It’s a tale of two sittees.
One student relishes the opportunity to sit slap-bang at the front of the classroom all year, as she masters every single academic and developmental KS2 expectation, and prepares for the exciting transition to secondary. Amelia cashes in daily from the wealthy bank of correct answers she seems to have on tap; clearly proud of the intelligent identity she has become renowned for among these parts.
The other sittee, placed at the back of the room, head in hands, never dares putting so much as a toe outside of the 2-metre radius he has established over the last few years with Mrs Davies, the teaching assistant. That safe bond, which may have just edged into the ‘overly-dependent’ zone, is at least a comfort to Tom as he grows increasingly aware of the knowledge gap that lies between him and his classmates. He dreads the move to secondary school, anxious to go-it-alone without the familiarity of class 6R and his trusty neon putty that is supposed to be improving his fine motor-skills (not that his handwriting would be a good advert for this).
The middle of May arrives. It’s SATs week. Amelia and Tom both attempt the reading comprehension SATs paper – one with ease, the other with utter frustration. When results come in, they reflect entirely the early forecasts the classteacher had made back in September. Amelia’s glowing score is worlds away from Tom’s failed attempt, which scored him a total of 3/50. As a result, Tom automatically gains himself a firm place on the list for a chance to resit the test this time next year, after three short terms in secondary. To the untrained ear, this may sound like a good opportunity, but this is no cause for celebration.
I’m not quite sure what the thinking is behind the DfE’s proposal for these resits but, if they know much about children’s development at all, they will know there are no magic fixes. A student who arrives at secondary school unable to read and write, extremely vulnerable as a result of little primary progression (for whatever reason), needs invested support. I’ll forever argue that one of the highest priorities for this transition period is to ensure that ALL students by the end of KS3 can read and write at a functional level. Those few who managed to slip the literacy net in KS2 must slipeth the neteth no longer.
In a good secondary school, baseline assessments and further diagnostic testing will highlight the specific area of weakness in reading that a student possesses. If reading accuracy is identified as the focus area, Tom will be streamed into a rigorous and systematic synthetic phonics intervention, intentionally scheduled for the same time each morning, ensuring that every effort is being made to ensure positive progress. Over the next few months, Tom’s reading development will be monitored using pre and post standardised scores, formative sounds assessments and a regular dialogue with his parents, tutor and mainstream teachers. If successful, he will make good progress and, by the end of the year, will begin to show signs of increasing independence in reading. His confidence will improve, learning for himself that repetition and rehearsal is key to any progress he will make. To compare his reading in the summer term of Y7 to this time last year, Tom has made great gains and can now read at a functional level, carefully breaking words down to decode and make use of the toolkit he has built, to help him read unfamiliar, longer words.
However, what Tom doesn’t show – and won’t for a while yet – is the ability to read with total fluency or at any quick pace close to the demands of a KS2 test. It is not always true, but quite often, that students with reading accuracy difficulties also possess a more limited range of vocabulary. This could possibly be a direct result of a) not being able to access more challenging texts that offer exposure to new words, b) a lack of word variety in the home, or c) a multitude of other reasons! Whatever the root cause, I’m quite certain that students who make good reading progress in Y7 will not be able to demonstrate it through a resit of this paper.
If those in power are set on building evidence to confirm that the ‘catch-up’ funding they offer to schools is being used wisely, this is not the way forward. There are no silver bullets. Just as one meal is not enough to rectify a lifetime of malnourishment, one academic year (which, let’s not forget, sees a colossal change in a child’s life) is not enough to fix years of literacy famine. A more longitudinal approach to measuring progress in this area, I believe, is necessary.
With no recent mention of this proposal on official sites, I’m very much hoping there’ll be news in the coming months of this being another educational U-turn. It would be great if those in office could meet with those in the classroom to consider what success might look like through a different lens.
An article written in the TES News this week caught my eye and got me thinking. John Boyne, author of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, claims that we should be encouraged to read well, or not at all. He believes that there is little point in reading for its own sake. Citing titles such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, he asks, “Reading for its own sake – what’s the point of that, if people aren’t reading interesting or challenging books?”
It’s a tough one, isn’t it. On the one hand, we have a duty as teachers to encourage students to find intellectually stimulating texts with challenging vocabulary and grammatical accuracy. As Literacy Leader, I am careful not to direct students to books that I feel would offer no opportunity for progression on their reading journey. We SHOULD be encouraging readers to embrace texts that demonstrate beautifully constructed sentences, take us to exciting and unfamiliar places, test our opinions and open our minds to new ways of thinking. With that, I don’t disagree.
