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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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Raising attainment AND reducing workload

Every time I talk to PGCE and Teach First students, something odd happens. I ask them about the guidance they receive in their placement schools and, every time, find that a majority are expected to:

  • use the National Strategies lesson model (learning objectives on the board, starter activity, episodes evidenced in writing, plenary)
  • work towards every pupil showing progress in every lesson
  • participate in frequent written assessment for tracking progress against target grades.

These are required by the school’s SLT and the students’ assessments depend on their compliance.

This is worrying because all the above were withdrawn by the Government in 2008 as ineffective and discredited. But no Government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has informed schools of this and many SLTs therefore continue requiring them. This isn’t a criticism of SLTs who want to do the best for their students. Rather, it’s a criticism of governments.

Does this matter? Yes, because many teachers are still being required to use a teaching and assessment model that was discredited as ineffective 10 years ago, adding to their workload in ways that don’t raise attainment. And Ofsted is about to provide advice on the curriculum for the first time with a major review to be published in late Spring. My fear is that, unless the past mistakes are publicly withdrawn, this will be used to add to teacher workload.

So what has(n’t) happened?

Since 2008 the Government has accepted two important truths about education in England’s schools, but has decided to inform schools about only one of them. The first is that attainment in our schools hasn’t risen since the 1990s. This is shown by all three of the main international education surveys: PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS. These surveys can be criticised, but when all three show the same – that, overall, standards in England’s schools have flatlined for 20+ years – they can’t be ignored.

Performance of England in international surveys

This diagram and the next are from Robert Coe’s brilliant paper Improving education: a triumph of hope over experience. As Coe shows, this lack of improvement was disguised by GCSE results which showed a year on year increase of A – C grades (subsequently A* – C) from 29.9 per cent in 1988 when GCSE began to 81.1 per cent in 2012, a rise not remotely paralleled anywhere else in the world. This was caused mainly by the Exam Boards competing for market share – each anxious not to set exams that were more demanding than the other Boards, causing grade inflation.

Changes in proportion gaining 5 good grades

By 2008 the Government accepted that the mismatch between the international surveys and the GCSE results was unacceptable and created Ofqual, first to research the extent of grade inflation and then with statutory powers to control the Exam Boards.

By 2010 the Coalition Government declared two overarching policies: to raise attainment in England’s schools to match the world’s highest-achieving education systems and to raise attainment by students leaving school with poor qualifications or none – see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) These are cross-party policies – Labour supports them and the other practical policies brought in to support them: pupil premium, Progress 8 and investment of £125 million in research on raising attainment through the Education Endowment Foundation.

So far so good. The second truth, unmentioned by governments, is that, since the 90s, teachers have been required to work harder than ever before but this has had no effect on overall attainment in schools. Two major causes of increased workload were the National Strategies (1997 – 2011) which developed a formulaic teacher-led style of teaching (learning objectives, starter, episodes evidenced in writing, plenary) rolled out nationally by a private company, Capita; and Ofsted’s demand for evidence of frequent assessment of pupils’ work in relation to target National Curriculum levels or GCSE grades and its requirement that every pupil should visibly make progress in every lesson. These policies were introduced without any research evidence that they would raise attainment and they didn’t.

In October 2008, faced with the evidence of flatlining attainment the Government decided to discontinue the strategies in 2011 when Capita’s contract expired and Ofsted quietly withdrew its requirements about frequent assessment and progress in every lesson. But the Government has never made clear to schools that the National Strategies and Ofsted’s earlier policies failed to raise standards – Labour from embarrassment at spending millions on the Strategies without effect and the Coalition and Conservatives because decisions on teaching and learning are devolved wholly to schools. As a result, SLTs in many schools continue policies that were discredited nearly 10 years ago, requiring teachers to teach and assess in time-consuming ways which don’t raise attainment, because they have never been informed otherwise.

This has several unfortunate effects. First, excessive workload is leading to recruitment problems with rising staff turnover, burn-out, and more early retirements. The DfE has recognised this – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload – and Ofsted now says it will ask headteachers how they plan to reduce staff workload – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/exclusive-ofsted-ask-headteachers-how-they-plan-reduce-teachers.

Second, the primary curriculum has narrowed over the years brought about by the pressures of external assessment and accountability, and an effective Key Stage 3 curriculum is being weakened as more schools begin GCSE courses earlier than Year 10 and start assessing students by GCSE Assessment Objectives. Ofsted is now starting to focus on this –
https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017. The full report won’t be out until next Spring but, under HMCI Amanda Spielman, Ofsted is already making it clear that they expect to see not simply a “broad and balanced” curriculum, but one that ensures depth and quality of learning. It seems that Ofsted intends to concern itself at last with the actual quality of teaching and learning, not just the appearance of it.

So how do we raise attainment without further increasing workload?

The EEF has commissioned researchers at the University of Durham to summarise the international research on 34 possible ways of raising attainment in schools, relating their effectiveness to their cost. This is published as a Teaching and Learning Toolkit to encourage an evidence-based approach to raising attainment. Here is Robert Coe’s visual summary of the Toolkit.

Impact Vs Cost

It will be seen that the most effective approaches all relate to practical aspects of teaching: feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring, collaboration (i.e. groupwork) and, in secondary schools, well-designed homework. These approaches also feature high in John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers (2012). There is strong overlap with Dialogic Teaching developed by Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer.

How should schools raise attainment by all their pupils by improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning? And how can SLTs be persuaded (as international evidence has shown for 20 years) that repeated assessment against targets leads to teaching-to-the-test, not higher attainment? A good way would be to adopt a programme which:

• requires pupils to think. As Coe and many others point out: “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”

• incorporates the features that the EEF Toolkit shows raise attainment most: effective feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring and collaboration leading to well-designed homework

• provides a large number of high-interest model lessons and a programme of support to help teachers implement the programme effectively

• is based on rigorous research to convince sceptical SLTs of the need for change.

It won’t surprise you that the programme which best fulfils all these requirements is Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration (CA), now renamed Let’s Think. This was devised at King’s College London for Science in the 1970s and 80s, for Maths in the 1990s and for English since 2009. Other programmes like Philosophy for Children, Dialogic Teaching and Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment incorporate some of the four elements, but only CA/LT provides all four.

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