‘You will always have students who will fail.’ This response from my tutor teacher to my concern about two six-year old boys, Charlie and Joshua*, who were not progressing in reading, really floored me. Surely, as the classroom teacher, their learning was my responsibility?
I was entrusted to teach a class of 27 Year 2 pupils and was therefore accountable for their progress. In this, only my second year of teaching, I concluded that my ITT had not equipped me to carry out my role effectively namely, as a teacher of reading – the most fundamental skill that these children needed. What could I do?
My own children started reading very early, and were reading chapter books at six years old. All of us were avid readers. We had taught our children the way that many parents do – by reading to them and with them; letting them read the story, and helping them with the words they were stuck on; talking about books and stories all the time, and enjoying the magical glow of imagination as the stories captivated them.
But in my teacher training, there was minimal training on how to teach reading. There certainly wasn’t any systematic approach. Although we read a number of articles, these had consisted of opinions, rather than research. There was perhaps one research article. There was only one approach to teaching reading, Whole Language. No other approaches were even mentioned. So I found myself without the tools to help children for whom Whole Language was not working, and for whom reading did not come as easily as it had to my own children.
Then an opportunity came along that completely changed my trajectory. At the end of that year I won a scholarship for a year of full-time study in teaching children with special needs. Unlike other training centres around the country, this course had a strong focus on empirical research – because when dealing with children with special needs, good ideas and inspiring philosophies are simply not enough. They need teaching methods that work. This training rejected sympathy as a motivation – instead, the focus was ambitious for the students: what do they need to learn? What does the research say works best?
My ITT had given the impression that it was difficult to quantify learning and that research mostly consisted of well-argued opinions. Now I discovered the vast body of education research literature, and I learned how to evaluate it. I discovered systematic approaches to teaching reading that were able to incorporate decoding strategies as well as comprehension. I found out how to set up an intervention so that not only pre- and post- measures were taken, but student progress could be tracked daily. I learned the difference between fine-grain and survey-level assessment, and began to realize how much more I needed to know about my students’ reading before I could really help them. And, through practical work, I found that well-designed interventions not only work, but produce evidence that can be evaluated, so that they work even better.
But that was really the start of my journey – a journey that has led me to many new discoveries, with the support of skilled practitioners who impacted me at key points. In the politicised climate of New Zealand special education, where evidence-based practice was dismissed as a deficit model, Hill Walker from the University of Oregon built my confidence with his wry comment that ‘even behaviourists have been known to enjoy a lovely sunset’. John Hattie, visiting my first Literacy Centre prior to taking a memorable whole school CPD session, encouraged me to keep on despite the detractors. Kerry Hempenstall in Australia reminded me to use fluency measures to ensure mastery. Trainers at the Association for Direct Instruction in Oregon, like the legendary Bonnie Grossen, made me feel a part of a community of evidence-based practitioners. Faun Hyde and Anne Desjardins took me back to my roots: the powerful combination of Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching. Listening to the formidable Zig Engelmann at the ADI conference was also eye-opening as he revealed the ways in which educators have systematically resisted effective practice.
Working in schools in New Zealand and in the UK has enabled me to field-trial and improve Thinking Reading programmes, so that I am now very confident of their effectiveness. Many teachers become advocates when they see their students’ rapid progress, and their subsequent leaps in confidence and in attitudes to learning. Lately, of course, there has been the knowledge and passion of the Twitter education community: we are no longer disconnected islands, but can reach out and encourage one another.
Sadly, it has also been a journey fraught with obstacles – not least, the pervasive influence of ‘progressive’ thinking that lets students fail in the name of creativity and individuality. Perhaps even more discouraging has been the obtuseness of many school managers, who simply refuse to contemplate the prospect that they too might have something to learn, who in ignorance dismiss students who cannot read as ‘disabled’ (or some other label), and who chase numerical targets rather than ensuring that every child receives a decent education. There is the hostility from some classroom teachers who insist that their subject is more important than the child learning to read, an egocentrism that I find unfathomable. And there is the constant obfuscation of language to misrepresent effective practice.
What have I learned? That there is already enough evidence for us to know how to eliminate illiteracy, but that it is largely ideology that prevents us from doing so. That empirically tested methods of instruction enable failing readers to become competent readers; that these gains can be maintained; and that when students learn to read, they also learn that they can be good at learning. That is why the journey, despite the difficulties, is still worth it.
* Names changed to preserve anonymity.
You may also be interested in: