The School House

What is the key to improving literacy levels - the right teacher or the right program?

Flickr/Joanne Johnson, CC BY

When the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority published their list of “big improvers” from the 2014 national literacy and numeracy testing (NAPLAN), the media popped out to these star performers to find out what the magic formula to success is.

In the ACT, the principal of Wanniassa School said she believed

part of its success lay with the Scaffolding Literacy program.

In Queensland, the principal of Enoggera Primary School believed the adoption of the Jolly Phonics program was an important part of their success.

These are two very different literacy programs.

Jolly Phonics focuses on the teaching of reading through decodable texts, where there is a simple match between the sound you hear and the letter you see. So a typical Jolly phonics reader in Kindergarten is “Pig and piglets” where the text reads “I am a dog. A dog has pups.”

Scaffolding Literacy focuses on the teaching of reading through authentic children’s literature where words may or may not be ones you can sound out. Books are chosen for their meaningful stories and literate grammar - that is, the language of the book sounds real. So a typical Scaffolding Literacy book for teaching reading in Kindergarten might be Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, which begins “In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.”

Teachers teach children, not programs

Given these two successful schools ascribe their literacy success to two very different programs, perhaps the lesson is that it is teachers who teach children, not programs.

The common denominator in the literacy approaches in the two schools is likely to be that they were delivered by knowledgeable teachers. Therefore initiatives to improve literacy should not be about directing schools to teach specific programs, and instead be focused on ensuring teachers are supported in the work they do.

What do teachers do all day?

We’ve all spent more than a decade of our lives sitting inside schools, so we feel very qualified to provide commentary on teachers. But in reality, most of us have little idea what it is that teachers do, or need to know in order to do their job.

The formula for teaching and learning is deceptively simple - establish what the child already knows, and target instruction just beyond that.

Pulling off the formula is complicated. Establishing starting points for the 30 individuals in the class is complex enough, but getting the instruction just right for each of them is even harder.

Pitch it too low, and no learning will happen. We see this when a young child, who can already write sentences, is colouring in pictures of words that begin with the sound “b”.

Pitch it too high, and learning is unlikely to happen. We see this when a young child, who has yet to understand that talk can be captured in print, is copying lists of words with the pattern “ake”. Hake, fake, sake - words they can’t read and don’t know the meaning of.

Each student’s progress must be carefully monitored. As their knowledge and skills grow, instructional targets must shift accordingly. This complex calibration must happen for every subject and skill the children are taught - each day, all day, every day.

Teaching is intellectual work, which is why teaching degrees should require high university entrance scores. It is simply not sufficient to go into teaching because you “love working with kids”. Although the federal government appears to disagree, and has no plans to implement minimum entrance scores for teaching degrees.

Teacher Standards

Only recently has the teaching profession begun to articulate the complexity of the job to the wider public. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has published seven standards for teaching.

These can be broadly summarised as: knowing kids in all their diversity and how they learn, knowing what to teach and how to teach and assess, knowing how to work with colleagues and the community and the requirement to continually develop skills.

Every new teacher in the country is now required to show how they meet these standards before they are given full teacher registration.

In the ACT, for example, new teachers now show their skills and knowledge against these standards by documenting their teaching, and evidence of their students’ learning in an assessed digital portfolio. The digital space allows them to upload video of their teaching, their lesson plans, samples of student work, audio of their student’s reading and their own analysis of the child’s challenges, as well as plans for their next instructional step.

The AITSL site is open to the public and provides any interested browser with information about the ways in which teachers are required to work, as well as providing illustrations of good teaching practice.

So if you are curious about what teachers actually do all day, how they are accountable and to whom, the site provides lots of insight.

Why don’t we listen to teachers?

It is curious that teachers’ voices are so often absent from the debates about what works best for our students. Usually it is academics, politicians and the occasional shock jock who dominate educational debates. Yet it is teachers who spend their days with our children teaching them to read and write.

If, as the research suggests, teachers make a difference - then surely we should be listening to what they have to say about what it is they do that makes that difference.

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