Sunday, 29 July 2012

Who's for coffee?

Several years ago now, my wife, Robyn, and I found to our amazement that we had actually won something in a prize draw. Apparently our name had been pulled out of the hat at the local vet clinic and we had won a brand new, all singing, all dancing, espresso coffee machine. (Considering the vast amount of money we had invested over the years with the vet to keep our dogs in tip top health, it was not a huge return, but decidedly better than nothing at all.)
            With mean-spirited glee, and to the angst of our trendy kids then still living at home, we decided to take it away with us to our weekender in the country (‘Harefield’), so that the ‘young adults’ would not wreck it while we were away.
            It sat on the kitchen bench, still in its box, for several country weekends before I finally decided that I really did have to learn how to drive the thing. To this old fogie, it looked more like something that belonged in a science lab, or in Dr Who’s Tardis, than in a kitchen.
            I examined each part carefully and gratefully located the instructions booklet. This is when the trouble started…  I read the instruction booklet thoroughly. Then I read it again. I was still none the wiser. As a literate adult, I could read and understand every word in the booklet but I still had no idea what to do with the coffee machine.
            The booklet continually referred to ‘the coffee maker’ that, not unreasonably, I took to mean the gadget, the espresso machine. It was only on the third reading that the light went on and it dawned on me that it meant me. I was the coffee maker!
            Now what lessons can we draw from this little tale of domestic confusion, other than that it is never safe to trust a baby boomer with a Generation Y affectation …?
            First, we can reflect on the simple model of reading that posits that reading comprehension is the product of reading accuracy and listening comprehension. It is no use being able to read the words if you do not know what they mean. I thought I knew what was meant by coffee maker in this context but I was wrong. Hence, I could read the booklet but I could not understand what I had read.
            Second, what I really needed was tutoring in coffee making from a barista or at least someone who was more accomplished in the dark arts of coffee preparation than I am. And this sort of tutoring is, of course, one of the things that low-progress readers need to achieve success: effective tutoring by a more accomplished reader.
            Third, I should have stuck with the coffee plunger that works really well for me. (Incidentally, my wife bought about ten coffee plungers on sale, for next to nothing, but we could not give them away to our sophisticated kids!) Now the analogy is not perfect because I like good espresso coffee as much as the next poseur but new and modern, let alone cool and trendy, is not necessarily a good thing. And so it is with reading instruction.
            We have learned to our cost that cool and trendy Whole Language teaching made for far too many low-progress readers. We once knew how to teach reading; we did it quite well and most kids learned how to read reasonably quickly. And then we wilfully adopted an unproven method that proved to be not nearly as effective, but we carried on using it regardless. And we called it progressive education! As my kids would say: “how weird is that?”
            Fourth, it wasn’t my fault! The espresso machine booklet was a lousy instructor: it did not operationally define its terms and present the information in a logical order. Nor did my pathetic attempts at discovery learning serve me any better. I was completely unable to construct my own personal approach to coffee making with this machine.
            With basic skills, like coffee making and reading, we all need initial direct instruction in the early stages. I can construct my own version of a decaf triple shot macchiatto later, in the same way that I’ll subsequently be able to detect the inherent, privileged phallocentic hegemonies in the books I read. But I do actually need to learn how to read first.
            I could go on … I’m on a roll here with the lessons to be learned about reading from my attempts to make espresso coffee. Suffice to say that the espresso machine languished in a kitchen cupboard for quite a time while I continued to use the plunger. Some years later I finally learned how to use it. Now, who’s for coffee …?

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