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Mallard Speech: Improving school literacy practice

Trevor Mallard Speech: Improving literacy practice in schools

Speech to the New Zealand Reading Association national conference, Te Papa, Wellington

As a diehard Wellingtonian, I’m excited to see that this year’s conference theme, From Mansfield to Middle Earth, celebrates Wellington’s particular place in New Zealand’s literary scene.

It is a vibrant story spanning a century and embracing the traditional form of Katherine Mansfield’s works - right through to the multi-media wizardry of Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy.

A few weeks ago I went to Clyde Quay School, not far from here, to launch the wonderful 'Effective Literacy Practice' handbook.

I sat with a class of Year 3 children, who were busy writing a description of a guitar.

They were dying to tell me exactly what was needed for a good description and exactly how they checked their descriptions against a chart the class had made.

In the new entrant class, the five-year-olds were busily sharing their own ideas about what the text 'A Big Surprise' meant for them.

With many of the school's 22 different nationalities represented in the new entrant class, their ideas on this were indeed varied.

The worlds that our children are familiar with are so very different to the worlds today’s teachers experienced when they were children.

The ease of global travel sees our classrooms increasingly full of children from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

At the same time, their experiences of literacy and literature, and the forms in which they are experienced are equally varied.

That’s why teachers need to be aware of, and value, the different experiences and understandings about literacy that children bring to the classroom and work to build on these for educational success.

Recent research like our landmark 'Best Evidence Synthesis', which identifies key components of quality teaching, reinforces the message that teachers can and do make a difference to children’s achievement.

And this is despite the range of socio-economic background factors that may be impacting on progress.

While we have a large percentage of high achieving students, we have also had an underachieving ‘tail’ in literacy for some time, with many of those students coming from Mäori, Pasifika, and non-English speaking backgrounds.

The Literacy Taskforce was brought together to examine the issues surrounding this underachievement, and three key themes emerged from its recommendations: clarifying expectations in terms of student progress – an important piece of work here is the exemplar project; lifting professional capability; and developing community capability.

The Literacy Strategy has continued to evolve and initiatives are now focussed on students at all levels.

The emphasis on improving teacher practice is paramount. That’s because an everyday classroom still provides the best literacy programme for the largest number of students.

The new handbook, 'Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4', that I mentioned earlier is a welcome response to the Literacy Taskforce’s recommendation that “Reading in Junior Classes” needed updating.

It will play an important role in guiding teachers towards greater evidence-based decision-making about the needs of individual students, and especially for those students not doing as well as they could be expected to.

The success of projects such as Early Childhood Primary Links via Literacy (ECPL) are testament to the fact that low rates of progress in literacy are neither inevitable nor irreversible for children in low decile schools or from diverse backgrounds.

What made a difference were teachers’ expectation and belief that all children can and do achieve; the close monitoring of student learning; and teachers’ willingness to having their ideas and practices about literacy teaching and learning challenged.

It is the same commitment to improving knowledge about literacy that has brought you to this conference.

This handbook is one of the key tools of the government’s strategy to support quality teaching.

Texts like 'Effective Literacy Practice', which tap into current national and international research, help us get to grips with the critical decisions that need to be made about effective teaching practice.

To make robust decisions about what to teach, an effective classroom teacher needs to know about their students - their backgrounds, their experiences, and their learning needs.

These teachers will reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching by measuring it against student achievement information.

They need to know which instructional strategies ended in better results for their students.

They need to be able to get their hands on the assessment information guiding such decisions, and to adapt their teaching and learning programmes accordingly.

We need to apply what has been learnt from initiatives such as ECPL more widely and across more schools and throughout schooling.

This means schools’ need to focus on effective classroom teaching as this is the single largest system influence on the achievement of all students.

Children also need to be part of decisions about learning. The learning partnerships that take place in classrooms are at the heart of effective teaching.

The handbook details a number of conversations between teacher and learner, each illustrating a key message for teaching.

Whether it is about how a child has selected an appropriate book using smiley faces or the ‘five-finger rule’ or ‘Anna’ changing ‘boring words’ in her writing, each makes an important point.

Before closing I want to pay a tribute to those who helped put together the handbook.

First we have the experts and advisory group members who recommended then guided its content.

There are the developers and writers, in particular Lois Thompson, who shaped the ideas and content.

And, there are the various teachers whose classroom practice provided a rich source of transcripts, work samples, and photographs.

All of you have helped make this book a celebration of the journey we are taking towards improving outcomes for all students.

What we have here is a resource that will help junior school teachers, and those further up the school, to be strategic and more ‘deliberate’ in their teaching acts.

We also need to focus the leadership of schools on the importance of teachers recognising and responding to student achievement data to improve practice. Achieving this requires a professional learning community with the culture and security for active professional learning.

We also need to ensure that improving literacy practice is a focus for all schools and that key practices, which are shown to impact on literacy learning, are incorporated into every teacher’s programme.

It is about how to use all that is contained in the handbook to put ‘a sting in that underachieving tail’ and help all children ‘take flight’ towards literacy and educational success and be part of the literacy buzz.

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