Effective teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: issues and implications surrounding key findings and recommendations from the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy
Volume 11 Number 3, 2006; Pages 99–115
The debate over the findings of the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL) raised the more general issue of the relative merits of constructivist and direct teaching methods. Constructivist approaches to teaching are prominent in the curricula of Australian States and Territories, but an ‘exclusive emphasis’ on these methods is highly inappropriate, particularly for students with learning difficulties and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Constructivist approaches, with labels such as ‘situated learning’, ‘scaffolding’ and ‘problem-based learning’, assume that students have already gained enough literacy, numeracy and study skills to generate new learning in a given subject. As B Wilson has argued, operational views on constructivism in Australia ‘confuse the need for the child to construct her own knowledge’ with ‘pedagogy that sees it as the child’s responsibility to achieve that’. This approach deflects attention from the teacher’s responsibility to address children’s misconceptions and facilitate generalisation of knowledge. In contrast, explicit or direct instruction (DI) is well grounded in evidence-based research. This approach is ‘designed according to what, not who, is to be taught’ and gives ‘little attention to the “causes” of underachievement'. It allows for individual student differences through ‘different entry points, reinforcement, amounts of practice, and correction strategies’. Project Follow Through, ‘the largest and most costly research study in the history of education’, found DI methods to be far more effective than constructivism in accelerating the learning of disadvantaged children in the USA. These findings are supported by more than 500,000 evidence-based studies. To help teachers implement effective learning events in the classroom, the ACER has devised the Working Out What Works (WOWW) professional development manual, recently used in a ‘third wave’ project to help students with learning difficulties in Years 4–6. Constructivism and explicit both have ‘merit in their own right’ but constructivist methods should not be used before DI has given students sound basic knowledge and skills. DI challenges the myths of biological or social determinism that learning outcomes result from developmental differences, intelligence, gender or social circumstances rather than on the quality of teaching they receive.
Teaching and learning
Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England's ‘Rose Report’
Volume 41 Number 1, April 2007; Pages 35–42
In England, the teaching of reading is now guided by the findings of the Rose Report, which strongly emphasises the use of synthetic phonics. The report’s call for the systematic use of phonics is well supported by research. However, research evidence does not support other crucial findings of the report. It states that ‘a wide range of evidence’ indicates that systematic phonics is ‘much strengthened by a synthetic approach’. Synthetic phonics programs ‘emphasise teaching students to convert letters (graphemes) into sounds (phonemes)’ and then blend them into words, whereas analytic phonics is taken to mean introducing children to whole words before breaking them into components, and emphasises larger elements of words, such as spelling patterns, as well as phonemes. However, an extensive meta-analysis carried out in 2000 for the US National Reading Panel (NRP) on reading instruction found that ‘phonics programs do not appear to differ significantly’ in their effectiveness. The Rose Report supports the teaching of phonics in isolation from whole texts, an issue ‘at the heart of arguments about reading pedagogy’. While offering passing support for a ‘language rich curriculum’, it details how phonics should be taught, and states that ‘the balance of advantage’ favours the ‘teaching of synthetic phonics discretely as the prime approach to establishing word recognition’. It praises a program introducing children to letter sounds before books. In this vein, the widely used Jolly Phonics program ‘withholds books from children’ for its first 8–9 weeks. The NRP research findings support the integration of phonics with text-level learning. One of the most recent studies, by VW Berninger et al, particularly supports the integration of phonics with highly engaging texts, and suggests that comprehension instruction might help phonological decoding by stimulating metacognitive awareness. The report's support for phonics teaching for children aged under five is very controversial and is not supported by research. As evidence for its recommendations the Rose Report emphasises two studies in Clackmannanshire in 2004 that received considerable media attention. The significant limitations in the methodology of the Clackmannanshire studies include their lack of controls for children’s level of prior attainment, inadequate allowance for socioeconomic background, and the limited information offered about the participating schools.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
English language teaching
Curriculum leadership: the importance of alignment
Winter 2007; Pages 16–18
