Tag Archives: writing

In The Name Of… (where freedom and abuse possibly cross)

Ever since I found this photo online (at Unsplash), it’s been on my mind. Is there a lot to like or a lot to hate about this photo? Ok, forgive that cheap and nasty dichotomy. Let me put it another way: how do you feel about this photo?  What are your first thoughts? What happens to these first thoughts when you take a closer look at them?

Is that potato with the red hair in the word ‘normal’ Donald Trump?

Girls just wanna have FUN, but do these youngsters want or even know the FUN that is being sung about in that particular song?

Viva the Vulva? Ok, my parents were shy. When I was the age of the girl holding that banner, I didn’t even know the word vulva or have a name at all for that part of my body that was always washed quickly and covered even more quickly.


I’m pretty sure that the words on the banners were not chosen by the girls themselves. What I’m not so sure about is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.


The questions I keep asking myself:

Can these girls read what they are holding up? Have the contents been explained to them? Who wrote these banners? What is the full context of this photo? What has been done for these (and other!) girls’ education regarding their sexual and civil rights? If these girls are not fully aware of what they are holding up, can it be argued that they are being abused?

Now, I know the good intentions being expressed here, but gosh, there’s something about this photo that makes me feel uncomfortable. What about you?

A Door Can Be Happy: thinking outside of the box and homeschooling with Catelynn

yellow door by Leung Cho Pan on Canva Untitled design

Is this door happy? image by Leung Cho Pan on Canva.com. I’m calling this: unlocking intelligence and creativity.


A few months back I met a woman after my own heart on Facebook. Mother and writer Elizabeth Ann West. Elizabeth decided to homeschool her autistic daughter, Catelynn, and to share this experience on Facebook. Although I am a researcher with years of experience, I am not qualified to make any comments regarding the development of an autistic child, yet there is a lot – and I mean a lot – which we all can learn from Catelynn and her mother. Thank you, Elizabeth, for granting me permission to share your experiences with my readers.


Here is Catelynn, engaged in a typical activity we are also familiar with in the classical classroom context:


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.49.24


What is it that Emily likes, we wonder? In our minds we select appropriate verbs (possibly also gendered activities…). Depending on the structure of the worksheet, we may perhaps even go further and add and object and even a location:

Emily likes to eat apples in the garden? Emily likes to skip in the playground?

There are so many things which Emily could like. What do you think Emily likes, Catelynn?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.15


That’s pretty original. But why not? This is a writing activity so Catelynn must write down her answer. And when she doesn’t know how to spell a word, she knows where she can get help:

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.23

The response to Catelynn’s ingenious answer is unanimously positive:


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.50.10


Why does an Emily swimming in a toilet catch us by surprise? It is a perfectly correct grammatical sentence that reveals to me the limits of my fantasy in comparison to the sheer boundless wealth of a child’s imagination. In between the act of naming things, everything is possible/thinkable. It is the act of pinning words to thoughts that force us to slice up our otherwise untamed imagination. And this reminds me of a quote by Derek Sivers I recently read: “What’s obvious to you is amazing to others.” Way to go, Catelynn!

I go online to see if Elizabeth’s available. She is.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Hi Elizabeth. I loved that post about Emily swimming in the toilet and I’d like to elaborate it a little for my education blog, if I may. A question: you said Catelynn looked up how to spell swim and toilet. Where did she look this up? In a traditional dictionary? Or an online dictionary? In either case, how much did you assist her in this?


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Hi Joan. She uses a picture dictionary. For her reading workbook the question was: “What cannot be happy?” A door? A bird? Children? and with a literal kiddo, she goes: “A Door can be happy if it’s a happy color, right Mommy? Like Yellow?” Another question was: “Where do ants want to live?” A door? A hill? A pond? and again, she’s just analyzing that at a much higher level than the book ever intended: “An ant would like to live in a door, it would be warm. And they like hills, and a pond would give them access to water.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Amazing!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   When you have a high-functioning autistic child it can be difficult to explain to them that the workbook is dumber than they are . . .

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That’s precisely what I was thinking!


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   or better phrasing: they are smarter than the person who wrote the workbook because their analytical skills are superior.  I asked her what does she think the person not as smart as her thinks the BEST answer is?

