Sunday, October 30, 2011

There is No Room for Mediocrity in Education

I think we have all taught in schools alongside colleagues whom we deeply respect and admire. I have been extremely fortunate to have encountered many highly experienced, professional and dynamic teaching practitioners, both in the course of my work and also from the perspective of being a parent. On many occasion, my own children have been extremely lucky to have benefited from such excellence and the amount of learning that takes place is little short of phenomenal.

Sadly however, there is a flip side to this. There are still some practising teachers who need to take a very serious look at either improving or moving. If this does not occur, then perhaps members of the school management team need to recognise when it is time to make the 'hard' decisions. Teachers who lack the respect of colleagues, students, parents and school management and who refuse to change, must leave. After all, there is simply no room, at all, for mediocrity in education!

On reading some of the reports published by the Grattan Institute, along with a range of important research papers, there appears to be an indisputable link between teacher quality and student outcomes.

        The evidence from Australia and overseas is remarkably consistent. Conservative estimates suggest that a student with a teacher at the 75th percentile of effectiveness (measured with a value-added metric) will achieve in three-quarters of a year what a student with a teacher at the 25th percentile will achieve in a full year. A student with an excellent teacher (at the 90th percentile) would achieve in half a year what a student with a less effective teacher (at the 10th percentile) will learn in a full year. (Leigh; Hanushek; in Jensen 2011)

This same report, published by the Grattan Institute, also favours having an effective teacher appraisal system in place in schools. For many, the process of teacher appraisal can seem quite threatening. Personally, although I do become quite nervous with other professionals viewing my classes, I like having the opportunity to be mentored; to have someone whom I greatly respect, assist me in becoming more effective and assist me in achieving the personal growth that is needed in my professional practice.

Teaching in itself can be quite an isolating profession in that you are the only adult in the class and, as a result, only have the opportunity to reflect on your own practice. Therefore, including within an appraisal system the chance to visit other teacher's classes can be of great use. When I visit other classes, I find I have not only an opportunity to obtain ideas and learn from others, but I also get to see the classroom from entirely different angles and perspectives. By further adding to this model with allocated sessions for collaborative lesson planning and preparation, and I believe teaching becomes far less isolating.

The Grattan report lists eight methods to 'assess and improve learning and teacher performance', of which at least four, including the first, should be used:

• Student performance and assessments;
• Peer observation and collaboration;
• Direct observation of classroom teaching and learning;
• Student surveys and feedback;
• 360-degree assessment and feedback;
• Self-assessment;
• Parent surveys and feedback; and
• External observation.
  (Jensen 2011 p9)

While in my position there is not terribly much I can do to put an end to the practice of mediocrity, there is a very important path available to me. I can continue to learn, to reflect deeply, use data to inform my practice, ask for assistance/mentoring from my respected peers, collaborate with others and share ideas/resources as much as possible. I may not be able to have any control over others but I can always work towards ensuring I have the best chance of being a highly effective teacher!

I like the following excerpt from Carl Glickman’s book, Leadership for learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed:

If, as a teacher,
  • I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
  • I seek no feedback from my students;
  • I do not analyze and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire and timing;
  • I do not visit or observe other adults as they teach;
  • I do not share the work of my students with colleagues for feedback, suggestions and critiques;
  • I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
  • I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
  • I have no yearly individualized professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning; and finally,
  • I have no systematic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and schoolwide goals,
I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.

Glickman, C 2002, Leadership for learning: How to help teachers succeed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Effective Teaching of

