‘Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It’

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The February edition of Research Roundup links to a document, Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It, Manchester: Ofsted.

This is a report which presents the findings of research into good practice in teaching children to read in England.

The study examined practice in 12 schools in England that were assessed as outstanding in their last inspection. The sample included four infant and nursery schools and eight full-range primary schools. Inspectors observed over 100 phonics and reading and writing sessions in order to assess how they were teaching children to read.

The research found that the best primary schools can teach virtually every child to read, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, ethnicity, the language spoken at home and most special educational needs.

The study indicated that primary schools, including infant schools, can achieve very high standards in reading if they focus on this objective. Success was found to be based on the determination that every child will learn to read, together with a sustained and sequential approach to developing speaking and listening skills.

Concentrated and systematic teaching of phonics was crucial. The best phonics teaching was characterised by planned structure, fast pace, praise and reinforcement, perceptive responses, active participation by all children and evidence of progress. Effective assessment of children’s progress and identification of difficulty in reading was also a key success factor.

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I like dead trees

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Appropos of my previous post:

I am excited about the new definition of text as the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated. I actively encourage colleagues to keep a wide range of reading materials available.

There is a real likelihood that hard pressed teachers (and the squeeze is becoming tighter) will have not have the resources – emotional, intellectual, economic – to familiarise themselves with a broader range of texts than those we already use.

However, we do a profound disservice to our young learners if we ignore the fundamental habits of deep and earnest reading and embrace the new unreflectively.

While my sons at 8 and 9 years old adored having books read to them and were very literate in the broad sense, they were totally uninterested in reading. Then they were introduced to ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. These ‘interactive’, non-linear texts (this was the early ’80’s) were the breakthrough for them, not least because they just had to read short paragraphs and felt they were actively involved in creating the story. Determining the protagonist’s next course of action, albeit from a very limited range of choices, was immensely satisfying for them. After a preference was made, the plot branched out and unfolded, leading to more decisions and eventually multiple possible endings. But a crucial point was that such books required less stamina than more traditional ones.

They rapidly moved on to more sophisticated and, it has to be said, more conventional, texts, eschewing the comic books, early graphic novels and sci fi so dear to many of their contemporaries. They built up stamina, learned to read stories which not only had more complex vocabulary but more profound concepts that needed to be pondered upon, incubated, borrowed and for and incorporated into their own thinking. For this, they needed time and space, practice and more practice (with encouragement at times), the opportunity to explore their new learning and link it with what they already knew.

I fear that the bells and whistles of ‘transmedia’ texts (what’s the difference between these and games? Perhaps there doesn’t need to be a distinction) represent an easier option.

Oh I do struggle with all this ‘transmedia’ stuff. I try to act as if I’m in the 21st century – honest. But I wonder about the efficacy of promoting these interactive books without the caveat that we have must not discard books. I don’t believe there is a set body of knowledge, a prescribed list of classics with which every child should be familiar (I’ve never read Dryden and have little inclination so to do). I do sincerely believe that unless young people are exposed and – yes – sometimes urged to step out of the constantly changing scenery of a game or text such as Alice, then they may never acquire the mature skills (or more importantly, the deep pleasure) that come when you finish a good book. It’s a different and equally necessary part of developing literacy.

I’m all for relevance and engagement. I know and dimly understand where kids are coming from today, although I do think it a myth that all youngsters are equally ‘wired’. I am keen on utilising all available tools to support learners to develop and grow and construct their own learning.

But… But… But…

‘Literacy experiences’ don’t always have to be immediately ‘relevant’ and full of whizz bangs just because that’s what the kids are used to. (Forgive me if I’m sounding like Chris Woodhead. Perish the thought!).

The joy of story stems from the emotional connection between reader and read to as well as the quality of the yarn: the child snuggling up to someone who loves her in the age old tradition of listening to a tale. No inanimate object, however jolly, can replicate that. Would I prefer to read ‘The Secret Garden’ to our 6 year old cosying up on the sofa and then take her to the theatre production or would I rather sit her in front of a screen to be made to feel sick at Alice’s trajectory through the desert? I know which she would choose. How about you?

