Monthly Archives: September 2014

WARNING! There’s a Pattern Emerging…

It’s that time of year again when thousands of exhausted teachers find themselves aimlessly pacing up and down the staffroom at 3.30pm, too tired to talk or sit or check their pigeon hole, managing to communicate with colleagues only through a series of synchronised puzzled looks, shoulder shrugs and a selection of appropriate nods and grunts. September welcomes the start of the new academic year; a second chance at a January 1st -esque renewal for both students and teachers.

 

Where I’m currently based, in the SEN department of a super local secondary school, it’s no different. The buzz in the air around the new baseline testing data and information from feeder schools offers a welcome sense of optimism, as we work as a team to number crunch and meet with students to identify those needing additional support. Aware of debates around data and levels and ways to effectively measure progress, I agree that there are huge drawbacks in the over-assessment of our students and the over-reliance on data. There are clearly flaws to be found here. However, for us it is crucial.

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In order to best scaffold the learning for our students who need additional support on entry to this daunting brand new world of secondary school, at least until we know individuals within the new Y7 cohort better, we have to rely on our baseline data and historical information sent up from our feeder primary schools. It is through the initial testing and then further investigation into particular scores that we can identify students who have learning weaknesses in particular areas of the curriculum – be that in literacy (e.g. in reading or spelling), in speech and language, or in maths. I’m confident we have a strong assessment process in place that prevents students slipping through that all-important metaphorical ‘net’. It is from here that we then stream pupils into the most appropriate targeted support to meet their specific need(s), be that at Wave 1 (in class support), Wave 2 (group intervention support), or Wave 3 (1:1 support).

 

As Literacy Leader, it is naturally my priority to scrutinise the testing results of our students’ performance in reading, writing and spelling. Through the standardised tests we have invested in since I have been in post, we identify those performing at a level significantly below that of their peers and address needs on an individual case basis. Our tests provide a detailed breakdown into reading accuracy, comprehension, reading rate and processing speed. The method we have followed this year has remained much the same as previous years. However, something has changed. And it’s something I predicted might happen a couple of years ago.

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While the reading accuracy scores at the point of intake of our new Year 7 cohort seem to be rising year on year, comprehension scores are dropping. I can only talk of my experience where I work so this may not be seen among other schools across the borough/region/country. However, it’s a consistent change and one that is worth exploring.

 

At this point, I’m keen to declare my support for the teaching of synthetic phonics* in primary schools. I have seen, both through classroom experience (at primary and secondary) and through data analysis that this strategy for teaching reading accuracy works. I am an advocate, as outlined in a previous post here, so please be clear that this post is in no way a concern around the teaching of synthetic phonics itself.

*Note:
‘Analytic phonics’ = the teaching of a word within context (i.e. analysing what the word as a whole could be based on the words around it)
‘Synthetic phonics’ = the teaching of individual sounds, irrelevant of context (e.g. ai, ee, aw, igh)

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I am confident that phonics works. I personally rely on it as a method of teaching many of our intervention groups or 1:1 sessions, working with students who reach us at KS3 and still cannot read. I am concerned, however, that as educationalists in both primary and secondary, we need to recognise the many demands that reading brings and should therefore not only explicitly teach reading accuracy, but comprehension strategies also. My fear is that in improving reading accuracy across the nation through the implementation of synthetic phonics, we may be masking an issue around reading comprehension.

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Phonics was introduced to schools as statutory in September 2007 following the Jim Rose review in March 2006. His ‘Independent Review of the Early Teaching of Reading’ in the UK was revealing and its impact great in changing the national pedagogical approach to teaching reading. Rose insisted that the government’s rejection of phonics in 1997 as a valid method of teaching reading was a very bad mistake and, in light of his findings in this 2006 review, succeeded in influencing those in power to change their minds.

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The diagram above shows the interdependence between two key features of reading:

a) word recognition processes
b) language comprehension processes

The act of reading is simply impossible without the ability to:

  1. read words accurately
  2. understand the meanings of words

If a student shows poor reading accuracy and poor comprehension processes, they will undoubtedly struggle to read a text. Similarly, if a student possesses a good reading accuracy ability but poor comprehension around the words they are able to read, they will still struggle to grasp the meaning of a text. Take the word ‘comprehension’ itself. Phonetically, it is a word that can be decoded relatively easily = com/pre/hen/sion. However, since there are not many semantic clues within the word itself, without the direct teaching of what this word actually means, students may be left confused.

In his review, Jim Rose explains,

“Comprehension occurs as the listener builds a mental representation of the information contained within the language that a speaker is using. The comprehension processes that enable the mental representation to be built up occur at the word, sentence and utterance (text) level. Individual word meanings are identified from phonological input. Parsing of the language occurs. This ensures that meaning is mediated through grammatical structure. A number of inferential processes are also used. These all happen simultaneously and the resulting information interacts with the listener’s general knowledge to enable as accurate a mental representation of the spoken message as the listener is capable of at any particular stage of development. It is important to bear in mind that the extent of the listener’s general knowledge and level of cognitive development will have a bearing on the comprehension of the message. To generate an accurate mental representation of this the listener has to process the language and the concepts.”

Rose reminds us that learners need to be able to assimilate new words that are suitable for their own personal level of cognitive development. He goes on to advise that,

“Teachers also need to be brought up to date with research into reading comprehension. As reading comprehension has now been shown to depend crucially on language comprehension, teachers also need to have good knowledge and understanding of oral language development, and of ways to foster language comprehension.”

Rose acknowledges that language comprehension (ie. the explicit teaching of words and their meanings) needs to be taught within the classroom. I see this as vital in both primary and secondary, since language acquisition takes place at any, and every, age. There is great enjoyment to be had in sharing this depth of knowledge with students, hopefully stirring an interest in language and word etymology in the process.

If students are able to access language at a more advanced level since their accuracy is improving, teachers of all key stages should bear in mind that even though a student may sound fluent and can read more challenging texts, their comprehension of what they are reading may not match up. It is therefore essential that teachers continuously check students’ understanding irrelevant of age, key stage or ability, through the use of targeted questioning and regular low-stake formative assessments.

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This diagram from the Rose Review demonstrates, quite obviously, the importance of a learner’s general knowledge and language system in the acquisition process of any new vocabulary encountered. Rose states,

“It is widely agreed that phonic work is an essential part, but not the whole picture, of what it takes to become a fluent reader and skilled writer, well capable of comprehending and composing text. Although this review focuses upon phonic work, it is very important to understand what the rest of the picture looks like and requires. For example, nurturing positive attitudes to literacy and the skills associated with them, across the curriculum, is crucially important as is developing spoken language, building vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and facility with ICT.”

Students should be actively and constantly engaging in the process of reading. In my opinion synthetic phonics is, without a doubt, essential for students to develop an independence in reading accuracy but, of equal importance, there needs to be an explicit teaching of vocabulary to students within the classroom too. This is a responsibility of primary teachers and secondary teachers too, across the broad spectrum of curriculum subjects taught. As a result, students will not only be able to phonetically decode an unfamiliar word, but will know the deeper semantic significance behind the words they read too. Language development begins at an early age but has no limits to its growth. A love of vocabulary is something we need to nurture in the learning environment, and the explicit teaching of new words is one way this can be achieved.

researchED 2014

Saturday 6th September 2014 saw the second national researchED conference take place; an event for those interested in teaching and research and the complicated relationship between the two. Tom Bennett (@tombennet71) and Helene O’Shea (@hgaldinoshea) captained the ship, welcoming onboard an array of speakers, all who possess a wealth of expertise in their own specialist area.

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While I’ve been to a few education-based events before (both larger national gatherings and more local teachmeets etc.), being my first research conference I didn’t arrive with any predefined expectations of the day. On arrival, I was greeted with a customary lanyard and a less customary branded wicker bag, complete with free branded pen and educational paper. Impressive. After a warm welcome, delegates were invited to attend up to seven different sessions of their choice, all lasting roughly one hour. Session leaders had knowledge in their various different curriculum/research/government fields and the workshops reflected this.

Though I’m sure you’re fascinated to know which public transport route I took and what I had for my lunch, I’ll spare you the details and simply note the ‘takeaways’ I left with from the day. Ideally, this penultimate sentence of my intro would see me writing about how much better equipped I now feel to a) source accurate research around my own subject and pedagogy of Literacy and SEN, and b) know how to carry out my own effective research studies into the best methods of teaching and learning. However, I left the conference feeling a little more perplexed by educational research and yet, at the same time, very much refreshed.

Here’s why:

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Nick Rose (@turnfordblog), a teacher/ researcher/ psychologist

presented his audience with a healthy challenge to approach pedagogical theories and highly regarded, well-known teaching programmes with caution. He was unapologetic in his quest to inform those that were present of the lack of authentic evidence behind some of the most widely used teaching methods we know of in the world of education. His ‘hit list’ included the likes of preferred learning styles (including VAK), right/left brain theory, NLP and even… wait for it… brain gym.

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Rose proposed that educationalists need to develop a real ‘professional skepticism’ around research in education. He commented that schools tend to have a very low immune system, allowing a whole variety of costly approaches and strategies to pass through the door without thoroughly vetting their validity first. This is an interesting concept and one we need to be aware of. Nick’s own personal account of the conference can be found here.

  

David Didau (@learningspy), a teacher/ consultant / author

offered a number of interesting points to consider when looking into edu-research. He quoted Henri Bergson who famously said:

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This supported his claim that brains are not rational but rather illogical and, as humans, we therefore fall into some of the well-known traps below:

Anchoring Effect: a tendency to use anchors or reference points to make decisions and evaluations, sometimes leading us astray.