Part of my research this semester has been to look into what my department’s data (Single Word Spelling Test (SWST), NAPLAN and weekly spelling tests) said about how effectively we were teaching spelling. This was followed by the design of an intervention plan, implementation of this plan, observations of the outcome, and finally, a reflection on the effectiveness of the intervention.
Unfortunately, due to privacy considerations and professional restrictions, I am unable to share the data and details of the intervention in this forum. However, I can most certainly share with you the Literature Review aspects of my research relating to effective spelling teaching methods.
There were four main areas of research sought in relation to the issue: reports of a drop in relative margins of spelling ability in Middle School students; examples of any implementation of research-based programs of professional development in spelling; reports highlighting problems with current spelling practices; and, research-identified effective spelling teaching strategies.
Following a comprehensive search of current and past research literature, there appeared to be no reports specifically documenting a decrease in relative margins in spelling ability. There was however, a range of research reports (literature and study-based) into spelling practices in general and the use of this research in staff development.
Chase-Lockwood and Masino (2002) outlined an action-research project in which they used research-identified effective spelling practices in two year 5 classes. Over a period of sixteen weeks, they compared students’ abilities in the intervention classes with students in a control class. Significant improvements were demonstrated by the intervention group so new practices were adopted by staff.
A number of authors examined problems with current practices. For example, it was found to be hard to train teachers to use different methods from how they had learned to spell.  ‘Since teachers tend to teach how they were taught it is particularly difficult to change beliefs and practices around spelling.’ (Asselin 2001)  In addition, many teachers were not familiar with the range of effective spelling teaching strategies and spelling terminology (Chase-Lockwood & Masino 2002; Hurry et al, cited in Devonshire & Fluck 2010), nor did they feel adequately prepared to teach spelling. Milton, Rohl and House (2007), reported on a survey regarding teacher preparedness to teach spelling. They relayed that only 34% of secondary teachers felt they had received adequate preparation to teach spelling. Nunes, Bryant, Hurry and Pretzlick (2006) taped and analysed 46 literacy lessons and discovered little use of morphemes in the teaching of spelling. Their discussions with teachers, uncovered some explicit knowledge about aspects of morphemes, but quite significantly, very little knowledge about the meaning function of morphemes.
In the Sunday Herald Sun (April 17, 2011), it was reported that ‘academics and primary education specialists say Victorian children are paying the price for the Education Department’s failure to heed a federal literacy taskforce’s calls for a return to a structured phonics-based teaching.’ An included quotation of Dr Hempenstall, child psychologist and RMIT senior lecturer, stated that ‘Teachers today have not been taught to teach phonics in a systematic way...They don’t receive that training in their teacher education, so it doesn’t matter whether or not people are saying, “We do teach phonics”, they need to have that training for it to have an impact.’ (Heard 2011, p. 18)
There is evidence for teacher dissatisfaction using whole-word spelling approaches and the belief this method is ineffective; yet teachers feel unprepared to change how they teach spelling (Fresch 2007; Heard 2011). A possible outcome of this has been for teachers to approach spelling instruction in their own, often varied ways (Schlagal 2002).
Chandler (2000) and Sipe (2008) discussed a common notion that secondary teachers shouldn’t need to teach spelling and if students can’t spell by the time they reach secondary school, they probably won’t. Chandler explains how she realised that ‘as students’ writing and thinking become more complex, so do their spelling needs, and their teachers must be prepared to meet those needs.’(p. 88) She further outlines that ‘when we hold secondary students accountable for poor spelling but do not provide any deliberate instruction regarding how to become better spellers we abdicate our absolutely essential responsibility to help all the writers in our care move forward from wherever they may be in their development.’ (p. 94)
Comparisons were made between the use of natural or incidental learning methods and the more traditional spelling instruction approaches (Asselin 2001; Graham 2000). Conclusions from these authors and others (e.g. Gentry 2010; Simonsen & Gunter 2001) were that the systematic, sequential, explicit teaching of spelling was far more successful than reliance on natural or incidental learning. The Department of Education, Science and Training in The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (DEST 2005) noted that ‘where there is unsystematic or no phonics instruction, children’s literacy progress is significantly impeded, inhibiting their initial and subsequent growth in reading accuracy, fluency, writing, spelling and comprehension.’ (p. 12)  
Also identified as problems were approaches to differentiation consisting only of weaker students having shorter lists of words (Culpepper 2010) and an over-reliance on phonological strategies misleading students into believing that spelling always represents sound (Devonshire & Fluck 2010).  
Considerable research and discussion took place in identifying the most successful strategies and ideas for the teaching of spelling. These effective strategies included:
o   Word selection should be based on word patterns and include some high frequency words (Chase-Lockwood & Masino 2002; Gentry 2004; Scott 2000). Words learned from the 4000 most commonly used words list account for nearly 98% of words used in ordinary writing (Schlagal 2002; Sipe 2008). Have students use their writing to keep personal spelling dictionaries or journals; add these words to spelling test lists (Chandler 2000; Gentry 2004).

