teaching literacy

New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough

Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: There’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show us Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable. There are ‘evidence-based’ solutions but teachers are not using them. If they did, literacy standards would improve, test results would improve, and Australia would be among the best in the world again.

Well we have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news is our research, a long-term study of schools in communities in Australia experiencing high-levels of disadvantage, funded by the Australian Research Council, shows that teachers are indeed now implementing the ‘evidence-based’ local literacy agreements that they have been asked to implement and that their work includes a diverse range of research-informed approaches to literacy learning.

The bad news is despite the highly professional and caring use of evidence based methods by the teachers in the four schools in our study, the literacy levels for children from the most disadvantaged families remain persistently low.

The majority of teachers in our study were implementing their schools’ well-developed literacy agreements. They were not loyal to methods of the past or inadequately trained. They adopted recommended methods of evaluation and regularly assessed their students’ progress.

We used ‘fly on the wall’ type of research, which included regular and constant visits to the classrooms of the teachers involved, to study what was happening and try to work out why it was happening. I want to share with you some of our findings.

Use of common pedagogies

Teachers used what we call common pedagogical approaches. These often took the form of tightly scripted lessons, in which teachers, operating in good faith, implemented a range of literacy programs.
The cost of such cooperation is well documented in the research literature: teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and their professional autonomy is weakened. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as curriculum narrowing, and in the case of literacy, ‘fickle literacies’.

We observed numerous missed opportunities for learning due to:
• too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
• narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
• a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
• deficit views about the capabilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are views that lead teachers to expect less of some children and make it less likely those children will be offered more intellectually challenging literacy learning activities.

These missed opportunities were an unintended effect of teachers trying to do what they believed was expected of them.

Use of uncommon pedagogies

We also encountered a smaller number of teachers who adopted uncommon pedagogical approaches. Their practices stood out from the more common practices of their peers because they were palpably different. These teachers incorporated the requirements of their school’s literacy agreements into an already rich repertoire of teaching practice.

We observed numerous ways in which these teachers supported literacy learning by:
• recognising the knowledge and experiences that students have, and connecting these to school learning;
• actively and positively connecting classroom practice to families and communities;
• designing learning tasks that were open ended and that demanded complex thinking and language;
• providing opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.

These uncommon pedagogical approaches led to much higher levels of engagement and success by students. They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.

The importance of a teacher’s body of work

Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that we do not usually think of teachers’ practices as demonstrating a body of work, perhaps because it is so ephemeral and of the moment. Instead, teachers are assumed to translate theory into practice or implement policy. However, the uncommon pedagogies of the teachers we observed illustrated complex designs, that demonstrated their intention to keep learning about how to improve their work. These rich banks of knowledge and experience could well be considered their ‘oeuvre’ or body of work, in the sense of what they create across a career.

How might we support teachers to develop their oeuvre? What might the public discourse of schooling look like if it were to be based upon a deep respect for teachers, their knowledge and their understanding of the local conditions of teaching and learning?

Peter Freebody and Allan Luke, two other highly respected Australian literacy researchers, reminded us some time ago that:

‘it is not that some literacy teaching methods work and others do not. They all work to shape and construct different literate repertoires in classrooms…What do particular combinations and blends of families of practices work to produce? In which combinations and emphases do they work with specific communities of students? For what practices, places, times, and occasions do they prepare students? And for what political and ideological configurations?’

Understanding teachers’ work is vital to improving literacy in Australia

We need to change the script that blames teachers for low literacy levels by telling them how to do their job. Our observation of uncommon pedagogies is an indication of how doing a teacher’s job can’t be simplified into a set of ‘evidence-based’ methods.

Well-intentioned efforts to improve literacy in Australia should be built upon the understanding that the work of teachers is complex, situated in particular classroom with particular children, and dependent upon a range of factors including a teacher’s own body of work, relationships with students and their families, the local context, and the availability of opportunities for sustained professional development and dialogue.

The prevalence of common pedagogies is a sign that educational policy is working, it’s just not working in ways that address the problem it is intended to solve.

 

Deb Hayes is Professor of Equity and Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is co-author of the book, Literacy, Leading and Learning (Routledge, 2017) with Robert Hattam, Barbara Comber, Lyn Kerkham, Ruth Lupton and Pat Thomson. Follow Deb on Twitter @DrDebHayes

A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.

 

Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Teaching literacy is more than teaching simple reading skills: it can’t be done in five easy steps

If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy.

The conflation of different terms like reading instruction and literacy is not very useful. While reading is part of literacy, literacy is a much bigger concept which is continually changing due to the ever-increasing forms of literacy that are developing.

Educators who specialise in literacy are currently working with the Australian Curriculum definition (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) which defines literacy as encompassing:

…listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.

Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school….

Becoming literate is not simply about knowledge and skills. Certain behaviours and dispositions assist students to become effective learners who are confident and motivated to use their literacy skills broadly.

For example, the Australian curriculum’s definition of literacy thus far exceeds the ‘key skills’ addressed in the recently launched FIVE from FIVE project proposed by the Centre for Independent Studies. FIVE from FIVE is being touted, with much fanfare, as some all-encompassing way of teaching children to read. Evidence-based methods of how to teach reading differ markedly from such simplistic ‘solutions’.

Each one of the ‘five key skills’ (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) listed by the FIVE from FIVE project is indeed an important skill. This is why they are already embedded in most teachers’ reading programs. In my experience there are few literacy educators who would deny the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying, thinking about, and working with the individual sounds in words) as needed when becoming literate.

However, these are not the only skills needed in helping a child learn to read. Any child being taught to read in a way that focuses solely on these skills will be short-changed. I believe that asserting that such a program is sufficient could be damaging to many children as it could lead to them disengaging from the literacy learning process.

Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading

Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these skills. Competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they have grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading. They also bring their past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re‐test that they have understood the author’s purpose in a particular context. An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.

Australian teachers, principals, parents and policymakers already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.

Let’s talk about what is important

I agree with eminent Australian literacy educators and educational researchers Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson who explain that the:

Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter‐sound relationships – often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships respectively. Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson (2013, p.3)

These sources, or cueing systems, work together simultaneously. Over‐emphasis on any one cueing system when learning to read is not effective.

Also, as teachers know, a rich vocabulary and fluency are significant but children need to be able to go beyond simple literal ‘comprehension’ of a text. They need to be able to make inferences and evaluate the importance of words within a text.

Teachers of reading today share rich authentic literary texts with their students. They know extensive research has demonstrated the importance of prediction and questioning strategies in learning to be literate.

One of the best ways for children to excel in reading comprehension tasks is for them to have the opportunity to interact widely with a wide range of books, selected by them, for enjoyment.

Children not only need to learn how to make meaning from text to carefully analyse the arguments or assertions in a text, to evaluate texts, but also how to create their own with confidence and creative flair.

There is no single recipe for literacy learning. The FIVE from FIVE project is yet another implicit criticism of the Australian teaching profession; and a good example of what we should not be doing by reducing the teaching of reading to five skills.

Instead we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.

 

EwingRobyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices.