Month: February 2014

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

One of the problems with a conception of learning that is focused on ‘understanding’ is that it concentrates the notion of learning in the mind. From an empirical point of view, the mind of the learner is to some extent a ‘black box’. We can only infer what is going on in the mind from what we observe – what learners tell us, or what they do.  ‘Fluency of understanding’ or ‘mastery of concepts’ cannot be directly observed. Any useful conception of mastery needs to be based on what is observable and measurable. When we look at what students do, instead of what we think they understand, or what we think they ‘can’ or ‘can’t’ do, we find that we can in fact measure learning across a number of dimensions: The mode students need to respond to (see, hear, touch) The mode students need to respond in (say, do, write) The accuracy of responses (e.g as a percentage) The fluency of responses (as a rate per minute) The endurance of responses (how long does the …

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

How many phonemes are there in the English language? How many different ways are there to represent these sounds in written English? What is the difference between a phoneme and a blend? What is a morpheme? How many of these questions could you answer? How many could your colleagues answer? These basic facts about the study of language – and the English language in particular – should be known and understood by all teachers, not just those who teach language as a subject. For teachers of English, and especially those who deliver reading interventions, extensive knowledge of language and its relationship to print is essential. For an overview of what is needed, we recommend the excellent short book by Professor Louisa Moats whose title we have appropriated for this post. Why do so many students struggle to succeed at secondary school despite their obvious ability? One fundamental reason is slow, effortful or weak reading. Moats asserts that “the difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated” and that teacher preparation courses have not equipped teachers adequately …

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

Code-breaking is what you do when you don’t know the code.  There are two main approaches to teaching reading, which can be summarised as code-based and meaning-based. Code-based teaching works on the premise that there is a known, culturally shared, symbolic code. This written code represents another, spoken code. Teaching the relationship between these two codes is the focus of systematic synthetic phonics. Because it is not a natural process to interpret written symbols, this aspect of language must be taught systematically and explicitly to ensure that all readers not only acquire, but also master the skill. Once the code is mastered, the meaning of the text is available to the student and the cognitive benefits of reading accumulate. The Enigma Machine The meaning-based approach to reading, exemplified in whole language and its descendant Reading Recovery, takes a code-breaking rather than a code-teaching approach. The text is approached as a puzzle to be solved, analogous to deciphering an intercepted wartime message. The code-breaker might consider the participants: from whom? To whom? Then there is the question …

The Bridge Over The Reading Gap

How can secondary schools ensure that all students read well? The cost of illiteracy in the UK has been estimated at £81 billion per annum. There are, according to the National Literacy Trust, six million functionally illiterate adults in this country. A quick calculation, therefore, suggests that each one of these adults has an overall cost to the economy of £13,500 per annum. If the role of schools is to prepare young people to be contributing, participating citizens, then for at least some of our charges we have failed. In doing so we have also damaged society. This is not to dismiss people with literacy difficulties as ‘non-contributing’: on the contrary, despite painful limitations, many of these people compensate by working harder. Some, too, are alienated. Most are held back from achieving their potential. To demand that schools solve every problem of society is unreasonable; reading however, is something that anyone would expect all schools to address as part of their ‘core business.’ In secondary schools, there is often an expectation that reading should have …

The Writing On The Wall

“It would be good if your training programme presented a more balanced view.” This oft-posed challenge to those who propose an effective approach to teaching reading, i.e. one that is both rationally and empirically sound  – was also put to us recently. The logical implication of the statement is that our course is not balanced.  Presumably, as in a news article, this means that a training programme should present competing points of view and leave trainees to make up their own minds by evaluating the relative merits of the different approaches. However, this would also imply that the competing views must therefore be of equal value if they are to take up equal amounts of time. And this raises two questions: what ‘balance’ really means; and what we are balancing. Consider the age-old image of Justice, blindfolded, with a sword in one hand and a set of scales, or balances, in the other. If something is not ‘balanced’ then it is by inference unjust. But the purpose of the scales is not to ensure that …