o   Explicit instruction Teach students explicitly about morphemes as well as phonemes (Devonshire & Fluck 2010; Griva & Anastasiou 2009; Hauser 2007; Nunes et al. 2006; Simonsen & Gunter 2001). Systematically study the predictable patterns in spelling (Chandler 2000; Gentry 2007; Nunes et al. 2006; Simonsen & Gunter 2001). Use etymology to assist students in spelling and understanding meaning (Chandler 2000; Hauser 2007).

Explicitly teach students words that have irregular spelling; these need to be learned using the whole-word approach (Simonsen & Gunter 2001).

o   Strategies for students A combination of spelling strategies is essential (Chase-Lockwood & Masino 2002; Devonshire & Fluck 2010).
Generate a class list of spelling strategies, help students to monitor their own use of these strategies (Chandler 2000; Sipe 2008), teach students how to approach unknown words (Gentry 2004) and how to isolate errors that they commonly make in their writing (Chandler 2000).
Use a large range of word learning activities such as LSCWC (Look Say Cover Write Check), word sorts (classifications), word wall, matching, transformations, word construction, analogies and game-based practice (Gentry 2004, 2010; Graham 2000; Hauser 2007; Schlagal 2002).
Have students self correct their own Pre-test and test words and rewrite incorrect words no more than three times (Gentry 2004; Schlagal 2002).
o   Differentiation Use Pre-tests to find out words students know and to individualise instruction (Gentry 2004, 2007, 2010; Hauser 2007).
Students achieving 50% or less on Pre-tests should be working at an easier level as they are unlikely to successfully retain studied spellings (Gentry 2004; Schlagal 2002). Further to this, Schlagal found that students given a spelling book at the lower, instructional level performed better when tested at the end of the year on words of a higher level. It was thought this was because they had successfully grasped principles that could be applied to more difficult words.
Place students into three fluid groups – at grade level, above grade level, below grade level. Apply the same spelling rule or pattern to all groups but modify the length of the words. (Gentry 2004, 2007; Wallace 2006)
o   Application and Review It is important to regularly review previous spelling words and principles (Chase-Lockwood & Masino 2002; Schlagal 2002; Simonsen & Gunter 2001).
Emphasis needs to be on the application or connection of spelling knowledge to writing. In addition, capitalise on incidental opportunities to teach spelling (Devonshire & Fluck 2010; Gentry 2007, 2010; Hauser 2007; Schlagal 2002).
Automaticity is important; this can be achieved through daily, short bursts of practice and the use of technology (Gentry 2004, 2007, 2010). Capitalising on the student use of, and ease with technology draws upon students’ ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll 1992).
Encourage reading – research has shown that ‘as little as 10 minutes each day can have a significant impact on students’ spelling and vocabulary.’ (Hauser 2007)
For older students particularly, highlight the importance of correct spelling and shift this responsibility to the student (Sipe 2008).

Asselin, M 2001, 'Supporting Students' Spelling Development', Teacher Librarian, vol. 29, no. 2, p. 49.

Chandler, K 2000, 'What I Wish I'd Known about Teaching Spelling', English Journal, vol. 89, no. 6, p. 87.

Chase-Lockwood, R & Masino, M 2002, 'Improving Student Spelling Skills through the Use of Effective Teaching Strategies', Master's thesis, St Xavier University.

Culpepper, MA 2010, 'Spelling Instruction: Effective Practices', unpublished minor thesis, Sierra Nevada College.

