Methodology, Principles of Learning
Comments 4

A Matter of Sensitivity

Do you know Angelo?

Angelo is struggling to keep up. Despite extra help, he is becoming more and more frustrated. He is reacting with increasing truculence to staff who try to support him in class. In homework club he is apathetic. He has been getting into more and more trouble lately, and the only time he seems to smile in class is when he is distracting others. Given one-to-one instruction, he drops the façade of nonchalance and tries. He really tries, so that a fine bead of sweat breaks out on his forehead. His hands are clenched, his shoulders hunched. But even with one-to-one help, Angelo seems to be making very little progress. Some of his teachers have concluded that he has reached his limits; for them, teaching Angelo is now simply a matter of managing his behaviour. They don’t expect progress.

It is a trap to treat students with lower attainment as if they are incapable of any more. The teacher’s job is to ensure progress, and to focus on the skills and knowledge that will have the biggest impact. Is it really possible to help Angelo?

Dead End2

Fortunately for Angelo, his intervention teacher, Anna, is motivated enough to look beyond educational clichés. Through diligent research, she finds five ways that she can quickly help Angelo to recover his confidence and to show him (and his other teachers) that he can make progress.

The reason Angelo doesn’t seem to be making progress is because the measures used are not sensitive enough. In other words, the steps required to move up a level are too big. In fact, Angelo has been making steady gains in vocabulary, but his inaccuracy with spelling and grammar means that his scores resolutely sit at Level 3 in the English curriculum. Nevertheless, he is making progress and he needs to see this. The measure used needs to reflect the small improvements he is making.

Anna sets up a tracking system for Angelo that shows his score on daily practice of sentence writing and spelling. Small improvements now become evident. The errors he makes are corrected immediately and practised to fluency. As he masters new words, his cumulative spelling score rises, and he can see how many words he has learned. For his reading, Anna stops timing him according to the number of words he reads per minute. While this is a sensitive enough measure when students are reading over 60 words per minute, it is less so for slower rates, and Angelo is reading at 30 words per minute. Moving from 30 to 33 wpm hardly registers on a graph. Instead, Anna times how long it takes Angelo to read 100 words: on his second day he speeds up from 3:06 minutes to 2:50 – an improvement of 16 seconds. Now improvements in his reading performance have become visible. (It seems like magic, and it is – the magic of mathematics.)

Magicians hat with stars and wand

The second thing Anna does is to change the way Angelo’s targets are set. At the moment his targets are based on curriculum levels extrapolated from his Key Stage 2 data. He is supposed to be at Level 4b by the end of the year in English and maths. Anna sets this aside: the targets are too distant for Angelo or his teachers to work to. Instead, she uses Angelo’s own recent results to set his next targets. For reading rate, she looks at his times for the last six days, and sets the top two as above average, the middle two as average, and the bottom two as below average. For spelling, she uses a set of lists that group words by spelling pattern (with more difficult patterns and more complex words later), and his target is mastery (90% or more) of the next group. A score of 90% is average. A score of 100% is above average. For mathematics, she sets fluency targets for his multiplication and addition facts in the same way as for reading.

Using the goals above, Anna can now ensure that Angelo has recognition and reinforcement for progress. Note that this reinforcement needs to be explicit and extrinsic at this point because Angelo has little intrinsic motivation. Over time, Anna will fade out the extrinsic reinforcement as Angelo’s confidence grows. He receives two points for every above average score and one point for every average score. These points are shown on a cumulative graph and Angelo is reminded regularly of how far he has progressed. The points earn a reward such as a certificate, a preferred activity or in rare cases a physical prize. In Angelo’s case, he earns a certificate which is presented to him by his head of year, and a phone call home from the school to let his parents know how well he is doing.

Anna knows that for real progress there must a high standard of accuracy. Too high a standard will make Angelo anxious and distract him. Too low a standard will mean he does not learn – in fact, he might practise errors. In reading, the criterion is 95%, and Anna sets the same for multiplication facts. In spelling it is 90% (i.e. 9/10. To ensure progress, Anna plans sessions so that every error is explicitly corrected immediately after marking, and that Angelo practises until she can be confident that he has learned the correct response.

Angelo Time Chart

Lastly, Anna ensures that all of his progress is graphed. She shares this information not only with Angelo (it is on display in her room) but also with his parents and teachers. It is essential to raise everyone’s expectations. Not only that, but Anna shows his teachers how they can also use charts to promote fluency in their classes and subjects. It is possible to chart improvements in all kinds of skills: sentence writing, sentence parsing, multiplication, specific types of algebra, recall of many aspects of knowledge, or timed execution of a routine such as planning an essay.

Because he had a teacher who chose to use systematic and explicit methods, Angelo now knows that he can learn. That is the most useful lesson that school can teach him – and the exact opposite of what he had previously been learning about himself through his experience of schooling.

What to take from all this? Where a student has made historically low progress, isolate the skills that still require mastery. Ensure that students have discrete skill practice, and that this is daily, timed, and checked for accuracy. Provide prompt and specific feedback for errors and continue to set steadily improving goals based on the student’s own performances.

We need to break away from short-term, institution-driven ‘progress goals’, and expect progress from all students, including lower achievers. If we set up teaching and practice routines that are sensitive to slower learners’ progress, they will become more motivated, confident and ultimately successful. But let us not underestimate the amount of additional practice some students will require.



Photo used with permission

This post is based upon the insights of Siegfried Engelmann in his 2009 paper ‘Improving Reading Rate of Low Performers’. Engelmann makes points that are as valid for other areas of learning as they are for reading. I have focused on a few main ideas in this post but you can find a link to the whole text here, as well as related research and articles here.

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You may also be interested in:

Success, Failure and Self-concept

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

A Question of Progress

Headline Measures?

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science


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