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Towards better reading and writing – AND lower workload

Sometimes several things happen at the nearly same time which seem unconnected but then illuminate each other. In the last month I’ve been struck by three blogs and their implications.

Comprehension practice doesn’t increase reading ability. Daniel Willingham is an American cognitive psychologist well-known for his books and blogposts. On 5th March he posted a fascinating blog outlining extensive research by himself and others that, above an initial stage that’s quickly reached, comprehension practice doesn’t improve reading. This links to his previous article outlining further meta-analyses in which he writes (italics added by me:

Ten sessions yield the same benefit as fifty sessions. The implication seems obvious; reading comprehension strategies (RCS) instruction should be explicit and brief. Far from a let‐down, this strikes us as wonderful news. To the extent that educators have been devoting time to RCS instruction, they can now focus on other, more fruitful activities, such as generative vocabulary instruction, deep content exploration, and opportunities for reading across genres and content areas. When it comes to improving reading comprehension, strategy instruction may have an upper limit, but building background knowledge does not; the more students know, the broader the range of texts they can comprehend.

It follows that, beyond a limited level, reading with understanding can’t be taught by direct instruction. It can only be taught by deep exploration of a wide variety of texts.

Interestingly, on the day he posted this Willingham received a plaintive, single-sentence comment: “At some point we need to get into specifics about what the teaching looks like in a classroom.” Many teachers will sympathise. The basic question is: how do I ensure my students do better without working even harder than I do already? Show me the actual method – the specifics – for improving my teaching without increasing my workload. Large numbers of bloggers, researchers and trainers give general advice about what to do. Please give me something specific and time-saving that definitely works.

Reading is a complex, personal activity – every student’s needs are different depending on their individual, social and cultural background. This was explained very well on 21st March in Barbara Bleiman’s blog, Overemphasising the vocabulary challenge? Bleiman points out how effective readers often understand the overall meaning of a text without understanding individual words, but also how individual words can cause misunderstanding, even apparently simple words:

For all that we talk about the detrimental impact of the ‘vocabulary gap’ on reading, it can be the simple words, used in idiomatic or unusual ways that can floor inexperienced readers, pulling the rug out from under their feet. Floor? Rug? That last sentence is just one example of potentially confusing language where the words themselves are perfectly simple, monosyllabic, everyday ones, yet they’re being used in ways that might not be familiar. It might be no less difficult for a student to understand this idiomatic use of language than it would be for me to say, ‘It can be the simple words that can be disconcerting, capable of disorientating inexperienced readers.’ Only seeing vocabulary as hard words misses out a much bigger aspect of what it means to understand a text.

Bleiman ends her blog with a detailed account of her own responses and strategies when reading the opening of A Christmas Carol. They are inevitably personal – quite different in some ways from mine and, I guess, yours. We each read texts differently.

Deep down we know this, but the implications seem daunting. How can we possibly provide individual learning programmes for, in secondary schools, at least 150 separate students? We can’t and, in fact, realising this is liberating because, in reality, no teacher can correct all a student’s misunderstandings. Hundreds of hours of marking can’t possibly put right all the errors of understanding a student may make, so there is no point in trying. We actually enable students to improve their reading by reading with them and, as Vygotsky showed, guiding them to construct their understanding collaboratively with us and with their peers.

Cognitive acceleration significantly raises attainment in Reading and Writing after one year. On 30th March Alex Black published his results from using cognitive acceleration Let’s Think in English lessons fortnightly for a year – https://www.abceducation.ch/blog/2018/03/30/effects-of-a-one-year-lets-think-in-english-intervention-in-an-international-school/.
Using the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) test, the students achieved increased attainment in Reading, Narrative Writing and Expository Writing comparable to the top 14 International Baccalaureate schools in the control sample (effect sizes of +0.30, +0.12 and +0.42 respectively). The students also achieved significant increases in scientific reasoning ability as measuring by Piagetian science reasoning tests and mathematical literacy as measured by ACER. This further confirms work by Adey and Shayer that cognitive acceleration raises general, not just subject-specific, cognitive skills.

As background, Let’s Think in English (LTE) provides 30 lessons for KS3, designed to be used fortnightly (15 per year) over 2 years. Other suites of lessons are available for KS1, KS2 and GCSE. They use a wide variety of short texts – poems, fiction, non-fiction, drama and film – which are explored intensively. As Black points out, teachers are trained to use the lessons effectively. See www.letsthinkinenglish.org

Taken together, these three blogs have several implications:

  • The LTE lessons provide “deep content exploration and opportunities for reading across genres and content areas” (Willingham) which build students’ background knowledge and develop their reading strategies (Willingham, Bleiman).
  • The lessons increase teachers’ awareness of each student’s cognitive processes, enabling more focussed personal guidance (Bleiman).
  • The lessons do not involve writing (so less marking), but nevertheless significantly improve students’ Writing (Black).
  • Suites of fully trialled lessons (lesson plans and Powerpoints) are provided so teachers don’t need to create their own (less workload), though many choose to do so as they become familiar with the lessons’ structure.
  • Teachers are trained to use the lessons effectively, including demonstration lessons taught in new schools (Black). The CPD is therefore embedded in the school as is increasingly recommended.

Cognitive Acceleration is one of several well-researched cognitive development programmes, with Philosophy for Children, Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, Alexander’s and Mercer’s Dialogic Teaching; but it is the only programme with suites of fully-trialled lessons focussed on the cognitive skills required for individual subjects. I’ve put a sample lesson at the end of this blog for you to try and there are some more at www.letsthinkinenglish.org/sample-lessons/ .

This approach may fit with Ofsted’s imminent review of teaching and learning. They will shortly publish a major review in which they will try to persuade schools to reduce routine assessment and focus on more effective teaching – www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017. In a fascinating Twitter exchange on 26th – 28th March between Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director for Education, and Professor Becky Allen of the IoE, Harford wrote “Sounds like it could be a misinterpretation of the word ‘track’. ‘Track’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘use data’.” @HarfordSean This tweet has already been liked by 70 people. No wonder.

But if schools don’t need to use data to track progress, they will need to do it some other way. Understanding each student’s individual cognitive needs and responding to them by direct personal spoken feedback looks a good way.

Here is the sample lesson and there are others at www.letsthinkinenglish.org/sample-lessons/:

And here are details of our next introductory course.

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