hand or using a computer and were allowed a considerable degree of freedom in terms of design. 

Outcome: The students produced a wide range booklets. They used the information from their text book, but put the rules into their own words and format so that they could be easily understood and remembered. Some of the booklets were aimed at training junior chefs, hence they had a real purpose and audience. The kitchen plans were also varied; some used the computer to construct them and others not. The students found the information much easier to remember having presented it in their own ways. Some particularly found that the use of colour helped them to remember.

A DVD and CD-ROM resource from the Literacies for Learning project is available for CPD purposes. To receive a copy, please send your name and address to Marie Ashman at m.ashman@
or the Literacy Research Centre, Lancaster University, Bailrigg, Lancaster, LA1 4YT.

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