Good systems need good people to deliver them.
To have real impact, an intervention must have two things: an effective programme, and an effective teacher. No matter how good the programme is, its power to effect positive change will be aided or hindered by the person who is delivering it. Having trained numerous teams to deliver Thinking Reading, I have distilled a list of key qualities that teaching staff need to become ‘highly effective’ practitioners. I thought it might make interesting reading for others – it’s not a job description, just my observations on what makes the biggest difference. Here is my list:
As fluent readers, we can be blasé about the difficulty of teaching reading to older struggling readers because it is something that we learnt to do (often very easily) so many years ago, that it is a skill that we now perform with automaticity (fluently). We need to have a thorough knowledge-base so that we can teach systematically and not create any confusion. Thankfully, there is so much sound research that has been done on the science of reading – but good teachers will actively seek to learn from this research and to apply it.
2. Academically critical
It’s always a delight when teachers really engage with the research. Precisely because there is so much research, it’s very important to become skilled at questioning and evaluating what is presented in training and in articles or books. If ‘research’ becomes just another fad, the profession has gained nothing. But teachers who are critical in their approach and willing to engage academically find a whole trove of treasure that isn’t open to us when we only engage in a superficial way. It’s how we understand ‘why’ we use a certain procedure instead of just looking for ‘what’ to do.
Smart teachers don’t rely on ‘intuition’ or ‘professional judgement’. They use clear cut, objective and observable criteria for both formative and summative assessment, and apply that criteria for student selection, and advancement during the intervention. If we rely on anything else, students could be advanced before they are ready, which sets them up to fail later on – or they may be held back unnecessarily. A commitment to empirical evidence enables us to be objective, not subjective, when making these important decisions.
When secondary school students come into a reading intervention programme, they have had a history of failure. It is our job to have high expectations and communicate to them our belief in what they can achieve. We must not be swayed by the observations of others that “they can’t”, “they have a processing disorder”, “everything goes in one ear and out the other” and such proclamations of doom. We need to believe in them and be ambitious for their progress before they start to believe in themselves. If we teach them what they need to know, in small steps to mastery, they will make progress in every lesson, and over time can make substantial gains. It is not unkind or unreasonable to have high expectations, as long as we have a plan to get the student there in small, achievable steps.
Good teachers know the behaviours that their students need to succeed. We teach these behaviours as required – we do not just assume that students have them in their repertoire. We also give them reasons for doing the right thing, that is, we deliberately build their motivation. This implies that we have high expectations and won’t let them get away with doing less than their best. This comes as a surprise to some students, but it is absolutely necessary for them to achieve their potential.
6. Liberating expectations
It is important to be aware of the myths surrounding older struggling readers. Be research-literate: become familiar with the research on the myths around dyslexia and intelligence. Being behind in reading does not equate to low intelligence, nor is it helped by using coloured lenses or overlays. In fact, learning to read well can improve IQ results. Assigning ‘ability’ levels to students creates artificial – and unnecessary – ceilings for how well they can do.
7. Pragmatic perfectionist
To be a very effective teacher, we need to maintain a balance between the perfectionism that ensures that everything operates at the highest standard possible, and a pragmatism that remembers that we, our students, and our colleagues are only human. There is always a tension here, but in my experience it is only when we lean more towards the perfectionist side that we really see results for those with the most serious reading problems.
8. Strong work ethic
There can be no cutting corners. There is only efficient management of the work that has to be done. We should never waste time doing things that don’t need doing – this only keeps us away from doing what should be done. But all essential tasks should be done thoroughly and completely. It is always obvious in training when people really care about doing a job well, and when they don’t.
9. Eye for detail
When working with students who have made limited progress, we have to be diligent and spot every little detail that may be holding them back. Does the student drop the endings of words? Do they fail to read the punctuation? Did they mispronounce a word when reading aloud? Perhaps teachers thinking an error was ‘too trivial’ is why the student has ended up where they are. The same eye for detail applies to delivering lessons. Every detail counts – otherwise, why were we planning to do something that didn’t matter? We need to use every opportunity to best effect – and eliminate every problem.
The kind of patience that we need when working with students who are struggling is not so much about calmly tolerating mistakes: it is about a stubborn determination to work through every issue until they have cracked the problems that they faced and have caught up completely.
11. Emotionally secure
Successful teachers are focused on their students’ success, not their students’ approval or need for them. There is a dangerous co-dependency that we can unwittingly foster when we need to be needed. This is never helpful. The focus is on the student and what they can achieve. Our goal is to make ourselves dispensable.
12. Warm but not sentimental
Strong teachers have warmth but still create a focused, no-nonsense atmosphere. In some contexts, I have seen a tendency for sympathy or pity to overshadow what students really need – a consistent, forensic drive for progress. It doesn’t actually matter why their learning problems arose – the most compassionate response I can give is to enable them to learn what they need in order to become independent learners.
Those are some thoughts about what makes transformational reading teachers – I suspect that many of the same traits apply to classroom teachers. And let’s not forget that underpinning all this has to be an effective, research-validated programme otherwise, all that talent is going to waste.
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