Developing strategies to promote the progress of boys with lower level literacy

An Action Research project by Kate Rolfe (Geography)

Objective

To attempt to develop a range of strategies that can be utilised in lessons to help promote the progress of boys with lower level literacy.

Background

The English Baccalaureate is a school performance measure introduced in 2010 that grades schools on the basis of how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at KS4 (Maths, English, Science, MFL and History or Geography). Option choices at Key Stage 4 have always been flexible in the sense that pupils are offered a variety of pathways and Ebacc subjects have always been promoted at the school.  However, the introduction of the Progress 8 Measure now means that all pupils must opt for at least one of the remaining core subjects outside of the compulsory English, Maths and Science (DfE, 2014). As such, the number of pupils opting for these subjects has increased which has impacted upon the profile of the pupils with a greater range of abilities choosing them at GCSE level. With the government’s commitment to making GCSE testing more rigorous it is important that such academic subjects are accessible to all. This is particularly true for Humanities and MFL subjects where the DfE (2016) have announced the intention that all pupils will take Ebacc subjects by 2020. For the Humanities faculty, this will mean that every pupil in the school will need to opt for either History or Geography and so a key area of focus over the coming years is to make these subjects accessible for pupils of all abilities. The key barriers to success in these subjects (as perceived by the faculty) are the retention of information in two content heavy subjects and proficiency in reading and writing. It is the latter which underpins the aims and objectives of this piece of action research.

Context

The focus of this action research is to attempt to overcome the barriers to learning for pupils posed by lower level literacy skills in academic subjects such as Geography. The group I will be focusing on is my Year 10 Geography group, in particular two pupils who are listed as SEN for low level literacy. These pupils are both entitled to a reader, scribe and extra time for their examinations and have both admitted that they would not have picked any of the Ebacc subjects outside of English, Maths and Science if they had an open choice due to the fact that “they are subjects with loads of writing”. Anecdotally, this could account for the fact that these pupils are the first I have taught in Geography who require this level of support in literacy as in the past, before the changes described above, it has been possible for pupils to avoid opting for subjects which involve ‘loads of writing’.  As discussed above, the avoidance of more academic subjects is no longer an option for these pupils and as this is the first year I will be teaching pupils who require extra support in the exams, I will need to reconsider my teaching methods to account for this.

Background Reading

Nationally and internationally there is a significant difference between the achievement of boys and girls attaining their expected reading age, where girls outperform boys at all levels and this gap increases with age. This difference is not due to genetic differences between the genders but rather social and cultural norms surrounding reading at home, role models, gender identity etc. (National Literacy Trust, 2012). With no national strategy for literacy, intervention takes place at a school based level and at times, especially in secondary schools, the responsibility for literacy tends to fall to the English faculty. However, the ability to read, write and express opinion is important in all subjects and a vital skill for pupil’s once they leave school. As such, the responsibility to develop literacy falls to all teachers in all subjects. Despite the fact that in their final exams the two pupils on which this study is based will have the questions read to them and their answers written for them, the importance of these skills should not be overlooked in a subject that can provide real world examples of the use of these skills. In addition, as a classroom teacher, it is impossible for me to provide the same level of support the boys will receive in the exam during lessons. As such, in order for the boys to become more independent in their learning and the assessment of this, the development of their literacy skills is vital even if they will not be tested in the same way as other pupils during exams.

While carrying out research for this project, it became apparent that much of the UK literature surrounding literacy focuses upon the development of literacy skills for early years children and for pupils for which English is an additional language. As such, the key document used as a basis for this action research was produced by the Canadian government called “Me read? No Way! A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills” (2004). This guide provided a review of literature which highlighted key trends in boys reading and writing skills as well as suggestions as to how this could be approached in lessons. Although this was primarily related to English and literacy lessons, key findings I found applicable were:

