3 articles that will rock your teaching career

I write this blog mainly because I believe it is important to question the assumptions made in teaching circles about how students learn and how (and what) we should teach. I believe this is important because the gap between what we know from research and what we do in schools is often quite wide. There is a small community of teachers, researchers, parents and teaching-related professionals (speech pathologists are fantastic advocates for evidence-based practices) who also think it is important to challenge what we are doing. This community is connected on Twitter and for sure the one thing the members of this community have in common is that they read – a lot. This gives them cause to question and challenge what we as teachers are doing because they can see the clear gap between what they read and the mentality – the common way of thinking – held amongst teachers. I do read a lot and I try to use this blog and my Twitter feed to disseminate the material I read. But I didn’t always think the way I think now.

A man named Ryan Holiday, a prolific writer on stoicism and all-around cool guy, says he devours books and every now and then he reads something that causes him to have a ‘quake-moment’ –  a moment when what you read strikes you like a bolt of lightning, birthing a new direction in the way you think and, ultimately, what you believe. Avid readers will know this feeling well and I have experienced these quake-moments reading specific education articles many times. Some rocked me so hard that, although I did not know it at the time, they have influenced my thinking ever since. They made me change my mind.

The 3 articles I present here have all fundamentally changed the way I think, and I believe all teachers should read them. My purpose is clear: I want teachers (and whoever else) to read them because it is important for people to know what is known about how we learn and what this means for how and what we should teach. I hope that I can change some minds, just like mine once was.

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Read it here

England has a different approach to teaching early reading to Australia. It is called systematic synthetic phonics. I didn’t know much about it when I went to teach there and needless to say, I was not a fan. That tends to happen when you encounter something you don’t understand. I definitely thought it was a kill-and-drill approach, the very kind not at all favoured by my ITE. The results were so strong in my school that I started to question my beliefs, but I did not trust English sources, wanting to find an opinion from home. I stumbled upon Why Jaydon Can’t Read. It was uncomfortable reading. After enduring ITE and finding my feet as a professional teacher, I did not want to face the harsh reality that I did not know a thing about reading. It was painful. But it changed everything. This article is the foundation from which my shift towards favouring evidence over personal opinions and Chinese whispers was built.

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Read it here

Why Jaydon Can’t Read sparked a huge line of inquiry (still ongoing) into how to teach ALL children to read effectively. It truly has invigorated my career. Even after learning how to teach reading, I was without a doubt still on the ‘knowledge doesn’t matter much’ bandwagon. I thought reading was a generic skill. I didn’t think (by think I now know I simply didn’t understand) knowledge was at all important in our knowledge-rich world. How horribly wrong I was. Daisy Christodoulou’s outstanding book clearly outlined how wrong I was about knowledge and it is her work that led me to Hirsch.  This 2003 article by Hirsch linked my new passion for evidence-based reading instruction with my emerging understanding of the power of knowledge. If you care about ensuring all students learn to read and have a chance at living a fulfilling life, teaching knowledge is a must. This article will tell you why.

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Read it here

I am not the only one who experienced a quake-moment whilst reading this absolute quote-lover’s dream. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark make it very clear that although society has changed, our brains have not. This article opened the door to the world of cognitive science, its relationship to learning, and its link to how we should teach. This is such an amazing article because I was already familiar with memory and its related theories but the article bridges the gap between the theory and its implications for practice like no other. It’s changed the way I teach. I’m not the only one; this article has laid the foundation for many teachers’ careers. They are part of the community questioning things too. So come, read this article and the others I have listed above, and join the growing community that wishes to question the status quo in light of what we know.


Knowledge Builds Knowledge

I’m pretty concerned about how society feels about knowledge. These feelings are reflected within the teaching community. There are a few exceptions, but I think it is safe to say most teachers do not value knowing things for the sake of knowing or teaching knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I believe knowledge is an end in itself; many disagree with me. I think that is something to be worried about.

If we understand how the mind works, it really is a worry. It is thought that knowledge is organised into units known as schemata (schema theory). For example, everyone has a stored schema for ‘dog’. The units of knowledge within the schema include information about how dogs look in general (teeth, four legs, tail, possible colours etc.) as well as specific types of dogs (collies and spaniels). A person’s knowledge of a dog may also include knowledge of its class (Mammalia), enabling the use of a related schema for ‘mammal’ to work out that they are therefore warm-blooded and child-bearing. Depending on a person’s personal experiences, a dog may be perceived as something to be feared (may bite) or something to be loved (warm, cuddly and playful). People are active in creating their schemata as they continually interpret the world, making more and more connections. The connections get incredibly complex as we grow in expertise in a particular area.

This is very important because our schemata become our knowledge base from which new knowledge is acquired. We literally use the knowledge we have stored in long-term memory to interpret, make connections and store new information. This is why memory is easier to build when we start from a broad base of knowledge on any given topic. If you have no or very little related schemata stored on a given domain, then adding new knowledge is much more difficult. The more you know, the less hard your brain has to work to store new information in long-term memory.