Assessment based on standards asserts the belief that all students can succeed, and that the task of education is to raise virtually all students to high levels of achievement. Standards-based assessment is accompanied, at school and system level, by close examination of data on student results. With further refinements, such methods of evaluation promise insights about how to deliver student learning effectively. The standards-based approach represents a great advance on the norm-referenced assessment that prevailed 15 years ago, in which schools were a ‘filter system for society’. However, the new approach ‘collides with traditional assumptions’ and imposes considerably more complex roles on teachers. Adapting to it poses a major challenge to educators. During the transition there is a risk of misalignment between curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment and reporting. For example, what is assessed may not align with what is taught; curriculum programming may focus on content rather than skills demanded by the standards; and reporting may not address whether the standards have been met. Such misalignment may discourage educators from genuine adoption of the standards-based approach. It is tempting to simplify the complexity of new arrangements by compartmentalising curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, but this strategy itself generates confusion, in which ‘content is the default winner’. Schools that produce impressive student results have probably aligned curriculum, pedagogy and assessment successfully, whether or not this was a conscious goal on their part. Such alignment contains several elements. The analysis of student data from external testing and internal formative assessment needs to be integrated with a deep understanding of standards. The school needs an agreed process for managing change, involving collaborative planning and professional learning, and the development of consistent strategies for teaching and learning. Success also involves ‘thinking carefully before grabbing the latest new thing’. Suitable ICT can help to develop and monitor the links between elements of the alignment.
Subject HeadingsCurriculum planning
How comparable are the perceived achievement challenges facing principals of low-performing schools?
Volume 35 Number 1, 2007; Pages 3–21
A study in the USA has examined 19 principals soon after they commenced their positions at poorly performing primary or middle schools. As a means to inform future support measures, the researchers sought to determine the extent to which the barriers to improvement faced by the principals were generic or specific to each school. The study evaluated the Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program (VSTSP). It examined ten K–5 schools and nine middle schools that typically covered Years 6–9. The schools joined the program either in 2004 or 2005. The perceptions of the principals about their schools’ problems were collected at several points during the first year of participation in the program. Data were collected via structured interviews, supplemented by telephone and email communications. The problems most commonly identified at both primary and middle schools were: low reading achievement (all 19 schools); followed closely by personnel problems (18 schools); ineffective instruction (16 schools); and inadequate data (15 schools). Discipline was seen as a problem at eight of the nine middle schools and five of the ten primary schools. These common problems suggest a need for generic leadership development programs to include these issues. However, the interplay between the problems varied widely between schools, indicating the need for supplementary, customised support. For example, methods for dealing with personnel problems will be very different depending on whether principals have the authority to remove staff they judge to be incompetent. A dysfunctional school culture may involve lack of teamwork but may mean a common resistance to school improvement, which again requires different solutions.
Subject HeadingsEducational evaluation
United States of America (USA)
Learning to write: technology for students with disabilities in secondary inclusive classrooms
Volume 96 Number 4, March 2007; Pages 86–93
Students with disabilities can be supported in writing tasks through the use of a range of technologies. Digital text, text-to-speech (TTS), cognitive organisation, and voice recognition technologies can help to simplify and scaffold the writing process for disabled learners by assisting with both mechanical and cognitive writing processes. Digital text technology is increasingly sophisticated and easy to use in the classroom. Mobile scanning devices such as the InfoScan electronic note taker are as compact and easy to use as highlighter pens, scanning words onto a hard drive as the device is passed over a page. Once text is digitised in this way, students and teachers can adjust font size and colour, highlight key words and attach images or media. Manipulations such as these can improve students’ comprehension and enjoyment of text. Digitised textbooks and literature are also increasingly available for download at websites such as Project Gutenberg, the US Library of Congress, and LD Resources Electronic Text collection. Another advantage of digitised text is that it can be read aloud for students using TTS technology. TTS programs such as Kurzweil can read a student’s work back to them so that they can easily identify misspelled and omitted words, and a built-in dictionary encourages reluctant readers to look up unfamiliar words, as definitions can be procured with one mouse click. Many TTS and word-processing programs offer a suite of such electronic references, including dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia. Portable devices with TTS and reference capabilities, such as the Merriam-Webster Speaking Dictionary and Thesaurus, are also widely available and useful for library research. Cognitive organisation technologies such as Inspiration or Draft:Builder can assist students with more conceptual aspects of writing. Inspiration facilitates easy outline creation by providing over 65 curriculum-aligned outline templates covering analysis, fiction, biography and other styles. Other technologies assist students with mechanical writing processes. Voice recognition technologies automatically translate spoken language into written text, allowing students with physical disabilities or dysgraphia to dictate their work. Some voice recognition programs allow students to control all computer software applications by speaking commands; there are also many alternative keyboard designs available for students with limited ranges of motion.