What I would question, however, is the idea that a text that does not challenge is pointless. Boyne’s viewpoint neglects all those readers who read for enjoyment. Consider a student who has a very difficult home life and needs something to escape to. Or a struggling, weary teacher who finds reading a peaceful exercise, but doesn’t have the energy to be questioned or face anything too testing after a long day at work. Surely there is merit in the practice of reading in those instances?
I wonder if the analogy of running might help here. Suppose a runner has a marathon to undertake in a month’s time and is currently in the training phase. If the runner was to attempt a marathon-long run every day in the lead up to that event, they would surely reach a point of exhaustion before the event. Any experienced runner knows that a good training plan alternates run days with rest days and other forms of interval training. What’s more, many experienced runners without an event in the pipeline enjoy a short jog every now and then. It’s good for the mind and soul.
Could we not apply the same idea to reading?
As a teacher, I question what right I have to discourage a student from reading, if it gives them pleasure. While I would, of course, encourage students to be mindful of the text choices they make, asking them to review what a certain book may or may not offer, I would be concerned that having an opinion where students should ONLY read if it will pose challenge might put them off reading altogether.
Like any hobby, one must take ownership of a practice in order to develop a love for it and, I believe, there is no harm in reading, sometimes just for the sake of reading.
Last July, I wrote the first of a two-part blog post (see part 1 here) sharing some early musings around the best approach for a new vocabulary model that we wanted to introduce at my school. This generated much interest and a number of people since have asked for the second instalment. As a result of the programme’s ongoing evolution, there have been alterations along the way. Nevertheless, I finally present to you the sequel, in the form of a write-up from my session at ResearchED last Saturday. My colleague, Phil Stock, has also written about this here.
Footage of the session will be available here soon.
On Saturday 7th November, I was privileged to speak at the first ResearchED Secondary English & Literacy conference at Swindon Academy. (To see my Top 5 takeaway points from the day, see here.) My session explored the importance of direct vocabulary instruction.
To begin, I asked those present to spend a few minutes discussing where they would rank each of these actions on a scale from least energy required to most.
When feeding back as a group, two members of the audience beat me to my own teaching point, making the case that this task would be impossible without the semantic knowledge of the words in bold. I then displayed the following slide, which I had composed to exemplify how unfamiliar words can instantaneously become unwelcome hurdles that students must face when trying to comprehend a given text.
“Those who know 90 percent of the words in a text will understand its meaning and, because they understand, they will also begin to learn the other 10 percent of the words.” (E.D. Hirsch, 2003)
I proceeded to explain that a study conducted by Beck et al. into the acquisition of new vocabulary resulted in the speculation of a continuum, whereby different texts can present a reader with a variety of scenarios, some which offer the necessary clues to help us learn a word meaning and, for others, no clues at all. More information is given in the PPT slides embedded at the foot of this post.
As a result of their studies, Beck’s team resolved that “…relying on learning word meanings from independent reading is not an adequate way to deal with students’ vocabulary development.” Beck, McKeown & Kucan (2013)
I’m in full agreement with this, not least because there are a great number of students who won’t necessarily come into contact with unfamiliar vocabulary through independent reading anyway, as a result of a lack of interest in books, or they may be reading texts that lack enough challenge.
Next, I outlined the memory process we believe to be true when acquiring new information. I shared Anderson’s theory (1994), asserting that information is stored in biomodal packets, separated into linguistic packets called ‘logogens’ and non-linguistic packets called ‘imagens’.
Both Anderson’s theory and that of Sadoski and Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory (1994), support the notion that experiences are stored in language terms but also in ways more connected to senses, feelings, emotions, visual perceptions etc. From these theories, it can be ascertained that an individual learns new information by initially creating an episodic memory of an event (ie. a one-off experience) which, with repetition, can become a semantic experience whereby the learner begins to assimilate new information as part of a deeper network of knowledge around a particular idea or theme.
I noted the importance of Graham Nuthall’s working memory model here, stressing that three conditions that lead to effective processing are:
- Strength – multiple exposures to new information (at least 3 or 4 within a limited time) is essential in order to embed knowledge
- Depth – ensuring students think ‘hard’ about new information so as not to allow it to just hover on the surface, instead challenging learners to wrestle with new ideas and concepts to ensure they are deeply rooted
- Elaboration – providing opportunities for learners to make connections and associations with previously acquired knowledge, in order for this to ‘latch’ onto something
In discussing which words should be targetted for direct instruction, I made reference to three sources:
- Rolfus and Ackerman (1999) asserted that subject knowledge has a high degree of specificity i.e. little transfer. The five particular areas they recommend to teach are:
a) Subject specific words and phrases embody deep, underlying concepts e.g. condensation, genre
b) Roots and suffixes e.g. gen, anti-
c) Proper nouns e.g. Carl Lewis
d) Compound words e.g. drummer boy
e) Subject and verb phrases e.g. book review
- Beck’s contribution of the tiered vocabulary pyramid suggests that words can be categorised into three tiers.