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   In my posts, I want to show how much we stand to learn from children like Catelynn.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she was able to pick “the boring” answers. I love the idea of a Happy door. That’s what I would name the post, “A Door Can Be Happy.”

But on the sad side of this, when she writes a word incorrectly before she erases she will hit herself on the head.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11  I love the element of surprise in just about everything I’ve witnessed about Catelynn so far. It leaves me feeling so humble.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Teaching a special needs child is wonderful, but it’s also very exhausting because they can manifest emotions in a physical expression that can hurt them.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   How do you manage to rechannel her frustration?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I have to sit right next to her and reach out before she hits and I stay calm and remind her it’s okay. We also read a book about our brains and learned that our brains grow when we make mistakes, not when we do things the right way the first time so I will remind her “mistakes make our brain smarter.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Why does she think hitting herself is an appropriate response? Did she witness anything like this when she used to go to school? How did the teachers react to ‘wrong’ answers? Or how did the other children react to ‘wrong’ answers?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   It’s from cartoons. It doesn’t HURT her to hit her head. She has a reduced feeling to pain.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Ah! Tom & Jerry and the like, I guess…

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she doesn’t develop social skills naturally so she copes by mimicking what she sees on TV and sometimes that works!!!! And other times, it’s explaining to her, no, you cannot do dangerous stunts and elimination challenges like on Total Drama.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I remember when you said she tried to crush a coca cola tin like on tv. Didn’t quite work!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   So her reaction when she makes even an audible mistake is a very dramatic close her eyes and pinch her face and slap it with her hand, like DOH, but even though we redirect, it’s something that is in our culture EVERYWHERE when you think about it… commercials… shows. So in her brain it’s the appropriate reaction to anything, even something as minor as saying “Mommy can we go to the playground, I mean the store, so we can get ice-cream?” Joan, gotta go. I have to get her to playgroup. Oh, and the visual dictionary is a great tool for kids because if they can hear the first letter, they can find the picture and spell it, it’s great for their writing independence.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That would be great, Elizabeth. Thank you SO much. Thank you BOTH so much!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I’m happy to help. More parents are in similar situations with me and maybe they don’t homeschool, but if they help with homework they should know they’re not alone, that with autistic children an assignment that takes a NT kid 5 minutes suddenly can turn into this 30-minute discussion about existential issues: Can a door be happy? How do we KNOW if a bird is happy? They can’t smile by the way.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I’m a great admirer of you both and am honoured to be able to share your experiences with my audience, Elizabeth. It’s so refreshing for me and I think it will be so motivating for others!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Thanks. Happy to help!


Chat conversation ends. Thoughts bubbling over in my mind. Definitely more about Catelynn to follow.



Knowing vs Doing: preschool perspectives on literacy

asking eleanor edit 2

‘a card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like.’ Finding out what 5-year-olds think about writing (and of course, writing it down!)


Here I am, with the aid of a self-designed questionnaire, attempting to get closer to preschooler perspectives on literacy. What will I discover?

Assimilation and appropriation: closed questions

As a first step, the children (five-year-olds from a bilingual (French-German) nursery school in Alsace, North-East France) answered a series of closed questions. Their answers make it immediately clear that they have already begun to appropriate semiotic representations (i.e. signs and their significance):

Q1: Do you know how to write? Yes = 15  No = 7

Q2: Can you write your name? Yes = 22  No = 0

Q3: can you write other letter which are not part of your name? Yes = 22  No = 0

Q4: Do you write at home? Yes = 14  No = 6

Q5: Do your parents practise writing with you at home? Yes = 5  No = 17

Q6: Do you keep all the writing you do at home? Yes = 0  No = 19  Some = 2

Assimilation and appropriation: open-ended questions

Closed questions were followed by open-ended questions, not only yielding answers which are less binary, but also allowing the children to give more than one response:

Q7: What do you write at home? I copy things = 17,  Words = 10, The letters I know = 9, Names = 6, Whatever I want to = 3, Stories = 3, Rubbish = 1

