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I tried that and it didn’t work . . .

Education has a reputation for being subject to fads, where new ideas are adopted and then dropped. It seems to me that this is not so much because teachers are lazy, but because we are so enthusiastic, and always eager for new ways to help our students. Approaches that we think ‘work’, we keep in our arsenal, while we discard those that ‘don’t work’.

There is always the next new thing. We had Brain Gym, VAK, and NLP. We had versions of AfL that reduced it to lolly sticks and endless ‘dialogue’ marking. More lately we’ve had grit, growth mindset, and mindfulness. We have cold calling, interleaved practice, and worked examples. These approaches range from having no evidence, to misinterpreted evidence, to quite sound evidence. Sometimes it’s our intuition, rather than the evidence, that has made an approach appealing. Responding to superficial features rather than checking the evidence for ourselves can lead to a lot of trouble later on.

But there is another problem. It’s the comment in the title of this post: “I tried that, but . . . .” In the hectic pace of school life, it’s so easy to approach new strategies – or interventions – superficially. We cut corners from the original approach, make a few ‘adjustments’ and ‘adapt to our context’ (which often means, ‘our timetable’). Then we wonder why it’s ‘not working’ – why students don’t seem engaged, why there doesn’t seem to be much progress. Well, if it’s not the original version, why would it?

Another explanation for why an approach isn’t working could be that the expected outcomes were overstated. This is why it is so important to understand the evidence (including the theoretical framework) underlying the strategy. If the underlying practices employed in an intervention are not supported by decent empirical research, why would we expect it to have impact in the classroom? The same goes for statements about the programme’s outcomes. I read of one reading intervention that initially claimed an effect size of 1 – about a year’s progress over a ten-week period. The actual impact dropped to a quarter of that in an EEF pilot, and then to zero in a wider study.

Understanding the underlying methodology also matters because it gives us a better chance of understanding why certain elements are arranged as they are. Does it really matter if two components are switched? I recall observing one reading tutor who had changed the order of the lesson plan she had been trained to use. When asked why she did this, she simply said that she preferred to start the lesson at a different point. She had forgotten that it mattered to start the lesson with previous learning. (For the record, this is for revision, success and motivation.) Fidelity of delivery is essential if we are to expect good outcomes.

One of the biggest threats to fidelity of delivery is that now very-discussed phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We feel confident that we have mastered something only because we are such novices that we don’t know how much we still have to learn. Early success can convince us that we know enough to tinker, and that can ultimately have negative consequences. If we persevere with learning more about an approach, we often find that we have skills to learn which, when we set out, we didn’t even know existed.

So concluding that “it didn’t work” is not the end of the process. If we find that a strategy or intervention isn’t working, we should ask ourselves: is it to do with the way we have implemented it, or were the expected outcomes overstated to begin with? If research shows that the latter is the case, it is best to let it go and focus on something more evidence-based in future. If, on the other hand, honest self-review shows that we are not delivering it as intended, then we need to focus on fidelity of delivery and if necessary, upskill.

The key is being humble enough to reflect and change if we need to.

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Building on the Evidence

15 Tests for secondary school reading interventions

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Spring Cleaning

How to save time and money through screening

There is a widespread framework for intervention, sometimes known as Response to Intervention (RTI), which proposes that students can receive help at three different levels of intensity:

Tier 1 – good quality classroom instruction and school structures that encourage learning.

Tier 2 – small group instruction to address needs that a few students have in common.

Tier 3 – intensive one-to-one instruction for students where Tier 2 is not effective.

 

Sometimes people are critical of this model as it is deemed an ineffective intervention, but this betrays a confusion: RTI is not strictly an intervention, it is model for delivering interventions – more specifically, for deciding how to allocate resources, so that those who need the most get the most.

Recently I came across this short but useful practice brief on RTI implementation via the Institute for Evidence in Education. It is recommended reading for school leaders who are responsible for allocating resources.

