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Improving outcomes for low attainers

ResearchED English and Literacy

I’ve borrowed Dianne’s blog to post the slides and notes from my session from ResearchEd yesterday. I found the warmth and enthusiasm of everyone at the event very refreshing. And Swindon Academy did themselves and their community proud!


The talk was arranged in seven sections: the first was a short intro explaining that I am not an expert, but that my opportunities to come to grips with education and special needs certainly had that ‘threshold’ effect on me: they completely changed my view of teaching and learning. It is clear that if we use the precision required for empirical, data-based methods, we can have a significant effect on the competence and confidence of students who have struggled at school.

The second section dealt with the key underlying principle, which is that lower progress learners require much more sensitive assessment and progress measures. Lessons, tasks and learning goals need to analysed at a fine level in order to ensure that underlying gaps in knowledge are addressed, and foundations are coherent and strong.

The key point in the third section was to use morphology when teaching vocabulary, since addressing this helps to draw students’ attention to wider patterns in the language. Instead of teaching words in isolation, we help them to encounter groups of words which share characteristics. This not only multiplies the number of words they are likely to be able to identify, but also increases the probability that they can do so independently.

We then looked at comprehension in Section Four. It is well worth teaching some comprehension strategies systematically and this is particularly important for low attainers who may well have weak reading. Reading fluency is essential for reading comprehension as it frees up working memory. Reading comprehension is also heavily influenced by listening comprehension, and this is influenced by auditory memory – in other words, you can’t understand if you don’t remember what you just heard. I recommended Engelmann’s Corrective Reading Comprehension (McGraw-Hill) which requires a great deal of students repeating back what they have heard – not because of ‘drill and kill’ but because it gives them practice at extending auditory memory.

As far as reading comprehension strategies, I suggested three:

  1. Teaching types of inferences – logical, probable, possible.
  2. Use anaphora to teach students to identify the main idea –  a crucial task.
  3. Remember to build up background knowledge as this has a powerful influence on how students comprehend.

Section Five dealt with writing, specifically expressive writing. Often low attainers have a tenuous grasp of the elements of a sentence, and I emphasised that I’m not talking here about parts of speech but parts of a sentence. Specifically, I showed a three-part Direct Instruction (DI) rule: A sentence has a verb, a subject (of that verb), and makes sense own its own. Students can readily learn this rule and can then practise discrimination of sentences in practice and in their own work, with or without green pens. We were a little pushed for time so I didn’t elaborate on how this sequence would develop. For the record, I would move from simple sentences to compound, and from active simple verbs to phrasal and passive-voice verbs, then develop more complex sentences using predicate extensions, pronouns and clauses. This needs regular time so you may have re-imagine the curriculum for these groups until their language skills have strengthened – however, I do not advocate depriving them of literature!

We looked at spelling in the sixth section and I recommended teaching using phonic code, morphology and syllabification. Because of the link with rhythm, it is possible to teach syllabification (and hence morphology) as part of poetry. Chaucer and hip-hop, I have found, are eminently well suited.

Finally, I emphasised fluency and the stages of learning. The Binder quote speaks for itself.

Given time, I would have also made the following points (Section Eight) about applying educational research to the classroom:

  1. Evaluate research and ensure there is good empirical evidence before you waste your time, and the students’.
  2. Select one or two goals at a time. Don’t try to master a number of techniques at once.
  3. How much you adapt your classroom practice will be heavily influenced by your context: how open your school is to change, how tightly the curriculum is constrained, how much concern there is about low attainers’ progress in English, etc. Be pragmatic.

Thanks for the positive feedback and to have the follow-up discussions and the difficult questions – and I don’t pretend that I have all those answers! The key is to have conversations based on research that is robust enough to work with.

James Murphy


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