Q8: Which languages do you write in at home? French = 19, French and German = 3

Q9: What do you use when you’re writing at home? Paper = 22, Crayons = 12, Pencil = 10, Pen = 8, Felt tips = 6, Learner’s book = 3, Exercise book = 2, Mum’s things = 1

writing nicely A

practising the letter A according to the French handwriting model

writing nicely D and F

practising the letters D and F according to the French handwriting model

Interpreting assimilation and appropriation

These answers are already beginning to tell a story. They tell of a discrepancy between knowing and doing, for although seven children declare that they are unable to write (Q1), all twenty-two children can write their own name (Q2) and other letters of the alphabet (Q3). One possible explanation could be that the children and I mean different things by the term ‘writing’. Maybe they assume I mean the conventional model they are all being initiated into at school (and some at home) – a model  they do not yet master –  so that they are not ready to say that they can write, though they can (if writing means sign-making with recognizable communicative intentions). The children’s responses seem to suggest that the children see themselves as becoming, not being, thus as apprentices, rather than as practitioners.

The majority (77%) declare that their parents do not help them to write (Q5). We nonetheless have five responses to Q7 which allude to the use of books aimed at structuring literacy acquisition. Are we witnessing children who actively seek to get inside the world of print and make writing their own? How reliable are children as a source of information on their own development? The responses gathered here will be cross-checked by other means in order to reinforce, or rectify, these first impressions.

The open-ended questions (Q7-9) throw light on the notions the children harbour about what constitutes writing. Whilst several responses reveal the child’s awareness and ability to be explicit about certain forms or characteristics of writing, such as words, the letters I know, names or stories, the most frequent response remains vague : I copy things. It seems that the children are engaged in an activity which they are not yet able to explicitly verbalise, so that, once again, the discrepancy between knowing and doing is made apparent. One response, ‘whatever I want’, underlines a central difference to writing performed at school, notably the greater control children enjoy at home over their actions. Another response, describing the writing done at home as rubbish, clearly disqualifies the home environment as a valuable learning site. My immediate reaction is to wonder whether this child is simply repeating the response of a dismissive parent or sibling. I hope not!

No child claims to write in a language other than the school languages, i.e. French and German, with the vast majority of children, despite three years of bilingual education, choosing to write only in French (Q8). This is perhaps due to the children’s predominantly monolingual Francophone background. Institutional bilingualism, clearly, does not infiltrate the children’s domestic writing.

General recognition and family practice

A further set of open-ended questions shift our focus from the children’s own writing practice to their more general appreciation of the concept of writing, their general awareness of the presence of print and their awareness of literate behaviour within their own families:

Q10: What is writing? Words = 10, What you learn at school = 6, In books = 3, Letters, abc etc = 2, Don’t know = 1

Q11: Where can you see writing in your house? On pages = 8, On a birthday card = 6, Don’t know = 5, In books = 4, In the kitchen = 2, On the ABC wall-chart = 1,  In the study = 1, In a newspaper = 1

Q12: Where can you see writing elsewhere when you’re not at home? At school = 9, Don’t know = 8, On shops = 6, On street signs = 3, In books = 1, On walls and trees = 1

Q13: Do you ever see other people in your family writing at home? No-one = 11, Older siblings = 7, Mum = 5, Dad = 1

There is a lot to explore there and I’ll let you do that on your own for the large part. As always, if you would like to share your observations, I’d love to hear from you. What I would like to do, though, is dwell on the children’s awareness of their own abilities. Not wishing to pathologize children’s answers, I notice all the same how frequently don’t know is given as a response. When a child says don’t know, and although it is incumbent upon us as researchers to take each response as authentic, we should not altogether exclude the possibility that don’t know might also mean can’t explain for young children unaccustomed to having to make explicit such forms of knowledge. Ask yourselves how well you, even as adults, are able to put into words for the first time something you have never given thought to before. Far from easy!

Feelings towards literacy

Whereas French curricular guidelines are quite explicit about attainment levels even from the nursery school years, barely giving mention to the correlation between emotion and cognition, the German syllabus employed at the school involved repeatedly underlines the importance of harnessing learners’ emotional access to the world of print. A section of the questionnaire, thus, sought to illuminate the feelings the children associated with literacy acquisition:

Q14: Do you like writing? Yes = 16, A little = 3, Don’t know = 2, No = 1

Q15: Can you tell me why you (don’t) like writing? Don’t know = 7, To go to CP (i.e. Year 1) = 4, To write my name for school = 3, To learn to read = 2, Because I like writing loops/letters = 2, To read to my dolls = 1, Because it’s easy = 1, Because I’ve got books at home to practise = 1, Because it’s boring. I prefer to play = 1

