Contributed by Neale Pitches
Originally in Literacy Forum NZ, v. 38, no. 3, 2013, pp 5–11
Whakataka te hau ki te uru, whakataka te hau ki te tonga, kia mākinakina ki uta, kia mātaratara ki tai. E hī ake ana te atākura, he tio, he huka, he hauhunga.
(Cease the winds from the west, cease the winds from the south, let the breezes blow over the land, let the breezes blow over the ocean. Let the red-tipped dawn come with a sharpened air, a touch of frost, a promise of a glorious day.)
I first heard this whakatauki used by the inspiring Māori educational leader and my principal at Wellington High School, Turoa Royal. It speaks of a new dawn, and I put to you here that the blending of digital media with the time-honoured shared-reading approach is the dawning of a new approach in literacy learning – an approach that promises accelerated achievement for our students in the crucial middle years of schooling and may be a vital solution to the long-standing issue of student underachievement in literacy.
It’s troubling and paradoxical that in Aotearoa New Zealand we often have the world’s highest mean reading scores but a significant gap between our best and most struggling readers (Chamberlain & Caygill, 2012, p.7). New Zealand’s ‘long tail’ has been well exposed and the focus of many educational policies. Students whose reading scores place them in this group even have their own descriptor – they are ‘the underserved’. Professor Keith Stanovich (1986) cited Matthew 25:29 in The Bible when he adopted the term ‘Matthew Effect’ to describe the invidious position in which many education systems find themselves, where ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ in literacy achievement as they move through schooling.
This is well illustrated by an experience I had on my first day as a school principal. I walked the school halls, to meet the students and staff in their classrooms, and as I entered one room I asked the students what subject they were engaged with.
“Cabbage maths,” came their reply.
“Pardon?” I said politely, reaching for the gravitas that principals are supposed to exhibit. “Cabbage maths!” they repeated, cheerfully. “We’re the students who can’t do maths so we’re put in here and given easy stuff – cabbage maths”.
This reinforced my career-long distrust of the process of always levelling for instruction. The very instructional process that was meant to be helping these students – differentiated instruction – was hurting them. I’ve never accepted that putting underserved students into low-achieving groups with other low-achieving students and giving them easier work to do should be our ‘go-to’ recipe for success. The research community has been divided about it, but in 2011 Australians Glasswell and Ford, in an article entitled “Let’s Level About Leveling”, put the challenge straight to us, albeit about an Australian classroom:
Just how do half of the readers from a school with a stable population and a comprehensive literacy program, including small-group instruction with leveled readers, arrive at fourth grade reading below grade level? ... One possibility is that guided reading is focused on making progress through the levels rather than achieving proficiency.
Glasswell and Ford highlighted the difference between progress (incremental movement up levels), and proficiency – the conceptual understanding of a strategy or task.
Enter the twenty-first century and the advent of digital media. Suddenly teachers have access to new and powerful teaching and learning approaches that can be delivered through an interactive whiteboard, digital projector or large screen interactive TV. And the question arises, is it now necessary to always level for instruction or can we explicitly instruct all students in new, powerful and more efficient ways?
A new form of differentiation becomes possible, where a group or whole class of students can be present in front of an enlarged text, and instead of being ‘levelled down’ they can be ‘scaffolded up’ through digital tools and scaffolds that are hyperlinked into the text displayed in front of them. The teacher can use the scaffolds for explicit teaching, including modelling, of the higher-level strategies that are essential for competence in reading comprehension. A reading community is formed.
I began to reflect on these possibilities of digital media to transform the teaching approach we know as shared reading. I started exploring the power of digitisation combined with explicit teaching to increase student achievement. The year 2006 saw me working with a group of educators to design a resource, which became Comprehension Strategy Instruction (CSI) Literacy, aimed specifically at accelerating reading comprehension achievement for all students in diverse classroom settings in the middle years of schooling. I wanted to power up shared reading for all students and especially ‘the underserved’, as the ‘Matthew Effect’ research (Stanovich, 1986) suggests that once those students lose traction in literacy they never regain it.
With the support of my then colleague Dr Sue Watson, I completed a literature review to bring three strands of evidence together: how best to teach reading comprehension; a productive pedagogy for all learners in diverse, middle years’ classrooms; and evidence about using digital technologies for explicit literacy instruction. The evidence on the latter was sketchy. However a report for the Carnegie Foundation in 2006, from US academics Biancarosa and Snow (2006), set out an agenda for literacy improvement in the middle years of schooling that stated 15 imperatives, including:
· Effective instructional principles embedded in content
· Motivation and self-directed learning
· Text-based collaborative learning
· Diverse texts
· A technology component
· Ongoing formative assessment of students
· Extended time for literacy
I put together a development team and we began to build a literacy resource to apply the research agenda. The team included business partner Meryl-Lynn Pluck of Rainbow Reading fame, and our outstanding publisher here at South Pacific Press, Matt Comeskey. We co-opted Reading Recovery expert Kendall Gibson and US literacy expert Toni Hollingsworth. We found a technology partner in Palmerston North digital media company Unlimited Realities (UR). We began to experiment with short, engaging, authentic texts displayed on a big screen in front of a class (or group) of students with an interactive toolbar and embedded digital objects for explicit teaching.