  • There are misconceptions that boys do not like to read when in fact it is more likely that boys do not like the reading what is being presented.
  • Boys do not cope with vague instructions and long explanations so work needs to be highly structured.
  • Boys need a structure to help them gather information from what they are reading.
  • Boys prefer writing frames which can be as simple as asking pupils to note down the points that they need to include.
  • Giving pupils time to talk through their thoughts and answers to consolidate their ideas before they commit them to paper.
  • Boys prefer to complete tasks where the work seems relevant to them and has a purpose that they can understand
  • Boys prefer work that includes an element of competition and/or involves short term goals.
  • Many boys are frustrated by non-specific terms such as “discuss”, “account for” and “explain” and so will need to be taught what they mean and have them broken down for them.
  • Work by Steve Biddulph also suggests that boys learn through teachers and not subjects whereas girls are able to connect directly with subjects. This suggests that boys can only connect with a subject via a teacher. This places emphasis on the relationships between teachers and the boys in their class as the need for boys in their puberty years to believe that a teacher cares for them as a person is paramount before they will allow their teacher to impart knowledge or skills to them (Pickup, 2001)

The latter point regarding relationships in relation to a boy’s learning is reinforced by Maslow’s hierarchy of school needs where every stage above physiological is the responsibility of the teacher within the classroom in order for the pupil to reach the stage where they are available to learn.

Actions

Over time, the following strategies were trialled, adapted and utilised in order to attempt to meet the objectives set out in this project:

1. Grasping pupils’ needs

Prior to starting any intervention with targeted students I felt it important to gauge pupils’ understanding of Geography and their individual needs. Too often differentiation for lower ability pupils involves generic writing frames or text which is reduced to such a level that higher order thinking skills are lost altogether. Although this is the appropriate step for some pupils I do not want to assume it is the case for those on whom I am focusing. As such I took advantage of the presence of a PGCE student taking my lessons from October to December and used this time to work 1:1 with pupils to better understand their needs.

2. Primary School Visit

As the literacy levels of the pupils in question have a greater correlation with the skills being developed in primary schools, I used INSET time to visit a Year 6 class at a local primary school.

3. Improve use of key vocabulary

A key barrier to learning for pupils with low level literacy in Geography is the sheer volume of key words which to pupils, often have an abstract meaning. Population pyramids (which are not always triangular in shape), the Demographic Transition Model and erosional processes such as hydraulic action are not always accessible to our most able readers, let alone those who struggle. In the past I have perhaps been guilty of simplifying these key words too much with pupils with lower level literacy and consequently pupils struggle when faced with them in exam questions or during independent revision. As such, I have focused on using the words with pupils in lessons through the development of glossaries, using dictionaries and knowledge tests based on key word definitions.

4. Use of discussion and opinion

Use of discussion, especially with boys has been highlighted in the literature as a strategy to help them engage with writing. This was achieved through planning lessons with deliberate discussion time with a clear focus. A clear focus is vital in order to ensure discussions are purposeful and aid learning. Examples of this include asking pupils their opinion as a way into a topic, planning answers as a group and talking through an answer with the teacher before committing pen to paper.

5. Competition

A second strategy recommended in a variety of literature is the element of competition appealing to boys. This was implemented in lessons through the use of card sorts, games and debates.

6. Building relationships

As discussed previously, boys tend to learn through their teachers rather than content and as such developing relationships with pupils is vital. These strategies are arguably the most difficult as they need to be flexible and adaptable to a variety of moods, situations and individuals. In order to approach this I tried to consider situations from an objective point of view and attempt to discover the root cause of some of the behaviours that could undermine a positive relationship. One of the boys for example would constantly shout out the correct answer to questions posed to the class. At the start of the year this may have led to consequences and sanctions which could be a barrier to developing a positive relationship. By looking at the situation from an objective point of view I came to realise that the misbehaviour was not an attempt to ruin the lesson but rather that class discussion was the part of the lesson that the pupil felt able to participate in most and as such “hogged” the questions. This was overcome through a discussion with the pupil that resulted in me giving him a pad of post it notes whereby he would write down a reminder word or sentence for the ideas in his head. I would then make a conscious effort to discuss these with the pupil after the class discussion.

