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.
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.
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.
‘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)
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.
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.
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:
- read words accurately
- 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.
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.
Last week I blogged about differentiation – see here. As Literacy Leader based in the SEN department of a fantastic secondary school (biased but true), I’m not at all hesitant to begin this post by briefly highlighting once again the importance of differentiation. As a teacher who is fortunate enough to spend the majority of their time supporting students with SEN, I see the provision of differentiated work in mainstream lessons as the lifeline for so many along the education journey – be that in literacy or in another area of learning.
A significant number of frank conversations I’ve had in the past with students (including many very able but frustrated ones) who struggle with literacy, lead me to believe that if we – as a collective body of teachers within schools – could master the art of providing targeted, effective differentiation for our students so that they might reach the objectives/targets we expect them to meet, so many other aspects of school life would fall into place. I’ve encountered a vast range of different students with varying needs, who have gradually become disengaged with school life because they find themselves repeatedly struggling to access the learning in lessons, sometimes on a daily (hourly, even) basis. This reality can, not always but often, lead to further complications as a result:
- increasingly disruptive behaviour
- growing tensions between students and their peers/teachers/parents
- lack of motivation
- loss of confidence etc.
If students are scaffolded in a way that enables them to access the learning, albeit in a slightly different way to others in the same class, there would be little reason for them to have to trail behind their peers as they move through their education.
But, what happens when that effective, targeted differentiation mentioned above is provided and there is still a problem? What if this ‘lifeline’ in class does not breathe the life into learning that we hope it will? It is at this point that alternative routes need to be explored…
If, at the ‘Wave One’ level of support (quality first teaching, differentiated work in class etc.), it appears that a student cannot access the topics/skills/concepts that are being taught and therefore is still not making the progress they should be, then the only option is to adapt. In our profession, that’s what we do, right? And it is at this point that ‘Wave Two’ support – group intervention – must be considered.
But what, and how?
Over the past few years in my role, I’ve established a number of group interventions and whole-school literacy programmes, some that seemed to kick off and run a little smoother than others. Many of the reasons for that I’d put down to experience – learning from the successes and failures of previous efforts and recognising potential pitfalls to avoid along the way – and some I’d attribute to the fact that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method, pausing for a moment to remember that, ultimately, we’re working with students who are all entirely different people. So what might work incredibly well for one student with a literacy weakness, may not work very well for another.
Nevertheless, while we may do our best to get close, teachers are not (and will never be) superhuman. Nor do we have the capacity in schools to provide individualised learning opportunities for every single student in our care. What we can offer, however, is some form of relief for these students by way of an intensive, worthwhile intervention, in order to support their learning of topics taught back in mainstream lessons.
As I write, I’m very conscious that I don’t want this post to merely become a passionate plea for teachers and school leaders to recognise the importance of interventions in education. I’d hope I can take that as a given. (This I spoke about at the PiXL Club Curriculum Conference in early December 2013 and would be happy to discuss in detail, if you feel this would be helpful…)
No. More than that, what I’d like to do here is simply share my Top 10 Tips for anyone approaching the important task of inventing an intervention. The Top 10 Guide you will find below has been kept simple intentionally, in the hope that it will be useful to a large number of people and can be applied to a wide range of possible interventions in their embryonic stages.
Click on the blue link below to view the full size document.
Please do read, digest and use, and let me know how you can see it being utilised best for you. As always, I welcome feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly(!) – and would be happy to have further conversations as mentioned above, should you have any more specific questions or comments.
(I should also just say, while I’ve tried to be direct and succinct with this Top 10 Guide, this is not an exhaustive list and, depending on your unique situation, the points listed may be helpful to you but work better in a slightly different order.)
However this guide might be used, I hope the content is helpful and clear.
Find me on Twitter… @JAMingay
Okay, so it may be a long. It make be considered awkward and downright cumbersome for any fellow logophiles reading this. I’d even go so far as to say, that if it were a dish listed on the menu of a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’, I’d probably not even pause to scan the list of ingredients because it sounds so incredibly dull.
Here it comes…
There, I said it.
Now…who on earth wants to write a whole blog post dedicated to something so tedious and so enforced in what should be such an innovative and liberating profession, especially as their opening effort on a brand spanking new blog?
Me. That’s who.
Why? Read on…
Forgive me for having to take a guess at the range of perspectives and levels of expertise coming at this post as you read, but I’d hazard a guess that, for many, this word – which is so often mentioned in staff meetings and probably recorded on hundreds of aide memoirs, pinned up on school noticeboards up and down the country – is quite possibly the aspect of lessons that is not really explored all that much. I get it. The last thing any busy teacher wants to face after countless hours of planning and copious amounts of marking, possibly having developed mild symptoms of RSI in the hand department from the grip of that ruddy red (or green…) pen, is having to come up with some alternative option for those students that seem like they just can’t be bothered to put as much effort in. The very thought that, as a teacher who – hopefully – is in tune with the needs of their class and therefore able to pitch the work appropriately, should then be required to differentiate the work for a handful of students who appear disengaged anyway is just not something we want to be giving any of our precious time to. Right?
A brief bit of necessary context:
Following my undergraduate degree and teacher training I began work as a Primary School teacher. I started teaching Year 4 at first and then was quickly moved to Year 6 where, while I had a degree of flexibility on what to teach, due to the impending SATs each year I was limited with regard to the level of creativity I could bring to my role. For this reason, and also the gradual realisation that for me personally, I preferred working with older students, this first teaching job – in what had been an incredibly supportive and positive environment – still left me feeling very claustrophobic a lot of the time, leading me to explore alternative options within the world of education.
Thankfully, an incredible and perfectly-timed opportunity arose at a nearby secondary school, where there was a vacancy for a Specialist Literacy Teacher based in the SEN department. The school were welcoming applications from primary-trained teachers for this particular role – due to the obvious nature of the job and the range of students it would involve working with. Tentatively, I applied. Unreservedly, I accepted.
As Literacy Leader three years on I can honestly say I’ve not once regretted the move. Not even as we reach the end of Nativity season either…
Why is this even relevant? Stick with me.
I’ve learned an absolutely mammoth amount to get me to this point – in all the challenges I’ve accepted, the small successes I may have had, the minor (and the major!) mistakes I’ve made – and all this, in what for some, is only a short career so far. By far, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on both an educational level, but even just on a human nature level too, is that people are just so different. Across the vast range of whole classes and small groups I’ve taught, never yet have I ever found a pair of students the same when it comes to how their brain approaches learning. It’s fascinating to watch in a small group setting over the course of a year, just how different students can be as they approach the same task, all possessing very similar needs. And that’s why I’m so passionate about such a potentially passion-punishing piece of vocabulary.
One thing primary teaching instilled in me from very early on was the necessity to differentiate effectively. Even within a streamed ability set for Literacy or Numeracy, I’d be differentiating three ways on a daily basis. Even now, for some of my groups where I only have 6 students, I will present learning activities in a range of ways for the different needs in there. As an example, I may have a regular text to read for one, a simpler version for another (and this doesn’t just mean less, it means less complicated vocab sometimes, or presented differently – a storyboard perhaps, rather than endless words on a page etc.), I may have attempted to translate the work for students with EAL, pictures on the board, just finding ways to make the learning come alive.
It’s not the same as teaching mainstream, I know. The pressures are very different. Preparation – huge. Differentiation and tailoring for individual students needs – huge. Pastoral support – huge. Pressure (and genuine desire!) to help them close the gap between them and their peers – huge. Marking – less. Behaviour management issues – less. It’s not the same, I know.
However, I have one intended point to make and my message is simple. Please allow me to just return to the original analogy I used of a menu in a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’.
Differentiation should not be listed as a dessert – an optional extra…
“Oh dear. You’re struggling. Just copy this into your book instead.”
It certainly should not be listed among your teas and coffees and your after dinner mints – as an afterthought…
“Oops, I forgot. You should have told me. Next time put your hand up and I’ll help.”
Differentiation should be your main meal, your nutritious protein, your indulgent feast. Differentiation should be listed somewhere between your energy-giving starter and your sustaining plenary… if you’re working to a conventional lesson model, that is.
“I know you’re here and I know the needs of my students. I recognise you have the potential for success, but I also know you struggle with ‘x’ sometimes, so I’ve varied the task for you. This way, you can strive to meet the same learning objectives and achieve the same outcomes as everyone else in here.”
Maybe I’m preaching to the converted. Maybe I’m not. Who knows?
Whatever your thoughts on this, at the very least it surely can’t be a bad thing to just take a moment to be reminded that this is an essential aspect of lesson planning in our profession. As qualified facilitators of learning, we’re called to engage, inspire, empower and, essentially, educate – something that’s quite impossible to do without the ability to meet the needs of ALL our students.