When I’m reading a good novel, I want the story to continue, I need to be immersed and totally involved, to have my imagination exploded and my emotions squeezed.

I want to suspend my disbelief.

I really have no desire to exit the story. I make a story my own by being enraptured, wrapping myself in it, linking what I’m reading with my own experiences. Any exodus, distraction, interruption means I lose my focus, my involvement, my joy in the narrative.

There may be occasions when I want to be a ‘co-creator’. That’s fine. Kate Pullinger, the author of Alice writes about the ‘potential for interactivity that has come about as readers around the world create their own versions of new episodes of the story’. Another commentator describes ‘students developing their own works and stories, using the story as a launch point’.  That’s great. We need to enable our children to express themselves, to create, but that’s something separate from deep reading. Disruption is not conducive to the experiential reading that results in profound thinking and lasting ownership. At least not for me.

People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell. What I need as a reader is fewer distractions and a comfy chair. And children need the same. Perhaps not all the time, I agree. Of course there is a place for interactivity; I would never object to any tool that enabled anyone to explore and learn. After all, my life’s work has been to enable learners with dyslexia to access literature.

But, you know, we need stories as much – at times more – than food to stay alive. Some people need them more than others. And there are some who may never have the experience of self discovery through immersion in a book unless we in school provide the opportunity. We don’t always have to produce something in response to a stimulus in order for it to become part of ourselves. It seems that we’re in danger of focusing more on valuing what we can most easily assess rather than assessing what we value.

Possibly I’m exaggerating (moi?). Perhaps the drive to encourage digital technologies to become a part of learning to read is necessary because my grandchild’s literacy lesson may be very familiar to my sons or even, heaven forefend, to me.

But, I keep thinking of that poor baby and its bathwater.

Memory Performance Boosted while Walking

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Interesting article here  (thanks to Charles Fernyhough on Twitter for the link) on memory perfomance and activity.

This research that shows  that memory performance can be boosted by walking compared with sitting down.

The headline finding was that the working memory performance of both age groups improved when walking at their chosen speed compared with when sitting or walking at a fixed speed set by the researchers. This was especially the case for more difficult versions of the working memory task, and was more pronounced among the children than the adults. So, this would appear to be clear case of mental performance actually being superior in a dual-task situation.

 Why should the secondary task of walking aid, rather impair, mental performance? The researchers aren’t sure of the mechanism, but they think the attentional pool tapped by a sensori-motor task like walking is likely separate from the attentional pool tapped by working memory. Moreover, physical activity increases arousal and activation, ‘which then can be invested into the cognitive task,’ they said.

It is often argued that children with specific learning difficulties ‘have more problems than healthy controls when they have to divide their attention between two concurrent tasks.’ However, this research indicates that the opposite is in fact the case. So get those kids moving – at a brisk but self determined pace – and you might find that their working memory (and hence learning in general) improves.

Worth a try!

Dyslexia Friendly School in Action

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What a fabulous time I had first thing on Monday morning when I went to Yester Primary School’s Dyslexia Awareness assembly. 

This was part of the whole school’s drive to fulfil the ‘Dyslexia Friendly Schools Pledge’ as well as of the Support for Learning teacher, Lesley Cusack’s participation in a leadership course. The staff have done a great deal of professional development this year, both in terms of formal sessions run by Lesley and myself and the everyday, almost incidental discussions about the learning needs of individuals that go on every week of the year.

Lesley had asked for volunteers from the p7’s and got offers of help from 10 children, only a couple of whom have dyslexia.

The children told the rest of the school what  difficulties and strengths learners with dyslexia may have in a most professional and entertaining way.

Then they talked about learning styles, stressing that we are all different and that diversity is to be celebrated.

Finally they walked (or rather sang) the talk. They sang a song with actions and before asking the gathered crowd to follow suit, asked them to show whether they had preferred to listen, see or do the actions.

It was interesting to see that there were a fair few who preferred to look or listen rather than act; although of course the majority identified themselves as kinaesthetic leaners.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable session which very neatly illustrated something of what it means to have dyslexia.

All credit to the children – and of course to Lesley for her indefatigable work.