The Background: Where did the ideas originate?

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 at 11:11 am

Cheerful Pens, Mastery Circuit, Sliding Cards, The Reading Wall, (Higher yield) Reading Stamina and Peer Tutoring

This is for those who’ve asked, formally and informally over the years. Our conversations have been short and often rushed. In workshops and consulting, the focus is on teaching or demonstrating the strategies, but time never permits a fuller explanation about where the ideas originated and what underpins them. As each idea is uploaded to the blog, I’ll provide some background about how the idea was inspired, the readings and research underpinning the idea and how this knowledge developed into the strategy it is today.

In last week’s blog, I mentioned I had been at a school early this year and staff made mention of The SMILE Workshop I’d presented more than a decade prior. SMILE was the first full-day workshop I developed. It was inspired by intervention work I was fortunate to undertake at Tingalpa State School from 2001 to 2003, while on parental leave, and which became part of a research project I would include in my Masters’. The topic was Accelerating the Progress of the Hardest to Teach in Literacy.

What began as two days each week working with a few small groups of students in Year 2, evolved into a broader program spanning three days and four-year levels at various times. After the first year a teachers’ aide, Jo, was appointed to work with me.

students were independently assessed for entry into the program. The coordinator then provided the lists of students and entry level data to me. Using the data, I grouped students; the smallest group comprised four students, the largest sixteen.

Every lesson was planned for, every day. I was and remain a strong advocate for Reading Recovery, and despite working with groups, as opposed to individuals, was confident Clay’s principles would be adaptable and manageable. Groups of four needed adjustments; larger groups required more significant modifications and in some cases, different approaches.

Like Reading Recovery, the intervention program focused on reaching goals by setting targets, analysing data and planning one lesson to the next. Student engagement was high; the onus was on students to work hard. Observe, Listen, Learn, Apply, Receive Feedback, Reapply. Tight procedures and a snappy pace were critical … students working below the average in their cohorts needed to progress quicker than their classmates. All groups required structure and clear routines to maximise the limited learning time.

As with all rigorous teaching programs involving the hard to teach, data was captured frequently, often daily, analysed and used to inform teaching the following day. Jo and I poured over the data each day with great excitement … I love data! Jo loved it, too!

Struggling readers and writers often spend more time on skill building activities than on actual reading and writing. This is understandable; code-breaking skills often need improvement. However, it is the act of reading itself that improves reading. Therefore, the intervention model was process-driven. Skills were embedded in actual reading and writing, promoting transference and generalisation, and developing an understanding of reciprocity.

Around this time, the world of neuroscience was infiltrating education, becoming increasingly more accessible and creating a great buzz among educators. I was hooked and keen to link new discoveries to the intervention program. Despite my best efforts to cross disciplines within my Masters, I would learn it was not possible. Instead, I became an avid reader, attended conferences and continued to tweak, refine and expand the repertoire of strategies used.

Findings across disciplines would be integrated. Multisensory processing was shown to increase the strength of a memory and how quickly and easily it could be retrieved. Therefore, creating multiple pathways to stored memories was a priority. Also important was frequency of opportunity . . . lots of repetition needed to be carefully balanced with the cognitive load on learners.  A significant factor for the harder to teach was student motivation and attitude. Intrinsically motivated reading and writing yields a higher return than the same volume of mandated, or assigned reading and writing. Finding ways to motivate students to opt-in to the learning and enjoy participating were important.

No one works harder than hard to teach students, so it was critical they felt the payoff for their efforts was worth the effort expended.

Visible evidence of progress is also highly motivating and central to goal setting. Approaches to build students’ cognizance of changes to their reading and writing skills, knowledge and behaviours were designed. Students on the program knew and understood the conventions for recording running records, or miscues. These were integrated into the Reading Wall strategy to highlight behaviours used, attempted and neglected. The same applied for teaching writing.

To achieve the desired reading and writing outcomes the following ideas and strategies were integrated into daily lessons and supported explicit teaching, guided and interactive reading and writing:

  • Cheerful Editing Pens
  • Mastery Circuit
  • Sliding Cards
  • The Reading Wall
  • High Yield Independent Reading (frequently audited)
  • Peer Tutoring

Many of you know I’m still using all these strategies today, in both intervention settings and mainstream classrooms. All Literacy Solutions’ consultants are trained in the use of these strategies and are happy to coach or mentor school staff, or demonstrate with students. Finding ways of making something tricky feel less tricky, even enjoyable, changes attitudes to learning.

We’re familiar with the saying, “You can lead a horse to water …”
I’m a strong believer that if you make the horse thirsty and offer it something it wants to drink, it will drink.

