Chapter 9: Reflective Web Activities (RWA)

 RWA9.1: Effective classroom pedagogy in classrooms

A research study was carried out in the classroom of a New Zealand primary teacher who had been formally identified by a national body of teachers as having excellent practice in supporting literacy acquisition. It was conceptualised within a social constructivist view of mind (Vygotsky, 1978), where everything in the learning environment was seen as fundamental to learning: materials, interactions between teacher and students, interactions student to student, student interactions with the learning task, the way success and failure was mediated, and so on.

Thematic analyses of the interview with the teacher, of photographs of the classroom environment, of classroom observations and interviews with the students were carried out separately. Themes from the teacher interview related specifically to her report mainly of her own practices, but also of the practices of teacher aides (teaching assistants) and students who acted as ‘writing buddies’ These themes included:
- the teacher’s personal determination to support all students to become successful writers
- the importance of regular opportunities for students to express themselves freely in writing
- scaffolding, modelling and mediating new literacy learning
- by the teacher from her own deep experience and understandings of the process of writing acquisition and her knowledge of the students
- by teacher aides and peers with whom she had shared these same understandings in order to ensure consistency of approach

The analysis of photographs of the classroom indicated a very clearly integrated approach to supporting student literacy learning by:
- clear valuing of students as writers at whatever level
- modelling examples of effective use of writing
- providing tools in the form of meta-language to support the development of student autonomy in writing

The student interviews suggested a strong degree of similarity between the two groups of literacy learners in terms of:
- enjoyment and interest in writing
- confidence in themselves as developing writers
- positive reports of writing feedback, both peer mediated and teacher comments

Right from the very beginning of the year the teacher encouraged her students to experience what it feels like to be a writer and communicate what they wanted to say freely, without having to worry about grammar and spelling. She said: ‘I say just write for me. Just write, I’ll learn to decipher, I’ll get you to tell me if I don’t understand it. Just write. Because I’d rather I had them all writing, rather than worrying about their spelling, and that getting in the way at the beginning’. She focused on spelling and grammar later in the year.

The regular opportunities for students to express themselves freely in writing included writing very short fifty-word stories. Her aim for this was that all her students should develop into writers who could write succinctly and choose the most expressive words. She also thought that it would provide ‘writing mileage’.

Her expectation had been correct: the fifty-word activities had enabled some students who previously had struggled to feel themselves successful writers. She commented: ‘There were some real successes, like I could see where students in the third term had really found some of the persuasive writing a real struggle, those students weren’t anxious. They weren’t showing any anxiety about writing for the beginning of this term’.

She explained her approach to mediating the development of new writing skills through scaffolding new literacy learning from her in-depth knowledge both of the current writing attainment of the students and what she knew was required by the particular genre: ‘I look at how I’ve taught it up until then. I look at where the gaps are. I think about what the genre is and what it requires of them, and I look at what’s missing for them in their writing. I break the genre down, so I work out what it is that I need to teach in order for everybody to be successful. And I have specific lessons on that.’

She noted: ‘I try to find either from the writing students have done themselves or from published material, quality examples of that style of writing and I share that with the students, and we unpack what makes it good.’

The teacher deliberately encouraged students’ active engagement in discussing the structure and content of writing and then modelled what had been collectively agreed. ‘We agree success criteria together. If we’re looking at introductions, what is it that makes a good introduction? We decide to find that, we agree that that’s what we’re looking for today, and then we write it, I’ll model it.’

As the more expert other, her function was to provide formative feedback. In the teacher’s opinion, both constructive formative feedback and modelling examples of good quality writing were fundamental to mediating the learning of new writing skills: ‘If you’re going to teach it really, really well, you’ve got to work out a way of marking formatively their work, giving them the feedback and they’ve got to have time to read that feedback and then action it. From there I can see then clearly like x, y and z have really not got it, they don’t get what an introduction is, so I’ve got to spend some time.’ From her experience immediate formative feedback is so important to students’ learning that she fitted it into every available time between other activities. She said for example: ‘I grab children when they arrive in the morning, much to their shock horror, and say, ‘Oh I’ve marked your books and they’re here, can I just show you yours?’ And I talk to them about it so that when we begin the next writing session they’re tuning into that.’

Where a particular genre was highlighted in literacy lessons, then that same genre would be reflected elsewhere in her teaching. As she commented: ‘I might teach to the class a particular aspect of writing that I’m focussing on, and then I say,”‘Now’s the time if it’s in your book that I want to meet with you now at the beginning of the lesson. This is the time I want to meet with you. Let’s sit on the carpet.” ‘

For those who really struggled there was additional time for phonic work:’ I’ve got a group of year eights who I’ve targeted in spelling who really have been struggling with blends and actually hearing the sounds in words [...] and in fact they’re so keen on that they renegotiated to have two sessions.’

Predominantly, also, grammar and text structure was taught within the context of authentic writing. However, where it was obvious that numbers of students find particular difficulties, then there was a focus on specific aspects. For some students she put in more closely defined scaffolds to concentrate on one aspect of writing only, but in a way that maintained the integrity of the whole writing task. For example, where students found the mechanics of writing problematic she might do the writing herself so that they could concentrate on content. She commented: ‘There are some students who dictate and I write, for certainly in the transactional writing, that’s when it gets hard for some students.[...] They’ve got the ideas but actually getting those ideas down on paper or structuring it, it gets in the way for them.’