The advice from Beck suggests that it is Tier 2 words that should be taught explicitly, since these are the words that arise less frequently in conversation, more in writing. This theory would suggest that, as a result of teaching Tier 2 words, Tier 3 words can then be accessed more easily by the learner. While there is some sense in this approach, much of the research undertaken in the area of memory would dispute this method, arguing that the teaching of words need to be deeply rooted within their subject domain, in order to connect new information to already-learnt knowledge.
- The final source was taken from a synthesis of research studies undertaken by the National Reading Panel (NRP) in the US, 2010. As a result of their analysis, they identified eight findings that provide a scientifically based foundation for the design of rich vocabulary instruction. These were:
These findings, as well as the great research undertaken by Robert J. Marzano in his book “Building Academic Vocabulary“, have directly informed our delivery of vocabulary instruction at Greenshaw.
All too aware of the gap between word-rich and word-poor students, we recognise the crucial importance of providing all students with direct and indirect experiences, broadening their understanding of the world, enabling students from both privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds alike to obtain and retain new words taught.
“[There is an] estimated difference of vocabulary knowledge of 4,700 words between students of high and low social economic status.” (Templin, 1957)
It is through the mediums of those listed below that we might be able to develop students’ vocabulary in a way that meets their individual needs.
Taking direction from Marzano’s work, we have implemented 6 steps of effective vocabulary instruction in our Year 7 research trial.
See slides 41-60 of the PPT shared at the bottom of this post for more information and the filmed session, which will be available here shortly.
In closing, I will attempt to outline the structure we have designed, in order to deliver two strands of vocabulary instruction, namely subject-specific English words (Tier 2&3) and roots, prefixes and suffixes.
As you can see from the image above, one tutor time session a week is reserved for a morphology and etymology focus on words. During this time, tutors across a range of different curriculum subjects deliver 15 minutes of intensive vocabulary delivery, teaching the meaning of common roots required at KS3 and beyond.
In addition to this, students are also explicitly taught Tier 2 and 3 subject-specific words in their English classes, directly linked to the text being studied at the time. See the slide below for our first cycle of Autumn term words and roots taught.
Here is a rough idea of how much direct instruction students might receive over a fortnight’s cycle.
As I explained in my talk and, as is the reality for so many teachers, there is never enough time to teach the content of the curriculum, let alone trying to cram in additional vocabulary content. This is why we have moved some of the definitions and connections tasks originally designed to take place in English lessons to our online learning platform, giving students the opportunity to revisit information multiple times by completing multiple choice quizzes and games online between lessons, set as homework. (When I figure out how to share the demo of this on here, I will!)
I hope this has given some insight into the development of our vocabulary curriculum design, but would encourage you to check out the footage from the session when it becomes available for a complete walk through.
PPT slides here:
Saturday 7th November saw the first ResearchED Secondary English & Literacy event at Swindon Academy. It really was a fantastic day. Whether you made it to the event or not, here’s my top 5 moments of the day:
- Professor Ray Land opened the day with a keynote talk on Threshold Concepts, revealing why new knowledge can be so troublesome and unsettling for learners at any age. It would be foolish for me to even attempt to summarise Ray’s presentation as it was brilliant in many ways. His research-rooted insight into why students struggle to understand or take hold of such large scale concepts in the classroom was fascinating.
- The structure of the day; the travelling, the cake breaks and the pockets of times waiting for sessions to begin, offered welcome spaces for some geeky, intellectually provocative and nutritious conversations about teaching and learning matters with colleagues both familiar and new.
- The menu of sessions on offer was packed with so many great choices. There was real opportunity to hear some fantastic teachers and leaders share their knowledge of research and how they are applying this to their curriculum design and pedagogy in the school where they work. For me, this included:
a) listening to Summer Turner share the English curriculum design with a heavy focus on rich literature that she and colleagues have put in place at the East London Science School
b) learning from Katie Ashford about the importance of rigorous grammar instruction – something we are evolving at our school, so it was great to see that Michaela Community School is one step ahead
c) soaking up the wisdom offered by Eric Kalenze on the importance of background knowledge (was sorry not to see the end of this, but grateful for technology!)
