How to set children up to be successful learners.

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“Books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.”

The learning in my classroom of 5-6 year olds is going really well. So I thought I would try and capture this by describing two key elements of my reading programme that reflect the successful learning that I am witnessing. Some time ago I started noticing that I was having significant success in improving reading outcomes for all students. I put this down to the fact that I was willing to change my teaching practice. I continue to refine and change my practice as I see the need arising. For those not familiar with teaching reading to young children, the measure of success at reading for 5-6 year olds is on the child’s ability to decode a text – turn letters into sounds and then into words and then into fluent sentences. Thankfully, there is no standardised reading test for children of this age – yet.

The first element is based around how I have set up the practical aspects of my reading programme. It’s a programme that allows me to read with every child almost every day of the week. This means I can keep close track of each child’s progress in reading and be informed on a daily basis how each child is doing. Hattie’s research tells us that the best learning outcomes will be achieved when the child’s effort, attitude and achievement are ‘in sync’. This reflects the high levels of growth I am seeing in my classroom. This means that my job is more than simply delivering the key knowledge and skills of reading. By employing an evidence/research based approach I have discovered that there is a high emotional and human component to successful teaching (including reading). My job is get to know each child really well so that I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and to invite them to place higher expectations on themselves.

If you were to enter my classroom during a reading session you could expect to see an environment in which there were high levels of student agency and engagement. You could expect to see the “student as teacher/teacher as learner” model of teaching in place. The students know that I have high expectations of them. I am telling them all the time that I want them to want to read well. I employ a growth mindset that taps into the natural curiosity and desire to learn that every child possesses. I also provide a very generous scaffolding service to ensure success for those who most need it.

In my reading programme I am always introducing a wide range of developmentally appropriate and engaging texts. The classroom is full of opportunities to receive and produce language – both written and oral. The children are given plenty of opportunities to read a wide range of texts. I read instructional texts to the children in a way that invites them to join the club of “decoders’. “I’ll let you in on a secret about reading”. Each child will read their instructional text with a range of their colleagues before they get to read it with me. And when they do get to read with me, they know that I am expecting them to bring their ‘A’ game along with them. As they read to me I am assessing their ability, attitude and effort. I develop next steps based on that assessment. Is it a technical skill or is it an emotional issue that needs to be addressed? It’s usually a mixture of both. It is a quick and efficient process. I have noticed that some students have learned to look for the tick or dot that I put against their name once they have finished reading with me. They want ticks. Ticks are success. Something so simple but so reinforcing.

As the year progresses, an opportunity to read with me becomes a highly sought after commodity. Underlying the requests to be allowed to read to me is, of course, “I want to show you how good I am at reading.” I never decline such an offer. But I will prioritise certain learners who I think need extra support. I do have external motivators in place to help the reluctant few in the beginning. Mostly, the motivator takes the shape of my ability to control access to the wonderful range of play resources in the classroom. Eventually, it all spirals up and up and the learning becomes intrinsically motivated. Great academic learning supporting great social learning. Inevitably, everyone becomes a great reader. The link between social and academic learning can not be understated.

The second element of my reading programme that helps it to be successful is something that I have already alluded to. That is, teaching reading needs to be more than about imparting the mechanical skills of reading. Teaching reading needs to be about inspiring and instilling a love of reading. That’s because sharing a passion for learning will always have a greater influence on a child’s success than direct instruction ever will. And I often wonder whether teachers fully appreciate the value of reading aloud as a way of developing great readers. In all my years in the classroom, I have never ceased to be amazed by the willingness of a child to be captured by a good story. A class of 5-6 year olds can go from noise and chaos to silence, the moment a book is opened. But it’s not always quiet. A good story can also be a time for questioning and discussion. Their enthusiasm and ability to understand and process complex ideas is impressive and informative. It often reveals an insight into a child that I previously had no awareness of. ie. formative assessment in action.

There is also the more ephemeral role that stories have on learning – their ability to engage children emotionally – within the classroom as well as beyond. Stories allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Yann Martel, author of ‘Life of Pi’, has this to say about fictional stories, “By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

Finally, I think there is a wider issue at play here too. New Zealand writer of children’s stories, Joy Cowley, takes umbrage with the idea that boys are not interested in reading. She believes that it’s a case of boys “are not interested in reading the books they are given.” According to her, “books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.” These days I actively seek out books that have a boy hero in them in order to avoid what Joy Cowley describes as a case of “oestrogen strangling testosterone”. (Is that not an apt description of the education sector as a whole?) These kinds of books do exist but you have to seek them out. I suggest that the test as to whether you have got the right book is when a bunch of 5 year olds ask you to keep on reading a story that lacks any pictures for them to look at.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An RNZ interview with Joy Cowley can be found at the link below…

https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/sunday/audio/2018630644/joy-cowley-books-should-help-a-child-feel-powerful

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