Many explanations are inward-looking, involving the child as an isolate, but there is also recognition of the emotional reward in using writing to look ‘outward’ in order to interact with others (read to dolls). Given that the children are only just beginning to write complete words at this stage of their development, a central function of their writing, certainly at school, but possibly also at home, as my primary data suggests, is, for the time being, to get it right. This does not mean that their writing involves ‘non events’, as one researcher remarks, for the wish to get it right does not, in my opinion, impede children from investing their texts with social meaning. These children do not approach the task of literacy acquisition and practice with indifference and we have evidence of their reflections on what literacy is, what counts and what it might be good for. What is and what counts are, however, not synonymous, for you can stop counting whenever you like. What counts is, essentially, always a choice; the result of a sub/conscious selection of criteria to the effect of marginalizing, if not excluding, other forms of the same phenomenon. A very strong message being transmitted by the children’s answers to the questionnaire and despite their sensitivity to and engagement with print in their everyday lives (even a poster pinned to a tree does not go unnoticed) is that literacy is something you learn at and for school.

I want to know more:

Q17: Why do you think you learn to write? For school = 7, Don’t know = 7, To write words = 1, Because I like it = 1, To give letters = 1, Because mum says = 1, Because it’s good = 1

Q18: Do you know what a letter is? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q19: Can you tell me what the difference is between a letter and a book? Don’t know = 18, Letters have stamps = 1, A letter is written, a book is not = 1, Letters are sent = 1, Books are read or played with = 1, A letter is not a story = 1

Q20: Can you tell me what the difference is between a letter and a card? Don’t know = 10, You get cards for your birthday = 7, Cards have pictures = 4, A card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like = 1

Q21: Imagine that you have just written a letter to a friend. What do you have to do so that your friend gets the letter? Give it to mum = 9, Give it to him/her = 6, Put it in the letterbox = 3, Know the address = 2, Wait = 1, Don’t know = 1

Q22: Has anyone ever written you a letter? Yes = 2, No = 20

Q23: Have you ever received a card? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q24: Have you ever written a letter? Yes = 1, No = 21

Q25: Have you ever made or written a card? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q26: If you have ever received a letter or a card, did you try to read it yourself? Yes = 19, No = 3

Q27: Did you ask someone to read it to you? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q28: Did you write back? Yes = 0, No = 22, Said thank you = 13

My primary data had already indicated children’s early awareness of letters, books and greeting cards.The questionnaire would help me to see if my earlier results could be confirmed. All the children know what a letter is (Q18), even though the vast majority had never written one (Q24). Books are familiar to the children in both the scholastic and domestic contexts, each introducing the children to different content and interactional styles so that the description of a book as a story or as something you can play with strongly invites the interpretation that the children who provide these responses have storybooks and the domestic context in mind.

A number of responses reveal certain children’s sensitivity to the differing properties of books, letters and cards, although many are unable to explain what distinguishes the one from the other (Q19, Q20). The potential confusion in English between a letter as a semiotic sign, e.g. abc, and a letter as a written communication, i.e. as mail, is obviated in French, the language in which the questionnaire was conducted, for in French, the two terms are not the same: lettre for the former, courrier for the latter.

pia letterbox 2004

A letterbox

A number of responses to Q19, Q20 and Q21 demonstrate an understanding not only of the inherent properties of letters, books and cards, but also of their appropriate social contexts. Letters have stamps and are sent. You put letters in a letterbox, but to do this, you first need to know the address of the recipient. You can play with books (e.g. electronic or interactive books). Books tell a story. You receive cards for your birthday. Cards have pictures. ‘A card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like’.

By writing or making a card, be it a birthday card, a Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Christmas, friendship card or otherwise, the child is actively involved in a literacy-based interaction. This action is also social, or peopled, extending beyond a child’s solitary use of a social semiotic tool and encompassing other social actors, helpers and recipients. Further data confirms that children would much rather make a card, and may spend considerable time in doing so, than write a message in a ready-bought one. The fact that children receive more cards than letters might well provide the motivation for them to also write more cards than letters.

The overwhelming majority of the children (86%) try to read such cards themselves (Q26). All, however, ask someone else to read the card to them. This would imply that all the children still need assistance, even if only to have their understanding confirmed. In so doing, they exhibit their awareness of the limits of their knowledge, actively initiate the help needed and transform the reading act into a collaborative activity.