So teachers who do not believe teaching knowledge for the sake of simply knowing may be doing their students a great disservice. Eventually, their students are going to want to gain expertise in a highly specialised area of a particular domain. The young woman who wishes to study biology and become a biologist would greatly benefit from a very broad knowledge base of all the sciences, built up over time from even the youngest of years. She will find reaching her dream much more challenging if her teachers did not work hard to build up her knowledge; to strengthen the connections between schemata in her brain. That’s why teachers who dismiss teaching knowledge for the sake of knowledge are a concern. Because knowledge builds knowledge, and learning gets harder if you are not knowledgeable.

Constructivism Should Not Be the Main Game

There is a great divide in education between those who prefer a constructivist approach and those who prefer an explicit approach. The battle between the two sides is very real and has far-reaching effects, even if many teachers themselves are blind to it. As Greg Ashman puts it: “There is a great debate going on in education about what and how we teach. A lot of teachers are unaware of this discussion, even if they notice the specific effects of it.”

The debate between the two sides is very real but they are not dichotomous positions. Some may wish to leverage this truth to dismiss the need for a debate but this is foolish because, although they are not dichotomous, one approach is typically emphasised over the other in any given context. Therefore, the debate is not about which approach should be used exclusively, but about which approach should be emphasised; which one should be at the core of teaching and learning.

The debate is important because we know that an explicit approach to teaching and learning is far more effective than a constructivist approach, especially for the disadvantaged who start from far behind and need significant support to catch up. Yet constructivist approaches to teaching and learning reign. Despite the strong evidence for explicit approaches, teacher education courses continue to promote constructivism as a theory of teaching. This is baffling because constructivism was not originally touted as a theory of teaching, but as a theory of knowing and learning. It is only recently that advocates have begun to push and promote constructivist approaches to both teaching and learning – think discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning and, as I have only recently discovered, age-appropriate pedagogies.

They come under different names but the core principles of a constructivist approach stay the same: 1) students should be intrinsically motivated to participate and actively involve themselves; 2) content should, as far as possible, be authentic, interesting and relevant (Rowe, 2006). The implicit assumptions being that intrinsically motivated learners have already acquired the knowledge and skills sufficient enough to effectively acquire new knowledge on their own in a given subject domain, with the teacher taking on the role as ‘facilitator’. The compelling evidence is that this is not at all the case leading Sasson (2001) to comment that constructivism is a “mixture of Piagetian stage theory with post-modernist ideology” rather than a sound approach grounded in any real evidence. Wilson (2005) is also of this opinion commenting that the loose misuse of the original definition of constructivism as a theory of knowing and learning has been distorted to fit the ideological preferences of some:

“we largely ignore generations of professional experience and knowledge in favour of a slick, post-modern theoretical approach most often characterised by the misuse of the notion of constructivism.”

The slick, post-modern theoretical approach of constructivism flies in the face of decades of research evidence describing what works best for all students. Explicit instruction “is a systematic method for presenting learning material in small steps, pausing to check for student understanding, and eliciting active and successful participation from all students” (Rosenshine, 1986) and it is this method that characterises the explicit approach. It works for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Some examples: Project Follow Through, hattie effects, and reading research). The reason for this is obvious. The teacher is the most powerful influence on student achievement.By taking the reins and directing the learning, students make better progress. The fundamental difference between this approach and the constructivist approach is its content-driven principles: 1) All students can and should learn, regardless of their interests, predispositions and abilities; 2) content learning trumps personal preference; 3) students who struggle with behaviour or academics need more support, not something ‘more relevant’ (Rowe, 2006).

The explicit approach should be at the core of what we do in classrooms; a more implicit, ‘constructivist’ approach should work to support this. Yet constructivism most often is the main game, with explicit approaches there to support. From what we know works, it should be the other way around. But it isn’t. Why not? What is stopping the implementation of explicit approaches as the core of teaching and learning. Watkins (1995) has a theory, “parochial vested interests that either work to maintain the status quo or advance self-serving models can prevent the implementation of [effective] teaching methods.” His view very much reminds me of Mark Seidenberg’s outstanding chapter titled The Two Cultures of Science and Education. In this chapter, he writes about the great disconnect between the thoughts and beliefs of schools of education and the thoughts and beliefs of the scientific community. Schools of education have time and again turned a blind eye to research in favour of an ideological preference:

“The principal function of schools of education is to socialise prospective teachers into an ideology – a set of beliefs and attitudes about children, the nature of education, and the teacher’s role. Prospective teachers are exposed to the ideas of a select group of theorists who provide the intellectual foundations for this ideology.”

How interesting. Teachers are socialised into particular attitudes and beliefs about children, how they should learn and how we should teach. The beliefs and attitudes, often romantic in nature, align with the constructivist teaching philosophy. This is indeed true and is easily seen in the work produced by universities here in Australia. Just recently, Griffith University published a report for the QLD DET on ‘age-appropriate pedagogies’. The research they present clearly shows play is important for the cognitive, physical and emotional development of children. Let’s be clear: no one is disputing that. What I dispute, and what flies in the face of all the research, is the report’s recommendation for an ‘age-appropriate pedagogy’ with a strong emphasis on play. The report calls for ‘balance’ but the devil is in the detail.  Assessing its core principles and comments, you can see that this is clearly a constructivist approach:

The teacher’s role in guiding and facilitating learning experiences is critical and needs careful consideration. It involves “deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful” decision making and actions on the part of the teacher to promote children’s innate drive for independent learning.” (page 29, my emphasis)

4 of the 10 principles:

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Given what we know about what is effective, and what we know about schools of education’s preferences, my question is, should we really be placing play at the core of teaching and learning, or should it supplement a more direct approach?

I know where the evidence lies. Age-appropriate pedagogy sounds more like an ideological preference than an approach grounded in evidence. Play has a very important place, and the teacher’s role in facilitating this play is crucial, but we should not be foolish to mix up a theory of learning (constructivism) manifested in play with a theory of teaching. Students need explicit instruction more than they need play. Children are not going to play their way to language and mathematical proficiency, nor are they going to gain vital knowledge for reading comprehension and skill acquisition through drama. You need good direct instruction to gain that. Constructivism, no matter the name it is given, should not be at the core of teaching and learning.

Rosenshine, B.V. (1986). Synthesis of research on explicit teaching. Educational Leadership, 43(7), 60-69.

Rowe, K. (2006). Effective teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: Constructivism as a legitimate theory of learning AND of teaching?.

Sasson, G.M. (2001). The retreat from inquiry and knowledge in special education. Journal of Special Education, 34(4), 178-193.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many CanÕt, and What Can Be Done About It. Basic Books.

Watkins, C.L. (1995). Follow Through: Why didn’t we? Effective School Practices, 15, 57-66

Wilson, B. (2005). Unlocking potential. Paper presented at the 2005 ANZSOG conference, University of Sydney, 29 September 2005.

Leaping the Lexical Bar

Very young children gain much of their language skills from home. Parents are charged with socialising their children, so it is no wonder that a child’s early vocabulary knowledge is inextricably tied to the size of their parents’ vocabularies. In the most disadvantaged families, children may have up to 30 million less words addressed to them by age 4 compared to children from affluent families. It is not just the quantity of words but the quality of the words spoken too. Words addressed to kids in affluent families are wide-ranging and far more friendly. This gap in language exposure has dire consequences, so dire that Hart and Risley termed it ‘the early catastrophe’. Over time, the effects show. A high performing first grader knows twice as many words as a poor performing one. By the end of school – year 12 – the high performer knows four times as many words as the low performing one. This Matthew Effect continues throughout a lifetime. A small advantage early in life can grow into a big one later on in life.

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See this paper

Language knowledge has important implications for educators because of the effect it has on academic achievement. A barrier exists between the language of everyday life and academic, literate culture. Corson (1985) named this barrier the lexical bar. He asserts that academic success is only possible if students can cross the lexical bar. This makes sense; the language complexity in texts, especially academic texts, far exceeds that of everyday speech. If one cannot get to grips with the language needed to comprehend texts above the lexical bar, then academic success cannot be achieved. It seems that the gap between those who achieve academic success and those who do not is fundamentally a knowledge gap – of words and the topics that give those words context. Academic achievement has serious implications for later life outcomes. Educators have a duty to do what they can to intervene so more kids are able to leap the lexical bar.

Economic Policy Institute (2010). Taken from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.

Teach the code

The very first thing schools should do to help address the knowledge gap is teach kids the alphabetic code. The Simple View of Reading asserts that once students learn to decode, they can begin to apply their current language skills to accumulate new vocabulary and world knowledge at a rapid rate. The quicker the better; the more fluent decoding becomes, the less working memory is devoted to it so more time can be spent grappling with the content and vocabulary of the text rather than decoding the words on the page. There is no greater way to expand language than the ability to read. It is, therefore, a real shame that in Australia many stand in the way of ensuring all children learn the code well. Nothing could be more important.

Systematic vocabulary instruction

Some words appear frequently in written text but not in spoken text. Knowing these Tier 2 words may have a profound effect on reading comprehension. Merchant, benevolent and fortunate are examples of Tier 2 words. They are uncommon in spoken language but have high utility in written texts. Teachers would do well to teach these words explicitly, systematically and cumulatively over a long period of time (years) to ensure words are learnt to a deep level whereby students can recognise and comprehend these words in different contexts. The effect could be huge. Consider a kindergarten student who is explicitly taught 10 words a week every week for 7 years of primary school. That student would accumulate knowledge of some 2800 words of high utility in written text. That knowledge could make all the difference.

