Literacy – the 6UP project

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Literacy impact: The 6UP literacy project in action at St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London (photo supplied)

The 6UP literacy project is using ‘dialogic’ teaching to boost reading outcomes for children across a group of schools in London. Helen Frostick reports

In Richmond upon Thames, schools have been grouped into localities and headteachers work hard for the common good of all of the pupils across all of the schools. Secondary schools are grouped with their local primary schools under this model.

Clustered in this manner, schools have worked together to come up with exciting cross-school opportunities to improve outcomes for pupils. One example of this has been joint INSET days, whereby each school hosts training and all staff go out to different venues in the locality. This training has been for all staff, including teaching assistants, and has covered all range of curriculum subjects.

In the spring term 2014, our locality group of headteachers met and as part of the discussion queried why it might be that Level 6 reading seemed to be out of the reach of the vast majority of primary school pupils, especially since this wasn’t the case for mathematics, writing, grammar and punctuation.

Headed up by our local secondary school, Richmond Park Academy, a successful bid was submitted for funding from the Excellence in Cities project to explore this further.

The aim of our project was to cultivate teacher excellence, share outstanding practice, strengthen school partnerships, and create a new resource package to sustain improvements in the teaching and learning of reading. The project was dubbed “6UP”.

A literacy impact team (LIT), made up of teachers, was formed across the eight schools and all schools were to be equally involved in the project’s success. In terms of the desired outcomes for the pupils, it was to raise attainment taken from a baseline at the start of the project to an end-of-project assessment, over an 18-month timescale, focusing initially on year 5 and following these pupils into year 6. The funding from Excellence in Cities paid for two highly qualified literacy consultants to lead and monitor the project.

The LIT met regularly and their work included considering how to encourage and develop talk and dialogue in the classroom in order to extend the children’s vocabulary.

The strategies we used were based upon research showing that children do not develop vocabulary significantly from reading alone, also requiring effective instruction (see Ute C Manzo & Anthony V Manzo in the book What Research Has to Say about Vocabulary Instruction (Farstrup & Samuels, 2008).

The research confirmed that pupils benefit most from direct vocabulary teaching. Manzo & Manzo describe three main strategies that can complement robust vocabulary approaches – word consciousness strategies, word connection strategies, and word prediction strategies.

Our group also focused on “dialogic” (as in dialogue) teaching, which is where teaching harnesses the power of talk to extend and stimulate children’s thinking and at the same time extend their learning.

This is not the same as the talking and listening strand in the national curriculum for English. Instead it focuses on the talk of the teacher as well as the talk of the pupil. It isn’t simply a teaching technique, but brings together relationships in the classroom, the characteristics of knowledge acquisition, and the role of the teacher.

Dialogic teaching calls upon a range of strategies and techniques which the teacher draws upon flexibly according to purpose. They include talk for everyday life, learning talk, teaching talk and classroom organisation. In order for dialogic teaching to be successful certain principles underlie the different forms of interaction:

  • Collective: where all involved address learning tasks together.
  • Reciprocal: where all participants listen to each other, share ideas and consider differing viewpoints.
  • Supportive: where pupils can express their ideas without worry about making a mistake.
  • Cumulative: where answers are built up like a chain of understanding.
  • Purposeful: where the end result is specific learning outcomes.

Two academics have suggested two simple tests as to whether teaching is truly dialogic:

  • “If an answer does not give rise to a new question from itself, it falls out of the dialogue.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 1975).
  • “What ultimately counts is the extent to which teaching requires pupils to think, not just report someone else’s thinking” (Adapted from Opening Dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom, Martin Nystrand et al, 1997).

Three other areas were discussed as being important prerequisites to “up-levelling” reading – comprehension, reading for pleasure and wider meaning, and evidence-based teaching.

The teachers involved in the project were encouraged to keep a learning journal to gather evidence together. The framework for teaching became known as the 4XR:

  1. Excite: Pre-reading activities to get things going, e.g. vocabulary work and orientation tasks.
  2. Expose children’s thinking at different stages of the process.
  3. Explore through discussion and literature circles.
  4. Expand thinking through scaffolded and targeted learning.
  5. Reflect to turn experience into insight.

The teachers focused on the classic text, the short story The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde. They discussed with the pupils words associated with love and through semantic mapping linked associated words as the “excite” pre-reading.

Under the heading “expose” the teachers captured the pupils’ thinking through a variety of means including recording and filming discussion. For “explore” they revisited the text page-by-page to scan for interesting parts and revisited the Literature Circle Model to mirror in classrooms what was already taking place in some schools as lunchtime book clubs.

Other texts which inspired dialogue were Memorial, which is a picture book by Gary Crewe, and The Walker Book of Classic Poetry edited by Michael Rosen. In particular the teachers found the children gained a great deal from focusing on the poetry in more detail to explore the language further without having to wade through lengthy novels.

In the journals the teachers gathered their evidence through sticky notes, photos and quotes from the children to illustrate the impact of the project on the child and the teacher. The journal was also to include questions and any problems that had arisen. The teachers leading on the project in school cascaded their high level training to the rest of the staff team. The journal also recorded the impact of the project on the wider school.

At my school, St Mary Magdalen’s, investment was made in reading corners and class libraries as well as boosting resources for Guided Reading.

In terms of taking a baseline against which to measure progress, the children undertook a comprehensive reading test. The end-of-project reading test showed that the year 6 pupils at St Mary Magdalen’s made very good progress and, most impressively, there was no significant gender difference. The boys achieved as highly as the girls.

Analysis of standardised data (we used the New Group Reading Test) showed “statistically significant improvement” across the project primary schools in comparison to a control group that remained static. Qualitative data was also very positive, particularly in regards to pupil motivation and increased understanding.

Even though the project, carried out before the removal of national curriculum levels, didn’t translate into more Level 6 readers at St Mary Magdalen’s, the border line Level 3 pupils all achieved secure Level 4s, all of the year 6 pupils made significant progress, and the rest of the school was re-invigorated in the teaching of Guided Reading.

For the second year running, this academic year’s aims include harnessing the power of reading with a continued focus on teaching dialogically. With the commitment to this approach the school expects to develop its pupils into avid readers with a lifetime of reading for pleasure ahead of them. The toolkit based on this project is due to be completed any time now and will include a book with accompanying CD to facilitate other schools to embrace this approach to reading. It will also include an annotated reading resource list covering different genres.

It is also planned that a website will be established, which is intended to inform and to showcase work undertaken in the project schools. The intention is that it will continue to shape on-going work and will serve as a point of communication for teachers interested in exploring pedagogic approaches to the teaching of reading in their schools and their classrooms.

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