Increasingly I am drawn to analyse data, largely because it makes my teaching more interesting to me. Summative Data on English ability, though, should be considered nonsense. Teaching a child cannot be reduced to a grade, especially if that grade is only summative data used to judge progress.
Summative grades in English are nonsense because they do not give due information about the holistic English skills that have achieved.
For example, a student that I teach now writes with implied clauses in a variety of places, some embedded. Their vocabulary, while mostly simplistic, does contain advanced polysyllabic words for occasional precision. All of this indicates at least level 4 writing. The above skills were practised in isolation with specific intervention and judicious differentiation to enable the student to access these relatively higher-level skills.
They were written in a piece, though, that had no paragraphs.
As a result, they didn’t achieve a summative level of 4. Truth be told, their lack of paragraphs was probably because they hadn’t embedded the above skills sufficiently before, and that in concentrating on using them, they didn’t have enough cognitive capacity left to include paragraphs.
A markbook normally has summative tracking. This can be problematic, as it doesn’t indicate what is needed to improve. The targets from the summative tracking might not be easily recorded (as they are in the form of cell-comments in my latest markbook) and might indeed be slightly misleading. The above student, for example, normally writes in paragraphs (however perfunctory). Looking at their previous work, they had not embedded the skills of utilising clauses in a variety of places. They were motivated in the summative assessment to try to use these techniques, and had managed to create a number of useful sentences. Yet their targets needs to focus on recognising how they had (in this case) begun to begin with subordinate clauses, rather than focus on the ‘write in paragraphs’ that a target based solely on the summative assessment would be.
Teaching how to read is surprisingly vexatious for a secondary school teacher.
Cuts to spending have resulted in a thing called ‘Wave 1 teaching’. Wave 1 teaching means that some specific learning difficulties are expected to be addressed in whole-class teaching. This is not how it is portrayed. Wave 1 teaching is about making teaching interesting. It is about ensuring that all students – regardless of aptitude or attitude – can engage with your lesson on some level.
Of course, not every lesson can be personalised. Teachers need to have lives, just as professional athletes need to to taper their training. Teachers rarely drop the standard of their lessons just as footballers rarely drop their effort in a match. But the actual performance relies on preparation and visualisation before the event itself. But not all preparation can (and, indeed, should) be written. Reflecting on the class, the students and the subjects can be more rigorous when debated or discussed. Besides, the preparation when written may never be seen again.
As a result, there is a large part of teaching that involves getting people to do stuff.
Whether you are a teacher in an innercity school that needs to occupy the attention of children who have demands to do something else, or a teacher in a leading private school that declares that all time needs to spent on preparation (one outstanding head I knew declared that each lesson needed an hour of preparation before and afterwards). This works out for a classroom teacher sixty hours a week.
One of the prime aspects of learning to read (as it is in learning many of things in English) is osmosis. One of the greatest schools in the area (in fact, the one that is consistently top of the league tables) had a teacher who told me that the teachers (including herself) taught in a lecturing style that required little in the form of preparation (and certainly not in the way of Wave 1 teaching). It relied upon students being challenged by the questioning and the highbrowness of the teaching.
Reading is associated with cultural capital. Cultural capital, as I have written about before, is not just that which is highbrow and the ‘best of’ culture, but all that which influences. Without an awareness of that which influences society and others (and most probably ourselves), we cannot be cultural beings. Reading allows us to experience the best and worst of lived experience, and gain wisdom and emotional intelligence from our time. It allows to be connected with those who have lived, and those who are yet to live, and to make our lives more purposeful than the marketing that might distract us currently.
It also makes us cleverer.
Yet these factors are not often thought about by English teachers. We are compelled to use reading age as an excuse or an explanation for grading, which is its worse possible use. Reducing the act of reading to numerical data is:
a) Somewhat unavoidable.
b) Amongst the riskiest use of self-fulfilling-prophecy-data a teacher can use.
The reasoning behind those top two statements is due to the following points which I take to be true at this time.
a) A reading age is misleading.
You would think that most 13 year olds would have a reading age of 13? Not true. Most 15 and 16 year olds apparently have a reading age of 11 to 12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20346204
While I would take this with a pinch of salt (as those on the system above would tend to have lower reading ages anyway), I doubt whether those of ‘average’ intelligence (that is, achieving average exam results, or achieving an average IQ) have an age-equivalent reading age.
b) Standardised scores are different, depending on the test.
The standardised scores used for our online reading programme are not the same as those used in the NFER reading age screening, or in those known to area SENCOs in the UK. Still, at least they are consistent in themselves.
c) The skills of reading cannot be judged entirely on a screening test.
Truly testing reading aptitude requires several, arduous tests. Selecting multiple choice words into context does not necessarily test for comprehension, inference or even reading fluency or stamina. These tests need to be carried out by someone with basic training (and the time) and over several testing periods.
However, this is almost always not possible.
d) Motivation to read is one of the best ways to help improve reading.
It has been said that teaching is the act of provoking the curiosity of people in things they should really be interested in, but aren’t. Like the manager of a sports team, motivating students who are mildly interested in reading but just don’t want to expand their reading range is enjoyable. Motivating students who are actively resistant to reading, as it is motivating sports stars who are actively resistant to playing well, is where we get paid.
e) Phonics is a vexatious subject.
Those involved in the teaching of reading often hear of the ridiculousness for and against the teaching of phonics. Like many things in health and learning, factors that are minor can be given undue prevalence. Both sides of the phonics debate are adamant that their way of teaching reading is best to the point where I find their points – however compelling – somewhat irksome.
The truth is that there might be a way of teaching reading to students as a classroom teacher that is most successful for most students. Whether, though, those students would learn through osmosis, and if we actually need to develop whole-class methods that address those with specific reading difficulties is not usually debated.
Another truism is that those students who struggle with reading need specific intervention by highly qualified and experienced experts who can devise a personalised programme from the 50+ theories of how we learn to read. These programmes need specific delivering by experts inside school, too. Clearly, this kind of intervention will be haphazard by a classroom teacher in a whole-class context. But I don’t see the experts anywhere else.
f) Time to teach how to read is limited, too.
Students who leave primary school with reading ages of 6 or similar have been failed already. The specific intervention available at a secondary school with wave 1 support cannot entirely address these difficulties. I believe an outstanding teacher can include these pupils in the curriculum, and some of these students (with specific learning difficulties) can develop their critical thinking skills. But these students
So what is the best way to help a child learn to read?
I think the best way to help a child learn to reading is through providing conversation and stimulation and language consistently, and from a young age. Training your child to watch TV for hours on end, which is something that I imagine my friends and the general populace do all too often, is a recipe to damn your child’s reading experience for life. And this is done without malice or even laziness. It’s just ignorance.
So if we really want to improve reading in our country, I think we need to think about parenting, in terms of how we support parents that want to value reading and educating their offspring. That, and to just make reading fun for them, also.