“Watch out!” – Avoiding the pitfalls of shifting practice
With all that we hear about the science of reading, we can get caught up in the idea of ‘one big thing’ that will make our reading instruction the best in the universe. If only it was so! The reality is that creating a really strong, systematic reading approach in our classrooms comes from an infinity of small things (that might seem massive as we make the leap) that we will never finish learning about. Now, before you log off and reach for the ice-cream, know that I am not saying the task of learning to teach reading systematically is impossible. We will never finish developing and learning because our students will always be different. Every class we teach will have students with needs different from the last that we will need to respond to. Also, our collective knowledge about teaching should be ever growing in response to solid and reliable research. However, there DOES come a point where we can exhale and ride the wave of having enough knowledge and skill to feel like we have it ‘reasonably’ together. I spoke with a teacher today who has been teaching for over 20 years and started to learn about systematic reading instruction at the start of last year. This teacher said, ‘I feel like I’m a first year out teacher again’. She’s right! When we undertake something new, we go right back to the start of our learning journey. Perhaps we have a little more knowledge of how to manage a classroom than we had on our first day of teaching, but we can easily go right back to that uncomfortable ‘hit and hope’, ‘out of our depth’ feeling that we had back then, especially when it comes to something as important as reading instruction.
When it comes change our practice, there are some things that will absolutely help us and some things that will hinder our progress. Let’s talk about some pitfalls in our thinking that can really get in the way of growth:
Relying too heavily on a program
Now, you may be scratching your head at that one, considering my recent post about the value of a quality program, but hear me out. A program is just a tool. It is a time and cognitive load saving resource that has done much of the thinking and decision making for us in terms of sequencing, pace and implementation. However, a program cannot help you respond to the needs of your students if you don’t have the foundational knowledge of where all the bits fit and why we are doing what we are doing. Saying, ‘We do XYZ program, so we are all good for PL’ is like saying "My building has scaffolding. I don't need to worry about knowing how to make it strong”. Take the program away and things will go pear-shaped quickly. Further, even with the best program in place, you will need to make adjustments to suit your vulnerable learners. Without knowing what the limitations of a program are and knowing how to ‘value add’ in different circumstances, you will not be able to take things to the next level. Note here, I am not saying that programs are bad. Just that we need to have broader knowledge.
Jumping on the bright shiny things
When creating change, we want to focus on a strategic, purposeful shift in practice, not on random acts of improvement. In education, we are really good at latching on to the ‘latest thing’ and making it our everything. All of a sudden, all we do relates to that, one, single thing and we don’t move beyond this. This can be the case with resources that other teachers share, either in Facebook Groups or on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. Someone’s shared PowerPoint about sentences might be exactly what they need for their class at this point in time, but it is a mistake to think that simply adopting what they do without understanding how it fits into your classroom or school approach is unlikely to get you the depth of learning you are looking for. As with programs, we need to know why we are doing what we are doing in order to fully utilise resources.
Trying to do ‘evidence-based things’ in a balanced literacy way without realising it
While there are some practices that can be tweaked, there are some things that we simply can’t keep if we are to move towards an evidence informed approach to teaching reading. Much of this is around mindsets and assumptions that we have been working under such as:
- Children will learn by exposure.
- There is no logic to the English language so we just have to memorise words and spelling.
- There is no one way that all children learn to read so we have to provide a range of teaching approaches.
- The best teaching comes about when a teacher makes all of the decisions independently and in ways that make sense to them.
- Children need choice and fun to be motivated to learn.
- Teacher led lessons are boring.
- Children don’t like repetition and will become bored with systematic lessons.
- There is just a proportion of children who won’t learn to read, no matter what we do.
- I start my literacy planning by thinking about my literacy groups/rotations.
In order to really move the needle, it is necessary to be open to the fact that our former or current thinking may need an overhaul. Trying to follow a scope and sequence in phonics, but giving children ‘activities’ to do after a 5 minute ‘lesson’ will not get you the results you are hoping for. Have a think about the mindsets and beliefs that underpin your decisions. Is it possible that you might be a victim of your subconscious?
Feeling like we have to know ALL the things before we get started.
In short, you don’t. We need to stop waiting until we feel like an expert before taking any action. It’s a feature of how we operate as women (apologies to the men reading). We wait until we have every selection criteria before applying for a job, we don’t speak up in meetings because we think, “Who am I to be raising points?” and we don’t take action in our classrooms because we don’t want to get things wrong. Say this out loud, “If I am following the advice of trusted, reliable sources and I can evaluate my practice against what I am reading about effective instruction, I am not going to break the children”. Will you be perfect at the start? No! Of course not. Are your students a bit better off every time you implement something new that is evidence aligned? Absolutely!
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