It was a shame to miss other great speakers including Phil Stock, Andy Tharby, James Murphy, but am looking forward to catching up with their sessions online when they’re available.
- The priviledge of delivering a session myself alongside some excellent speakers, on the importance of direct vocabulary instruction. I do believe this is one area of literacy that has huge value in the classroom and enhances students’ deeper learning, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to lead on this (blog post soon to follow on here).
- Not wishing to wrestle any credit away from Tom Bennett or David Didau, there’s a warm sense of achievement that I believe those involved can enjoy on days like this. It’s worth reflecting that the ResearchED community is central to this ever-growing grassroots movement, snowballing solely because those people who live and breathe education are passionate enough to ensure that this super profession remains transparent, research-driven and authentic.
I will blog about my talk here in the next couple of days.
Here’s to the next one!
Next Saturday, I will be one of a number of gathered teachers and researchers who share a common aim – hopeful that, through organic grass roots events like @researchED1, it might be possible to reduce the considerable chasm between educational research and classroom practice.
Attending this event for the first time last year, I was surprised by the number of delegates present who had sacrificed a day of their weekend to travel, ready to participate in the workshops on offer and be willing to engage in educational conversations with others there. It was refreshing to experience an approach to teaching and learning so rooted in research and, after a powerful day, I left feeling positively challenged.
That’s why this year I’m really pleased to have been invited to lead a workshop at the @researchED1 Literacy event on Saturday 7th November at Swindon Academy, run by event directors David Didau, Tom Bennett & Hélène O’Shea.
As Literacy Leader in my school, and also recently appointed as a Lead Learner in research too, I will be delivering a workshop on the importance of teaching vocabulary in order to enhance students’ understanding across the curriculum. Incidentally, the session itself is far more interesting than the somewhat tedious title I gave it: “Improving students’ understanding through direct vocabulary instruction”.
Many months ago on my blog, I wrote Part 1 of a 2-part post on the new vocabulary programme we were soon to implement in my school as a result of the research we had carried out called ‘Root Planner’. See here. It was always intended that the second part of the duo (‘Root Map’) would be published soon after, outlining the implementation of the programme. For a number of reasons this failed to transpire and, so, albeit a year later, I will be posting Part 2 of this post following my presentation next Saturday.
A great colleague of mine, Phil Stock, has shared the journey of this whole-school language intervention with me and has recently written about this on his blog here, following the presentation he gave at #TLT15 earlier in October.
I’m very much looking forward to the day; to hearing some super speakers, to reflecting on my own practice and to embracing the possibilities an event of this nature can bring to teaching and learning.
Hope to see you there!
On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.
This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.
While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.
Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.
Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.
With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:
The DfE website states that:
… And after that? What happens then?
If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?
There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.
I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:
- What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
- If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
- How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
- Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?
Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.
If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:
- the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
- ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!)
By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.
In my role as Literacy Leader, I find myself constantly reflecting on what we are doing well as a school and what we could be doing better with regard to supporting student literacy. Embedded within this review process is a persistent thought that works its way into my conscience time and time again, leading me to question what reading or writing support students are getting at home.
Working in a great secondary school based in Greater London, rightly proud of its own active engagement with the local community, it welcomes students from quite a diverse catchment area. This results in the intake of a wide range of students who have vastly different backgrounds. This includes those who come from homes where literacy is rated as fundamental, being the foundation on which all other learning can take place, to those families who consider literacy as almost irrelevant, so long as their child is happy to step into the family business. In these cases (which thankfully are few but nevertheless real) being able to read and write is considered merely a ‘bonus’. Not an easy partnership to nurture when your aim is to equip every student with the same essential ‘toolkit’ to get through life beyond their compulsory education years.
Standing with most other educationalists in the teaching profession, I presume, I’m of the strong opinion that a positive home-school relationship with regular and valuable communication is the best approach to scaffolding student learning. For this reason, when I see articles like the two listed below, I question whether we are going far enough with sharing our expertise with students and their parents/carers. Take a look…
With my reading-instruction-radar firmly switched to ‘ON’, it seems to me that we are missing a step in the learning process, particularly for those students from homes where reading might not come naturally to their parents, either.
Geoff Barton, in his great book ‘Don’t Call it Literacy!’ (Routledge: 2013) outlines some of the key points taken from a survey carried out by the National Literacy Trust in 2010, named Literacy: State of the Nation, A picture of literacy in the UK today. Barton writes:
- ‘Parents are the most important reading role models for their children and young people’
- ‘One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children’
That’s 80% of parents who don’t, then…
- ‘Recent research has shown that the likelihood of fathers reading to their children is linked to their socio-economic background.’
