Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hands help us to see!

This posting is a plug for the latest issue of Scientific American Mind magazine (September/October 2013 issue) because it is chock full of pieces all teachers need to be cognisant of.

The list includes: an article on consciousness in infants; a very thoughtful piece entitled ‘Letting go of self-esteem’, their cover story; a special report on ‘How we learn’, what works and what doesn’t; and, an intriguing item on ‘The Science of Handwriting’.

The article on the science of handwriting by Brandon Keim is, I suppose, the least scientific in that it doesn’t claim that the evidence on the importance of teaching handwriting is absolutely solid. However, what it does say is that there’s enough evidence to favour much more emphasis on teaching it in the early years.

Keim speculates that the neglect of handwriting in recent years is partly because of the increase in the number of adults who now hardly ever handwrite anything, most written communication being conducted through typed text. Interestingly too, he believes that people have in recent years increasingly thought that the medium is the message and that the tools, which include our hands, are of little or no importance.

However, what we’ve learnt in the past few decades is that handwriting seems to stimulate motor activity in the brain that typing doesn’t affect. Literacy professor Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway asserts that handwriting ‘unifies hand, eye and attention at a single point in space and time’. Keim also cites evidence from Marieke Longchamp from Aix-Marseille University in France: in children and adults, the latter learning unfamiliar letter forms in Bengali, Longchamp found that there were dramatic differences in the ability to recall letter knowledge when both groups were taught a handwritten script. In addition, it seems to be the case that seeing handwritten letters ‘triggers ... the neurological instructions for penning [them]’.

Karin James is a cognitive neuroscientist at Indiana University Bloomington, whom I wrote about here two years ago. She maintains that ‘seeing handwritten letters not only triggers the expected motor activity but even heightens activity in purely visual areas [of the brain]. Hands help us see’!

As the article says, there is a ‘continuum of complementary findings’ on this area of research, the evidence tending towards showing that handwriting helps the writer organise their material more effectively, greatly assists working memory, and could help in teaching young children to read and spell. In the words of Virginia Berninger of Washington University, the hand is the ‘end organ of the language system’.

What isn't clear from the piece is whether or not working memory and performance is improved further by asking the writer to say the sounds of the spellings as they are writing them. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Barak Rosenshine's principles of direct instruction 3

In this final posting on the teaching and learning values of Barak Rosenshine, I shall be looking at his fifth and sixth principles of direct instruction.

The fifth principle is providing enough opportunity to engage in independent practice. In regard to the teaching of literacy in the early years, I believe that many programmes, such as Letters and Sounds for example, move far too quickly through the material and fail to present it in short enough steps or to offer anything like enough practice. This means that the fifty percent of pupils who would normally be expected to succeed do; the rest are often left behind.

Independent practice enables pupils to improve their fluency and automaticity in skills, which in turn enable them to gain access quickly and directly to information stored in long-term memory. Constant practice in the context of reading also establishes more firmly the correspondences between sounds and spellings of sounds. In this way, ‘working memory is taxed minimally and students can devote more attention to comprehension and application’ (1). As Stanovich long ago pointed out, ‘Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word-recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher-level processes of text-integration and comprehension.’ (2)

Independent practice also assists in elaborating and fine-tuning the learning, thus adding to and making more sophisticated conceptual understanding. Teachers are also able to monitor error rates and adjust their teaching accordingly.

The final principle advocated by Rosenshine is for teachers to hold a weekly and monthly review. As is the case with daily review, this kind of longer term review and re-assessment of previous learning greatly aids in helping to 'reinstate and elaborate prior learning' (3), as well as reinforcing and broadening 'connections within cognitive structure' (4).

What this brings us back to is that expertise - and it is expertise we require to be able to read and write fluently and accurately - is acquired gradually over time through a series of carefully calibrated tasks that the learner is able to master sequentially. In every field of learning, to perform domain-specific tasks to a high level of expertise, the learner needs to spend time on activities which have been specifically designed to improve performance. This, in the language of the research, has been termed 'deliberate and extended practice' and has been shown to lead to 'improvements in performance by an order of magnitude, along with a huge range of interindividual differences' (5).

