Reflections on Coordinating literacy Support

Mention NAPLAN testing in a room full of teachers and I guarantee you'll start to hear sighs and see people shifting in their seats.  NAPLAN is Australia's national literacy and numeracy standard test administered each year to all students in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9.   As part of my Learning Support portfolio I manage literacy development at the college.  It is no easy gig motivating faculty coordinators and classroom teachers to push literacy in their classrooms.  The competing demands of the secondary curricula mean that those students who struggle with literacy are at great disadvantage before they have even started.

In making classrooms more inclusive literacy is always high on my agenda as an area that I seek to provide support.  Not being able to read and engage with content in a lesson excludes  many students  from any meaningful participation within the class.  By secondary school if a students cannot read and comprehend issues of disengagement, learned helplessness, behaviour problems and low self esteem if not already present are exacerbated.

I am a supporter of Response to Intervention (RTI) when it comes to administering literacy support.  RTI is a framework by which students are supported through intervention.  Those students who fail to respond to an intervention are progressed along to more intensive interventions whereas students who respond are rotated out of interventions.  This enables me to spread my resources and essentially 'close the gap' for many students who just needed a boost. 

Intervention also enables the delivery of support and programs for those students who need it most. Literacy intervention for secondary students is always tricky with any assistance to be seen as a sign of weakness especially in teenage boys.  Through intensive intervention students can see the light at the end of the tunnel and they know that it will not separate them permanently from the group.  I will state however that no student likes to be singled out and a delicate balance needs to be maintained between wanting to jump in and provide support and standing back and waiting until we are asked for help.

At present I target the bottom 10% of year 7 run four small (5 student) literacy groups.  I find that students are responsive to the small group setting and the explicit literacy instruction.  I know that this is not in the ethos of being inclusive ,however, it has been the most time effective way of delivering the intensive program.   The group is timetabled so there is no embarrassment of having to be excused from class and the class teacher is aware of the students absence from lesson through a reminder sent at the beginning of the program.  The focus of my program has been on reading fluency with every session being used to build fluency through reading aloud as a group and discussing what was read. I also push the explicit instruction of vocabulary to aid with fluency and many of our discussions are about linking the meanings of words to what they already know.  As with all interventions reflection is important. Last year I had my teaching assistant deliver the program and although we saw some change I feel in order to make the intervention work I need to either take the groups or put one of my leading teachers on. 

Year 8 has been a complete different story with many students outgrowing withdrawal interventions and seeming them as being singled out.  I found it useful also to speak to students within the program and seek out reasons why they didn’t like attending. I was surprised at how candid their responses were.  They all outlined that the teacher was great but the lessons themselves were seen as an additional burden to their already full timetables.  To make matters worse attending the class meant that they were missing out on lessons and having to catch up or miss a lesson they really enjoyed.  Dissatisfaction with the program was also expressed by the literacy teacher who was ready to quit her role.  After some negotiating and exploration of the problems we decided that there was no reason why we couldn’t combine the literacy groups into one class and have an extra small English class to following year.  The class would follow the same English curriculum but would have the luxury of being a small group. Reflecting on the first year of the program and I did see some great benefits but also some areas for improvement.  The small group setting was great but at the same time it did lower the standard across the room and in turn the expectations of the teacher.  It also locked the students in for a whole year of being in the group preventing rotations of students who also could have benefited from the program. 

In Year 9 we have an additional elective  subject geared around the teaching of explicit study and literacy skills.  I had great success with this course in England and the past two years have seen the course grow and become a great vehicle to support the intervention programs in place whilst not separating students from their regular classes. Students also enjoy the class as it enables them to get help with their homework and assessment tasks.

In year 10 we are launching a Stage 5 tutor program after school. The program will run after school and students will attend two sessions to gain instruction in literacy and also numeracy.  I plan to gear the program around reading fluency and the synthesising of information collected during research.  I have a great numeracy specialist who is taking on the coordination of the numeracy side of the project. 

As you can gather the coordination of these interventions is no easy feat as each needs tight registration to ensure the time spent is effective each session.  Whilst carrying out interventions through this withdrawal model is not in the spirit of true inclusion whereby students would receive their support in class through good teaching it does meet the reality that secondary classrooms are busy places.  Although teachers do differentiate activities this is not always enough to close the gap between the able and those who struggle.