21% of dads in £40-50k income homes read with their children compared to 11% in £10-15k income homes.
Various different research studies have looked into the positive and negative effects of adult support within education and, in all those that I have come across, results seem to suggest that TAs who have had the necessary, thorough training around how to deliver particular programmes to students are ones where impact is most effective. Just one of these examples can be found here: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Default.aspx?tabid=2438
With this in mind (i.e. the knowledge that training is essential in order for adults to have a positive impact on student learning), is it time for schools who have, for example, established reading programmes and interventions in place, to now take a step further and look to supporting parents as well? If research suggests that academic success is determined partially through the level of parental involvement in their own child’s studies, do we need to start thinking creatively about how to support the parents as well as the students? Perhaps that initially means just targetting families where illiteracy or, at least, a very low level of literacy is present, or delivering a series of workshops within different departments across the school to create greater discussion opportunities that focus on how parents can support their child’s learning best?
Another superb book highlighting the importance of literacy within schools has been written by David Didau called ‘The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit explicit’ (Independent Thinking Press:2014). In a section of the book on ‘Building a Reading Culture’, Didau lists the recommendations given by the Department for Education on reading. The very first point in the list advises,
- ‘Engage parents by inviting them to become members of the school library, or by inviting them to workshops on how to support their child’s reading.’
This is useful advice and, while I’m confident we do this as a school to a point by engaging and training up some of our invaluable volunteer parents in how to teach reading to our weaker readers across the school, I don’t know if we are going far enough. For our weakest readers, in particular those ones who come from homes where parents are unable to support due to a lack of reading ability themselves, do we need to target the root of the problem here first?
Unquestionably, our biggest priority is to put our students first. This is our call of duty, our responsibility as facilitators of learning. I just wonder if we now need to start thinking outside the box with these home-school related issues a little more in order to best support our students and, as a result, advancing ever closer towards our goal for a more holistic approach to learning.
This is the first of a two-part post.
‘Part 1: ROOT PLANNER’ outlines the ideology behind the new vocabulary stream I’ve designed in connection with the launch of our new English Curriculum.
‘Part 2: ROOT MAP’ will offer a more detailed sketch of the vocabulary map we will be working from, exploring ways to engage students with the importance of language and the art of how to use it.
1. FIND THE KEY
It took me four attempts to pass my driving test. I’d like to say it was the fault of the innocent-looking woman waiting at the zebra crossing, for showing no obvious signs she was about to step into the road as I zoomed past (at quite an impressive speed). Or I could blame that thoughtless trio of examiners I had for endeavouring to engage me in polite conversation during the journey, despite it being glaringly apparent I had a lot going on. But really, I knew.
It was only after the third walk of shame up the garden path back to my parents’ house where I was living at the time that I consciously took a moment to gather my thoughts and reflect. I realised where I’d been going wrong. It was not, in fact, those dreaded manoeuvres that were my downfall after all, but more my hazard perception in built up areas. If I’d had the sense to identify my specific weaknesses, noticing a pattern earlier on rather than seeing each test as just another ghastly event independent from the others, I’m sure I’d have cracked the code sooner.
How is this relevant?
Well, apart from offering you a rare opportunity to indulge in a moment of healthy schadenfreude, for me, the development of literacy is a bit like learning to drive. The challenges embedded within complex processes such as being able to recognise written letter combinations (graphemes) and being able to decode them, spell spoken sounds (phonemes) accurately – within both familiar and unfamilar vocabulary – and grasp the full meaning of a rich text at its various different layers can sometimes be a little overwhelming.
Gear in neutral, check. Start the engine, check. L foot on the clutch, check.
Gear into 1st, check. Position mirrors, check. Control the wheel, check.
R foot gently on the gas, check. Remove handbrake, check.
Final blindspot check. Turn the wheel, check.
L foot off the clutch, check.
Having felt quite secure in my knowledge of the English alphabetic code growing up, I never considered the possibility that I’d only been exposed to a minute proportion of the key principles underpinning our language. I could read, write and spell with ease but it was really not until I began teaching reading and vocabulary acquisition myself (primarily to younger students, then older ones with reading difficulties) that I became fully aware of our diverse and creative language.
In Art, we take time to appreciate intricate patterns. As Mathematicians, we make it our business to hunt for them. In Science, we continually look for patterns in results, consequently making crucial predictions based on these. So why on earth do we not naturally think to do this with our language – the single most important communication tool we rely on day in, day out?
