A flying visit to hear Peter H. Johnston

I took a plane yesterday to Auckland to attend a presentation from Peter H. Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, put on by the Auckland Literacy Association.

I didn’t realise it, but this was kind of unusual. Many people were surprised at how far I had come for the event. In fact, I even won (yay!) $100 worth of books for travellign the longest distance. To be honest though, I didn’t even think about the distance, I just knew I had to come. Peter’s books have really spoken to me in terms of their simplicity, the sense they make, and the very real way I believe they have the potential to change teaching and learning.


There were a lot of people there – 105 eager educators who all clearly enjoyed the books as well. I lucked in and sat at a table near the front, which was subsequently filled with University of Auckland Ph.D. students and staff, including my lecturer, Jan Gaffney. To say the conversation was interesting would be an understatement.


My humble notes from the talk could be summed up like this: (I hope I got it right!)

  • I made connections between Peter speaking about small moments in classrooms leading to big things and Pasi Sahlberg speaking about small data at the Ulearn conference this year. It is those moments in a classroom that make the difference for kids; the relationships, the knowing our learners.  
  • The importance of having shared goals and collaborating together in a classroom really support creating a healthy learning environment. The goal being for all of us to learn together.
  • Experience becomes knowledge through language – Michael Halliday
  • Be a noticer…create noticers. This puts the kids in charge of the learning and the conversation. When you ask them to notice, they are the ones doing the job, not you.
  • Teach kids to be the teachers. Tell them what they are doing (making it clear), and they teach that. You then have multiple teachers in the room, rather than just one.
    • Can you see the first part? – good phrase
  • Treat something as if it were already the case and it becomes the truth – we live ourselves into our own realities. We, as teachers, can support them to do this. Peter used this word I think (I had a bit of trouble understanding it as I heard prolapse & thought it definitely couldn’t be that!) – proleptic. I think he was referring to this:literary prolepsis
  • Children with stronger social imaginations:
    • Have stronger comprehension of narrative texts
    • Have more positive social skills
    • Are more socially cooperative
    • Have larger social networks
    • Are viewed more positively by their peers
    • Misbehave less
    • Show fewer negative responses in interactions
    • Show stronger moral development
    • Have better self-regulation
  • Book to check out – Already Ready by Matt Glover
  • Be wary of writing for kids – you are telling them they can’t do it. I personally think there can be some exceptions to this – many of my students I have to start by writing their stories (as oral recounts for example) to show them that they can be writers, before then letting them take over. But, I certainly believe what Peter is saying here as a general rule for most kids starting school. It is about accepting offers and believing them into being writers as they go on.
  • Writing is an intentional social practice.
  • We are building identities – identity shapes attention. Who you think you are alters what you attend to. If you think you are a writer, you attend to the writing prompts etc…This connected me to Hana O’Regan’s presentation at ULearn where she talked of the identity many Māori learners have as they go through school. Māori and Pasifika learners are often given an identity that is setting them up for failure from the start.
  • If a student doesn’t care about what they read, why would they want to talk about it – could create problems here with testing (e.g. easstle) and teacher assigned reading.
  • Trust was mentioned a lot by students when talking about books became the norm. They trusted those who read books they had enjoyed or talked about with them.
  • Effect sizes from Guthrie & Humenick, 2004 (to blow your mind):
    • On Motivation to Read:
      • Choice 0.95
      • Interesting Texts 1.15
      • Mastery/growth-oriented culture 0.72
      • Collaboration 0.52
    • On comprehension:
      • Choice 1.2
      • Interesting Texts 1.6
      • Mastery/growth-oriented culture 0.87
      • Collaboration 0.48
  • The Read-aloud allows for authentic interactions with students. The teacher is real.
  • Position students as engaged, knowledgeable equals.
  • Sustains a sense of autonomy, relatedness, competence & meaningfulness (human needs).
    • How did you manage that? – good phrase
  • The art of conversation – we are teaching this. Learning from each other.
  • Commitment to dialogic engagement.
  • To build comprehension – conversations like this (about texts etc) support that.
  • One child uses it (a strategy), models it, and then it gets used by others – it becomes that child’s strategy.
  • Teach children to think together – to improve comprehension and more.
  • Marie Clay posed some of these questions to gauge classrooms:
    • Are these children in control of their learning?
    • Is the teacher following the child’s lead?
    • Teaching for strategic process?
    • Learning community is a self-extending system?
    • Children experiencing literacy as a tool for building fulfilling lives.
  • Beware of leaving the hard stuff till later – I’ve always believed this. I don’t think you should leave comprehension, for example, to spring on students as a surprise in Year 3 or 4. They are doing it naturally right from the beginning – we just have to look for it and show them when they do it.
  • Book to look at: Lisa Cleaveland – More about the authors.
  • The primary goal is getting the students to want to learn and to keep learning.
  • Start with what they notice – you’ll be starting on firm ground.
  • Give over control to students.
  • Keep the kid in the conversation – don’t push them out.
    • Does anyone else have that problem? What did you do? Could you try that? – good phrases, particularly when you don’t have the answer!
  • Capitalise on the collective knowledge of the classroom.
  • Be prepared for approximation – from teachers and learners.
  • Self-determination theory – to investigate.


Just typing all that up has made me go “Wow!” Some real gems of statements. And these just came out naturally from Peter. Some of them sound quite high brow, but they weren’t. They were all supported by examples and interactions from real students. This all came out of students. They have it all there. We have to bring it out of them as it were.

If you haven’t read Peter’s books, I highly recommend you do. They are worth it. I think they should become part of pre-teacher training.


A flying visit to hear Peter H. Johnston

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