Climbing Mountains in Small Steps

Aug 19, 2017 | Teaching Struggling Readers, The Science of Learning, Whole School Literacy

Learning moves faster in small steps.

‘Bottom set.’

Two words that can make the colour drain from our faces, our eyes roll, or provoke a deep sigh.

‘Bottom set.’ The ‘low ability’ group. The ‘difficult’ and the ‘troubled’ students. Yes, they occur in other sets, too, but you know that if you have this class on your timetable, odds are there will be a lot of them – and you are in for a tough year.

It doesn’t have to be like that, of course, but it often is. And I have certainly worked in schools where such groups – and their teachers – were treated with a mixture of pity and disdain. Of course, that may not be true in your school – but, realistically, how many heads of department timetable themselves to teach bottom sets? What does that tell us about the priority that these students are given? ‘Bottom set’ classes are often given the least experienced, or the least skilled, teachers – often supported by an LSA, who may or may not have some training. Wouldn’t we normally expect the most skilled practitioners in say, medicine, or engineering, to work with the most difficult problems? And again, let’s be honest – in many schools, teaching this group  means containing behaviour, with learning firmly in second place.

To work with students who have had difficulty learning to date is a challenge – not because the students can’t learn (they can) but because I have to command a wide repertoire of skills and apply them in a very disciplined way. To do anything else is to surrender them to the self-fulfilling label of low ability – when in fact, there is much that can be done to lift such students’ progress. What follows is a summary of the points I made at a ResearchED presentation. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not new, and it’s all been in the research literature for years – though unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will find it in many schools.

I will split the topic into two more posts. This first post is about the fundamental strategy that underlies all the others:

Strategy 1: Assess closely, move in small steps through mastery

Students who have fallen behind have a lot of ground to make up. The trap is to think we can get them to make a big leap to catch up. They couldn’t first time round, and now the gap is wider – why would they manage it this time? Then, when they fail, we conclude that ‘they just can’t do it’.

Instead, we should bridge the gap in small, carefully sequenced steps. It’s much easier to walk up a set of twenty shallow steps than four big steps. For instance, instead of explaining how we can combine simple sentences into compound sentences, I might first need to establish their knowledge of sentence parts and how these work. The basic steps I would follow are:

  • Teach them what verbs are, and how to identify them.
  • Ensure that they can match verb and subject.
  • Teach them to identify the subject of a sentence.
  • Teach them to modify the subject.
  • Teach them to discriminate between subject and object.
  • When they have mastered these skills, they have effectively mastered the simple sentence.
  • Teach them to identify conjunctions.
  • They learn to use conjunctions to join sentences, and to remove conjunctions to separate a compound sentence into two simple sentences.
  • Then students learn to use pronouns consistently to make sentences sharper.
  • We also practise how to truncate some sentence stems to avoid duplication of words or phrases.
  • Now that students have (to the practical extent required for curriculum access) mastered simple and compound sentences, we can move on to dependent and independent clauses. And so on.

Here is an example of a short practice exercise from the beginning of a lesson, early in this sequence, intended to remind students that verbs can have more than one word, and can be in the passive form.

The point is, there are many steps in each ‘chunk’ of knowledge that need to be made explicit, if students who have struggled in the past are now to acquire the knowledge they need. When they are made explicit, students find that they can learn them.

It’s my job as the teacher to ensure that these steps are:

  1. Just outside the student’s current competency, but achievable;
  2. Clearly sequenced;
  3. Supported by sufficient practice materials so that students can revisit these skills repeatedly until they become fluent.

Note how all of this is predicated on the teacher being able to pitch these small steps at just the right levels. This requires careful assessment of students’ competencies at each step. Below is a screenshot of (part of) a spreadsheet showing which students have currently achieved which competencies. I have no problem sharing this information with individual students so they know exactly what we are working on together.

The key point about moving through mastery of each small step is that students know that they are ‘getting it’. They realise they are better at this than they were before, and they have the objective evidence (from their own work) to prove it. That makes them feel good about themselves, and about learning. English may never be their favourite subject, but that’s not a problem for me. I want them to feel that it’s worth making an effort, because you learn stuff when you do.

Another benefit of moving to mastery through small steps is the speed of progress. Each lesson may have a number of small steps, but these will proceed at a brisk pace. Because students are only focusing on one specific bit of knowledge a time, they can master it more quickly. There are few things more satisfying than being able to point out to a student that they are now better at something than they were. It’s even better when this change happens in a short space of time. It changes motivation, and it changes expectations.


You may also be interested in: 

A Question of Progress

Pulling the Strands Together

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: The Matthew Effect

Reading is Knowledge


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