Currently, there is a mountain of research to support teachers in being evidence-informed English educators. There is so much research that it has even been given its own label – the Science of Reading. For many practitioners, this very term can send shivers down their spine at the thought of “yet another fad” or that what they have been doing in the classroom has been labelled as wrong. I would argue against that and say, “you only know, what you know.” Stephen Parker gives an outline of how we have been teaching students to read and why we are where we are in A Brief history of reading instruction.
“Students will benefit from explicit instruction where skills are taught clearly, directly and systematically, starting from simple concepts and skills and moving to more complex concepts and skills. Students should be introduced to one concept or skill at a time and given plenty of opportunities for practice and to master the concept or skill before moving on.”SPELD NSW
Unfortunately, many teachers have been let down by a dysfunctional system that for various reasons hasn’t promoted “best-practice”. I have put together a series of pages here that goes through a lot of the research on how we should be teaching primary English. I encourage you to go through these pages skeptically with an open-mind and be aware of any cognitive biases you have and where you sit on the Dunning-Kruger effect.
This post isn’t about pointing the finger and blaming people, but rather a destination to hopefully guide teachers towards methods that can help our young people achieve better learning outcomes.
I am far from an expert in teaching English and so the information on this page is more of a collection of resources and summaries of research. I have included numerous links on this page so that you can apply your scepticism and fall further down the rabbit-hole of being a research-informed educator!
This is the first of 5 pages that I have created on being an evidence-informed primary English teacher:
- This page gives an overview of the key points that the research points us towards that should be the backbone around our thinking when teaching English.
- Why is this the way to teach Primary English? looks at the overwhelming evidence behind how we should teaching the English language.
- When should each concept be taught in Primary English? gives an overview of how we should progress through the different aspects of learning English.
- What does this actually look like in the classroom? full of practical ways to put the research into practice. It includes activities, videos modelling how to teach the Big 6 and ways to assess them.
- Primary English Resources this page provides information to support change, teaching and learning resources, organisations that support the implementation of SoR and books, blogs and podcasts to look at.
How to teach Primary English
The following recommendations are principles that have consistently been supported by the research of improving learning outcomes for students learning English.
Explicit & Systematic
Every concept needs to be intentionally taught in a systematic way. There should not be any randomness to what our students are learning. Each new concept should build upon previous knowledge. For example, a Synthetic Systematic Phonics program takes this into account and teaches a small number of commonly occurring sounds in a structured manner.
Explicit instruction should be used so that students are given the right level of modelling and support. They also need to understand exactly what the learning intentions are and how they can achieve them.
An enacted, low-variance curriculum is only enabled through collaborative teachers and supportive leaders. Rob Marchetto gives a great summary of Reid Smith’s Think Forward Educators webinar on curriculum here.
Want them thinking about the most important thing
Routines, lesson structure and presentation are so important because it allows students to use their working memory to think about the most important thing – teacher instructions, new concept, building fluency etc. This means cutting out the “fluff” and being purposeful. I have written about Creating a positive classroom culture.
The trap we can fall into is being fooled into thinking students are learning when they are displaying “engaged” traits e.g. on-task, busy, quiet, most students are on-task. The question we need to ask ourselves is – are they progressing as efficiently as they could? They might be performing the task, but are they performing it correctly? Have we explicitly taught what we want them learning and how? If not, we can’t expect them to be able to focus on the most important thing.
Know where they are at
One of the key drivers of motivation is early success and connection (See this article on motivation). If we don’t know where our students are at, how can we pitch it right so that they can be successful? When deciding how to assess, think about what you are assessing and why. Remember, assessment should give us information on where the student is at, so that we know what they need to learn next and how we can support them.
Plan to practice
Unfortunately, there is no linear progression to learning. It takes place over space and time. So, we need to intentionally give our students the time to practice and retrieve previous learning. e.g. decodable readers allow beginning readers to practice the sound-spelling correspondences that they have already learnt.
More than a literacy block
The literacy block can certainly have a purpose through the effectiveness of routine and structure, but students development of the English language doesn’t stop there. Learning the sound-spelling correspondence is one aspect (certainly a vital one), but as the Simple View of Reading demonstrates, it is Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC).
One of the misconceptions about the Simple View of Reading is that it is slow and boring. Yet, that point of view is only coming from the adult who is suffering from the Curse of Knowledge. We forget how hard it actually is to learn to read and that it is slow and laborious. However, once our learners are able to crack the code, it opens up a whole new world for them.
We need knowledge to gain knowledge. So, how do we expose beginning readers to the knowledge needed? By engaging with them in meaningful conversations and reading to them! Continue to read those much-loved picture books, find texts that link to your History/Science/Health programs (build the field knowledge) and ask questions that invokes curiosity.
So, supporting students development of the English language continues throughout the day at school and at home. Building their Tier 2 & 3 vocabulary in different Key Learning Areas (KLA), think alouds, intentional questioning and building their knowledge base.
To better help you understand this page, here is a glossary of key terms that are used throughout. Most of these definitions have been taken from Christopher Such’s brilliant book The Art & Science of Teaching Primary Reading:
Blending: the combining of individual sounds in a word to recreate the word as it would be spoken
Decode: to work out the word that is represented in writing; children need to learn to do this through the application of learned sound-spelling correspondences and phonemic awareness skills.
Encode: to represent accurately the sounds of a word in writing.
Fluency: the ability to read with accuracy, automaticity and prosody; put simply, reading with fluency involves correct decoding at an appropriate speed that allows for reading to sound like natural speech.
Grapheme: a written representation of a single phoneme in text.
Morpheme: a meaningful element of language made up of a word or a part of a word that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts.
Morphology: the study of the internal structure of words, including the parts from which they are composed.
Orthographic mapping: ‘the mental process we use to permanently store words for immediate, effortless retrieval (David Kilpatrick, 2015).
Phoneme: the smallest distinguishable unit of sound in speech; this sound unit is the basis of written English.
Phonemic awareness: the extent to which someone is able to hear and manipulate phonemes in spoken language; it is one aspect of phonological awareness.
Phonological awareness: the extent to which someone is able to hear and manipulate the sounds in a spoken language, such as phonemes, syllables and whole words.
Predicate: One or more verbs, including a verb, that says something about the subject (The Writing Revolution, N. Wexler & J. Hochman).
Prefix: a letter or group of letters placed at the start of a word that changes the word’s meaning.
Prosody: the ability to read in a way that mirrors the sounds of natural spoken language; this includes intonation (the rise and fall in tone), stress (the prominence given to particular syllables, words or phrases) and rhythm.
Root word: a word that carries the most meaningful aspects of a word family; Latin and Greek root words often are not words written on their own, but underpin the meaning of many words in English.
Segmenting: the separation and identification of sounds within spoken word into individual phonemes.
Semantics: the meaning and understanding of words (Speech and Language development Australia)
Subject: The part of the sentence that states who or what the sentence is about (The Writing Revolution, N. Wexler & J. Hochman).
Suffix: a letter or group of letters placed at the end of a word that changes the word’s meaning.
Syntax: the way in which words are arranged to form phrases or sentences (State Government of Victoria, Australia)