Impact of each action

Grasping pupils’ needs:  The opportunity to work with pupils 1:1 was deemed invaluable in beginning this project and gauging need. It was found that one pupil is extremely demotivated and does not want to study the subject. His literacy skills are weak and he can find it difficult to grasp abstract concepts. However, the other pupil upon which this research is based was found to be very articulate in Geography and could grasp and begin to analyse higher level concepts. As such, it was found that despite both pupils’ needs being identified as lower level literacy the intervention strategies used for them need to differ in some cases.

Primary School Visit:  Observing the strategies used with Year 6’s was an eye-opening experience especially when considering the expectations that we have of Year 7s upon arrival at secondary school. The greatest disparity between primary and secondary school in relation to literacy is the amount of time dedicated to a task. Throughout the morning I observed pupils drafting and redrafting a piece of work which was later written up in best during the afternoon. Even pupils who were deemed of lower academic ability produced grammatically accurate pieces of writing to demonstrate their knowledge. The key challenge here is that a large proportion of curriculum time in primary schools is dedicated to literacy and so a ‘practice makes perfect’ approach is more easily adopted. At secondary school, and especially at GCSE this development of literacy skills is not as easily adaptable where content takes priority over skills. This is an area I will need to consider in more depth in the future.

Improve use of key vocabulary: This approach yielded mixed responses depending on the complexity of the topic. When pupils felt confident in the key words being tested it acted as a morale booster. However, if pupils could not remember the words then this could act as a reason to disengage in the lesson. However, this strategy was liked by the class as a whole and I am hoping that the repetition of key words will have longer term benefits.

Use of discussion and opinion: The use of planned discussion in lessons was anecdotally one of the most successful in engaging the boys in learning. The option of giving an opinion gave the boys the perception that there was no right or wrong answer but the justifications they used to support their points were high level in terms of geographical knowledge. Discussing answers first allowed pupils to begin structuring their answers and this was further developed whereby pupils would write all initial ideas onto post it notes which could then be re-arranged in order to plan an answer. Although these strategies did not always transpire into extended writing, it has enabled the pupils to begin to verbalise their ideas which is a skill that will need to develop further as they are both entitled to a scribe in their final exams.

Competition: Overall, the use of competition in lessons received mixed responses and was susceptible to the mood of the pupils. At times they would really engage and actively compete with one another to reach the answer first but in other instances it was perceived as a gimmick. The subject content of the competition also played a large role in the engagement of the activity.

Building relationships: The impact of actively seeking to build positive relationships with pupils in my class has had a positive impact on my relationship with the pupils in this project and across all of my groups. I would like to think that one of my strengths is having a positive relationship with most of the pupils whom I teach and these naturally develop over time. However, actively considering the reasons for potential misbehaviours in my lessons has allowed me to have conversations with pupils that may not have arisen naturally in order to implement strategies to cope with this.

Conclusions

Arguably, the overwhelming conclusion of this project is that there is no solid conclusion when it comes to strategies to engage and promote the progress of low literacy boys. To an extent I had pre-empted this outcome with the inclusion of the words “to attempt to” develop strategies in my original objective. Within my classroom I have witnessed giant leaps forward with the progress of the boys in my class as well as huge steps backwards and this has varied on a term by term, week by week, day by day basis. This can at times be annoying, tiring and extremely frustrating when a strategy that works in one lesson appears to fail the next. The key thing I have learnt is not to give up. Some of the systems I have adopted throughout this project started to show benefit very late on in the term and some have not shown any benefit at all. However, the one thing that is true is that the boys have most definitely noticed the effort that goes into helping them make progress and ultimately that building of relationships is the most important thing.

Next Steps

Despite the progress made with my boys with lower level literacy this year it must be acknowledged that there is still a long way to go if they are to reach their full potential. This will largely focus on attempting to build self-esteem and confidence within the pupils to want to succeed for themselves. The key areas to focus on next year will be:

  • Instilling confidence to write independently
  • Encouraging pupils to attempt tasks even if it results in failure
  • Making better use of readers and scribes in preparation for exams
  • Fostering resilience in order to overcome the fight or flight response to exams

Featured image: ‘Letters’ by geralt on Pixabay. Original image licensed by CC0 Public Domain

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