A cup of coffee with Professor Stuart McNaughton reinforced to me that we were on the right track and reinforced my beliefs about the importance of student engagement above all else. He recommended I read the work of John Guthrie, arguably the world expert in the field of student engagement. Guthrie, (2001) describes engagement as “the merger of motivation and thoughtfulness”, reinforcing to me that it’s not just eyes on the text that we were seeking but thoughtful engagement – an active, cognitive and emotional engagement that would support accelerated literacy progress for students. Guthrie (2004) also made a telling point, that “reading engagement is more highly associated with NAEP reading achievement than demographic variables that represent traditional barriers to achievement”.
To create this engagement we knew we also needed interesting, real world content-oriented texts, and it was at this point we challenged another ‘sacred cow’ of reading teaching. We decided to make the texts challenging, sometimes above the instructional reading age of the students – for two reasons. Students like challenge, as long as they’re not left to face it without support. And pedagogically I believe that without challenge there won’t be acceleration. The key to bringing more of our students to proficiency and above is to offer them challenge with the support of a rich pedagogy that combines teacher modelling and explicit teaching, strong interaction and reflection and a gradual release of responsibility to the students who must strive to demonstrate competence. Then we will have our metacognitive student!
I was also influenced by the work of Graham Nuthall (author of The Hidden Lives of Learners) and, prior to that, the work of Nuthall and Alton-Lee (1993; 1997) from whom I drew support for my view that most if not all students can be brought to competence if the pedagogy is rich enough, and the teaching explicit enough and the texts and tasks engaging enough.
Here we came up with the notion that following the explicit digital shared reading (DSR) lesson students should be asked to work in pairs with an unseen text using the same strategy that was taught in the DSR lesson. This is the gradual release of responsibility. To scaffold students through this process we decided to audio record all the cooperative learning texts so that students who couldn’t read them independently (our ‘underserved’) could listen as they read (another evidence-based practice) and work their way through a series of before-, during- and after-reading activities that mirrored those modelled by the teacher in the DSR session.
I want to be quite clear here that the team and I did not seek to build a resource, or to create a ‘powered-up’ DSR approach solely for struggling readers – because it’s my view, supported by the research evidence I draw from, that all students in diverse classrooms will make accelerated progress working in this rich environment. There is no need to pull out the ‘underserved’ and many reasons not to. And for students who have high levels of competence there is still great scope for improvement, as our own results show (Powell, 2011).
Now to the tools – the key to explicit teaching. We wanted a ‘mask’ so that text elements could be isolated, brought to the centre of the screen and used for explicit teaching and learning. We also decided on a virtual ‘sticky note’ on the basis that annotating text is an evidence-based practice for improving literacy achievement. Next came ‘bolded glossary terms’, hyper-linked to build students’ academic vocabulary knowledge (more evidence-based practice here) by showing them definitions or pictures to build their world knowledge. In this vein, we developed a ‘pen’ and ‘highlighter’ and UR figured out how the text could be made smaller or bigger without pixilation of the image. Finally, they offered us the ability to serve up compressed video and/or audio from within the text to further build students’ background knowledge – now we had a suite of research-based tools and the potential for Guthrie’s thoughtful engagement!
Drawing from the research of Harvey and Goudvis (2007), US-based comprehension researchers, we decided to publish to the interface a series (80 per year level) of one-paged fiction, non-fiction, science-based, mathematics-based and social science-based texts, for seven well-accepted comprehension strategies. One text was for DSR and one for cooperative learning. We decided to double up on the strategy of monitoring comprehension and repairing understanding – the metacognition strategy. Why one-page texts? First, a one-page text isn’t too daunting and is ideal for explicit teaching – there’s no flicking backwards and forwards between pages. Second, the teacher and the students can focus for 20 to 35 minutes on the text while the teacher models and the students interact, and reflect on the text, the vocabulary and the strategy.
We set out to locate highly engaging, diverse, challenging texts across our content or curriculum areas – not because we wanted teachers of literacy to become teachers of science, but because the research was clear about the challenges posed to middle year students by content/curriculum texts and vocabulary. Further, the research points to the need for diversity of text and I wanted the authenticity of texts that were already published by credible sources, so that students could research the source of the texts and perhaps find out more about a topic that piqued their interest. To ensure the texts were engaging we also sought contemporary issues that students enjoy, including humour, the environment, sport, technology and achievements by their peers.