Key Learning AreasTechnology
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Interest for writing: how teachers can make a difference
Volume 96 Number 4, March 2007; Pages 79–85
Teachers often view student interest in writing as an immutable personality trait; however, students themselves describe their interest in writing as changeable and influenced by teachers and classroom practice. Recent research has attempted to assess how teachers can affect student interest in writing. A research project conducted at an academically oriented K–12 school in the USA has attempted to identify students’ needs and wants at each ‘phase’ in the development of their interest in writing. These phases were identified in a review of the literature relating to interest. In Phase 1, students exhibit only a triggered, situational interest in writing, and generally rate themselves as poor writers. Phase 2 students think of writing as a mechanical task and seek a formula for writing the ‘right’ way. Phase 3 students consider themselves good writers, think of writing as an art, and dislike receiving feedback correcting their grammar, believing it ‘misses the point’. In Phase 4, students are confident writers but are more aware of their own limitations, and strive to improve in aspects such as structure, style and mechanics. The research project identified students’ interest phases based on their responses to a questionnaire assessing knowledge of, value for, and attitudes about writing. Sample groups from each phase were then interviewed about their wants and needs. Based on these responses, researchers outlined a series of teacher practices that support a balance of these phase-specific wants and needs. For example, comments on student papers can be framed in relation to students’ requirements at each stage. Whereas Phase 1 students require concrete suggestions, Phase 2 students are better served by feedback in question form, such as 'Why did you choose this quotation?'. Such comments help Phase 2 students understand that there is more than one ‘right’ way of writing. In whole class instruction, it is possible to cater for all phases of interest by providing students with concrete guidelines for writing style, such as 'get to the verb quickly' illustrated through the use of a somewhat flexible and creative task, for example, asking students to apply the guidelines to a piece of professional writing.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
How movies work for secondary school students with special needs
Volume 96 Number 4, March 2007; Pages 67–72
Students with disabilities often feel inferior to their peers in literature class, as difficulties with reading obstruct their full participation. Film studies can help these students feel a part of the mainstream, learn skills transferable to literature, and receive exposure to important cultural experiences. Because disabled and non-disabled students are equally unlikely to have experience with the analytical skills involved in film criticism, analysing a film in class can promote equity in class. Students with special needs and students who resist the printed word are able to view the same film as their peers, and their opinions are equally valid. As with written text, students are introduced to concepts such as genre, plot, narrative points of view, irony, symbolism and other literary devices. Homework assignments can be tailored to individual skill level, as tasks can be as simple as describing a character’s physical appearance or as complex as exploring the symbolism of costuming. Foreign films with subtitles can encourage development of reading skills whilé simultaneously engaging students with a foreign culture. Films can also be used to introduce students to difficult text, such as Shakespeare, by providing visual clues to the texts’ meaning. Significantly, film analysis classes also provide students with the tools needed to understand and enjoy films in their day-to-day lives.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Literacy: sharing the success
Volume 86 Number 11, 9 July 2007
A Christchurch primary school with a significant number of students with low literacy levels was able to affect dramatic improvement by initiating a shared reading class. A high number of senior students at the school were being referred to specialist literacy teachers, and so a resource teacher suggested that a whole class referral might be more efficient in terms of resources. This composite class of Years 4–6 contained children whose reading skills ranged 'from level 3 to level 23', and many of the students displayed behavioural problems, particularly relating to attention span. The literacy resource teacher, Carol Blackburn, approached this challenge by applying shared reading as a strategy, selecting books and poems with rhyme, repetition, rhythm and a high level of interest and characterisation. Each class would start with a whole group session in which a teacher would read the shared text aloud as children read along. The teachers would dramatise the text and demonstrate reading with expression for the children, with each text being repeated many times but in different ways. Rather than focusing on reading levels, which varied greatly in the class, texts were chosen based upon the interest of the story and strong rhythmic pulse. Differences in reading skill were accommodated by focusing on different aspects of the text with different children. The children found this technique enjoyable, and were able to concentrate for long periods. Most children improved more than one reading level over one term.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Teaching science in a meaningful way: striking a balance between 'opening up' and 'closing down' classroom talk