A very real but healthy challenge secondary schools must acknowledge is the sheer scale of subject content covered across the different departments. Unlike primary education where a closer environment lends itself to more regular teacher collaboration, working in isolated departments is possibly one of our biggest obstacles in guaranteeing a holistic approach to learning. And yet, on the flipside, this very hurdle could be our greatest friend. Language spans across all curriculum subjects and, without wishing to be melodramatic, across every other aspect of life yet we fail to use it in its magnificent entirety. This ‘tool’ contains hundreds of patterns just waiting to be identified in order to help make our acquisition of language easier, be that in reading it, spelling it or understanding it.
2. KNOW YOUR ROOT
The oxford dictionaries website claims,
“…there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”
Excellent. As a proud and ‘outed’ logophile, I rejoice in the knowledge of this. If the above estimate is true, that’s somewhere between 250,000-750,000 words floating around for us to explore. Wonderful. So how do we propose to teach them all?
Simply put, we don’t. That would be ridiculous.
I am confident, however, that we’re missing a trick (where ‘a trick’ means ‘a simply great way to teach vocabulary’). What we are in a position to do is employ strategies that offer the most time-effective, cognitively engaging methods to ensure words are taught and embedded in the long-term memory, drawing on research-based assessment methods to consolidate learning.
I am without doubt that language needs to be taught explicitly. While it is obviously pleasing to see students reading texts for their own enjoyment and, usually as a result they broaden their knowledge of vocabulary, this is not the only way to encourage language aquisition. It’s not the only way and it’s not the best way, either.
In his excellent book, ‘The Secret of Literacy’ (2014), David Didau suggests that, while ‘wide reading’ is fine, we are mistaken to believe that this is the best way to develop vocabulary. He explains,
“Written language is a far less effective medium for building vocabulary than spoken language.
Typically, pupils only learn between five and fifteen of every 100 new words encountered in
written texts.” (p173)
While engaging and helpful in the process, this kind of exposure to new words is never going to move mountains. Didau goes on to cite the great English teacher and education blogger, Joe Kirby, who suggests that we should be teaching root words as our default rather than isolated words divorced from others possessing the same root. “In that way, instead of just teaching one word, we’re potentially teaching hundreds of words.” (p174)
I suppose, in likening this aspect of literacy to maths, it would be comparable to teaching every single number independent from all the others, rather than teaching the decimal principle which relies on the use of hundreds, tens and units etc.
Language has a clear structure and as educators it is our responsibility to scaffold students’ learning by ensuring we provide the necessary foundation blocks for them to be able to continue building on this independently.
An understanding of what root words, prefixes and suffixes are is the first step to solid language development, in my opinion. Following that, a consistent, direct teaching which targets the most common roots in our language will undoubtedly give students greater freedom to explore vocabulary.
Take the root word ‘chron’. ‘Chron’ means ‘time’.
During one of my regular Sound Training sessions (a literacy programme we use and rate highly – designed to support both reading accuracy and knowledge of root words to aid learning), I was asked:
“Miss, so if ‘chron’ means time, why does my Dad say he gets ‘chronic’ back pain?”
I couldn’t answer this with any conviction as, until this moment of realisation, had always misunderstood the term to mean ‘severe’. On researching it’s etymology with the group of Year 9 students we learnt it actually means ‘continuing for a long time’.
I’ve also welcomed conversations with questions like this…
“Miss, so if ‘photosynthesis’ means […] does that mean ‘sis’ means
‘the process of’ like ‘tion’ does?”
To be able to explore such an intricately-woven tapestry like the English language, investigating roots and their meanings with students who clearly show an interest is the kind of precious learning time I relish.
I really do believe there are huge merits to teaching vocabulary in this way and, working in partnership with a great colleague of mine, Phil Stock, plan to pilot this approach from September with the launch of the new English Curriculum. (See his post on the broader new KS3 English curriculum here.)
Not only do root words have invaluable benefits on students’ comprehension of unfamiliar vocabulary, they also significantly aid spelling. Once the meaning and spelling of a single root has been learnt, by utilising the other essential ‘tools’ taught alongside roots (such as: counting the number of syllables in a word, learning both common and akward graphemes, having an awareness of confusing homophones & homographs etc.), it is anticipated that students will be able to spell with far greater confidence.