Put reading at the core of it all

Reading is out of fashion in classrooms. We say its important but is what we say backed up by what we do? Technology is the in-thing, reading is out. Sometimes it is just easier to throw on a video rather than do a whole-class reading or a read aloud. I’m very much guilty of this. The neglect of informational texts is widespread in primary school. This problem has been further inflated in recent years by the engagement movement. Reading informational texts just isn’t engaging enough, or so our actions and attitudes as teachers make it seem. You only have to evaluate the general contempt for textbooks in schools to know this is the current mood. Yet informational texts are useful for promoting language development and knowledge building. We need to put reading for information at the core of what we do in classrooms.

Knowledge-rich curriculum

If teaching the code is the most fiercely contested topic in Australian Ed, the role of knowledge – how much, how little – is probably a close second. The Australian Curriculum is knowledge poor. The history curriculum does not contain any real historical content until Year 4, knowledge only counts for 1/3 of the science curriculum and the English curriculum is just a bunch of generic skill descriptors. Knowledge is not popular, yet it is essential for language development. It is completely possible to decode and understand every word in a passage of text yet have very little understanding of what the text is talking about. Comprehension is affected by knowledge of the domain.

” “Gigantic and luminous, the earliest star formed like a pearl inside shells of swirling gas.” (National Geographic, Feb 2003)

Most adults, drawing on their knowledge of the Big Bang theory, pearl formation (and the use of metaphor, which I return to below), and gasses, can comprehend this sentence. But we would expect different degrees of comprehension among, say, physicists, amateur astronomers.” (Hirsch, 2003)

Like knowledge of words, children from well-off backgrounds have a huge advantage here. They visit museums, go to plays, travel to historical locations and participate in a neverending variety of enriching activities. The disadvantaged are not so lucky. The only way they are ever going to gain world knowledge to a level high enough to help leap the lexical bar is if they are taught it at school. Currently, they are not.


Pretty much this whole issue

Corson, D. (1985). The lexical bar. Pergamon.  — This concept is mentioned in Bringing Words to Life, where I first encountered it.



Fix the Behaviour First

Last night, unable to sleep, I stumbled upon a two-part series from 2010 called The Classroom Experiment. It was interesting to watch and I enjoyed seeing Dylan Wiliam try to effect lasting change on teaching practice by introducing some of his formative assessment strategies. The formative assessment strategies weren’t what struck me the most, however. What struck me the most was the behaviour of the pupils.

Wiliam notes that the class undertaking the experiment does not have any serious behaviour problems. That’s good to know: no students are violent, abusive or furniture-breaking. Always a good start. Indeed, as I watched, I did not see any serious behaviour infringements, but I noticed many things you would consider low-level behaviour problems.

Low-level behaviour problems don’t seem bad in isolation but collectively they can create serious problems because they lower the standard; creating a culture where it is okay to disrupt, okay to argue, and okay not to do your best. Over time, they can have a serious effect on academic achievement. I found these low-level behaviour problems were so prevalent that I began to record what I saw throughout the first 30 mins of the 2-hour series. Here’s what I recorded seeing:

  • Turning in seat/ talking to people behind x 4
  • leaving chair/walking around the room x 1
  • Laying head on table x 5
  • moaning/complaining/arguing x 7
  • calling out x 6
  • elbows on table/slouched in chair x 14
  • laughing at others x 1
  • rocking on chair x 2
  • drawing on window or whiteboard x 3
  • pen in mouth x 1

The effect of these behaviours is often invisible because, in isolation, they do not seem like much at the time. But collectively, over a long period of time, they can begin to affect the teaching and learning in the classroom. How the teachers respond to integrating new formative assessment approaches into their practice is a clear sign of this effect. Whenever they raised a concern about using a new strategy, they actually raised behaviour problems:

On using no-hands-up:
“Thing that does worry me is that you get people like Emily, students like Chloe, who tend to like to answer and tend to know the answer quite quickly and you can see them getting increasingly and increasingly frustrated.”

“We have a student who knows the answer, wants to participate but their name is never called out. They get frustrated; they get annoyed.”

On using whole-class response strategies (mini whiteboards etc):
“I’d love to be able to use them all … but it also strikes me, it’s a lot of stuff for them to play around with, drop on the floor, break, scribble on.”

This is the pernicious effect of low-level behaviour problems: it gets in the way of everything else, including teachers trying to improve their practice. These teachers are airing these concerns about a class with no serious behaviour problems. How can we expect teachers to feel confident in taking risks, trying new things, trying to improve their practice if they are worried about behaviour, even if it isn’t ‘serious’?

I have a theory. In schools with disruption like this, teachers, nervous about taking up new techniques and approaches, quickly abandon them because they are faced with behavioural difficulties upon instigating change. They simply go back to their old ways, never making any real improvements to their practice, all because of poor behaviour. This is likely what happened at the school featured in the series: improvement was made across the term, but in 2012, pupil results were flagged as a concern. There is a lesson to be learnt here: if you want to see real change in schools, you better clean up the behaviour first; otherwise, you’re probably wasting your time.


