Carolyn Harnanan

DEVELOPING LANGUAGE AWARENESS: Carolyn Harnanan, educator and creator of Story Circles—a literacy programme that meets the literacy needs of children.

EDUCATOR and member of an SEA parents support group, Carolyn Harnanan, knows only too well the anxiety and concern that parents are experiencing since the step was taken to close schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Parents are particularly worried about the loss of momentum, she said.

Secondary Entrance Assessment pupils were in the middle of exam preparations with a set date in mind, now even that appears uncertain. Nevertheless, Harnanan is advising parents to see the opportunity during these unprecedented times.

“It is a wonderful opportunity to de-escalate the stress and find a different rhythm for your day. It’s scary but it’s also remarkable and amazing to suddenly have time and to not have to grumble about the traffic, not have to grumble about too much work, too little time, not enough feedback from the teachers or the teachers are demanding too much or too little. There are a lot of positives we can find in this situation,” she said.

Harnanan said it is also an opportunity to give children more of what they truly need—love, acceptance, hugs and affirmation as well as assurance that the SEA is just one aspect of life. Instead of simply leaving the days and weeks to chance, Harnanan advises parents to create a schedule with their children.

“Part of loving our children is helping them structure their time and gain responsibility over their lives. I would advise parents to work out with their SEA child a timetable. Don’t impose a timetable, sit with them, create the schedule so that it’s theirs, let it be in their handwriting so that they have ownership of it,” she added.

For all the SEA parents out there, Harnanan offers this practical suggestion: divide your day into two sections. From 8.30-10 a.m. do a specific subject then take a break, then from 10.30-12, do another subject then take a lunch break. Finally, from 12.45-2 p.m. choose another subject. That should take care of the academic work for the day. At 3 p.m. the child can help with kitchen prep and chores, then at 5 p.m. she recommends doing some outdoor activity or exercise.

“Part of structuring your time is setting overall goals. So you need to figure out what you need to accomplish in those three time slots that you’ve established as ‘work time’. That would be the time to gain mastery over certain skills,”she said.

Harnanan has been an educator for the past 30 years, she was the head of the English Language Department at St Augustine Girls’ High School before migrating to Canada with her family. Since returning to Trinidad, she has created ‘Story Circles’—an English Language programme that helps parents fight the SEA dread and meet the literacy needs of children ages seven to nine.

There are three elements of the Story Circles Programme—reading and listening, language learning and reading comprehension.

“Reading out loud is an essential part of my process since this brings the story to life and helps children notice each word of the text. When they stumble I can better identify their weaknesses. They also listen to each other as they share the reading responsibility... after reading the story we do several activities deigned to meet the needs of the SEA exam. In Story Circles all grammar points and elements of language identified in the Ministry of Education’s Assessment Framework are included over the course of three terms,”she explained.

Harnanan’s whole life has been one of reading, teaching and storytelling. She’s also interested in writing and has a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in Creative writing.

“There is a conviction in me that early literacy is fundamental to the development of the individual and to our society as Trinidad and Tobago. I worry that we are not literate enough as a society,” said Harnanan. “There is only one way to achieve literacy and that is through exposing our kids to a ‘print-rich’ environment as much as possible. Literacy is a great enabler. If we were a more literate society, we could do so much more, we could become so much more. Money is not enough, there is a lot of money floating around in T&T but it’s not enough to create the society we want.”

In a society like ours where the term ‘privileged’ is often used to describe certain students or schools that are kept separate and apart from others, Harnanan suggests that a truly privileged child is one who has rich language exposure early on in their lives, whose parents encourage them to read and who have a broad exposure to the world through reading. As a result, their vocabulary expands because of the reading and that has major consequences for their comprehension and expression skills at the SEA exam.

The Story Circles programme which Harnanan designed is the link between oracy and literacy and develops language awareness. It is an alternative to the grinding lessons that are almost a rite of passage for SEA pupils. The programme began ten weeks ago but is now on hold. Harnanan also has a YouTube channel on which she posts videos that give concrete advice on how to handle concepts in English language learning as well as stories for listening and speaking.

“When we get beyond the COVID-19 virus, I really want to grow the number of students I have in my Story Circles because I feel as if this is the way for children to develop their love for reading and develop their facility for English language skills. I’ve also taken on doing SEA classes because I believe that there must be an alternative to the grind of conventional lessons. I envision an SEA class where we can practise all the examples and master them but also enjoy language acquisition and appreciation. I also want to have an online resource—which we’ve already started doing, for parents who want to develop literacy in their children,” she said.

Harnanan will be uploading another video to her channel ‘Stories for Listening and Reading’ on YouTube this week.

For more info, visit the Story Circles page on Facebook or send an e-mail to


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