All students had writing ‘buddies’ with whom to discuss their work and elaborate their ideas and understandings as they went along. Cognizant of the importance of not publically singling out lower attainers for “special treatment”, the teacher had guided all students in the class to behave as writing ‘buddies’ for their peers. All knew what they were looking for and how to respond constructively and positively. The teacher had done this by opening up her own writing to critical scrutiny, and showing students how to evaluate this and how to give critical feedback. At the same time, all had been shown how to receive and act on feedback.

In addition, some of the lower attainers had support from teacher aides (teaching assistants) who scaffolded work with the children in tasks that were designed to be integrally linked to the main focus of the work of the whole class.

The value placed on students’ literacy learning and writing achievements was demonstrated clearly in the displays around the classroom. Every available space in this room, including the ceiling, was filled with vibrant and colourful displays of text, art work, cultural iconography and teaching resources of various kinds.

The rich complexity of language was modelled and demonstrated both through the samples of students’ work that were chosen for display and in the sophistication of the language sentence structure and vocabulary that was used in the signs attached to these displays. These signs included meta-language related to writing that students could use in their own work. Wall displays showed how the teacher was seeking to encourage the development of writing skills across a whole range of genres: poetry, short stories, flowcharts, static images, and so on. The whiteboard showed work currently underway with a focus on poetry, and included quotes, exemplars, and practice examples. There was an indication of teacher-student learning interactions (whole class or small group teaching) taking place here.

There was also evidence that the teacher aimed to create a context that mediated learning through a process of scaffolding that was deliberately designed to enable students to re-visit prior learning with new understanding and encourage student autonomy. For example the displays of students’ fifty-word stories were accompanied by the prompts that had been used to support the writing of the narrative and the proofreading. The students’ poetry display was bright, colourful and eye-catching with key quotes about poetry and an outline of the process of poetry-creation. A display of posters about puberty included the specific criteria for poster design.

Students were encouraged to share written work within the classroom by ‘publishing’ completed texts. Booklets of students’ prior writing were available for an audience of peers and others to read. The class newspaper display illustrated all stages of writing from draft to publishing and it was clear that the specific content of the newspaper articles included elements of child choice.

Interviews with the students

In this particular class, there was an overwhelming feeling of enjoyment and interest in writing, whether students had been identified as higher or lower attainers. A major finding of this study was that a scrutiny of the transcripts of the student interviews showed far more similarities between the feelings of the two groups about themselves as writers than differences. If the researchers had not known who had been identified in which group it would have been very difficult in some cases to tell the members of the groups apart. All had a positive sense of themselves and could reflect on their own strengths:

Of the three lower attainers “Marcus” saw himself as developing the art of humorous writing and enjoying sensing his own improvement: ‘I just write really neatly and I can concentrate, I come up with good stories [the teacher and peers say] it’s neat and it’s funny and […] I feel it makes me happy, it’s getting better […] I couldn’t do joined up writing, now I can and it’s neater and it’s like straight.’ He saw himself as a writer at home as well as school and took the time to illustrate these:

“Jeremy” found that thinking about the mechanics of writing interrupted the flow of his thoughts and he lost track of his ideas. However, the fifty word short stories had given him confidence in himself as a writer: ‘Oh yeah, I quite like those, they’re quite fun to get the fifty word limit and to have the short, snappy sentences that actually works, but not to have them to dragged out […] so I like writing short stories, well I prefer them, yeah.’

“Andrew”, another lower attainer, understood that the content of text is far more important than the mechanics. He had a sophisticated understanding of the power of writing and what he was capable of as a writer. Andy commented: ‘It’s quite fun and it lets you express your emotions in a different way. And it’s quite a good experience to have in school. Especially with poetry.’ Of poetry writing he said: ‘It’s a lot of feelings in it and things. And it’s one of my strong points as well and I like it, it’s really fun as well.’

When asked about how he felt towards transactional writing he replied: ‘Yeah, I loved that as well. […] I might even like that more than poetry. […] That was one of my really strong points as well. It like, its sort of like poetry in a way because you get to express your feelings, and also it’s like you’re actually having a conversation with the reader and you’re actually like telling them things and stuff. It’s quite fun to do.’

One topic he felt strongly about was: ‘Um […] hedgehogs having their right […] their way on the road.’ Asked if he believed they should, he replied: ‘No, I believe they shouldn’t.’

All these students clearly recognised themselves as developing writers, albeit at different stages of competence and confidence.

Formative feedback from both the teachers and peers constantly gave them the message that they already were writers and could improve and grow.

RWA9.2: Consideration of ‘Shape Coding’

If you are interested in understanding more about the way in which ‘Shape Coding’ makes grammatical structure explicit, examples can be found here. A video recorded by Susan Ebbels, explainining the system can also be accessed here.

How useful could this method be for young people who experience difficulty in acquiring the concept of English grammar?

Could this method be used with other learners also, do you think?