DEST 2005, Teaching Reading: Report and Recommendations, The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Devonshire, V & Fluck, M 2010, 'Spelling development: Fine-tuning strategy-use and capitalising on the connections between words', Learning & Instruction, vol. 20, no. 5, pp. 361-71.

Fresch, MJ 2007, 'Teachers' Concerns About Spelling Instruction: A National Survey', Reading Psychology, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 301-30.

Gentry, JR 2004, 'Discovery #5: There Is One Best Way to Teach Spelling - Assess and Teach Individual - Hooray for Spelling Books!', in The Science of Spelling: The Explicit Specifics That Make Great Readers and Writers (and Spellers!), Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, pp. 55-76.

Gentry, JR 2007, 'SPELLING COUNTS', Instructor, vol. 116, no. 7, pp. 39-41.

Gentry, JR 2010, Effective Strategies for Teaching Spelling, <>.

Graham, S 2000, 'Should the Natural Learning Approach Replace Spelling Instruction?', Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 92, no. 2, p. 235.

Griva, E & Anastasiou, D 2009, 'Morphological strategies training: The effectiveness and feasibility of morphological strategies training for students of English as a foreign language with and without spelling difficulties', Journal of Writing Research, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 199-223.

Hauser, I 2007, 'A Way With Words: Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary in the Middle School', Practical Strategies: Literacy Learning in the Middle Years, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. i-xi.

Heard, H 2011, 'Old-school plan to give literacy a lift', Sunday Herald Sun, April 17, 2011, pp. 18-9.

Milton, M, Rohl, M & House, H 2007, 'Secondary Beginning Teachers’ Preparedness to Teach Literacy and Numeracy: A Survey', Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 1-20.

Nunes, T, Bryant, P, Hurry, J & Pretzlik, U 2006, 'Why morphemes are useful in primary school literacy', Teaching and Learning Research Programme, no. 14, retrieved 12/04/2011, <>.

Schlagal, B 2002, 'Classroom Spelling Instruction: History, Research, and Practice', Reading Research and Instruction, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 44-57.

Scott, CM 2000, 'Principles and Methods of Spelling Instruction: Applications for Poor Spellers', Topics in Language Disorders, vol. 20, no. 3, p. 66.

Simonsen, F & Gunter, L 2001, 'Best Practices in Spelling Instruction: A Research Summary', Journal of Direct Instruction, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 97-105.

Sipe, RB 2008, 'Teaching Challenged Spellers in High School English Classrooms', English Journal, vol. 97, no. 4, pp. 38-44.

Wallace, RR 2006, 'Characteristics of Effective Spelling Instruction', Reading Horizons, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 268-79.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Time to catch up...

I love teaching and could not imagine doing anything else. However, I also love the holidays! Teaching is very 'full on' as parents' expectations and the expectations of the government and school leadership continue to rise. Add to this mix the lists of responsibilities that seem to grow exponentially as well as the need for constant reflection on lessons taught/student learning and how best to differentiate.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about holidays for me is they certainly help to keep me sane. Having the change of pace to look forward to and set my sights on is great.

These school holidays, I am really enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with my family. I also like having a less frantic pace that enables greater opportunity for thinking about student progress and teaching/learning goals for next term. Another highlight of holidays is finding time to gain even more ideas from my amazing PLN on Twitter (and hopefully share a few useful ideas as well). Lastly, I finally have time to catch up with some study - an assignment identifying an area of literacy need and professional development focus, followed by an outline of a plan of intervention. Still very much in the research and drafting stages; however, I can tell you the focus is in the area of teaching spelling more effectively. (More details in a later post!)

I have had a fantastic Term One, with great classes, lovely students (year 5 and year 8), interesting subjects to teach (English, Geography, Wellbeing, Sport) and very supportive parents. During March, my amazing year 5 students surprised me with a birthday gift - a voucher for a 2.5 hour Endota Spa session. So, having just spent my afternoon being pampered - massage, foot bath, facial, body scrub, clay wrap etc, I am definitely starting to feel more energised already and still overwhelmed by their generosity.