None of the children write back (Q28). One possible explanation could be because some feel they cannot write well enough (Q1). This uncertainty might be attributable to the fact that they have picked up on their status as non-writers, as a year long of being told, in the Grande Section, that they are learning to write, might reinforce.

In a nutshell

The questionnaire permits a new take on the notion of literacy as a zone of promoted activity, a zone as seen from the child’s perspective. I discover that the 5-year-olds concerned exhibit knowledge of literacy as ‘peopled’ activity in a wider social context, sensitive to the sites, functions, materials and audiences involved.

All the children are literate. Their writing is invested with intention, despite an apparent uncertainty their statements imply about the children’s status as writers.

The children know a lot about literacy, possibly more than they are able to explain. Nor do they wait to enter the classroom to be taught about literacy, but are ‘ready’ and active beyond institutional literacy transmission. Literacy at home, however, certainly seems to be less important to the children than literacy at school, with few children keeping what they write, and conflicting statements being made about the purposes of literacy, which are mainly coupled with the scholastic context in the minds of the five-year-olds. The implicit character of literacy practice and discourse at home means that its messages and influence on shaping children’s learning and practice remain on the margins of the children’s awareness, not only making it difficult for children to talk explicitly about domestic practice, but also possibly undermining children’s appreciation of the home as a valuable learning environment.

Questionnaires are a bit like building a house: you would never do it the same the second time round. Even when I’m off duty, I catch myself fretting over the quality of my questionnaire and keeping an eye out for better ‘data’. It’s amazing what you can stumble across, not only in the form of written texts but also as dialogue (impossible to capture accurately though paraphrasing may also be sufficient). It all depends on what/whom, where, when, how and why you are observing. I’m sure I’ve overlooked material because I simply failed to register it as important or provide adequate means of data collection and analysis. Discrepancies between knowing and doing affect us all. Thanks for the insights, children! Let’s close this entry with your comments, not mine:





Writing: energy taking shape

TEXT ONE: I give you my heart. (4yrs. This child speaks fluent German, Luxembourgish, a little French, a few words of English, and fluent Swedish)

AUTHORING: Children become authors when they indicate that they have created a message with the intention to communicate, or at least that they understand that their marks might be meaningful to others if their audience knows how to interpret them. (Rowe, in Hall et al, 2003:259)

girl in love

TEXT TWO: girl in love (5yrs 10m)

WRITING: Writing now plays one part in communicational ensembles, and no longer the part. (Kress, 2003)

drawing or writing

TEXT THREE: birds, or birds and numbers? (4yrs, 6m)

MEANING: the complex interactions of intentions, content and form (Goodman & Wilde, 1992)

italics play 5yrs 5m

TEXT FOUR: 5yrs 5m

SIGN: something that stands for something to somebody  (van Lier, 2004)

clothes signature bathroom


PERFORMANCE: refers not simply to language use but also to the creative construction of self and others (…) distinction between representational knowledge and language use (Pavlenko, 2005)

In her book, Fluid Arguments (2005), the Canadian writer, Nicole Brossard, speaks of writing as ‘energy taking shape in language’. I see what she means and I go along with her. A particularity of all the texts presented in this blogpost, however, is that the language being displayed is not what we traditionally understand as language (French, German, English etc.) although it would be fair to assume that such conventional language practice, in the form of internal thought, may well have accompanied the production of these texts. Nor is it simply the case that the child isn’t writing ‘traditionally’ because s/he is not yet able to. Children around this age most certainly are, as I have proven elsewhere.

Brossard’s definition of writing as ‘energy taking shape’, therefore, invites us to be more open-minded regarding what writing is/n’t. I could even modify her definition and describe writing as energy having taken shape; it’s there, fixed, the writer has selected its shape and that’s how it’ll remain. On a different level, though, I can’t fail to see these texts as immensely dynamic; look at those two hands literally pushing that heart towards you in the first text. Or the fluidity of the pen-strokes in the fourth text, where they pirouette and dip gleefully, occasionally winking at us with signs/letters we believe we recognize (an o, a v…). I remember the heated discussions with fellow researchers, as with my tutors, over the nature of Text Five. I’ll stick to my guns; it’s not mere drawing. And it’s not static either. If you initially thought any of these texts were not writing (as a form of language), take another look and see if you still agree.

