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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. We are currently offering workshops in London and Birmingham – if you would like us to offer one are in the North-West, let us know as we may be able to arrange this.

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A Time to Think, A Time to Act

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.

We are running workshops in London and Southport. If you are looking for ways to give practical support to struggling readers, you can find out more here. (Please note – places are limited.)

You may also be interested in:

Looking Past the Masks

It’s Not Too Late

Reading Is Knowledge

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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Read For Your Life

The Road Goes Ever On

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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Looking Past the Masks

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No Excuses Left

Wars and Waste

Our first session at ResearchED English and MFL, Oxford was called Wars and Waste to highlight two key ideas:

1 The lack of agreement and open conflict regarding the best ways to teach reading;

2 The immense waste this has created in time, money, and quality of life.

The session is divided into three sections:

1 The extent of illiteracy;

2 The reasons for this;

3 The two main approaches to teaching reading, and why one is demonstrably superior to the other.

Download the reference list for both sessions here.

Session 2: It’s Not Too Late

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Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

Erratum

We spent a fabulous evening at the Teach First Innovation Awards last night. This year’s winners gave powerful and convincing presentations, and the Innovation Unit’s organisation and enthusiasm made it a vibrant occasion. Congratulations to all concerned!

It was also lovely to be one of the previous winners profiled in the Schools Week supplement on the Innovation Awards. However, as sometimes happens things can be misconstrued in the interview process. In the interests of clarity, we need to correct two important details:

The price quoted is a one-off cost for training and materials – it is not an annual fee. At the request of some of our partner schools we are in the process of putting together an on-going support package which will cover the cost of such things as monitoring student progress and training new staff, but this will be a separate option from the setup.

We don’t use music in our programme! Occasionally, some children have unusual difficulty with segmenting and blending phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in speech). The phonemic awareness activity referred to (Tracking Sounds) is a listening activity which uses small blocks to represent phonemes.

The child listens to a ‘track’ of sounds and moves the block that represents the sound that changed: “if this is ‘arm’ (two phonemes = two blocks), show me ‘art’.” The second phoneme changes so the child should replace the second block with a new block. These ‘tracks’ start off simple: vc = vowel consonant, and cv = consonant vowel and progress to more complex ‘tracks’ (ccv and ccvc) with finer distinctions.

I’m sure that Schools Week will pick up on this  and correct the details – but we needed to get this out there in the meantime.

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

A recent TES article headlined “Call for researchers to highlight negative ‘side effects’ of methods like phonics” drew a predictable response. Though the article supplied not one piece of evidence to support the assertion that phonics had “negative side effects”, and despite the academic quoted having zero background or expertise in reading science, tweets and comments celebrated this damning of the barbaric practice of phonics in schools.

Both the article and the responses illustrate the strong prejudices that have to be overcome before early reading instruction is universally of sufficient quality to ensure that we really are a literate society – i.e. one in which all school leavers have good, not just functional or non-functional, reading and writing skills. But – does phonics help or hinder comprehension? Is it merely, as Michael Rosen and his followers have characterised it, “barking at print”? It seems to me that this question is at the heart of much resistance to phonics. Many people seem to believe that phonics in reading means that other aspects of reading are not taught, or that phonics will actually interfere with students’ enthusiasm for reading, or that phonics will hinder students’ comprehension.

For the avoidance of doubt, the initial purpose of phonics is not comprehension but accurate decoding, i.e. accurately identifying the words on the page. According to the widely-accepted Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) it is reasonable to then expect that decoded words which fall within the child’s oral language abilities will be understood. So reading comprehension is, of necessity, going to be one or more steps removed from phonic knowledge. But does phonics hinder this process? Or does it support understanding? Here is a brief survey of some relevant findings from the literature on the links between phonics and reading comprehension.

An analysis of the longitudinal Clackmannanshire study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, in which a synthetic phonics programme was introduced in Year 1, found that in the second year of primary the children had an average advantage in reading comprehension of seven months compared to the general population – a significant gain. Tellingly, there was still an advantage (though not so strong) at Year 7. Clearly, being taught using synthetic phonics did not disadvantage these children’s ability to understand text (Johnston & Watson, 2009).

In one of the largest educational studies in history, Project Follow Through, the clear winner out of nine main approaches was Direct Instruction, authored by Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter. Direct Instruction used a phonics-based approach to teach early reading. The study found that this method produced superior results not only in the domain of ‘basic skills’ but also in problem-solving and self-esteem (Barbash, 2012). Apparently, the thousands of children taught using an explicit phonics focus were cognitively and emotionally advantaged, not damaged, by the experience.

Professor John Hattie is well known for his meta-meta-analysis of educational research, Visible Learning. In his section on reading comprehension, he writes: “the support from this form of [synthetic] systematic phonics appeared to be strong: that is, the synthesis of separate sounds associated with letters appears to be superior to many other methods.” Hattie concludes: “Overall, phonics instruction is powerful in the process of learning to read – both for reading skills and for reading comprehension” (Hattie, 2009).

Professor Jean Stockard analysed the achievement of students across a US school district, where those taught to read by Direct Instruction were compared to students taught using other methods.

“At the outset of the study, the first grade students in the DI schools had lower vocabulary and comprehension scores than students in either of the two treatment groups. By fifth grade, however, the DI students had the highest vocabulary and comprehension averages – averages that exceeded the fifth grade national average” (Barbash, 2012).