WREWTS MEEN VARY LITUL UNLESC YEW CANNES WREED AN RITE
I have no desire on the final leg of this marathon blog post to steer us in another direction but it would be ludicrous not to briefly mention another equally important aspect of literacy – the ability to decode isolated sounds (phonemes) and spell them accurately (graphemes). Within the vocabulary stream of our new English curriculum model, we intend to build in tried and tested methodologies to teach spelling and decoding in the mainstream classroom, alongside the comprehension aspect of roots.
phoneme = e.g. the sound you hear when you say ‘f’
graphemes = the written representations of the sound ‘f’ = fun, phone, cough, puff
grapheme = e.g. the written representation of the sound ‘ch’
phonemes = the different sounds you hear in the words: chips, chef, chorus
As a result of including this element in the model*, it is expected that students will benefit from having a greater handle on vocabulary and an increased confidence to use words more freely.
*Part 2 of this post will outline the model in greater detail.
(As an aside: I should say here that, while we are very eager to launch this model in September, we have no intention to reduce our intervention support for students who face barriers to reading. There will inevitably always be a need for support at Wave 1 (in class), Wave 2 (group support) and Wave 3 (1:1 tuition) for students who require further alternative support to help close the gap between them and their peers. For these students, we will continue to use the synthetic phonics-based programmes we currently use, such as: Read, Write Inc. Fresh start and Toe by Toe etc. We also intend to deliver Sound Training – a phonics and roots-based literacy programme – with each student in our new Year 7 cohort.)
3. PREPARE FOR OBSTACLES
One reason why this approach to teaching vocabulary may not have been so ardently pursued before could be due to the cocktail of possible misconceptions that lie within the model.
Take these words, for example:
Here, we have two very different words, though their beginnings are identical. It is quite common for students to mix up the roots ‘bi’ and ‘bio’, since it is not always clear to see where one morpheme (root) ends in a word and the next begins. The best way to tackle this is to ensure students are made fully aware, right from the onset, that there are likely to be confusions like this within some words. It is at the point of uncertainty as in the example shown above, that we would then use the learners’ knowledge of roots in combination with their understanding of the word in context to make an educated guess around its meaning. Once the context has been established, it is then possible to dissect the constructed word into what would simply revert back to its original collection of root meanings.
Other anticipated confusions include…
a) there can be more than one meaning for a root
b) there can be more than one root for a meaning
c) there can be words without any helpful clues
However, by disclosing these potential misconceptions with students at the beginning of the year, we hope to significantly reduce the potential margin of error surrounding what is, largely, a reliable and precious resource.
4. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS
(Click on the image above to appreciate its comedic value.)
It is a small but worthwhile point to make that, when expecting students to use lexical jewels in their writing, we need to be mindful that some will have had greater opportunities and life experiences than others, giving some an inevitable advantage over their peers. Similarly, if students are not choosing to read challenging texts for pleasure at school or at home, they are inhibiting their chances of language development, thus reducing the likelihood that they will ever recreate the extravagant use of vocabulary we see in challenging texts within in their own writing. While this point may be partly out of our hands – unable to influence some home life factors contributing to this – we may be able to support students both within and around the classroom environment by helping them select ability-appropriate books (with a welcome level of demand) that they will enjoy.
5. TEST YOUR THEORY
As previously mentioned, Part 2 of this post will outline in greater detail the systematic approach we will adopt to teaching vocabulary from September 2014. Included in this post, there will be an outline of our proposed method of assessment, discussing the frequency of these and suggesting why formative assessments throughout the year are just as important as the direct teaching. Each term, students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding through the use of short, regular, purposeful tests that will be used not only to assess understanding but to embed knowledge too.
6. GET YOUR LICENCE… and GO!
While I love words and am excited to drive this stream forward, I’m not naïve enough to think that through this approach, all teachers and students will magically become fellow logophiles too. What I do hope, however, is that through employing the best evidence-based teaching methods that support memory retention in the long-term, students will be able to look at language in a refreshed way, seizing opportunities to explore language deeply.
The vision is not only for students to benefit from what will hopefully be an improved confidence in reading, spelling and selecting vocabulary for their writing, but for them to develop a genuine enthusiasm for words too, recognising the incredible impact language can have across all areas of learning and life.
Part 2: ROOT MAP to follow soon…
Have you ever had one of those unexpectedly heartwarming conversations with a student before? You know – the kind that you’re really not expecting, but when it comes it hits a nerve and makes you want to reflect on it/ act on it/ share it with someone? I had one of those this week and felt it was far too important to keep to myself.
I was teaching a 1:1 session on Wednesday, working with a year 8 girl who has severe dyslexia. While ‘Kelly’ is making good progress with her literacy and it is obvious to see she can now read far more independently than when she joined us a year ago, inevitably the gap between her and her peers is still wide and, sadly, it continues to grow. Perhaps surprisingly, the sadness in this for me is not the fact that Kelly is ‘behind’ most of her peers. Nor is it that she is having to work so hard in order to keep up. What I believe to be the saddest thing about Kelly’s situation is the fact that this is not how it has to be.