The issues covered in the report are very familiar:

  1. Timetabling and resourcing concerns are always tricky, but especially in the current school funding environment.
  2. The degree to which staff are trained is very important. We have always focused on a coaching model for staff who deliver the Thinking Reading programme, but now we are also moving towards a coaching model for intervention leadership, to embed good practice and high evaluation standards.
  3. It is necessary to use a robust screening system which enables the school to allocate students to different levels of intervention. It is surprising how often we come across a lack of clear criteria or policy in this area; often directing a student to an intervention is reactive to teacher referrals or behavioural difficulties, instead of proactive in identifying needs and addressing these before they impinge on progress.
  4. Consequently, it is essential to differentiate clearly between Tier 2 and Tier 3 and to balance resourcing against actual student needs. Limited resources have to be used effectively. Students who need Tier 3 will benefit very little from Tier 2; likewise, comparatively expensive Tier 3 resourcing should be reserved for those who really need it. A good screening system will enable the school to make judicious decisions.

Without screening systems, a school may think that their needs for intervention are greater than they really are. If we just list all the students with one low test score, then it may seem that we have a literacy crisis. In one school where I worked, the first standardised test we ran suggested that 40% of Year 10 needed major intervention. If we had reacted to that one test score, we would have put our GCSE results at risk by pulling too many students out for unneeded interventions.

When we begin training, one of the key areas we work on with the school is ensuring that rigorous screening systems are in place. Students have to score low on two standardised tests and a one-to-one reading assessment to be eligible for the programme. We normally eliminate two-thirds of apparent low attainers in this way (in the example above it was 75%). A good screening system will not only tell you more about the true levels of need, it will also help you to allocate help efficiently. Such systems not only save schools money; they also ensure that students do not have their time wasted by being placed in interventions that they don’t need.

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Are All Students Screened for Reading?

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It’s Not Too Late

Are grammar schools the best way to address social mobility?

You may think that providing disadvantaged children with the opportunity to attend a grammar school – supposedly resulting in a more academic education – would go some way to addressing that disadvantage, but it isn’t. It’s a diversion from a much more important solution.

Once upon a time, I believed that grammars could be an effective way of addressing the problem – but having read contributions from both sides in the debate, have changed my mind. One reason is the impact on neighbouring schools. Having their highest achieving students ‘creamed off’ will just make it harder for schools to raise aspirations and attainment for the rest.

The second reason is that, contrary to the government’s recent claims, low numbers of disadvantaged children succeed in getting into grammar schools. As Dr Rebecca Allen points out in ‘Ordinary working families’ won’t get access to grammar school – and government data confirms as much, genuinely disadvantaged children are seriously under-represented in selective schools. Students from wealthier backgrounds are far more likely to attend such schools.

There are significant differences at either end of the continuum. Grammar schools favour our most privileged pupils and lock out our most disadvantaged – the very children that grammars are purported to help. What hope is there for the disadvantaged pupil with low literacy?

According to the Read On. Get On campaign, around 20% of pupils arrive at secondary school with low levels of literacy. For disadvantaged pupils this figure is 40%. In other words, nearly half of disadvantaged pupils begin their secondary education without the tools to access the curriculum fully. After five more years of education, the number still struggling is nearly as high.

Illiteracy, and its sibling low literacy, create an underclass in our society. Can you even begin to imagine what it is like not to be able to read, or to struggle with reading? Filling in forms, reading timetables, applying for jobs – let alone reading in-depth news and becoming an informed citizen. The question of social justice goes far beyond equitable access to schooling; it continues throughout life, and literacy is one of the key drivers of social mobility.

The grammar school initiative is a major distraction from much more fundamental issues about the quality of schooling that disadvantaged children receive. I am particularly disturbed by the changes to the weighting of Progress 8 grades: presumably to bolster the evidence for grammars, high grades at GCSE have been given twice the weighting of lower grades. Here is the latest advice from the DfE website. Note the difference in 2017 points compared to 2016:

This creates a clear incentive for schools to invest their resources in students who are already higher-attaining, and to focus less on students at the lower end. It strongly favours selective schools. It also shows an underlying assumption that lower-achieving pupils will make less progress – an assumption which is both unfair and inaccurate.

In fact, low literacy is an entirely solvable problem. We know how to teach reading: use effective close assessment, eliminate the use of damaging and counterproductive labels, and employ thorough, measurable, evidence-informed teaching. The same is true of writing and spelling: systematic, explicit teaching with carefully selected exemplars and guided practice will make a huge difference. Low attainers only remain low attainers if we don’t teach them in the way that they need to be taught. (See here for examples of such students making rapid and sustained progress.)