Volume 88 Number 324, March 2007; Pages 77–83
Science teachers should be more conscious of the styles of communication they adopt when introducing new topics, and use a range of techniques appropriate to the content of the lesson. In dialogic exchanges, different points of view, including those of students, are exchanged and considered. Opening up a dialogue of ideas in this way can motivate students and encourage more meaningful learning. Teachers should promote these open exchanges when introducing a difficult topic, so that students can share their preconceptions of an idea before learning the details of the accepted ‘scientific’ point of view. In ‘authoritative’ communication however, the teacher discourages alternative readings of a concept. This approach is ideally used to explain the details of an accepted scientific perspective. An ongoing research project is examining the different ways teachers frame communication when introducing new ideas. One conclusion drawn from this research is that dialogic interaction is not used frequently enough in science teaching, particularly in secondary science. In order to promote greater use of dialogic teaching, teachers should learn to identify those parts of the curriculum in which dialogic exchange is necessary. Topics in which the difference between students’ existing views and accepted scientific views is less pronounced, where the science appears ‘commonsense’, do not require the dialogic introduction that more complex topics might. For example, the concept of ‘speed’ is relatively well understood and can be taught authoritatively. Other topics, such as the concept of ‘force’, require teachers to help students compare and contrast possible explanations and ideas through dialogic exchanges. Teachers often confuse dialogic interaction with authoritative turn-taking which uses directed questions and ignoring contributions from students that are not consistent with the accepted point of view. Teachers must understand the difference between this ‘Initiation’, ‘Response’, ‘Evaluation’ (IRE) style of authoritative interaction and the genuine promotion of a range of student ideas before dialogic styles can be used effectively.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsScience teaching
The invisible underachievers
Number 10, June 2007; Pages 20–21
Students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are rarely identified as gifted by traditional measures such as IQ tests. However, New South Wales students who scored poorly on the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) test achieved in the top 10 per cent of students on an alternative test. The NSW talented and gifted policy defines ‘giftedness’ as distinct excellence in intellectual, creative, socioaffective and/or physical domains. Each student’s intrapersonal skills (motivation, self-management, self-esteem, self-efficacy, health, learning ability/disability and language ability) and environmental factors (eg socioeconomic background, interpersonal relationships, teacher expectations and teaching practices) will either impede or assist their performance accordingly. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may yield poor results on traditional tests due to social–emotional issues and/or inefficient cognition, rather than inability. A key ingredient in positive social–emotional development is self-efficacy, which requires self-belief, opportunities to master learning and positive reinforcement. Dynamic assessment involves pretesting, intervention and post-testing students. During intervention, the examiner uses strategies to scaffold students’ emotional and metacognitive resources and responses. The Coolabah Dynamic testing procedure was used with Year 3 and Year 5 Aboriginal students across rural New South Wales. Students were pretested using RSPM, and control and intervention groups were formed. The examiner bonded with students using an ice-breaker. The examiner then scaffolded students’ learning during intervention, and built their self-efficacy in turn. Many of those who had low scores in the pretest were identified as gifted in the post-test. Teachers raised their expectations of students previously identified as average, providing a further catalyst for self-efficacy and performance.