Trialling of the new DSR concept was now carried out at three locations (our office on Tory Street, Wellington; Clyde Quay School, Wellington; and St Mary’s School, North Shore). I remember well the delight and thoughtful responses of the students to the numerical text “It’s Bugalicious”, about how many insect parts there are in chocolate! It became crystal clear to me that if we throw off the orthodoxy of levelling, at least while we are explicitly teaching comprehension strategies, the students love it – they love to be included in high-level discussions about demanding texts even if they struggle to read those texts independently. We saw that it was best for the teacher to read the texts to and with students in DSR so all classmates can take part in the inclusive reading community that develops. Somekh et al (2007), writing about primary teachers working with interactive whiteboards, called this a co-construction model of teaching and learning.
Our final challenge was around assessment. Some would argue that before any teaching begins, there should be assessment, to determine the needs of the students. However, to me, the research was so clear about the need for higher level strategic teaching and learning in literacy, I decided to opt for a model where the assessment was done during the teaching and learning – a formative assessment model. Rubrics were created for both students and teachers to use in teacher- and self-assessment.
Fast forward to 2013. Data from three New Zealand schools using DSR and the CSI Literacy pedagogy shows that our ‘underserved’ students are enjoying accelerated progress in literacy. The first significant data came from Miramar South School whose principal Jeanette De La Mare, and deputy principal and literacy leader Kyran Smith (since appointed as principal of the newly formed Kahurangi School) agreed to a one-year trial. One year became three after the strong data from the first year. The diverse student population at Miramar South School (Māori, Pasifika and refugee – Somali and Iraqi) loved the liberation from the ‘normal’ reading programme and relished the opportunity to be together in front of a complex text and to try to break it down, and make meaning. Kyran’s affinity with digital media and her relentless pursuit of student improvement were keys but the CSI Literacy pedagogy, especially DSR, was the context for learning. Kyran said in a video interview, “I’ve never had this sort of support before” and the students are “learning to learn” (South Pacific Press, 2010).
At Hagley Community College and Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate school in Mangere data also showed accelerated literacy achievement (see table below). In the case of Sir Douglas Bader, the student population is mainly Pasifika, showing that both Māori (at Miramar South) and Pasifika students (along with ELL and inclusion students) benefit from the DSR and the CSI Literacy experience. In 2011, after just one term of intensive CSI Literacy implementation, Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate School students achieved promising results. The AsTTle Reading test was administered as a pre-test, then as a post-test, when classes had completed the CSI Literacy programme. Year 8 students’ data shows the Effect Size ‘nudging’ the 0.70 figure which indicates accelerated learning. Notable at Sir Douglas Bader is the determination of the principal Peter Weir, the willingness of most staff to come on board, and the fact that not only is the ‘tail’ shrinking at a very exciting rate, but there are now students scoring ‘well-above’ the standard in reading comprehension (Powell, 2011).
Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate Data 2011
Mid Year Data
Year 8 students
Mean Gain Score 73
Mean Sublevel Gain 2
Effect Size 0.64
Year 8 Maori students
Mean Gain Score 77
Mean Sublevel Gain 2
Effect Size 0.68
This confirms my belief that the ‘CSI Literacy pedagogy’ and DSR are sources of rich instruction and accelerated learning for all students in diverse classrooms.
These approaches are now widely used in New Zealand schools. They are adopted in three US school districts, and used widely across the US, they are used in Australia and were introduced to UK schools in early 2013, but what gives me greatest satisfaction is the New Zealand data. DSR and the CSI Literacy pedagogy is a new dawn – a new era of literacy teaching and learning that promises accelerated achievement for our students in the middle years of schooling. It takes some courage and belief in the research evidence, to eschew one’s beliefs (such as about ‘levelled students, levelled texts’) and adapt to new ways of teaching. Also, there’s the need to adapt to new, interactive technologies.
Which brings me to reflection about what is making the difference – what is it about DSR and the CSI Literacy pedagogy that creates the ‘accelerator effect’? Why do students enjoy it so much? Why are Māori and Pasifika students doing so well? It’s complicated. The ‘long tail’ is endemic, not just to New Zealand but to most education systems. But it seems that at the core of this success story is engagement – not superficial engagement with gadgetry, but deep and rich engagement through a precious combination of factors. First, the students thrive on challenge, if it is accompanied by explicit support. Such support comes through teacher modelling, student cooperative learning and digital texts and tools. Students know and feel that they are learning to read and ‘learning to learn’. Second, the students enjoy reading short, often quirky, contemporary texts, displayed digitally and trying to apply new-found concepts (strategies and skills) using these texts. The digital texts and tools are ‘their’ media and they feel at home in the presence of these texts. They put in more effort and we know from John Guthrie’s work that motivation to learn is an essential part of engagement. Finally, the students thrive on the success they experience from the combination of the Nuthall pedagogy and the inclusive learning community that’s created in the classroom. Students experience success as themselves, whatever their culture or previous experience, because their cultural backgrounds and world knowledge is valued and built on as one of the key resources they have for understanding text.
Neale Pitches, BA, MEdAdmin (Hons), DipTchg, is co-author of CSI Literacy.
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