Addressing low literacy has educational benefits that go far beyond the individual student. Poor behaviour in schools often camouflages an underlying problem with reading. Students whose reading catches up to peers have a tendency to rapidly improve their behaviour. Confidence, resilience and mental health are all benefited by improved reading, as are motivation and empathy. It’s not long before the savings in time and energy more than make up for the investment in addressing literacy.

So, instead of spending precious resources on grammar schools, or managing behaviour, or ‘assistive technologies’, let’s teach them to read and write well. Even if they haven’t achieved this by age eleven, it can still be done. Empowering students through literacy gives them real choices for the future, benefiting their school, their community and the country.

Want to address disadvantage? Address literacy.

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It’s Not Too Late

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The Loneliness of the Literacy Coordinator

Actually, most of the literacy co-ordinators I know are sensible, well-adjusted and have lots of friends! But there are some things about the role that make it much more challenging than it appears to an onlooker.

For one thing, literacy co-ordinators often have a very wide brief. They are often (but not always) meant to ensure that every class in every subject helps to build student’s reading and writing skills. Even with the most willing staff, this job is too much for one person with a teaching load. Inevitably, literacy co-ordinators have to choose which curriculum areas and year groups they prioritise.

Another challenge is to navigate the many possible options for initiatives and interventions. Should the focus be on building a reading culture? On increasing reading mileage? On developing inference, contextual knowledge, response to text or decoding? Or ensuring that students encounter challenging texts in classrooms? Or building subject-specific vocabulary, or more generic, expressive vocabulary? What about extended writing? And how do we make sure that teachers are marking for literacy, and giving feedback? Come to that, do we even know how literate our teachers and LSAs are?

Then there is the depth of the challenge. Frequently, literacy co-ordinators are expected to match students with interventions, and for those students whose problems are severe, the required level of expertise is well beyond that of most teachers, who simply aren’t reading specialists. Couple that with the fact that most secondary reading interventions have limited impact with students a few years behind, but little or no impact for those with more severe problems, and it can be very hard to make a real difference for students in the greatest difficulty.

Once the literacy co-ordinator has defined the achievable limits of their role in the school, they have to set up systems, win staff buy-in, monitor and evaluate impact, and ensure that everything runs like clockwork. They tend to do all this on a time allowance of no more than fours a week, if they are lucky. I’ve talked to some who get no time allowance at all for the role.

So yes, in this sense, there is a loneliness for the literacy co-ordinator. The joy of the job is working with enthusiastic teams to change school culture. The loneliness of the job is when you are sat late at night working with spreadsheets or timetables, the rest of the family in bed, and the clock ticking towards Time to Get Up; or when you are sat in the Head’s office, explaining why the data doesn’t show much progress this year.

We’ve put together a workshop for literacy co-ordinators to help with essential background knowledge, practical strategies for managing the role, and ways to to derive maximum impact from dwindling resources. The aim is to give participants the chance to reflect, be inspired, and to talk to one another about what is working best and why. We will add to that mix with research evidence on why and how reading problems arise, what we can do to promote more effective reading and writing, and how to critically evaluate the claims of different interventions.

You can download a registration form here, or contact us through the website if you’d like more information. Please note that places are limited.

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Struggling readers in the secondary English classroom

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

Struggling readers in the secondary English classroom

“They just can’t access the texts.”

This is one of the most frequent comments we hear when we train in schools or take workshops. All over the country, students with the potential to do better are held back because of weak reading skills. Often these students are articulate in conversation and have good listening comprehension. Sometimes they can decode accurately, but have little clear idea of the content that they have just read. Sometimes they have limited vocabulary and, even if they can decode the words on the page, they still cannot grasp the meaning of the text. Such problems have been even more acute for teachers and students since the reading demands of GCSE have become more challenging.

The old paradigm of labelling such children as having a ‘specific learning difficulty’ won’t do. Naming a problem is not the same as providing a solution. There is sound research evidence to show that with systematic, explicit and carefully monitored instruction, all the problems described above can be ameliorated, if not eliminated.

We have put together a workshop that bridges the gap between this research and classroom practice. As well as looking at how different interventions can meet different needs, we also look at specific classroom strategies for your adolescent struggling readers.