Sunk Cost Fallacy: following through with a project because of our investment (time/money/effort), irrespective of whether evidence would suggest that is the best thing to do.

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He outlined that progress is not a linear journey but a complex messy one. Didau posed questions such as “How should we measure true progress?” and “With what educational ‘unit’ of measurement should we assess?”

He stated that evidence is not the same as proof, offering a comment on those strategies that ARE well researched and understood to be effective within the classroom environment. These include the ‘Spacing effect’ and the ‘Testing effect’ both of which are explained in his full presentation, available here.

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David left the audience with a quote from Carl Sagan:

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John Thomsett (@johntomsett), a Headteacher from Huntingdon School in York and
driver of a new research project along with his Lead Researcher, Alex Quigley

outlined a number of essentials to consider around educational research. He quoted Tom Bentley, who said:

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What is the point of research if it doesn’t alter the way you work/plan/teach?

While depth of teachers’ subject knowledge and choice of pedagogical approach is undeniably critical in the development of strong teaching and learning, if neither are realigned to best meet the needs of students as a result of research findings, there’s very little point in getting engaged in it at all. If the research suggests what you are doing currently is right, great! That’s welcome affirmation to keep on doing what you’re doing.

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Interestingly, Tomsett commented on his blog this week,

Perpetual self-doubt is a relatively healthy condition in which to exist. At an event like yesterday’s [researchED] I look to take away some learning and what I took away yesterday made me doubt myself and our developmental priorities just a little bit.”

Research is a grey area and one that so many professions have wrestled with, both in the past and still today. But if we fail to recognise its obvious benefits, we are doing a disservice to our students.

Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam), a teacher ‘guru’, researcher, writer,
Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the IoE

gave a great talk entitled, “Why teaching will never be a research-based profession (and why that’s a GOOD thing)”.

You can find a link to his full presentation here.

One of the key points Wiliam made saw him challenge the audience to consider what part ethics plays in educational enquiry. He claimed that researchers have a moral obligation to pursue fair studies that are valuable to school teachers and students, rather than ones carried out simply in an effort to validate one’s own already-held opinion. He raised the interesting point that many published research studies already available in the public arena are selective in the results they share, omitting details of findings that do not support the cause behind their study.

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While Wiliam sees a lot of value in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) as a method of research, he recognises four main drawbacks.

These include:

  1. Clustering: in comparing two students within the same school, despite potentially being in different groups (ie. one in an active group and the other in a control group), there will inevitably be some similarities through their shared experiences in school etc.
  2. Power: the various teachers/leaders/students involved in an RCT may not follow direct instructions, thus reducing the fairness of th test.
  3. Implementation: there are nearly always logistical barriers to carrying out RCTs, which includes aspects such as timetabling, time allowed for interventions outside of curriculum subjects, relevant staff to support etc.
  4. Context: Perhaps the best way to sum up this point is to quote a blog I came across recently. Dave Algoso, Director of Programmes at Reboot (a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance) states,

“I think the danger here comes from a false level of precision. We talk about RCTs as having a scientific rigor that distinguishes them from pseudo-experimental approaches. There is some truth to this. However, if the calculated average effect of a program is stripped of all the caveats and nuance about the things we were unable to measure and calculate, then we risk being overconfident in our knowledge. Science brings a potentially inflated sense of our own expertise. RCTs, and the development industry as a whole, would benefit from less certainty and greater humility.”

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Food for thought.
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Wiliam also made reference to the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) toolkit, highlighting how research studies have led educationalists to rate various aspects of teaching and learning based on their supposed level of positive impact on students. According to this list, interventions such as peer tutoring and phonics score very highly (of which I am in full agreement), in comparison to others such as teaching assistants and ability grouping, the latter actually being the only one listed that shows a negative impact score. While there may be some validity in some of these results, Wiliam leads us to question the authenticity behind the scores.

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For example, when considering ability grouping, Wiliam makes the point that in a large majority of cases the best and most experienced teachers are usually assigned to the top sets in any given cohort where groups are set by ability. Similarly, lower sets often do not get the access to the differentiated teaching they require to make solid progress. He argued that the gap widens in these cases, often as a result of the top set moving so fast that no students within the middle range of ability can progress to join those at the ‘top’ and, in contrast, the lower sets move far too slowly, thus preventing weaker students to make sufficient progress. This is a great challenge to schools and school leaders and one that, in my opinion, must be addressed in order for all students to make the most positive progress possible. Dylan Wiliam advised that those within the teaching profession should continue to improve their practice through the process of disciplined enquiry.

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As a final reflection on researchED 2014, while my impression of educational research is perhaps a little more hazy than it was prior to the event, I’ve returned confident that authentic enquiry into “what works” in this profession is crucial. I’m quite sure that it is a responsibility of ours as educators to ensure we are providing students with the best foundation possible for their future. This includes a willingness to invest time and energy into exploring what “best practice” really is within education.

Videos from the event can be found here.  

You can also follow researchED on twitter @researchED1.