All posts filed under: Principles of Learning

Seven ways to increase a student’s chances of exclusion

Our actions can have serious, if unintended, consequences for students.  No doubt we would all be appalled by the suggestion that we might be contributing to a student’s chances of being excluded. But the reality is that there are many practices, culturally and systematically embedded in schools, that ensure some students are at much higher risk than they need to be. For the purposes of illustration, here is a short ‘guide’ on how to make a student much more likely to be excluded. Get them off to a bad start in reading. Nothing has more impact on a student’s education than reading, so make sure that those who come to school disadvantaged stay that way. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have a significantly smaller oral vocabulary than their more well-off peers. Unless this is addressed systematically, such students will fall further and further behind. Not only that, but their more limited exposure to language means that they have less opportunity to intuit the written code. To make them feel like reading isn’t for them, …

Climbing Mountains in Small Steps

Learning moves faster in small steps. ‘Bottom set.’ Two words that can make the colour drain from our faces, our eyes roll, or provoke a deep sigh. ‘Bottom set.’ The ‘low ability’ group. The ‘difficult’ and the ‘troubled’ students. Yes, they occur in other sets, too, but you know that if you have this class on your timetable, odds are there will be a lot of them – and you are in for a tough year. It doesn’t have to be like that, of course, but it often is. And I have certainly worked in schools where such groups – and their teachers – were treated with a mixture of pity and disdain. Of course, that may not be true in your school – but, realistically, how many heads of department timetable themselves to teach bottom sets? What does that tell us about the priority that these students are given? ‘Bottom set’ classes are often given the least experienced, or the least skilled, teachers – often supported by an LSA, who may or may not …

Reading is Knowledge

We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge  One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have. Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in learning is surely one of the major goals of education, and while we may debate how we achieve this, it is obvious that those with …

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

We often test comprehension, but how do we teach it? In the so-called reading wars, all sides agree on one thing: comprehension is the goal of reading. However, whole language, meaning-first proponents work from the assumption that reading is language, which is a fatally misconceived notion. Reading is a written representation of language, which is something quite different from language itself. So teachers of the code-first approach show students how the written code represents the sounds of the spoken language*. We do this not so that they will “bark at print”, as Michael Rosen gleefully incants at every opportunity; we do it so that they will be able to know what the words are, and when these words are in their vocabulary, they will understand. If the words are not in their vocabulary, it is a teaching opportunity. However, comprehension can neither be expected to develop on its own, nor can it be taught in isolation from the many aspects of language and human culture that impinge upon our reading experience. It is not developed …

Building on the Evidence

How do you start to build an evidence base?  We all know that it’s important to know the evidence behind particular practices, both for what we do in the classroom and what we do in interventions. In education, we used to be subject to fads and fashions, but that is beginning to change. Now, we are much more likely to hear the question, “Where is your evidence?” This can only be a good thing – as long as people have a sound understanding of what constitutes evidence. Because randomised controlled trials have been touted as the “gold standard”, that is now all that “evidence” means for some. In reality, there is a hierarchy of types of evidence, and all of it is useful in some way. There is a process of collecting evidence prior to developing a randomised controlled trial, so that variables are understood and practices are validated as being worthy of investigation before the investment of time and money that RCTs require. But there’s an obvious problem here for curriculum and intervention designers. How do you …

Reflections on the Hard Road to Success

As part of this year’s time of reflection, I have been considering my own sense of urgency in communicating to educators not only the enormous scale of the problem, but also that solutions to the problem already exist. While most people are willing to accept the former, misconceptions about reading, intelligence and learning abound in education – often making it difficult to accept the idea that illiteracy is a solvable issue. 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read. This post addresses seven key misconceptions that act as barriers to effective action. It is surprising and alarming how pervasive these ideas are. The post can be downloaded as a PDF. Pulling the Strands Together shows how the research on effective reading instruction – including effective remedial reading instruction for adolescents – can be applied to school practices. The problem has in fact been solved – it is up to us to be committed enough to apply the solutions. Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking? is, by some way, the most read post on this site. It sets out the two …

Reflections on Hidden Potential

One of the themes I have been reflecting on is the great tragedy of modern education: the wasted potential of literally millions of students who underachieve because they were not taught to read properly. There are two main reasons for this: poor reading strategies in early reading, and artificial ceilings caused by low expectations derived from low reading performance – in short, labels. The natural home for reading interventions (and it’s not SEN) challenges this practice of assigning students a disability label based on how well they are reading. The evidence is that when taught explicitly and systematically (and when faulty ‘guessing’ strategies have been addressed) nearly all but a handful of students can read at the ‘normal’ level for their age. Without doubt, this post generated the strongest reactions from readers. “You will always have students who will fail” deals with low expectations based on poor behaviour. By making use of basic principles, more specialised strategies, and effective whole school systems, it is possible to turn students around. And when we consider that poor …