The very satisfying challenge of striking the right balance of ingredients in high-challenge CPD
In ‘First, catch your chicken’ I described the target skills that we aim to develop in tutors of Thinking Reading. But what does that look like? What is it like working through the six days of training?
First of all, we aim to establish a climate of high challenge but low stress. Because we deliver the training in your school, you are in a familiar environment and you have the bonus of not having to travel anywhere. Regular quizzing is primarily self-assessment: the questions are discussed orally at the end of the day and tested the next morning. We mark and feed back on your written responses, and ensure that any points that need to be clarified are covered.
We know that the impersonal passive nature of sitting in a room and being lectured at is counter-productive. Instead, we use small groups so that the sessions are personal and interactive and that delivery is responsive to the needs of each particular group. This means that we can be flexible and spend more or less time on different aspects, depending on the comments that arise.
In order to establish key ideas, it is often necessary to dismantle unhelpful misconceptions. Such misconceptions are, unfortunately, pervasive throughout education. It is often only once a thorough discussion is initiated that people begin to question the myths that have become accepted as fact. The resulting paradigm shift can often leave participants feeling refreshed and excited by the new possibilities that emerge when they realise that nearly all reading problems are instructional problems – and therefore, within our power to solve. Having the time to think and talk these matters through is invaluable and absolutely necessary.
One of our key values is that students should not have their time wasted by teaching methods that are not supported by robust research. A key part of the training process is to establish an awareness of the body of empirical research on reading and also on instructional processes. Obviously, we cannot cover even a fraction of this body of research in a short training programme, so we have developed the Professional Reading pages as a library on our website for trainees (and anyone else who is interested). For example, the scientific debate on the necessity of explicit systematic synthetic phonics instruction has been won long ago – but while this is apparent in the literature, it is far less apparent in schools.
Sensitive assessment procedures are essential to identifying the learning needs and starting point for each student. We start by distinguishing between survey-level and fine-grain assessments and practise the procedures in order to ensure reliable diagnostics. After the initial stages, assessment skills are used in every lesson and form the basis of planning next steps for each student.
Rather than just insist that certain procedures are used, we aim to ensure that you understand the methodology that underpins the programme. You learn why each element is important and know the criteria for making teaching decisions. It is impossible to overstate the importance of programme fidelity. Small changes that seem innocuous can have very negative effects and that is why we encourage schools to maintain contact after the training in order to provide support and ongoing feedback.
Because the resources and lesson plan have all been developed in advance, lesson planning is minimal and delivery is very straightforward and highly effective. We stress the importance of meticulous record keeping because experience shows that this has a powerful impact on our ability to support and teach struggling students.
Perhaps most importantly, we will teach you to have high expectations of the students, believing in them before they start to believe in themselves. A central element of transforming the lives of struggling young readers is ignoring the temptations of labels which stigmatise students, give them low expectations of themselves, and even worse, lower teacher expectations. We give multiple examples that challenge the widely held preconceptions about reading ability – and explain why this is an English programme, not a Special Educational Needs intervention.
This mix of challenge, support, discussion, knowledge, reflection, and practice has engendered very positive reactions, but more importantly, translates into effective practice. Combining these ingredients in the right proportions for each group we work with is often a challenge, but it is also a very great pleasure to see the results. Not only are students helped, but tutors feel a new sense of purpose and possibility. As one trainee told her head teacher afterwards, “Now I have a reason for coming to work each day!”
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