This afternoon I downloaded (full of nerdy excitement) the winter ePub available to members of PETAA. The Winter release for 2015 is Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton’s Put It In Writing: Context, Text and Language, a book that explores how texts work and provides teaching and learning sequences and strategies for a range imaginative, informative and persuasive texts.
After reading through the introductory chapter, I cast my eye over the reference list, and one of the links caught my eye. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s 2003 chapter “Navigating Meaning: Using Think Alouds to Help Readers Monitor Comprehension” focuses on supporting students to develop their inferential skills using explicit strategies and teacher modelling.
When students first arrive at secondary school, it is very easy for us to make the assumption that they must be, after seven prior years of schooling, fluent readers. For some students this assumption is true – they have strong skills in making multi-layered meaning from the words that they read on the page. This leads to a tradition of programming – especially in the secondary English curriculum – that tends to be based heavily on writing and doesn’t necessarily explicitly address reading skills. Weaker readers may be able to read the sounds of the words, but often struggle to read beyond the literal, to make connections between the text and what it is saying (or not saying) about the real world. Indeed, these inferential reading skills have appeared regularly in initial PAT-R data as an area in which my incoming students have needed support. As Wilhelm comments about a struggling student, “He could decode most words and thought that was reading!”
Wilhelm promotes “Think Alouds” as an effective strategy for accelerating the learning of these weaker readers. The teaching and learning cycle that we so often use to teach writing – build the field, deconstruction, joint construction, and independent construction – is quite applicable to teaching reading. Wilhelm suggests the following steps:
- Teacher does, students watch – teacher reads a text, verbally modelling a variety of strategies (think aloud) to self-check understanding when reading. Create flowcharts and lists and post in the classroom.
- Teacher does, students help – another text is read and students prompt teacher and explain the steps that should be taken to check understanding
- Students do, teacher helps – students read a text, taking over the comprehension monitoring process themselves. Teacher supports when necessary.
- Students do – support is withdrawn when students are able to use inferential reading strategies independently.
Wilhelm does not mention it – perhaps it is just assumed – but I believe that just like the approach to writing, building the field would be a useful first step prior to teacher modelling. In his Reading to Learn pedagogy, David Rose argues that building the field prior to reading helps to reduce the cognitive load for learners when reading challenging texts, allowing them to focus on meaning-making because they already have a sense of what the text is about and understand the more difficult vocabulary identified by their teacher.
I am currently involved in an action research professional learning through Catholic Education Sydney that focuses on consistently embedding simple but effective activities for teaching reading within most lessons, rather than in isolated instances. Think Alouds are a strategy that has been modelled to us and that is applicable, not just in English, but across the curriculum. In fact, one of the most effective ways I’ve seen it used is in teaching students to interpret worded Maths problems! They can be adapted depending on the level of schooling, the subject area, and indeed the needs of individual students or groups within a class.
There is no absolute quick fix for struggling readers, but with a consistent and regular approach using simple and effective strategies such as Think Alouds, we can support these learners to successfully infer meaning from age-appropriate and challenging texts. This will in turn benefit their development in other areas of language and literacy.
Last week, The Conversation posted an article by Misty Adoniou – Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra. In this piece, Adoniou considered what the inevitable influx of refugee students will mean for Australian schools. Over the next few months, 12,000 Syrian refugees will arrive, many of them children who will be welcomed into the education system. But are we currently equipped to adequately support them?
Based on current performance, Adoniou would suggest that we are not:
Research reveals students from refugee backgrounds are most likely to be in the lowest quartile of achievement as measured by national standardised testing (NAPLaN).
This is unsurprising, given their circumstances. They are learning and being assessed through a new language. They have had interrupted schooling which leads to inevitable gaps in their curriculum knowledge. They are emotionally fragile due to the traumatic circumstances of their past few years and their ongoing worries about the family and friends left behind. (Adoniou, 7th October 2015)
This poses an enormous challenge for schools and educators working with these students. Many of these children and their families want to learn, want to succeed, and are in a safer environment where it is now more conducive to do so. Yet when there are so many complex factors impacting on their lives – new culture, new language, new school system, potentially traumatic events in their past – it is understandable that the students’ desire and effort to achieve is often simply not enough.
But that does not mean the future is all doom and gloom. As a government and an educational system, we do need to ensure the correct structures are in place to support these learners. Adoniou argues for a return to Gonski, a report that proposed resource loading for students who require English language learning support. However, unfortunately there is still no measure by which to determine who qualifies for this funding and who does not, and strangely, there is no obligation for the states to use the federally allocated funds on the EAL/D learners for whom it was intended!
Adoniou notes that in a survey by the Australian Council of TESOL Associations more than 50% of English teachers indicated that funding was not being spent on English language learners. So where is it going?
The article suggests that instead of going directly to the students who attracted the funding, the money is often being pooled into general literacy programs under the common misconception that language learning = literacy:
Mainstream literacy teaching is not sufficient. Literacy programs work on the premise that students can already speak and understand English, and will bring innate knowledge of the English language to learning how to read and write.
It is the job of the teacher to make English language knowledge visible to their EALD learners. However, this is beyond the expertise of mainstream generalist teachers, for whom English grammar is intuitive and invisible. While they can correct those errors, they cannot explain those errors. EALD students need teachers with specialist training in the teaching of English as an additional language. (Adoniou, 7th October 2015)
So what can be done? As Adoniou notes, it takes a long time to learn a language, especially the academic language required for success in the Australian school system. It is said that EAL/D children generally acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), or ‘playground language’ within a few terms. But Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) can take 8-10 years to achieve, and we rarely have that amount of time to get students up to speed. An effective solution, Adoniou suggests, is to “fund them out of needing funding.” If the money intended for those students is put towards intensive English language programming specifically for them, then there will be greater accountability in schools for their progress, and they will acquire language more rapidly and not require on-going support for as long.
This is not to say that great things are not being done in schools for New Arrivals. There are a number of fantastic intensive English programs in the government, Catholic and independent sectors. Unfortunately, the funding is severely limited (often only 6 months per student) thereby limiting what the dedicated teachers and students are able to achieve. Often, through no fault of their own or their teachers, these students leave the intensive programs for mainstream classrooms still not proficient in the level of language needed for them to access the curriculum on the same basis as their peers and with even more limited support in their new schools. The current system sets them up to struggle.
Adoniou ends the article with a sense of optimism, though. These students will be positive and productive citizens in Australian society, if we can just get the approach to their education right. It is challenge, representing a change that needs to start with those who make the decisions in departments and schools, but it is an achievable one.