Teacher Apprenticeships and Teaching Degrees Aren’t So Different

The UK government has announced its intention to move teaching towards an apprenticeship model whereby those wishing to teach will no longer require a university degree. The announcement lacks detail but it seems that schools will now be responsible for training new teachers in pedagogy and subject knowledge.

In principle, I am opposed to the idea of opening teaching up to be a non-graduate profession. I don’t think any teacher will tell you what they do is easy or that they have truly mastered it. It is very demanding. Even at the very bottom in the early primary years, the knowledge required to teach young children the 3Rs is far from generalIt seems perfectly logical to ensure teachers have the required knowledge and skills needed to teach in a classroom before they enter one alone, especially considering the impact a child’s education has on their life outcomes. That’s why I’d prefer teachers to be fully trained through initial teacher education, for which universities are currently responsible.

That being said, I don’t think the move away from ITE to an apprenticeship model will have any impact on student outcomes. Not in the slightest. Given the current rigour of ITE courses, new teachers pretty much enter the classroom as apprentices anyway, knowing little about what they need to teach or how to effectively teach it. This assessment is partly anecdotal and partly evidence-based. We know from research that nearly graduated preservice teachers tend to lack the required knowledge needed to teach at the primary level (literacy, maths and in general) and that the way they are taught to teach that knowledge isn’t really effective. This probably isn’t the fault of the preservice teachers themselves, they just haven’t been given the knowledge nor the evidence-based skills they need. My own anecdotal experience confirms these findings. I left unprepared, annoyed by my lack of subject and pedagogical knowledge. I believe my experience is probably the rule, not the exception.

So given the current lack of rigour in ITE, an apprenticehip and a degree aren’t really that dissimilar. Both entry points are going to leave a teacher feeling unprepared. Both are going to require a teacher to work hard to improve on their own. I think we do need a teacher education program, but it needs a significant shake-up. The current model isn’t doing enough to ensure teachers enter classrooms with acceptable levels of knowledge and skills. Certainly, at the primary level, a shift away from pedagogy to place a greater focus on content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (with opportunities for teachers to specialise) would be welcomed. This being supported by principles of instruction proven to be most effective.

Seems simple, but it is far from. I am not at all optimistic about seeing significant changes in initial teacher education due to deep-seeded ideological preferences and bureaucratic entanglement. One simply needs to have a look at what’s coming out of AITSL – currently responsible for lifting ITE standards – to see how far from real change we are. The depressing reality is, that if it does not change, the birth of a primary teacher apprenticeship model in Australia is probably on the cards in the future.

My pessimism is shared by many. There is indeed a current wave of thinking that reminds me of Lee Shulman’s words on the historical view of teaching; that teaching is fundamentally about knowledge and not about pedagogy; that teachers do not need a teaching degree per se, but should simply focus on becoming an expert on the subject they teach. In all honesty, it probably would be better than what we currently have, but I’m not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know that more, ‘higher’ knowledge in a subject does not necessarily mean teaching is better or outcomes stronger, but a teachers knowledge of the specific content they teach to students and how to communicate this content certainly seems to have a profound impact (For further reading: Liping Ma’s 1999 book, this paper, this paper this report, this report and chapter 10). This makes sense: studying literature probably isn’t going to help you teach 5-year-olds how to read (of course, I am not arguing such study isn’t worthwhile) but knowing a lot about phonetics is certainly going to help. That’s why I’d prefer a primary degree that targets the knowledge teachers need in order to teach well. Will such a degree ever exist though? Probably not.



A Culture of Hunch and Intuition

The Australian Education Union is opposing the proposed Year 1 National Literacy and Numeracy Check. I am not overly surprised by this considering Jennifer Buckingham chaired the Panel and is a member of the Centre for Independent Studies. The organisations are not friends. I don’t mind if the AEU opposes the check, as long as they have a valid reason. I understand that the threat of possible draconian style testing accountability is a concern shared by many, and, in many ways, is a valid concern (think the USA and England). This is central to the AEU’s opposition.

