Q & A with the textbook whisperer: Dr Trish Weekes

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She has a PhD in literacy education in secondary schooling, runs a business that creates literacy resources, and is a freelance teacher and consultant. It’s easy to see that Dr Weekes would excel at bringing student resources to life. In fact, she was the literacy advisor on Pearson’s new science and humanities series, so we took a timeout to talk to her about all things literacy.

Q. How do you go about developing a resource that helps students learn better? Can you unpack a snippet of your thought process for us?

A. When I was consulting for Pearson recently, I imagined that I was an average student sitting in an average classroom with a textbook in front of me. A Year 7 student would be 12 years old, so I started ‘thinking like a 12 year old’.

With that mindset, I read the chapters of the new series, including all the images and captions, and wondered what I would understand and what I would struggle with. Then I gave suggestions to the authors for how the content and review questions might be more accessible and easier to understand for early high school students.

When making suggestions, I draw on a wonderful linguistic theory called Systemic Functional Linguistics that underpins the Australian curriculum. All my suggestions are based on a rich and research-based theory. So actually my approach is best described as a combination of thinking like a 12 year old, then drawing on everything we know about literacy.

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Q. What are some practical things teachers can do in the classroom to help students learn better?

A. Teaching is really complex and I take my hat off to all the fantastic teachers out there working hard to help students learn every day. My particular interest is in literacy, that is, helping students to read and write and communicate effectively in their subjects.

The research shows that literacy in each subject is different, which means that the valued ways of using language are different and distinctive, depending on whether you’re studying science or geography or history. The Australian curriculum acknowledges this and notes that all teachers are also teachers of literacy in their subject. Teaching and learning can hit new heights when teachers know the literacy demands of their subject well, and when they explicitly teach these features to their students.

We know from world-leading Australian research that writing with students is really effective in helping them to improve their achievement. This involves showing students a model or example, describing the features of the language, then collaborating with students to write a new text together on the board or whiteboard. Ideally, this would happen before students are asked to work alone on a new task.

If I had one piece of advice for teachers that we know for sure will work, it’s this: write with students, don’t just talk about how to write.

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Q. How can teachers engage students with the technical language found in student resources?

A. Teachers are experts in engaging students and making technical topics interesting and relevant to students’ lives. The main way they do that is through spoken language, classroom conversations, stories and anecdotes, and asking interesting questions to ignite the students’ curiosity.

Then teachers connect the engaging stories with the core ideas in the content, and lead the students into written language, such as textbooks. Great teachers can shuttle between everyday, easy to understand language, and the specialised and technical language of the subject.

They can help students to do it too. This is the key to great learning in subject areas.

Q. How have student resources advanced in recent years?

A. I think we all know that textbooks in the old days contained lots of words and few images or diagrams. In fact, they were often quite dry and boring. Now, everything has changed and images dominate all aspects of our society.

Both print and digital student resources are incredibly diverse and engaging. They contain so many wonderful images now – diagrams, photographs – graphics of all kinds. These can really help students understand technical and complex concepts. Not only that, but online resources such as videos, animations, online quizzes and interactive apps have boomed.

I think that teachers face a real challenge in sorting through all the wonderful multimodal material available, to find the most effective and efficient ways of using the right tools to meet the needs of their students.

Q. Thank you for your time Dr Weekes, we hope you enjoyed working with Pearson?

A. I really enjoyed being involved with the development of the science and humanities resources: I learnt a lot! I honestly think that the editors and authors are genuinely committed to literacy and to enhancing the readability and accessibility of their resources. It’s been a great experience for me and I hope the teachers and students who use the Pearson resources find them to be powerful tools for learning.

Humanities literacy Q&A Dr Trish Weekes

Trish Weekes has a PhD in literacy education. She runs a small business that creates literacy resources for secondary schooling (called Literacy Works) and she is a freelance academic, researcher and consultant.

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