Clearly, the use of a synthetic phonics approach, at least delivered through Direct Instruction, did not disadvantage these children with respect to comprehension; it appears that they were advantaged by it.

In her seminal paper, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, Professor Louisa Moats summarises essential information for teachers to know about reading acquisition. With respect to the link between decoding and comprehension, she explains:

“Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text. Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades” (Moats, 1999).

The eminent reading researcher, Professor Keith Stanovich, explains how reading comprehension fails to develop in students with weaker decoding:

“ . . . less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement” (Stanovich, 1986).

Professor E D Hirsch, writing about the importance of developing reading comprehension, emphasises that it is built upon an early foundation of strong knowledge of letter-sound correspondences:

“Experiments show that a child who can sound out nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on comprehension of meaning. Decoding fluency is achieved through accurate initial instruction followed by lots of practice” (Hirsch, 2003).

Assistant Professor David Kilpatrick, in his recent book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, summarises large tracts of the most up-to-date research on reading. His central theme is that children become skilled (i.e. fluent, comprehending) readers when they develop facility with ‘orthographic mapping’, brought about through a complex combination of skills. One of these essential skills is letter-sound knowledge, including blending (the ‘synthetic’ part of synthetic phonics) (Kilpatrick, 2015, p.92).

Why is letter-sound knowledge so important? It forms a bridge between the language that we know from speech and the written code that represents it. In this recent post, Professor Mark Seidenberg, author of Reading at the Speed of Sight, comments on:

“ – studies of skilled readers showing they cannot inhibit using phonological information.  We can set up reading experiments in which the use of phonological information interferes with performance (such as the Van Orden and tongue-twister experiments).   The reader would do better if they could suppress phonology, but they can’t:  it’s not a switch that can be turned on or off.

“ – the brain evidence shows why:  orthography and phonology become integrated in the neural system that supports reading and spoken language.  The spelling area, for example, is thoroughly penetrated by knowledge of phonology.   The phonology we’ve learned from using spoken language gets changed by exposure to print.  (‘Phonemic awareness’ results from this.)”

In other words, phonological knowledge is so closely integrated with other reading skills that if you try to suppress the use of this knowledge, it makes reading more difficult.

Far from hindering comprehension, good phonic knowledge is essential to (though not sufficient for) becoming a skilled, comprehending reader. Becoming a successful reader is the single most powerful contribution that education can make to a child. So, why the opposition to phonics?

I would suggest that there are three main reasons:

The empirical evidence for phonics, and its insistence on a systematic body of knowledge, is at odds with romantic tenets of learning:

  • Truth is relative
  • We all construct our own meanings from experience (including text)
  • Learners are autonomous individuals
  • Self-actualisation is the aim of education
  • It is not really possible to teach, only to facilitate learning.

Secondly, in the face of the clear advantage that phonics provides over whole language approaches, it has become necessary for proponents of the latter to misrepresent phonics teaching practices. They are portrayed as robotic, mechanical, authoritarian, and soulless, killing the love of reading. The romantic view in the previous paragraph explains why systematic teaching will inevitably be viewed in this way; the resistance to matters of fact and reason appears to be a part of the phenomenon where we cling more tightly to our beliefs when they are challenged.

Thirdly, and I think crucially, many people’s understanding of phonics teaching is based on poor quality teaching. Where people observe a soulless, mechanical lesson, they generalise this to a judgement about phonics teaching in general. The quality of teaching of phonics is a matter of the utmost importance; done well, it is a powerful, cost-effective and time-efficient strategy for improving reading levels. As with any content, delivered badly, it is confusing, demotivating and more expensive in the long run. Given the necessity of good phonic knowledge, the need for systematic and explicit teaching amongst a significant proportion of children, and the access we have to well-designed phonics curricula, the teaching profession has an obligation to ensure that we deliver phonics well – as part of a rich, stimulating diet of language and literature.

Imagine the alternative. Imagine what it is like for a struggling reader to be told to look around the page, think about what they have read, guess from the first letter what word might fit in this sentence. The way in which the curriculum gradually moves further and further out of reach. The way the child learns to mimic the behaviours of other students who can read, to mask their own inability. The way they give up on themselves. The anti-phonics, whole language approach is a travesty that is crippling reading for thousands of children, and then excused by ‘disability’ labels, social disadvantage or the alleged poor character of the child (or their parents).

The evidence is in. Give children effective, systematic, explicit instruction in the letter-sound code early on and prevent a myriad of problems later – problems which can persist throughout the lifetime of a person with low literacy: problems like poorer health, lower earnings, higher risk of unemployment, higher risk of criminality, alienation, low self-esteem and mental health problems (see p.14 onwards in this report). Teaching reading effectively is one of the cheapest, most useful things we can do as a society. It is central to social justice.

You may also be interested in:

No Excuses Left

Looking Past the Masks

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

References

Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986) Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7 (1) 6-10.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. OX: Routledge.

Hirsch, E. D. (2003) Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge – of Words and the World. American Educator, Spring.

Johnston, R. & Watson, J. (2005) A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. Insight, Scottish Executive Education Department.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015) Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. NJ: Wiley.

Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.

Stanovich, K. E. Romance and Reality. The Reading Teacher 47 (4) Dec 1993/Jan 1994.