If it were the only reason for opposition then all would be fine. But it isn’t. The AEU also opposes the literacy component of the check because they believe it opposes good practice. Unfortunately, quoting a few articles from the Conversation in the manner of appeal to authority does not suffice as evidence. I understand the role of the union and I am a member. I value the protection my membership gives me but I am not going to accept my union supporting things on hunch and intuition at the expense of good evidence. Reading instruction is well researched and the use of synthetic phonics as effective early reading instruction and the use of pseudowords for assessment purposes is well established, widely accepted as good practice and written about by leaders in reading the research, and endorsed in 3 national inquires into the teaching of reading. Many works are free to access and books cheap to buy. Here are some good ones plucked from a very extensive list:

The AEU’s opposition to SSP and pseudoword assessment speaks a lot of the culture of education. It is one of hunch and intuition and not evidence. The AEU is a leader in the world of education and therefore has an inherent responsibility to promote what is scientifically true and just, placing aside personal preferences, ideologies, and agendas at all times, for the betterment of students and teachers. That’s why I was further disappointed to hear that just this year the Victorian branch of the AEU hosted an event promoting the Arrowsmith Progam, even devoting a 4 page spread to it in their magazine. I’d be 100% okay with this if Arrowsmith had any scholarly evidence to support its efficacy. But it doesn’t. It is very odd. The AEU is happy to promote Arrowsmith yet will not accept the scientific efficacy of synthetic phonics and pseudowords. Hunch and intuition reign, and as a member, I would like to see that change.

Systematic Vocabulary Instruction

If you’re a new teacher like me, your knowledge of evidence-based practice is probably frustratingly limited. This post reflects my line of inquiry into effective vocabulary instruction – an area in which I wish to plug some holes in my knowledge and strengthen my own teaching. My first post related to this line of inquiry can be found here.

The focus on phonics in the early years is well justified as this is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys so a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the reading puzzle yet gains very little attention in comparison. Studies have found that if both decoding and vocabulary are sufficiently developed, only 1% of students present with comprehension difficulties (Spencer, Quinn & Wagner, 2014). This has lead Biemiller (2005) to conclude that “lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure [reading] failure.” Considering this, and the fact that 20-30% of students present with less than adequate vocabulary development upon arrival at school, vocabulary deserves much more attention than it currently receives.

Of course, all teachers are aware of the importance of vocabulary and it does have some focus in schools, but I think it is fair to say current vocabulary instruction is largely incidental in nature. Unfortunately, incidental vocabulary development through book readings and spoken language is not substantial enough to accelerate vocabulary development (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). A more direct approach is necessary. Mckeown (1985) says, “it takes a lot to know a word” and research indicates she is correct. The long-held folk-tale that children are ‘word sponges’ who pick up language easily from the world around them does not align with research findings. Word learning is cumulative; children acquire new words at a steady rate and their use of these words in spoken and written language accelerates over time. It can take up to 24 repeated exposures of a new word before a child gets to grips with its meaning at a deep level, which refutes the commonly held idea that vocabulary development follows a natural path (Pinkham et al. (2011); Hempenstall, 2016).

Contrary to current, incidental teaching methods, recent research indicates that all children benefit from direct instruction in vocabulary that is planned, sequenced and systematic (Neuman & Wright, 2014) What’s more, starting direct instruction early is key because the earlier word meanings are learnt, the more readily they are accessed in later life (Izura & Ellis, 2002). In a recent post, I wrote about how a systematic approach beginning in kindergarten could benefit a child. If they were to learn 10 words that are low-frequency in spoken language but high-frequency in written language every week for 7 years, they would accumulate some 2800 words crucial for reading comprehension. A child would benefit immensely from such a systematic approach, but, given how hard it is to learn and retain vocabulary at a deep level, how does one implement a planned, sequenced and systematic approach to ensure benefits for the long-term? There is much research in this area and a useful pattern of instruction for effective vocabulary development has been identified by Neuman & Wright (2014):

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They write that “this instructional regime, applied at any grade level, promotes greater attention to the depth of processing of word meanings.” The rest of this post is devoted to explaining this pattern of instruction.

1) Identify words that need to be taught

English has many words but not all need to be taught. The words that are best taught explicitly are known as Tier 2 words. Tier 2 words are characteristic of sophisticated language not often used in spoken language but often used in written texts. The best ones to teach are domain-general and are more sophisticated terms for concepts with which students are already familiar. Notice is a Tier 2 word synonymous with seeing. Commotion is a Tier 2 word synonymous with noise.

The words can simply be found in books selected by a teacher. Read through the book and note down any Tier 2 words in the text. From the text, pick two or three words you think children will be most likely to apply in their daily lives. Below is a list of words taken from texts used in a study by Beck & Mckeown (2007) aimed at raising vocabulary in a disadvantaged school. It is worth noting that Beck & Mckeown’s study found that very young students were very much able to learn sophisticated vocabulary, so avoiding selecting vocabulary because it seems ‘too hard’ is not necessary.

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2 Introduce the words and deepen knowledge through rich instruction

Introducing the vocabulary should be done in conjunction with the book reading. Lenfest & Reed (2015) give a good description of how this was done in their study:

“she [the teacher] introduced the target words using only the definitions provided in the curriculum materials. After providing the definition, she encouraged the students to say the word aloud as well as repeat the definition. Finally, the teacher read the big books.”

