More ‘signs in cities’ – returning to Prenzlauer Berg

Last Friday, I spent a day walking through the neighbourhood that was the site of my research on linguistic landscapes (LL) in 2010/11.

Walking through the same streets again – which I had visited last in 2012 – I looked for what had or hadn’t changed in the area’s LL. I also tried to find the shops and cafes whose owners I had interviewed. Luckily, most were still there. I also wanted to know whether English was still as strongly present as it had been in 2011/12. Indeed, it was, maybe even more than I remembered it. German outdoor advertising seems to be full of English words and slogans. Here are two examples of new signs I found:

little shop of flowersPure properties Helmholtzplatz

‘Pure’ is a property agent. I looked at the offers in their window: large flats, renovated lofts, town houses, etc., all (to rent or buy). Prices seemed high, at least for Berlin’s standards.

When I carried out my original study, gentrification was the issue I found most interesting. Then and now, the effects of gentrification are clearly reflected in the linguistic landscape, in particular in the prevalence of commercial signs. These are mostly signs of cafes, bars, restaurants, and what I would think of as luxury shops: boutiques, gifts shops, delicatessen, organic stores, etc.

Returning to the area last week, I am still amazed by the way this part of Berlin has come to represent a lifestyle and culture that are strongly connected with commercialisation. Of course, other parts of the city are not all that different. Just that P-Berg seems pretty posh to me these days! The flats on offer in Pure’s window certainly were at the high end of Berlin rents and property prices. Affordable housing  and rent control, I have been reading in the local papers, remains a much debated issue.

So I walked through the Kiez (the neighbourhood) to see if I could find any signs of gentrification still being contested. My  impression was though that this part of Berlin is now firmly in the hands of the gentrifiers – and not the first generation of gentrifiers probably. It is also known as an area where many foreigners live, Brits, Americans, French…. So I wasn’t all that surprised not to find any signs of opposition to the changes. In 2010/11 some of these were still part of the LL: slogans asking property speculators to leave the area, graffiti placed on newly painted facades, posters inviting residents whose rents had been increased to seek support and advice from a local advice group.

My path led me to Dunckerstrasse and to the ‘Kiezladen’ that I remembered from 2010. It had been – and still is – a ‘Nachbarschaftsladen’ – a small community centre, offering among other things legal advice to tenants. The Kiezladen is still there:kiezladen bleibt

The banner ‘Kiezladen bleibt’ (Kiezladen stays) invites residents to join a campaign to save this self-organised local advice centre. For 20 years, it had received financial support from the local district. This was ended in April 2015 and the centre now has to pay a monthly rent of 1000 Euros for their premises.

‘Kiezladen bleibt’ – the choice of the verb ‘bleiben’ (stay)  is no doubt a recontextualisation of the old anti-gentrification slogan used in the 1990s by local activists who protested again increased rents and buildings being sold to speculators. The prominent slogan and logo ‘Wir bleiben alle’ (we all stay) which I wrote about in my 2012 paper, is still in use: it was reprinted on the left side of banner in the above photograph. But do today’s residents remember this slogan and the movement it stood for?

Near the Kiezladen,  I found other remnants of the earlier local protest, slogans and graffiti. No longer easily visible: half hidden underneath new layers of graffiti and street art. In the photograph below, underneath the street art, you can see parts of an older protest slogan, which in 2010 was much more prominently displayed on several facades and house entries.

street art Dunckerstrasse

It seems then that the area and its LL have changed since 2010, albeit not significantly. And the direction that this change took seems to indicate an even more firmly accomplished process of gentrification than I observed in 2011 and 2012. What happened to the local anti-gentrification activists, I don’t know. My guess is they have lost their battles and had no choice but to move away from the area.


Minecraft and literacies: do videogames support children’s reading and writing?

I recently came across an online article suggesting that Minecraft and other videogames may support children’s literacy – see here:

As a mother of an 8 year old who regularly spends time reading Minecraft handbooks, I am tempted to believe that the author of this article (I don’t know who s/he is) has a point. The books on Minecraft are always displayed in a prominent spot in my local bookstore. They must sell, I suppose. I have seen children bring them to school, to share with their friends

Looking inside the Minecraft books, I can see that they offer detailed instructions, are written in a sophisticated language and use many specialised terms. No doubt, my son and his friends are stretched when they read these instructions. May that be the reason why I also see them frequently turning to YouTube where they watch videos of more experienced and skilled adult players of the game?

And what about other games? Is Minecraft one of the reasonably ‘good’ games, demanding and difficult, with plenty of stuff to learn and thus of some interest to parents and educators? I am reminded of Gee’s ideas about videogames and what we can learn from them. In a recent discussion with my current Masters students we compared different games they know and what literacies they might involve. No doubt, some require more, others less. I wonder how interested teachers are in games such as Minecraft. Do they/can they support literacy?