Subject HeadingsAboriginal students
New South Wales (NSW)
Developing an ICT strategy for the primary school
Winter 2007; Pages 19–22
Staff at Bishop Druitt College’s primary school decided to prioritise ICT, making use of its potential to engage students and the school's well-developed technology infrastructure. The school began by surveying students, parents and staff about their perceptions of the potential role of ICT. Critical needs were identified as: staff professional development; updating the school’s ICT Scope and Sequence program; parent education; incorporating emerging technologies and building external partnerships. The school redeveloped its Scope and Sequence, so that emerging technologies could be added and old technologies removed as needed. With 85 per cent of children having the Internet at home and an increased ICT knowledge on starting school, more advanced entry level skills were specified. Parents believed children were primarily using home computers for homework, whereas Year 3 students reported using computers mainly for games. Year 6–8 students used computers for socialising through email, MSN, MySpace and other ICTs, and were more likely to have a computer in their bedroom away from parental supervision. The school established an Internet education unit to train students in cybersafety and the importance of self-regulation. Teachers were asked to identify their skill levels across a range of ICT applications, and those with sound skills were partnered with less confident staff. Each pair undertook coaching sessions, during which they developed classroom resources. Parental concerns over monitoring Internet use were addressed through an information evening. Recommendations for time use and quality websites for homework were included in the school newsletter. Interactive Smartboards were purchased by the school to keep infrastructure current, and have been shown to increase engagement among boys. The boards were assigned to teachers who were enthusiastic about ICT, which lead other teachers to show an interest. Staff revealed high usage of laptop trolleys, which may be the focus of future expansion, rather than the traditional computer laboratory. Partnerships provided professional development, but have required the teacher to be absent from class and to invest additional time beyond that funded. Scheduling projects during holidays or weekends would overcome these factors. Schools must be careful not to add to the pressure on parents to purchase new ICTs such as MP3 players.
Key Learning AreasTechnology
Subject HeadingsPrimary education
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Helping Friends: a peer support program for senior secondary schools
Volume 6 Number 1, March 2007
Research indicates that most young people turn to friends, rather than counsellors, for help in a crisis. However, the advice students offer each other is not always constructive. The Helping Friends program aims to provide students with the skills to support one another in a positive way. In this program, students nominate staff members and students that they perceive as supportive, and these representatives are invited to attend a voluntary training session. At this session, representatives discuss communication skills, problem solving, decision making, self care and issues identified in research literature as significant to students, such as race relations, sexual preference and depression. By targeting these student leaders, Helping Friends aims to affect improved supportiveness in the wider student body. A recent research project has attempted to gauge the effectiveness of the program by observing its effect on the attitudes of student bodies as measured by the Social Provision Scale (SPS). The SPS, a questionnaire designed to assess individuals’ perceived social support, was administered to all Year 11 students prior to and six months after their schools’ participation in the Helping Friends training program. SPS results showed statistically significant improvement in students’ perceptions of the accessibility of support; however, these improvements were limited to a few specific areas relating to perception of worth, nurturance and emotional attachment to others. Improvements in areas measuring the availability of guidance, reliable alliance and social integration were not statistically significant. The greatest gains were reported in areas where initial performance was poor, and gains in initially high-performing areas were minimal. In order to evaluate the training program itself, the elected student and staff participants at each school were asked to complete a questionnaire evaluating their knowledge and attitudes towards helping others, and were found to display more positive attitudes and greater competency in helping people one month after the program’s completion. The participants themselves also gave a positive evaluation of the program’s effectiveness. The evaluation, as well as anecdotal evidence from participating schools, gauged Helping Friends as effective. This suggests that identifying respected students and reinforcing their existing skills can reinforce the level of social support across a school.
Subject HeadingsSocial education
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