It is now important to note that just giving the definition of a word has not proven to be effective (Mckeown, 1985). If vocabulary instruction is to be effective, it needs to provide knowledge at a depth where connections are formed and knowledge is sufficiently flexible and accessible. For this reason, the instruction that follows the book reading – termed rich instruction – is crucial. Rich instruction takes place after the reading and includes explaining the words in student-friendly language, providing multiple examples and multiple contexts, and requiring students to process words deeply by explaining appropriate and inappropriate uses. Below are examples:

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3) Review words to ensure sustainability over time

Repeated exposure is extremely important. As mentioned, it can take up to 24 exposures of a new word for students to know it at a sufficiently deep level. Frequency of exposure strongly predicts word learning and predicts later comprehension outcomes (Harris, 2011). When word learning was extended across several days, the pre to post-test gain in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study was significantly higher. Lenfest & Reed (2015) took these findings seriously. They made students keep a vocabulary folder (with materials related to the words inside) at their desks to help create chances for repeated exposures. When beginning the day’s lesson, the teacher would ask the students to review the words they learnt the previous day. This was used as a prompt to cultivate discussion of the words and gave the teachers the chance to add more rich instruction. More rich instruction is crucial. Using a folder as a prompt seems a very clever idea, it also gives students a sense of ownership. At the end of the week, students would take the folder home to show their parents, gaining further exposure to the new words.

4) Monitor children’s progress and reteach if necessary

Weekly pre and post tests should be taken for formative purposes. The teacher can then monitor and reteach vocabulary where necessary. This can be done in two ways: as a picture test or an oral test. In a picture test (it’s pretty much the PPVT), students need to identify the picture that best depicts the concept (e.g. Which couple is standing elegantly?). In an oral test, the student simply needs to approve or disapprove of the use of a word in a particular context or the stated definition of a word. Below are examples of a verbal test used in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study:

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In Conclusion

As stated at the beginning of this post, the focus on phonics in the early years is well justified, but if we really want students to find success with reading then a focus on vocabulary is important too. Research indicates this is best done in a systematic way. I plan on implementing this model in the classroom and I look forward to seeing how it gets on!

The most important references for further reading (well worth it)

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal107(3), 251-271.

Lenfest, A., & Reed, D. K. (2015). Enhancing Basal Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice30(1), 43-50.

Neuman, S. B., & Wright, T. S. (2014). The Magic of Words: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom. American Educator38(2), 4-13.
Other references

Other references

Harris, J., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2011). Lessons from the crib for the classroom: How children really learn vocabulary. Handbook of early literacy research3, 49-65.

Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Izura, C., & Ellis, A. W. (2002). Age of acquisition effects in word recognition and production in first and second languages. Psicológica23(2).

McKeown, M. G. (1985). The acquisition of word meaning from context by children of high and low ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 482–496.

National Reading Technical Assistance Center 2010, A review of the current research on comprehension instruction, research synthesis, report prepared by S Butler, K Urrutia, A Buenger & M Hunt.

Pinkham, A. M., Neuman, S. B., & Lillard, A. S. (2011, November). You Can Say That Again! Preschoolers Need Repeated Exposures to Gain Expressive Vocabulary. In annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, Jacksonville, FL.

Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer?. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice29(1), 3-9.



Visible Learning, Teacher Knowledge and Formative Assessment

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
(Barber & Mourshed, 2007)

In 1996, William Sanders and June Rivers published a paper based on an analysis of 3 million records of achievement in Tennessee. Sanders and Rivers were able to identify the quality of teachers and track the impact these teachers had on the outcomes of students. After 3 years with back-to-back high-performing teachers, a student at the 50th percentile in Year 2 would reach the 90th percentile in Year 5, but if the same student were allocated to low-performing teachers 3 years running, they would end up at the 37th percentile rank. Barber and Mourshed were right. The impact good teachers have on student achievement is real, that cannot be disputed, but what makes a good teacher?

This week, Visible Learning was going around yelling with a megaphone about how teacher knowledge doesn’t matter. Pretty rash. This tends to happen when you throw a big pile of data in a blender and make blanket judgment calls based on the muck that comes out. Of course, there is much more to good teaching than subject knowledge. In isolation, it won’t have a significant impact on student learning, but it is a significant piece of the puzzle, inextricably linked to other areas of teaching – most notably: formative assessment.

What Visible Learning is probably trying to say about teacher knowledge is that attempts to improve teacher knowledge have not correlated with significant gains in student performance (And therefore teacher knowledge does not matter). In one study that aimed to improve reading instruction, an eight-day course did increase teacher knowledge; however, after one year, there was no measurable impact on student achievement (Garet et al., 2008). Similar conclusions were made in a study designed to improve teacher mathematical subject knowledge (Garet et al., 2010). Of course, these studies do not indicate that subject knowledge does not matter, just that attempts to raise student achievement by targeting subject knowledge in isolation have not been successful.

Although attempts to raise student achievement by raising teacher knowledge have not worked, there is certainly evidence that where student performance is high, so too is teacher knowledge (Think Finland, China, Singapore, Vietnam). The seminal work in this area was done by Liping Ma (1999) who observed the extraordinary gap between Chinese and American teachers in teacher content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Chinese teacher CK and PCK were miles ahead of their American counterparts and this is reflected in the relative knowledge of their students.

