Confessions of a frustrated Literacy Teacher
The ability to read and write proficiently is one of the most important skills we can teach young children. A child’s level of proficiency will inevitably affect every curricular subject over the course of his/her time in school. However, teaching literacy is difficult, messy and takes lots of knowledge and practise. Trying to reach all the children in your class, so as to ensure they fulfil their potential, has to be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. Having spent my time teaching in a wonderful DEIS band 1 junior school, I was demoralised every year when the annual standardised test and MIST results came out. No matter what literacy initiatives were put in place (and there were many!), too many of our pupils still seemed to score in the bottom percentile.
Unlike my teaching of other subjects, I constantly struggled to put a structure on my literacy lessons and was often left with more questions than answers. What did I need to cover? How much time should I give to each skill? How will I know the children have learned these skills? Should I combine each skill or teach each one in isolation? This whirlwind of questions eventually frustrated me to the point where I decided I needed to learn more about the teaching of literacy. So, I embarked on a Master of Education degree in literacy and, for my sins, continued on to complete a doctorate in the area of early reading.
Now, in my role as a teacher educator, I spend a lot of my time looking at what research in literacy is telling us and trying to figure out how this might look in the classroom. Often, there is a gap between literacy research and classroom practice. I think this happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, research articles are often posted behind pay walls and aren’t freely available to teachers. Secondly, researchers will often tell us what works but stop short of telling us how their findings might look in a classroom situation. I see it as my job as a teacher educator to try to bridge that gap and share that knowledge with student teachers.
So, do I still spend time thinking about the children I taught in my early years of teaching? Do I wish I could turn back time and teach them in light of what I know now? Absolutely. However, I don’t beat myself up too much about this; you can’t teach what you don’t know. Which brings me on to this question: what do I know about teaching literacy now that I didn’t in my early career? Ok, hold on tight!
First and foremost, I know that there’s still so much more to know. Although we know a lot more about how children learn to read and write, there is still more to learn. As a teacher educator, I’ve had to update, amend and edit my content over the last eight years and will continue to do so to stay on top of the most recent developments in literacy learning. That’s our responsibility as professionals.
Don’t be afraid to up-skill your own knowledge base. How much do you know about how children learn to read and write? How much do you know about the phonology, morphology, orthography, syntax of the English language? If some of these terms are a bit hazy for you, you might look them up!
Adopt a critical eye when choosing literacy programmes or interventions to implement in your class. Ask yourself, is this programme an example of evidence-based, best practice or is it something that seems to have worked for other teachers? How do you know it has worked? If we think about our current COVID vaccination programme: which would you choose, a vaccine that has been proven to work or a vaccine that appears to work? Even better, conduct some action research when adopting a new literacy programme. Assess the children before and after implementing a new programme to see if you can find evidence that it has worked. We owe it to the children in our class to ensure they are provided with the best, evidence-based literacy practices available.
Have an open mind. One of my favourite quotes comes from the economist John Maynard Keynes. He states that ‘the difficultly lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’ As I mentioned earlier, we now know so much more about how children learn to read and write; so, I might ask myself do my practices in the classroom reflect this or am I still using the same strategies and practices that I adopted in my first year as a teacher? And, if you’re not sure, look to see what’s happening in other classrooms, talk to other teachers. Which leads me on to my next point (be warned there’s a bit of a rant coming up!)
Support and listen to those who are still learning. Although student teachers have so much to learn from you as experienced teachers, they might just have something to teach you too. As a teacher educator, please, please, please avoid the statement ‘never mind what they’re teaching you in college, this is how we do things here.’ Too many times I’ve had student teachers come to me before embarking on placement and tell me that they can’t try out what they’re learning in college because the class teacher wants them to teach in exactly the same way s/he teaches the class. This perpetuates cycles of teaching practices that sometimes are not grounded in the science and are not evidence based. Give student teachers a chance to try out what they’re learning in college; they may not always get it quite right, but on more than one occasion teachers have told students that they’ll be continuing to use ideas and strategies that students have introduced while on placement.
Read to children every day no matter what age they are. We are a nation of storytellers and children love hearing stories.
Incorporate literacy instruction into every aspect of the curriculum.
Finally, embrace the fact that teaching literacy is difficult, messy and takes lots of knowledge and practice! Your pupils will thank you for it in the long run.
Dr. Jennifer O'Sullivan is a lecturer in Literacy at Marino Institute of Education. Jennifer was awarded a PhD for her research in phonemic awareness and early reading development in 2019. Jennifer is the current President of the Literacy Association of Ireland and was the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Scholar Award for 2020/21.
Informed by her fascinating PhD research, Jennifer has recently published an exciting new Phonological Awareness programme 'A Sound Beginning For Reading'.
Lenses into Learning is the guest post feature of this website. Here, educators spanning a variety of educational sectors share opinion pieces, recommendations and thematic articles to inspire conversation, development and learning.