In the quite brief but almost-epiphanic conversation I had with Kelly, she revealed a number of ‘wishes’ she had in relation to her learning experience. She gave such an impassioned speech, I couldn’t not write it down.
Kelly’s ‘Top 5’ Wish List
1. “I wish I could get a piece of homework that I could complete entirely on my own without help from my Mum.”
2. “I wish I could show I understand in a way that doesn’t need me to write loads.”
3. “I wish I could just have a print out of the lesson PPT next to me, so I can use the time to process the information rather than copy loads of words I can’t read from the board.”
4. “I wish I didn’t have to copy out tables/charts but get blank examples instead so I could fill them out and show I know what to do.”
5. “I wish my teacher wouldn’t ask me to read out loud.”
(I should say at this point… wherever I refer to “Kelly’s teachers” I don’t mean ‘
all‘ but ‘some’. I also intend the word ‘teachers’ to mean teachers generally – across the profession, in a number of schools.)
Kelly is very bright. Her verbal recall is pretty impressive, her understanding of concepts and ideas across the different curriculum subjects is good and her emotional intelligence is high. She has the ability to relate to people incredibly well – on a deeper level than many other students I’ve come into contact with – and can express how she feels eloquently. All that said, she is not showing progress in many of her lessons and crucially, in her end of unit graded assessments.
This leads us to assume the position of an enquiring young child in that all-important developmental phase where they relentlessly follow a series of steps, asking that essential (if a little annoying) question:
So let’s use it.
FACT: Kelly isn’t showing progress.
REASON 1: Because she isn’t being given the opportunities to do so.
REASON 2: Because Kelly’s teachers aren’t providing differentiated work for her.
Now, I realise I’m putting this out there without huge amounts of investigative research, but through observations and conversations, I’m quite confident of the following two points…
A) I’m quite certain that the lack of differentiation in some (not all!) mainstream classrooms is NOT because Kelly’s teachers are lazy. I know the hours that teachers work. I am one! I see the time and effort given to planning lessons, both within my own school and in others.
B) I’m also sure that Kelly’s teachers aren’t so mean and cold-hearted that they’d refuse her requests for help, should she pluck up the courage to ask.
No. What I think is more likely to be the case (and am pretty sure is common across many primary and secondary schools), is this:
REASON 3: Kelly’s teachers don’t necessarily know the best ways to support her.
In this profession with time as precious as it is, as a mainstream teacher we may hear the word ‘dyslexia’ and, not knowing enough about it, can almost mentally pass the responsibility of that child’s progress onto the SEN department, because “they’ll surely know how to provide for Kelly best, and will support her with the work she clearly can’t do on her own. Right…?”
The word dyslexia takes it’s root meaning from two Greek words:
Dys = ‘difficulty’
Lexia = ‘words’
Kelly has a problem with words – with reading, writing and spelling – FACT. But, Kelly has potential for great success too – FACT. Kelly can understand. Ask Kelly to respond verbally, and she’s got it. Ask her to draw it, to act it, to explain it and she meets the lesson objectives. However, ask her to write her answer down … fail.
Don’t get me wrong. I realise I’m simplifying the situation. Believe me, more than most I’m fully aware of the fact that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ nature with our students. I’m not so naive to believe that every student with literacy difficulties could easily match the ability of their peers if it wasn’t for the reading and writing aspect. Some students positioned on the spectrum of dyslexia are also low-ability in some subjects and would not be able to grasp some of the concepts taught in a mainstream classroom. I’m not professing that it’s as simple as handing out a mindmap and shouting ‘abracadabra!‘ and instantly the ability gap is miraculously closed.
What I do believe, however, is that there are some incredibly simple but powerful ways in which we can support students in the mainstream classroom, making the learning far more accessible.
Give Kelly a template to show her understanding rather than demand that she copies out the table like everyone else, and she’ll show you what she can do.
Give her a device, an app, a programme to work on instead of asking her to write every single word by hand and she’ll be able to prove she knows what’s going on.
Give her a flash of colour on a PPT slide instead of black and white and she’ll be able to follow along without losing interest so quickly.
Don’t demand that she reads aloud in front of her peers and she won’t kick off like she normally does.
The document below is definitely not designed to be an exhaustive list or a miracle cure for students with literacy difficulties in your classroom. However, it may be a handy visual reminder to help you create a more dyslexia-friendly classroom.
PREVIEW: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom