Methodology, Principles of Learning, Reading Interventions, Research
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The Road to Swindon Goes Ever On …

It perhaps fitting that the title of my first ResearchED presentation should be The Road Goes Ever On. The drive to Swindon became interminable: queuing in London traffic because of diversions, queuing to get out of London, and then queuing for ten miles on the M4 because one lane was blocked for a few hundred yards. A drive of an hour and a half took three hours.

ResearchED English and Literacy

Happily, the conference was a much more well-organised affair! The facilities were excellent, the IT support was exemplary, and the prefects were charming and willing helpers. David Didau certainly pulled together a great team who did a superb job in ensuring that the day ran without a hitch.

My thanks to those who came to my session and were very patient as I worked my way through my presentation without access to my laptop notes. Here are my slides with a summary of the notes below:


I began by showing images of the journey I undertook each week when I began my teacher training. It was meant to be something of a metaphor for the journey of discovery of research on learning.

“You will always have students who will fail.” I often heard about how a learner is a fire to be lit, not a pail to be filled. I was already on fire – I just needed fuel! However, these words from my tutor teacher were intended to dampen my enthusiasm. This is a statement that I could not, and still will not, accept.

After teaching for two years, I had some major questions, and I was fortunate enough to win a one-year scholarship to study about teaching children with special learning needs. It was a robust, research-based programme that helped me to find the answers I needed – and gave me many more questions. The focus of the rest of this talk is about how those answers have shaped the Thinking Reading programme.

“Why are some children not making progress?” It was clear to me that there were some children who were good at learning many things, but when it came to reading, they weren’t making progress.

Learner deficit versus instructional deficit. About 20% of students in the English-speaking world fail to learn to read well. Kame’enui and Simmons put it this way: ‘if the learner fails, the failure must be framed in terms of the instruction which the teacher controls.’ I didn’t find this statement a blame statement. I found it liberating. I can change the way I teach, therefore they can learn. They might be slower, but they can learn.

One of the key challenges is for us to adjust our beliefs. Students often carry these ideas around: I’m stupid. I can’t learn this stuff. If I avoid / act up it will go away. I have … (dyslexia) etc. For teachers there are beliefs that also need to change, for example: the child is a poor reader therefore they lack intelligence. The student suffers from an innate disability which means they can never master these skills. The student has SEN and is therefore someone else’s problem.

Then there is the question of what to teach. The Whole Language – Phonics Debate has been well documented and I have blogged about it elsewhere. As far as I am concerned the jury is in.

“Where can I find out the best ways to ensure progress?” is a question all teachers must ask, but nothing in my ITT had prepared me to answer it! Understanding levels of assurance in research, and the key questions to answer it, are essential. I thoroughly recommend Pam Snow’s post on this topic, along with Kerry Hempenstall’s thorough analysis of evidence use and misuse. Discovering the power of single-subject designs to isolate variables and replicate effects has been particularly powerful in analysing student progress and working out ‘what works’ for individual students. It is essential to address the problem of curriculum conflict: we have to minimise time out of subjects so that they don’t fall further behind, and we have to maximise progress so that they are in the programme for the shortest time possible.

“How do I know if they ‘can’t’ or if it’s motivation?” There wasn’t time to go into a fully detailed account of all that Applied Behaviour Analysis has to offer, but one key principle I apply regularly is that of whether an error occurs pretty regularly or is just occasional / irregular. If they are doing it sometimes, it suggests that they are accurate but either a) not fluent yet (they need more practice) or b) careless, in which case I need to address motivation.

How will I know if they have made progress? It’s essential to know every lesson how they are doing on every strand of the lesson. We don’t have time to let days go by without progress. The key is to precisely define the learning objectives for each section of the lesson. This then determines the activity so that each part of the lesson yields immediate feedback on performance. Nothing is assumed, nothing is intuited. Data!

How can we manage data to accelerate learning? If we treat all students the same we do them a disservice. What some love, others hate (Marmite!). We have to be analytical about what will motivate each student.

How can I be sure that what I have communicated is what they have learnt? This is critical, since we have to teach more in less time in order to get them caught up. Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction is a complex set of principles built on logically flawless (faultless) communication. It’s been key to the design of the programme. We covered two example sequences to show how the arrangement of examples and non-examples enable the learner to induce a rule very quickly (the work is in the planning).

How do I design practice so that students remember? Firstly, Engelmann shows how cumulative review of arranged items according to a logical schedule is required to not only retain learning but to integrate it with other learning. Secondly, Precision Teaching advocates such as Carl Binder demonstrated through thousands of replications that achieving specific fluency criteria ensured retention and generalisation. We really can’t overestimate the importance of scheduled practice to build accuracy and fluency.

How can I design a programme that can be delivered with fidelity by others? Again, Engelmann solved this problem decades ago with Direct Instruction scripts, which allowed teachers to focus on students as the complex work of design had already been done. For certain aspects of the lesson, we also use specific wording to ensure consistency and clarity. We have a carefully crafted lesson plan that specifies the overall format of each lesson while allowing the goals for each student to be shaped by their previous lesson. We also use clear mastery criteria to decide when to move on to the next step in the teaching sequence.

Thanks to those who made a point of passing on their feedback at the end – I am very grateful for your encouragement!

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You may also be interested in:

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Why We Can’t Remember How We Learned

Pulling the Strands Together

So What is it That you Do . . . ? 

Treasures Old and New




  1. Pingback: Post Script | thinkingreadingwritings

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