However, for all this to happen, learners need expert tuition and that only comes from proper training of teachers.

Rosenshine, B., ‘The Empirical Support for Direct Instruction’, in Tobias, S. and Duffy, T.M. (eds), (2009), Constructivist Instruction, Abingdon, Routledge (p. 207).
Stanovich, K.E. (2000), ‘Matthew Effects in Reading’, in Progress in Understanding Reading, The Guilford Press, London.
Rosenshine, B., (p.207).
4 Ibid. (p.207).
5 Hunt, E., 'Expertise, Talent, and Social Encouragement,' in Ericsson, K. A. et al (Eds) (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Principles of direct instruction 2

Moving on from yesterday’s posting, Rosenshine’s third principle focuses on establishing connections between what is currently being learnt and what has been learnt before. In conjunction with reformulating, summarising, elaborating and so on, constantly making connections with prior learning has been shown to aid later retrieval greatly.

Carefully scaffolded presentations, followed by plenty of opportunity to practise and to correct errors, enable the new learning to become more firmly established in long-term memory. Again, the evidence suggests strongly that more effective teachers spend more time on 'guided practice, more time asking questions, more time checking for understanding, more time correcting errors, and more time having students work out problems with teacher guidance'.
I think the key thing here is practice but practice of a specific kind: what is most desirable is that, rather in the manner of a rolling wave, what is currently being introduced as new learning is presented in small steps, which simultaneously enfolds within itself that which has already been taught previously. In such a way, the continuity and coherence of learning are maintained.

The fourth principle looks more closely at error correction and feedback. This is of course a very important area because sorting out pupils’ misunderstandings and mistakes is vital in making sure that they are not internalised and stored in long-term memory. Building into the learning programme carefully structured error corrections gives vital feedback to the teacher about what has and hasn’t been learnt, what might need to be re-taught, whether the material needs to be further broken down into smaller steps. Of course, teachers need to be aware of the kinds of errors pupils are likely to make within any domain and be ready to correct them directly and unambiguously.
Error correction and feedback should form a central part of every lesson. For example, I know that Singaporean maths advocates recommend choosing each day, say, five or six different pupils in a class of twenty-five to thirty to participate actively in the lesson or to answer questions about what is being taught. This approach is likely to bring out flaws in pupils' conceptual understanding, their deficiencies in a particular skill area, and their lack of procedural or factual knowledge. In this sense, errors offer learning opportunities. In this way too, the teacher is able to check that what is being taught is being learnt. It also enables the teacher to make adjustments to what is being presented or to re-teach.

1) Rosenshine, B., ‘The Empirical Support for Direct Instruction’, in Tobias, S. and Duffy, T.M. (eds), (2009), Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?, Abingdon, Routledge (p. 205).                                                          

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Barak Rosenshine's principles of direct instruction

While in Australia, I managed to get hold of the DSF (Dyslexia -SPELD Foundation) Bulletin (Vol 46) extolling the virtues of John Hattie and Barak Rosenshine. In her piece in the Bulletin ‘Improving achievement ... What does the research tell us?’ Mandy Nayton quotes from Rosenshine’s article ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All teachers Should Know’ in the American Educator (Spring, pp 12-19) in 2012, which outlines the ’17 Principles of Effective Instruction’.
This set me to thinking because I had just been reading Rosenshine’s essay ‘The Empirical Support for Direct Instruction’ in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure ((2009), Routledge). In it, Rosenshine outlines the six guiding principles behind 'process-product' and 'direct instruction' approaches to classroom teaching.
What Rosenshine is attempting to do here is establish which kinds of classroom procedures used by teachers are most effective. Educators interested in the teaching of reading and spelling will probably readily see the link between 'direct instruction', what Stanovich called 'explicit teaching', and what others have termed variously 'systematic teaching', and 'systematic instruction'.
Although not hierarchised, Rosenshine’s first principle is daily review. He proposes that every lesson begins with a daily review, lasting around five to eight minutes. The function of this review is to re-rehearse the concepts, skills and code knowledge presented previously. If done properly, this draws out questions arising from previous lessons and foregrounds areas of difficulty and the types of errors that are still occurring.
A further rationale for this kind of practice is that recalling previous learning strengthens the 'connections in our knowledge structures' so that learning becomes automatic and is recalled effortlessly.
The second principle is a consideration of how new material is presented and, no matter what the subject area, the evidence is clear: for reasons of the limits on working memory, new material should always be presented in short steps, developed through the medium of many examples, and delivered within a series of carefully guided and scaffolded examples.
Rosenshine maintains that good teachers spend more time on the presentation of new material, on offering explanations, and on asking questions that test the understanding of the learners. In addition, more effective teachers spend time checking for student understanding. They do this in a variety of ways: asking open questions, rather than yes or no type questions; and, asking pupils to summarise, elaborate, reformulate, or repeat instructions, procedures or outcomes. 
Tomorrow I’ll be looking at principles three and four.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Why letters don't 'make' sounds.