There certainly seems to be a connection between teacher knowledge and student achievement, but as we have seen, subject knowledge in isolation seems to have very little impact on student achievement. Yet from Liping Ma’s work, it is easy to see how great CK and PCK can work to support all the other workings of a teacher, including formative assessment. I have a sneaking suspicion that teacher knowledge is a key pillar of formative assessment (long known to have a profound impact on student achievement) and Ma’s work indicates this is so.

Wiliam (2011) defines formative assessment as assessment that strengthens the decisions made for next steps in instruction. You are using what you know to inform what you must do. In her work, Ma discovered that subject knowledge was a huge barrier to making good decisions for future instruction. The quality of the decisions was wholly dependent on a teacher’s knowledge. So much so that “not a single teacher was observed who would promote learning beyond his or her own mathematical knowledge.”

For example, if a teacher did not understand the conceptual underpinnings of a procedure, then they were not able to explain an appropriate model of progression for the student being discussed. The teachers that did have conceptual knowledge were able to explain an appropriate model of progression and those with the deepest knowledge were able to discuss a model of progression in great detail and depth. The teachers with the best knowledge made the best formative assessment.

Clearly, the impact teacher knowledge has on formative assessment is profound. If formative assessment is to be strong, teachers need to have good subject knowledge to make the best decisions they can about their future instruction because, as Ma observed, a teacher cannot promote learning beyond his or her own knowledge. This is likely one of the reasons why countries like China have such strong outcomes: Chinese teachers have better subject knowledge that enables them to make better formative assessment judgments which in turn enables them to make stronger instructional decisions, both within a lesson and across lessons. This, then, would lead to increased outcomes in student learning. Teacher knowledge plays its part.

To suggest teacher knowledge does not matter seems a little rash. Certainly, if we focus on teacher subject knowledge in isolation then we will see little impact on student learning. However, its potential impact on other areas of teaching is great and should not be underestimated. I have discussed how subject knowledge supports formative assessment (in fact, it doesn’t just support formative assessment, in many ways, it enables it) but in reality, subject knowledge is likely to impact all areas of teaching (e.g. demonstrating, questioning, feedback). Visible Learning isn’t likely to put its megaphone away anytime soon, so just keep in mind that what they say may not always be what they mean. An education system is only as good as its teachers, knowledge is part of that.

References for further reading:

Barber and Mourshed (2007) How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top

Garet et al (2008) The impact of two professional development interventions in early reading instruction and achievement

Garet et al (2010) Middle school mathematics professional development impact study: Findings after the first year of implementation

Ma (1999) Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Sanders and River (1996) Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Achievement

Wiliam (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment

Changing the Culture from the Ground Up

Last Monday, an expert panel laid down its recommendations for a national literacy and numeracy check. Little is known of the numeracy check but much is known of the literacy check which will take the form of a phonics check. The rationale for the check is clear. We know that phonics is absolutely crucial in the early years and we have good reason to believe it isn’t being taught very well. We also have emerging evidence that the check can focus practice and improve outcomes. A check will monitor the quality of phonics teaching, help focus practice and ensure any student falling through the cracks is swiftly placed into intensive and extensive intervention.

The check makes sense yet there has been plenty of resistance. This isn’t unexpected. For teachers generally, an externally imposed test that they do not quite understand threatens their professional autonomy – a right held dear in teaching circles. Additionally, many careers have been built on shaky ideas incompatible with high performance on the check. Those in ITE are a good example and so are those engaged in Reading Recovery.

When a teacher becomes a Reading Recovery teacher, they make an active choice to undertake the training and change their title from teacher to Reading Recovery teacher. The teacher’s professional identity shifts forever. When a proposal makes a threat to that identity, it’s easier to just put the blinkers on. This is understandable yet unacceptable – one wishes to self-preserve but at the end of the day, this is about the students, not the teachers.

The blind resistance is real and expected but unacceptable. The check is fundamentally about the students and not about the teachers. Given the heavy resistance, one could feel a little hopeless. How will we ever change the culture from one of instinct, intuition, and ideology to one firmly based in evidence? We certainly cannot rely on ITE nor leadership from within the profession. Changing the culture will have to come from on the ground; from real teachers and real schools making a significant difference using evidence-based practices.

The change needs to come from teachers and schools brave enough to use evidence; to use tools like the phonics check, and brave enough to shout and make a lot of noise about their successes (and yes, it is brave). This is already happening in a select few schools. Bentleigh West – whose principal, Steven Capp, featured on the expert panel – is but one example of the many successful schools using evidence-based practices. We need more schools like Bentleigh West making noise. Great teachers in great schools using the best of what we know will change kids’ lives. They need to shout about it and stakeholders need to listen.