Staying alive: mother-tongue maintenance abroad

How can you help your children to keep their native language alive when they are born abroad and spend little time with mum and dad? An English family living in Luxembourg tells me one way they go about it.

When Eleanor was five so she was between the two Spillschoul years
00055 Erm, I got a, I arranged for a teacher to come across from England, who lived with us for a month in the big summer holidays
Erm, we ran an English summer school (laughs)
00056 That is what she was telling me about, Lucy?
That’s right, summer school Lucy! (laughs)
Right, right! And her cousins attended as well, it was in Henley
No, it was here, but she-
Lives, she comes from near Henley
00057 Oh, right, okay okay
So she lives in the vicinity of my family
Right, right
In England
And I think she’s even taught once at the school where her cous- Eleanor’s
00058 Cousins, erm, go to school, which is the Oratory, and, that was a, for Eleanor, that was a fantastic success that month when Lucy was here. I got together
00059 Eleanor plus another five native English speakers attending Luxembourgish schools, who, five of them, I think we within 6 months of age and one as a little bit younger and
00060 She went through, every day, a couple of English phonics with them and really tired to get them enthusiastic about reading and writing in English, and for some reason
00061 Eleanor was just at the exactly it was it came at exactly the right point for her and you could really see how her English blossomed over over that month it was wonderful

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 2

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 3

Okay. Erm, actually I’m gong to pick your brain because you could give me some
00077 Information that I haven’t yet collected. Can you tell me how, erm, Luxembourgish Spillschoul, how that functions. What do the children do? Do they really mainly play or do they, are they…
00078 Generally introduced into the world of print? Do they have writing activities and so on, erm, or is it
I think I can get you, erm, the folder in a minute
Oh alright
Of her of
00079 That she did. I would say it’s more pencil control
That they do during that time. I think the older ones, they do their letters
00080 As well they I think they do some elements of letters, phonics and sounds, but it’s, it’s quite basic. I would say the, especially of the 5-6 year olds
00081 Erm, that it’s not as fast as you would expect for that age group in the UK. But for me that was fine. It meant that I really felt as if I had this window of opportunity
00082 Especially with Eleanor being so motivated, to focus on establishing her reading English and writing English before she was getting the German so that that
00083 I felt that was and ad- a delay that I could use to our advantage
Right, right, right

from my fieldnotes: language maintenance when living abroad.

Classroom literacy (2): The First Days

Twenty-two children learning to read and write in French and German in Year One (in Alsace) and trying to work out for themselves what these skills might be good for. Two teachers – Sandrine for French and Ingrid for German –  charged with the task of transmitting these skills effectively. I continue my series of narrative snapshots, hopefully getting across some of the excitement and the character of typical classroom interactions. What would you say is the main difference between the German and French teaching styles presented here?

Snapshot #2: First Day in French

Twitter. Twitter.

Look at my new shoes. You’ve cut your hair. Where did you go on holiday? I like your new satchel, grandma bought mine can you already read a little I can, I’ve been practising in the holidays. With mum. Oh no, she wants to take even more pictures of me (deep sigh yet inwardly pleased). (Sarah)

Parents mill around in the school courtyard. Bright flowers. Bright smiles. Yes, they do grow up so quickly, don’t they? In no time they’ll be…

From now on we are not allowed to enter the school grounds, but must await our knowledge-hungry offspring at the school gate, today being an exception. Today being their Big Day. Ten to eight. Time to leave.

Oh I wish she wouldn’t wave at me like that I’m not a baby anymore. (Daniel)

Real school. New room. New layout. Tables no longer clustered like honeycomb the children would weave their way through and clamber over to snatch something from a classmate before the teacher intervened with a stern voice. In real school the tables are lined up like pencils on their sides: one, two, three, four rows, every face to the teacher. In real school you don’t hang your coats up in the classroom like the little ones do, but leave them outside on a hook with your slipper bag. And you keep your things in that compartment under your desk…

Who’re you gonna sit next to? D’you think we can choose? I hope I won’t be right at the back. (Marie)

Please don’t put me next to Thibault if I have to sit next to him I’m gonna throw up. (Elise)

We can’t all sit together anymore they’ll probably move us around like they did last year. If you sit at the front you’re the teacher’s pet. (Sophie)

N’importe quoi! (what a load of rubbish!) (Dimitri)

Belt up! Who’s talking to you, anyway? (Marie)

D’you reckon we get to come and write on the whiteboard? (Elise)

The walls are as bare as the new books now being taken from the satchels and purchased in strict accordance with the list handed out to the parents at the end of the preceding school year. Every book, every pencil, rubber and sharpener, every pair of scissors bears the child’s name. Hours of writing, sticking, of calming down excited children implored to write their names neatly (unless you opt for just initials in capitals or for using a pc) have gone into the preparation of this big day, their first celebration beyond the intimacy of home – their first public celebration of the public Self. The classroom looks, smells squeaky clean, thanks to the investment of a cohort of mothers in the run-up to school. The naked walls, like their exercise books (like their supposed minds???) shall soon be clothed with common knowledge.

The children – erratum – the pupils may in fact choose their own seats, the noise level necessarily rising, yet the teacher is generous with her patience. For today. The register is then taken. They all know the routine. The pile of new books, stacked on the teacher’s desk like so many plates in the canteen, now ladled out to the children, row after row. These books, that is what today, what the rest of their time in these rooms, is all about…

Sandrine: Bien. Et maintenant, au travail. (Right, now let’s get down to work)

The first morning includes activities like these:

Activity 1:

The course book is handed out: Mika CP. The key figure, Mika, is a little girl, whose adventures with a wolf provide the narrative context for the reading exercises. On the front cover, the book is described as ‘méthode interactive d´apprentissage de la lecture’ and further as ‘cycles des apprentissages fondamentaux’ (i.e. as ‘an interactive method for learning to read’, and as ‘a basic training course’). From the back cover we learn that Mika will accompany us through our first year at school, that we will read our first story (broken down into 10 episodes) and that the book contains numerous exercises to help us understand how the written language works: ‘le fonctionnement de la langue écrite’.

We turn the first page. Sandrine distributes a sheet with a text on it to each child. She reads:

‘The start of school. Today, it’s the start of school (la rentrée). For you, it’s your big day. You are now in Year One. Real school’.

The pupils are asked to identify and underline in yellow a number of words in the text: La, jour, entrez, m’appelle, amie, votre maîtresse. Other words: jeudi 5 septembre, c´est la rentrée des classes, pour, au CP, à la grande école, bonjour je suis, are to be underlined in red. At the bottom of the same sheet, four words are encased in the following order: Mika – je – Bonjour! – m’appelle. The text is cut out and pasted into the classbook. The pupils must now cut out the four jumbled words in order to reconstitute the sentence ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mika’ in the allocated speech bubble:

je m'appelle MIKA

Sandrine goes from pupil to pupil, checking the answer before stamping the date into the pupil’s exercise book. Those who have finished may browse through the book whilst they wait for the others.

Activity 2:

Sandrine distributes a sheet featuring the underlined words from the previous activity. The red words form ‘The start of school’ form one group. The yellow words form another group.

Whilst the pupils are busy cutting out the words, she writes the same words on sheets of A4, using the standardised writing model. When she reads these words out loud to the class, she holds them beneath her chin: “what does this say?” Some pupils shout out the answer and are reproached with a stern look. She chooses a pupil who has put his hand up. His answer is correct. ‘Good!’ Sandrine praises, before she repeats the answer, then pins the word on the wall next to the whiteboard. If no-one is able to read the word, Sandrine gets the pupils to identify each of the letters in the word before she says the word slowly, running her finger along the letters as she pronounces them. Then she invites the pupils to pronounce the word a number of times:

je m’appelle…

je m’appelle…

je mappelle.

       (short short  l o n g…)

Activity 3:

The pupils must now write their names according to the French italic writing model they’e been practising since Reception Class/Grande Section. The children are eager and complete the task without any difficulty. Sandrine, sitting on her desk, asks intermittently: “finished?”

For homework:

  1. learn to recognise the words from the yellow group.
  2. draw a picture of yourself and your teacher.
  3. colour in the picture at the front of the book (children outside the school-gate, keen to start their first day of real school).

Very little talk all morning apart from Sandrine’s instructions and the pupil’s answers. During the cutting out activity, the noise level rises slightly. The pupils seem eager to work hard. Above all, they must work individually. I comment on the solitary nature of the morning’s activities. Sandrine informs me that after the break, the pupils can work in pairs with their word cards.

Snapshot #3: First Day in German

(as the children have a whole day in a single language, their first day in German is in fact the second day of school)

The children enter the grounds accompanied by their parents, laden with bags or boxes filled with the year’s materials and which they deposit near the teacher’s desk. Some children are accompanied by a larger cluster of adults, a number having come from far afield to be there on this big day. Grandparents have come along, too, and who might the others be? They’re the aunties, uncles, godparents of the native German-speaking pupils, and they take snapshots of the new first-grader who poses proudly with satchel and Schultüte, an enormous cone filled with sweeties and school-related objects, as every real German first-grader knows all too well.

Once the excitement recedes, overtaken by the rev of engines reversing out the car park, Ingrid, having rallied the pupils around her and whilst still waiting for all the other pupils to enter the building, clears her throat:

“So, dear children, welcome back to school. Welcome to Year One (die erste Klasse). I’m sure you all had a wonderful summer. And I’m sure we’ll all have a wonderful time learning to read and write in Year One. In Germany, the start of Year One is an important day for every boy and girl and it is celebrated. For each of you, I have a Schultüte, like in Germany. I shall take a photo of you with your Schultüte and you can give this photo to your parents. Or stick it in your photo album if you’ve got your own one already.”

The pupils are called forward in alphabetical order. Ingrid takes a photo and the pupil may then enter the classroom and sit down (same seating arrangements as for French).

Typical activities for German:

i) Look at your schoolbag carefully and draw it on the paper (Betrachte deine Schultasche ganz genau und zeichne sie dann auf das Papier!



ii) My Schultüte


Who has never seen a Schultüte before, Ingrid wants to know. Some pupils turn round to see how the others respond. “I’ve seen some in the supermarket,” proffers one pupil. Others agree. Someone comments “mais ce n’est pas la même!” (They’re not the same!). No, Ingrid agrees, those ones are not the same. They’re too small, they’re for anyone, and they have nothing to do with school. The pupils must draw their Schultüte, either the one Ingrid gave them that morning, or else the one they received from their parents/family. At the end of this activity, Ingrid passes round a picture of herself on her first day of Year One, bright-eyed, knobbly-kneed and holding an enormous Schultüte. The pupils are fascinated. Laugh. Ask questions. Ingrid says she remembers exactly her first day of school. And the name of her teacher. More questions. Genuine interest. Ingrid laughs. “Ok, let’s get back to work.”

III) wir halten Ordnung! (we keep the place tidy!)



Ingrid solicits from the class what they see in each of the eight pictures. One set of pictures shows a tidy classroom, the other set, a messy one. She asks which picture is the better one and why. Some hands are raised. Other pupils just say what they think. Ingrid recapitulates a few responses: because it’s nicer to work in a tidy area. Because it’s less dangerous for yourself and others. Because it makes things easier to find. The pupils must follow the instructions concerning the school desk, the waste paper bin, the coat pegs and the tables and chairs: Male die richtigen Bilder bunt aus! (colour the correct pictures brightly).

Iv) so spielen wir miteinander (this is how we play together). Wir gehen vorsichtig mit unseren Spielen um! (we handle our toys carefully!), Wir streiten nicht! (We don’t fight!), Wir räumen unsere Spiele auf! (We tidy away our toys!).



v) school materials



Now that these worksheets have set the social climate for the classroom, Ingrid turns to the course material: negotiating space in the run-up to writing:



and, of course, now that we’re at real school, there’s homework:

nino ninaGerman HWK










At the end of this learning block, Ingrid secures the attention of her class by asking them to look her way. She introduces the Kummerkasten, or complaints box. A big box with a slit in the lid, which she holds chest high as she faces the class. If the pupils have anything they’re unhappy with, they can write a note and put it in the box. Spelling is unimportant because it’s not a test. She will look in the box once a week and she will always get their meaning, Ingrid promises. The notes can be anonymous or signed and Ingrid assures them that their comments will be read and taken seriously: ” It’s a box for you, so use it whenever you are ready to.”

‘Don’t forget!’

She gives the box a shake, places it on a table near her desk.

Morning break.