Phonics teaching in primary schools

In addition to my work on literacy policies (see my earlier post), since October last year, I have been doing classroom observations in a year 1 class of a local primary school. The children are 5 to 6 years old and it is their second year in school (the first year is called reception). Phonics is currently the favoured approach in many English-speaking countries, so I wanted to see how it is done in practice. I had also heard quite a lot about the different phonics programmes produced by commercial publishers and which the English government has encouraged schools to purchase. I was keen to see how such programmes are used in schools. Research into phonics often emphasizes the need to integrate the teaching of letter-sound relationships with other activities to develop children’s reading and writing and their vocabulary. Some researchers and authors of children’s book argue that phonics teaching focusses too much on letters, sounds, syllables and words (the mechanics of reading or deconding) at the expense of engaging children with meaningful sentences, songs, stories, poems and other literature. Another concern is that phonics does not teach children to understand what they decode. I remember one of the first parents’ evenings in my son’s school when the headteacher spoke about the important role parents play in children’s reading development. We were urged to read with our children daily and to listen to them reading to us. But the headteacher also insisted on us having to ask our children questions about their reading. I remember at the time being somewhat resentful of that advice because I didn’t want my readingwith my son to turn into school-like comprehension tasks. But I could see the headteacher’s point and I remembered having read about this issue in academic papers.

So these are some of the things I was interested in when I started my classroom observations. In particular, I wanted to know whether and how phonics intergrated with other reading and writing or language-related activities happening during the day.

I haven’t got any answers yet and have just come back from another morning in school thinking that I am nowhere near what is sometimes called (somewhat oddly) ‘saturation’ in research, i.e. when after a number of interviews or observation sessions nothing new is coming up. For me, at the moment, each time I am in the class something new is happening that makes me think differently about phonics and literacy. More questions. There is no space here to talk about all the issues that I have noticed and the questions I have been pondering over in my fieldnotes. But here is one that I hope might interest other people too.

This is about the role of talk in relation to the teaching of literacy. I have to admit that this is not something I had thought about much when I started working the class. Of course I am aware of research into classroom talk or classroom discourse and how talk supports learning. But I hadn’t really linked this to my ideas about phonics. But talk is very important in the phonics lessons. There is talk of various kinds (this is just a very rough attempt to clarify my thoughts on things I observed this morning): teacher talk of course, teacher-children or teacher-child interaction and then talk between the children or by the children as a group. For phonics of course, talk is crucial because of the teacher having to ‘model’ the sound. If you have ever heard Ruth Miskin, who created ReadWriteInc., a popular phonics programme, demonstrate the sounds of the English language, you will know what I mean (or have a look here:

Children who are taught with synthetic phonics (ReadWriteInc. is a synthetic phonics programme) rely on the teacher correctly saying sounds and words. So in the phonics lessons I see there is a great deal of individual sounds being made and being, repeated – in chorus or by individual children. The teachers make a real effort to pronounce clearly and consistently. But there is a lot more talk going and a lot of this seems to be essential to the children’s progress. Sounds that are pronounced incorrectly are immediately put right, words are said using ‘fred talk’ first (sounds pronounced separately) and then ‘blended’ together. Fred, by the way, is a funny creature who can only speak in sounds (not letters or full words). Then there is a somewhat different kind of talk and this is a form of interaction that seems to be very important.  This is when the  teacher and the children together speak about the words they are currently learning (based on the sounds that are the topic of the lesson). Several things seem to come together here: the teachers talk to the children about the words they are learning to make sure that they understand their meaning. They ask questions and propose ideas  in order to put the words into contexts the children can relate to and which are appealing. Jokes are made and little stories told. This morning for example, it was all about the sound ‘ea’, as in tea. So there was some talk in the group about one boy who had never had tea but wanted to try it. Then we talked about tea versus coffee as the teacher declared her preference for coffee and also about why some parents may not want their children to drink tea. We also pronounced and then wrote down the word ‘dream’ and of course that made us all think about last night and what we had been dreaming.

I am unlikely to say anything new here and people more familiar with phonics teaching may have found nothing of much interest in what I have described above. Nevertheless, for me it was important to realise how central this kind of talk is. It is central because it addresses the issue of comprehension (see above). It is central becausing creating meaningful contexts for the sounds and words the children are asked to learn turns the lesson away from drill and meaningless practice of sounds and letters towards something that’s somewhat more embedded in or at least close to real life interactions and real, fun and engaging conversations. Talking about the boy wanting to know what tea tastes like gave meaning to the sound ‘ea’ (and in doing so helped the children memorize it and also remember its spelling, I would guess). The kind of talk I described is also important because it allows  the children to actively take part in the lesson. They can offer ideas, tell little stories, laugh about what somebody else has said or ponder over whether they’d like to try coffee or tea. Or would rather have hot chocolate. All this allows the children to connect with the lesson in a way that, I would suggest, addresses the potential difficulty of phonic being too much about children having to listen and reproduce new sounds, letters and words.