If you are looking for ways to give practical support to struggling readers, you can find out more about our one-day workshops here. (Please note – places are limited.)

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Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

The Bigger Picture

I have been inspired by #picbookday today! It’s reminded me how important picture books (and books in general) have been in our family.

Books and stories have always been a part of my life. Bedtime stories while all tucked up in bed. Listening to family stories told by Grandma. Starting school and learning to read with ease. Anticipating the weekly trips to the library every Friday. The huge, quiet space filled with books. Having the cards stamped and leaving with a pile books to keep me occupied over the weekend and beyond. A childhood spent devouring books.

I remember the first book we bought for our eldest daughter when she was a baby – Each Peach, Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, now a bit more the worse for wear, but still treasured.

As part of my ITT, I took a course on The Picture Book for one semester and amassed a bibliography over 200 picture books. You could say that it was a bit of a passion. Once I was in the classroom all that experience with picture books came to bear. It was a rich, beautiful world to share with my Year 2 children.

Some of my all-time favourites:

This classic, by Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman, evokes the fears of childhood imagination – and the warmth of human relationships. I just love this book!

Anthony Browne wrote fantastic stories with sometimes surreal illustrations. Willy is, of course, a very well-known character.

         

Mitsumasa Anno created beautiful non-fiction books of great scope, helping children to imagine and learn about a world much greater than their immediate environment. It’s one the things that makes books so important for growing minds.

                     

The magical The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg is enthralling – for each story, just a caption and a picture. The reader has to create the rest of the story. The quality of the illustrations is breathtaking.

         

To refresh my memory, I have been delving into the website of a children’s bookshop in New Zealand and thought that British and other readers might like to know about some New Zealand authors and some beautiful NZ-themed picture books.

The legendary Margaret Mahy was a prolific writer, and amongst her many talents was the ability to conjure a most unlikely and comical story. Her writing was such a part of so many children’s growing up.

            

Lynley Dodd is, I think, well known in the UK. The classic is Hairy McClary, “from Donaldson’s Dairy” (in NZ, a dairy is a corner shop). She also created wonderful spinoff characters like Slinky Malinki and the terrifying (but cuddly) Scarface Claw.

          

Eve Sutton with Lynley Dodd as illustrator created a book that became one of our family favourites. Before the internet with cat pictures, there were books with cat pictures!

Pamela Allen, who has published over 50 picture books since 1980, loved to create quirky characters and situations. These three are particular favourites:

           

Gwenda Turner was a masterful illustrator, creating images that had a strange stillness, like a memory or the fragment of a dream. She wrote books that evoked New Zealand, like these:

          

Ronda Armitage told stories (illustrated by her husband David) set in lovely remote places like these. I was particularly fond of these stories, as my grandfather was a lighthouse keeper for many years.

                        

Patricia Grace is a well-known short story writer, whose Maori culture is central to her work. She teamed up with illustrator Robyn Kahukiwa to create this classic, a folk tale about an old woman (kuia) and her friend the spider.

Artist Dick Frizzell and Kingi Ihaka adapted a very European Christmas theme to  the New Zealand context, with charm and humour.

The pleasure of beautiful art and well chosen words make picture books a very rich experience to share with children. It is wonderful to be celebrating them today. In another life, I might have stayed in my classroom and continued to enjoy them with my Year 2s. But it was when some of those children struggled to pick up reading that I began a different journey, into the world of how we teach – so that all children are able to know the joy, and the magic, of these stories for themselves.

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So what is it that you do . . . ?

Into the Dragons’ Den

It’s Not Too Late

Our second session at ResearchED English and MFL, Oxford was entitled It’s Not Too Late to draw attention to a common misconception in secondary schools: namely, that students who are reading seriously behind when they arrive at secondary can never catch up.

We surveyed the research and what it tells us about what it takes to enable struggling adolescent readers to succeed at something where they have always failed. The keys points are:

1 The difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated;

2 Reading is more complex and less intuitive than we think;

3 Addressing the problems of older struggling readers is very intricate – and also immensely rewarding.

We finished the session with some case studies to show just what is possible with regard to turning around reading failure at secondary school.

 

Download the reference list for both sessions here.

Session 1: Wars and Waste

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Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

No Excuses Left