Literacy Enhancement Initiative
Barriere Secondary School 2011
Barriere Secondary School has over the past three years embarked upon an initiative to regularly assess students’ ability to read and write. Assessments have been scheduled for early in the year, then again in the middle of the year and finally at the end of the year for the grade 8 students and in the middle and end of the academic year for the grade 9’s. These assessments are separate from the learning area assessments undertaken by teachers in their own subject areas of Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, English and the like. Reading and writing skills have as a consequence been seen holistically as a cross-curricular skill that is important for all learning.
Teachers are given time to mark the student test papers in collaboration, where strict protocols are followed regarding moderation and consensus. A small spread of test papers are marked and then cross-marked, differences between markers are conferenced and consensus is achieved through a referral back to the exemplars, the grade related descriptors and if needed a moderator. Here in this process lies a significant benefit as teachers across the curriculum become familiar with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presented in the student results.
Having marked the papers collaboratively teachers then develop an action plan with clear indicators as to how the strengths and opportunities can be enhanced and the weaknesses and threats minimized. Not surprisingly each year group over the past three years have been showing differing strengths and shortcomings. Each in turn has prompted a different action plan response. Some responses are applicable across the group and other strategies for enhancement have had to be tailored to the individual needs of students experiencing difficulties.
Reading 2011 October Grade 8
By way of illustration the October 2011, grade 8 results showed solid strengths; most students were able to successfully integrate quotes from the materials read to support their claims, there was a strong sense of thematic understanding and appreciation of the passages read. The question asked students to refer to both passages, which generally they were able to do, many took advantage of the opportunity to “chunk” their reading and predict what was coming. These are solid reading strategies which enhance engagement with the text and heighten comprehension of key ideas in the reading.
Weaknesses were evident too; although this first weakness was more a test-taking problem in that there was poor management of the time. Many students ran out of time and were unable to complete the test given. Two blocks (75 minutes each) were provided, one for reading and one for writing. A number of students engaged in the Before reading and During reading strategies and then never capitalized on this pre-reading work to demonstrate their understanding in the subsequent writing that was asked of them. The challenge for teachers is to ensure that the reading process is not undervalued as the final demonstration of what was read and understood is demonstrated in the written response.
As an action plan was prepared, teachers agreed to highlight for students the full spread of strategies that can be employed by readers and move beyond the “chunking” and “predicting” and include contextual cuing, imaging, questioning, annotations, re-reading and more. Discussions too about how readers could better identify the links between the texts read and the relevance of the ideas and events in the text to their own lives, trying to personalize the text and see the relevance of the theme to them in their lives. Seeing links between two texts too is a higher order reading skill and needs supporting with strategies (eg use of T-chart note-taking). It was agreed among teachers that students need to be given more time and further clarification of test culture. What is it that is valued in a test needs to be explored with students.
Writing 2011 October Grade 8
The first and most notable strength of student work in the writing outcome is that every student bar one attempted to write a response. Students had a clear preference for the personal voice and wrote for the most part in the narrative mode and in the first person. Adjectives enhanced much of the descriptive writing and students have a rudimentary appreciation of style and the need to dress up their narrative a little. For the most part they have been on task and have focused on the prompt provided.
Weaknesses included a lack of attention to the basic mechanics (spelling, punctuation and clarity of sentences), students need to take a risk and experiment with plot lines and character development a little more, especially if indeed they wish to focus on narrative writing. The focus on narrative only was a weakness, students were invited to write in the expository, descriptive and persuasive modes too and these options were all but ignored completely. Many students may well have faired much better had they chosen differently. It might be simply that they are unclear as to what it means to write in this mode and this of course has implications for the teaching staff. It was agreed in the action plan to model and expose students to a broader range of writing forms eg letters to the editor, personal letters, feature articles, evaluations, opinion pieces, blog entries and more. Also it was discussed that students need to be encouraged to move beyond safe, predictable story-lines and characters and take risks. Reader engagement with the narrative could be heightened as a result.
There are significant benefits for teachers and for students when regular, quality assessments are made of student reading and writing ability. Barriere Secondary is still learning about how best to administer and construct these literacy assessments. Over time we are confident our successes with enhancing literacy levels will be improved and student appreciation and their sense of pride in showing what they can do when asked to demonstrate reading and writing abilities will also be enhanced. We are also keen to conduct tests at the Grade 9 level which are more refined than the Grade 8 test in that the results can pin-point more precisely the range of reading and writing skills that are evident within any student’s repertoire of skill and or understanding.