Observing the children this morning (and on previous days), I am convinced that the talk I describe above is absolutely essential to the children’s motivation. It helps giving meaning to the – let’s face it – at times tedious work of getting to grips with the sounds of the English language (and the letters they correspond with). And it is fun. I am saying ‘tedious’ because there is no doubt that the actual process of learning sounds and blending them together is not always easy and that some children like it more than others. Writing too, when you first start to do is, is not always fun. Phonics lessons require the children to concentrate, to listen, to think, .to sit still (or at least reasonably still)… not easy for a five year old who would probably be much happier running around on the playground.

Ruth Miskin explains that constant praise is very important when teaching phonics. No doubt, this is the other form of talk without which as I can see no phonics session would work. The children need constant feedback. They need praise. The teachers in my class have a wide range of words and expressions they use when they praise the children. Added to this they use rewards in the form of stickers and points. I have noticed that the teachers praise as much as they can. Every little effort gets noticed and mentioned.

I could say a lot more about the importance of talk in a phonics lesson. For example, that the stories and ideas the teachers and children share develop their vocabulary (which of course in turn supports their reading and writing). I will stop here hoping that what I have described above is of interest to others. I have not yet looked into the research literature on this and I expect there to be other work on this (what I have described and tried to analyse above is anything by revolutionary in its ideas – on the contrary it’s probably quite banal in some ways) – so if anybody has views on this or knows about studies relating to talk and its role in phonics teaching, I’d be very happy to hear from you.

And I apologize for this rather long post.


What’s currently happening about children’s literacy in the US?

As part of my ongoing interest in the teaching of literacy to children (yes, the old ‘reading wars’ and the debate about phonics and whole language teaching is still going on, at least for some of us) I am trying to find out more about current policy in the US. Where does Obama stand? Are there any federal policies? No child left behind awaits reauthorization, as far as I understand. Federal funding for the Reading First programme seems to have ended. But do some states carry on with it?  And is phonics, (or synthetic phonics) still the preferred approach?

If anybody knows something about current US policy or can point me towards any sources of information, I would be very grateful. And if you’d like to know more about my work and my interest in policy, please ask.

Uta Papen

Phonics and (N)LS?

Ros Asquith, Lines cartoon, Phonics reeding test

After the school holidays I will start observing a year 1 class (5-6 year olds) once a week to see how they are taught to read and write. I’m excited about this! I know they will be doing phonics. That’s what I want to see. This is rather odd because not so long ago I was very suspicious of phonics. I first came across it and -rather reluctantly- began to teach it when I took over half of an undergraduate module on Language and Education. My part of the module dealt with the role of literacy in education. A big one of course and phonics soon became part of what I was telling my students about. As I said, I used to be sceptical of it, so in my class I tended to dwell more on the whole language approach and I painted a mostly negative picture of phonics. Phonics, clearly, didn’t really fit with my idea of literacy as more than skills. The whole language method seemed to be a much better partner for our (colleagues in the Literacy Research Centre and elsewhere) shared view of literacy as socially situated practice. Phonics and (N)LS – how could these fit? (I put the N in brackets because as much as I like the new in New Literacy Studies, I know that some colleagues feel that the NLS are now old enough to be called LS). But back to phonics and (N)LS.I still don’t really know how phonics fits the idea of literacy as social practice. Isn’t it all about isolated skills? How does that fit the idea of reading and writing as situated, contextual, social…? The only (N)LS concept I can think of and that I would know how to apply to phonics is the autonomous model (and of course the ideological too ). I will have to leave this for now, hoping that after a few months in the classroom I will have come up with new ideas about how I see phonics  as an (N)LS researcher! What I do know is that there must be something that teachers and schools get right when they use phonics to teach kids to read and write. It clearly works in some schools (quite a few) and for some kids (many). Not everywhere and for everybody though. What I don’t quite know is why it works.

I might be wrong of course. Possibly, I start from the wrong assumption. I might be biased because of the children I know (mostly middle class and all attending schools known to be very good) and whose reading progress I can watch. Maybe it isn’t phonics that turns them into readers but something else? What works might be the combination of phonics with some other stuff that happens either at home, in school or in both places? The media talk a great deal about phonics. But the kids only do about 20 minutes of phonics every day. Surely they don’t learn to read and write in those daily 20 minutes. In policy papers the point about phonics having to be integrated with other activities involving reading and writing is made. Journalists don’t seem to be interested in this aspect though. My students always examine newspaper articles dealing with literacy in schools and they tend to talk about phonics, little else.

So that’s what I want to figure out when I start my classroom time: I want to know what happens outside the phonics sessions and how anything that happens during those daily doses of ‘c-a-t’ and Fred talk is drawn on and linked with other activities that go on at other times of the school day. Fred talk, by the way, is a method used by the phonics programme readwriteinc to encourage sounding out and blending of letters. It also requires ‘fred fingers’.  I look forward to my time in the school.