Someone called Robert has added a comment to my posting 'Masha Bell rings the wrong note on reading'. In it, he is objecting to the emphasis I made on the fact that many teachers say that letters 'make' sounds, when they do no such thing. He thinks that this detracted from my argument in the posting because he believes it is 'nit-picking' and that 'Masha [Bell] knows quite well that letters do not make sounds in the same way that people make sounds'.

This is an interesting question. I’m sure when we raise this issue with teaching professionals on our courses, many immediately think it to be a nit-picking/angels dancing on the head of a pin sort of a point.

It isn’t! I’m quite sure that Robert is right when he claims that Masha understands that spellings represent sounds in the language, after all she learnt English as second, third, or possibly, fourth language. So, let’s be clear: for Masha, it isn’t a question about knowledge of how the code works; it’s actually a question of pedagogy.

Here’s why. Very many teaching practitioners have developed the habit of saying that letters 'make' or 'say' sounds. They don’t! Letters or, to use more accurate vocabulary, spellings represent sounds in the English language.

It may appear that this is a trivial point but, in fact, it underpins the whole orientation of the alphabetic code: sounds in speech precede the written representations of them. Humans make sounds; the spellings represent them. Letters or spellings do not have or possess any agency or power of their own. The writing system was invented to represent sounds in the language and the writing system is symbolic. It is also arbitrary: there is no particular reason why we represent the sound /o / as in 'hot' by the spelling o (except for the fact that the English alphabet is derived mainly from Latin).

This may seem to be of merely theoretical significance. Again, it isn’t! It has profoundly practical implications because when, at an early stage in their reading and writing development, young children are coming to grips with the writing system and they are told that the letters 'make' sounds, they are left wondering where all these sounds come from. When this is compounded by the kind of unstructured teaching that tells them that the spelling a 'makes' the sound /a / in 'mat', the sound /o / in 'wasp', the sound /or / in 'water', the sound /ae / in 'baby', or even the sound /e / as in 'many', they can easily jump to the conclusion that there is 'no rhyme nor reason' to the way reading and writing works. It appears to them as if the spelling a can 'make' any sound and, furthermore, that there is no logic to what they are trying to learn.

This isn’t of course the case. There are very common patterns in the English language that are remarkably consistent. For example, after the sound /w /, we very often spell the sound /o / with the spelling a, as in 'was', 'swan', 'watch', and so on. Similarly, the spelling of the sound /or / before the sound /l / is often spelled with the spelling a, as in 'wall', 'also', and others. The same is true for many other patterns.

You may think that young children would have difficulty with understanding the role of symbols in representing sounds. Not so! Even at an early age, children are coming to terms with symbolic language: that something can stand for something else. This understanding is usually developed through symbolic play, followed by drawing, and then what Vygotsky referred to as the second-order symbolism of writing. So, by the time the pupil is ready to begin school, for most pupils, teaching them that spelling symbols represent the sounds in their speech and that the sounds in their speech can be represented by spelling symbols is something they find easy to grasp. And, as long as the teacher knows how to teach this system, from simple to complex, it is easy to learn.