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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Reading results hit a high: a whole school approach to literacy learning

Wendy Inman

Wendy Inman is Principal, Mirboo North Primary School, and was previously the Principal of Morwell Primary School.

Between 2003 and 2005 Morwell Primary School in Victoria dramatically lifted the reading results of its very disadvantaged children. This success was achieved through a detailed literacy plan, supported by a whole school approach and strong leadership, measures to deal with a demanding school context, and a belief that quality teaching could have significant and positive effects on the students’ achievements regardless of their backgrounds.

The school context

Morwell Primary School is situated in the La Trobe Valley in the eastern part of Victoria. Unemployment in Morwell is the highest of any town in the state. Only in five out of 120 families were parents employed in professions during the period that I was principal. Essentially, the middle classes had departed after the closure of the electricity industry's operations in the area, replaced in many cases by single-parent families attracted by low-cost housing. Approximately 25 per cent of the families are Koorie (Indigenous).

The school’s children very often come from homes where there are no books, where Mum and Dad are illiterate and where the family is in crisis. Student mobility to and from the school is in excess of 25 per cent per year, leading to gaps in education and aggravating severe attendance problems. Many students first arrive at the school without having heard of such things as a butterfly or a giraffe. This context has meant that students entering the prep year sometimes scored zero on the state's diagnostic school entry tests.

The staff were mainly either very new or nearing the end of their careers. It was difficult to attract teachers; often there would be only one or two applicants for a position. However, the staff we had were committed to making a difference to the lives of their students.

Making a difference has involved providing some very basic forms of support addressing the background situation of our students. For example, the school bought a washing machine and dryer and showed students how to use them to give the children the skills to break the cycle that they were currently in. We also ran breakfast and lunch clubs.

The school staff also, of course, understood the central importance of lifting our students’ literacy levels. In 2003 the staff began a careful evaluation of the school’s literacy program.

Most of the children were already able to reach reading benchmarks at the end of Grade 2, which was a tribute to the very hard work of the early years’ teachers in collaboration with their literacy coordinator and Reading Recovery teacher. In many school contexts, such a result would give children a strong basis from which to acquire the comprehension strategies needed at Grade 3 and above. At this point, however, the Morwell children seemed to be held back once again by their backgrounds for after the early years their reading achievement usually fell off again. We sought ways to overcome this problem.

Comprehension and thinking skills

We felt that the school already had in place some of the elements of a successful reading program for middle and senior primary students. We identified a range of skills and strategies needed by the middle and senior primary students in order to improve their reading comprehension:

  • Predicting. Readers need to make guesses about what might happen in a text. Effective readers monitor their predictions, recognising where they are wrong and revising their thinking.
  • Inferring is a related strategy which requires the student to make assumptions about what is not explicitly stated in text.
  • Retelling means deciding what is important to retell, a key part of comprehending. Sequencing helps readers rethink information in a logical manner.
  • Questioning is a key skill. Proficient readers are always generating questions as they read. Questioning helps children move into the text more deeply, think more about what they read, organise their thinking, locate specific information, and think about unstated ideas such as themes, author goals and intents and underlying meaning. Questioning can be taught through modelling as the teachers express their own ‘wonderings’ aloud.
  • Through monitoring children actively and explicitly consider the meaning of what they read and revise.
  • By connecting to a text children can make sense of what they read. They use knowledge to construct meaning and to relate to events and feelings of characters.
  • Deciding what is important to retell is a key comprehension strategy.
  • A focus on the structure is another way for the student to identify meaning. For example, directing children to look for the beginning, middle or end of a text promotes focused and efficient reading.
  • Through evaluating students ‘think out loud’ on what has been read.

In teaching these skills and strategies we drew on workshops with David Hornsby. He stressed three steps. Firstly, teachers need to model the strategies they propose for students, and talk out loud to the children about how they use these strategies in their own reading. The second step is shared practice as the teacher gradually draws the child into these processes, and then slowly withdraws support so that students can enter the third step, of independent practice. The workshops also brought to my attention the close connections between reading comprehension and the thinking skills emphasised in the VELS curriculum.

Despite these measures, overcoming our students’ disadvantaged backgrounds remained a challenge. We decided to purchase a reading program and selected Accelerated Reader (AR). Using AR students read a book at their appropriate reading levels at their own pace from a wide list of available titles. Each student then takes a quiz on the book. AR offers more than 110,000 quizzes around the world with some 10,000 involving Australian books.

Assessment of students’ reading takes place through two types of quizzes called Reading Practice and Literacy Skills Quizzes. The student and teacher receive immediate automated feedback on the reading and vocabulary progress via ‘TOPS’ reports. They are written in a positive way even for the children who do not score as well as we would wish.

At Morwell we adapted AR to our needs, ensuring, for example, that books used for the program were kept available on school premises. Children set goals for a term or less. We celebrated the attainment of those goals as an individual, group and grade. Children were active in setting their own goals and reflecting on our practice, often making suggestions on how to improve the program. The program also made silent reading time more focused and accountable. The silent reading was the independent practice referred to before as the third part of successful teaching.

A whole school approach

The program also had to be integrated into our whole school approach to student learning, adapted once again to our students’ social context. Every child who received 100 per cent in their quiz received a raffle ticket for a weekly draw for a prize. This meant we had set the bar high for the children. They wanted to get 100 per cent and we noticed they became very focused on their quizzes. We asked the children what they would like for the weekly prize and the children decided on a money prize. The raffle was drawn at assembly on Monday and the child had to be in attendance to win the prize.

The teacher librarian was nominated as the prime implementer of the program. The teacher librarian, who was a very experienced classroom teacher, set initial goals with each student and also administered the positive rewards program. Library staff were available at set times daily to support children in their quizzes.

Underpinning other forms of whole school support was the need for Principal leadership. The Principal ensured that the whole school approach became a reality by taking care that all staff knew what we were trying to achieve and by mobilising resources of the School Council, the library staff and parents. Teachers had ownership as well, as they were involved in the decision-making processes used to put the plan in place.

Results

We soon observed that the children were very focused on their quizzes. In a school where students could be challenging at times this was a remarkable step forward.

Another notable impact of the program was the rising number of children finishing books. The rise was particularly notable among boys and Koorie students. One Koorie boy read 20 books in Grade 6. He had never finished a book before.

Academic results confirmed the improvements we had observed. In 2004 our AIM test data showed that 15 students were an entire level above their expected standard. In the Grade 3 test overall boys performed as well as girls, and Koorie students also performed well.

The following year children in Grades 5 and 6, who by now had two and half years of regular practice within the program, also did surprisingly well by previous standards at the school. More than half of that class finished the top TORCH (Test Of Reading CompreHension) tests that we used as our benchmark data. The achievement occurred despite the presence of some particularly difficult children, one of whom was expelled during the year. The tests showed that more than half the children were performing at levels expected for Year 8, so our goal of lifting comprehension levels had been achieved.

The school kept a record of the children’s achievements. Previously students’ reading comprehension skills had tended to plateau out at Grade 5 and 6 level, so it was pleasing now to find that the children continued to steadily improve their comprehension levels.

The children had started with a low entry score but a combination of quality teaching within a whole school approach has made a significant difference to these children.

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

Primary education
Literacy
English language teaching
Socially disadvantaged