Each idea was designed to:

  • link findings in neuroscience and psychology to education
  • link observations and data to
    • teaching pedagogy
    • teaching/learning content
    • daily and weekly feedback cycle
    • goal setting
  • make learning goals and descriptive feedback overt
  • teach for assured success
  • motivate and engage students

Teaching-learning cycle
The teaching-learning cycle.

Over time, the program increased in size and more students were identified for inclusion. Intervention groups became larger and sessions ran longer. As the intervention students progressed, a formal exit strategy was required; significant numbers of intervention students were benchmarking higher than their non-intervention classmates. Independent exit tests were administered by an independent assessor. If the exit test results aligned with class teachers’ data, students were discontinued. Of the 123 students on the program:

  • 61% discontinued the program reading 4 levels or more above the class average
  • 31% discontinued the program at the target level, or 1 to 2 levels above
  • 8% did not meet the target (4 students were referred for further assessment, 1 left the school, 3 were still reading below the class average)

The opportunity to implement this program is something I am very grateful for. It remains one of most rewarding experiences of my teaching career and is certainly one of the highlights.

I am not suggesting these strategies are the only way to instruct the hard to teach, nor am I suggesting they will work with all students. Flexible, explicit, data-driven instruction with high levels of active participation and rich, rigorous coaching is central to working with struggling readers and writers. The strategies were important parts of the intervention program. They were not the entire program.

If you’ve asked over the years, I hope these blogs provide some insights and the background you’ve requested.


Allington, R. (2001). What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. Pearson. Boston

Bains, L. (2008). A Teacher’s Guide to Multisensory Learning: Improving Literacy by Engaging the Senses. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria

Baron, J. and Strawson, C. (1976). Use of orthographic and word-specific knowledge in reading words aloud. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2, 386-393

Berninger, V.W., Richards, T.L. (2002). Brain Literacy for Educators and Psychologists. Academic Press. New York

Bickart, T.S., Dodge, D.T. (2000). Reading Right from the Start: What Parents Can Do in the First Five Years. Teaching Strategies

Brooks, G., Flanagan, N., Henkhuzens, Z., Hutchinson, D. (1999). What Works for Slow Readers? Berkshire, NFER

Brophy, J. (1981). Teacher praise: A functional analysis. Review of Educational Research, 51, 5-32

Clay, M. M. (1993). Reading Recovery: A Guidebook for Teachers in Training. Pearson Education Canada

Clay, M.M. (1991). Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control. Heinemann.

Dahl, K.L. & Freppon, P.A. (1995). A comparison of innercity children’s interpretations of reading and writing instruction in the early grades in skills-based and whole language classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 50, 50-74

Eliot, L. (1999). What’s Going On In There? Bantam Books. New York

Ericsson, K.A., Patel, V. L., & Kintsch, W. (2000). How experts adaptations to representative task demands account for the expertise effect in memory recall: Comment on Vicente & Wang (1998). Psychological Review, 107, 578–592.

Feitelson, D., Kita, B. & Goldstein, Z. (1986). Effects of listening to series stories on first graders’ comprehension and use of language. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 339-356

Foorman, B.R., & Torgesen, J. (2001). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16(4), 203-212

Graham, S. & Harris, K.R. (1994). The effectos of whole language on children’s writing: A review of literature. Educational Psychologist, 29, 187-192

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind 2nd Edn. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria

Jensen, E. (2007). Brain-Compatible Learning. Corwin Press. California

Hopson, J., Diamond, M. (1998). Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity and healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence. Penguin. London

Morrow, L.M. (1990). Preparing the classroom environment to promote literacy during play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 5, 537-554

Morrow, L.M. (1992). The impact of a literature-based program on literacy achievement, use of literature, and attitudes of children from minority backgrounds. Reading Research Quarterly, 27, 251-275

Reynolds, W.M.; Miller G.J. (2003). Handbook of Psychology, Educational Psychology. Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey

Shams, L., Seitz, A.R. (2008). Benefits of Multisensory Learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Vol 12 (11), pp411-417

Sperry, R.W. (1982). Some effects of disconnecting the cerebral hemispheres. Science, 217, 1223-1226

Stanovich, K.E.; Siegel, L.S. and Gottardo, A. (1997). Converging evidence for phonological and surface subtypes of reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 114-127

Strickland, D.S. (2002). The importance of effective early intervention, in A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (pp. 69-86). Newark, DE: International Reading Association; Texas Education Agency. (2000).

Wolf P., Nevills, P. (2004). Building the Reading Brain: K-3. Corwin Press. California

by Angela Ehmer

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