Glimpsing bridges between primary literacy research and practice on distant shores

June 29, 2022

Julia Gillen

creative practices | International research | Literacy | reading | social justice | Teachers

I’ve been fortunate in the last couple of months to gain insights into endeavours that share with our project an interest in bridging primary literacy research and practice.

On 3rd May I attended a virtual event coordinated by Dr Shelley Stagg Peterson of the University of Toronto and hosted  by Dr Rachel Heydon, Western University, Canada, entitled, “Building Bridges between Literacy Research and Practice: diverse perspectives.”  I thought this an extremely worthwhile, inspirational and rich event and so quote its description:

“We are teachers and teacher educators with many decades of experience teaching young children to read and write. We bring diverse perspectives on the roles of oral language, phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, critical literacy, multimodal texts, comprehension, motivation, writing and spelling to literacy learning. We wish to support teachers in continuing to provide equitable literacy learning environments to ensure that all students receive the instruction they deserve. The goal of our presentation is to provide evidence from our classrooms on ways to bridge the science of reading-based recommendations of the Right to Read Inquiry’s report with research on literacy teaching and learning.”

It is beyond my scope here to discuss in any depth Ontario’s Right to Read Inquiry which can be found here. Perhaps unusually, policy on literacy instruction is here framed as a human rights issue, stemming from a finding/allegation that “Ontario’s public education system is failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence based approaches to teach them to read.” I suspect that it will not come as a surprise to some with familiarity of literacy research policy in North America, England and some other places to learn that Western University’s proposal of “diverse perspectives” is therefore felt by some in that very construction to be contentious. But personally I found the presentations at the event, while diverse, not necessarily incommensurable.  It was refreshing and interesting to hear two teachers explain how adopting new strategies had assisted them to support all learning readers in their class group.  But it was also fruitful to hear other reflections that took perhaps broader lenses, whether for example a holistic take on wellbeing, or a social justice orientation that incorporated respect for multilingualism and a critical approach to texts.

In June I was extremely fortunate to travel to the University of Stavanger, Norway, as part of the Critical Literacies and Awareness in Education – phase 2 “Thinking Critically Together,” funded by Erasmus+.  This project is focussed on developing how criticality can be materialised in practice especially working with children aged 10-15 years.  Again, I can’t go into this project here in any detail but would like to mention two things I learnt from visiting neighbouring, connected schools in a small town.  The entire town is served by one primary and one lower secondary school. 

The Norwegian ethos is that everybody in the town attends the same school; there is no differentiation owing to social class/wealth, religion, dis/ability etc.  That is, there is a drive towards inclusion at all points if at all possible.  The policy attitude pervades all sorts of attitudes in the community; if for example somebody wants to build a new house in the surrounding countryside, they can only do this if the municipality agrees that existing school buses can serve it.  Recently there has been controversy in Norwegian media over a new theme park which introduced a “fast lane” as it is considered by many very undesirable that wealth should allow an individual to skip a queue.  Norway is very prosperous, I know, but I still found a great deal to appreciate and learn from in terms of its culture, and although I’m not reporting on data from that project here, I can say that I was delighted to witness environments apparently fostering a love of reading.

A reading corner in the library
(Image by Julia Gillen)
A view of the playground
(not divided from the public road)
(Image by Julia Gillen)

Finally, I found that each municipality (local region) is involved in bridging literacy research and practice, employing educationalists who provide continuing professional development, and themselves cooperate with their local university and the schools’ leadership teams and teachers.  

Heidi Kjærland told me about her own practices in working with 12-13 year old children:

Images by Heidi Kjærland  

“I think it is important for pupils to use different skills in their learning process and I always ask my pupils in what way they would like to learn and how they want to do it. They come up with a lot of great ideas we often use in the lessons. It could be suggestions like:

-a book, an article, a film, local news, a dilemma, gaming, good/bad choices they want to discuss/work with

-make reading castles in the classroom (group work)

-arts and crafts tasks to process the content of a book or film or as pre-work of what we are working with

-invite younger pupils to the classroom where they read aloud for them or make stories together

-make a School Parliament for discussions

-make and use “walk and talk”-cards during and after reading a book or discussing something

-Theme weeks

-creative writing tasks such as making a graphic novel, a poster, quotes, poems and on….”

Much food for thought here!

Teachers don’t have the time to do research?

Working with teachers to understand research mobilities in primary literacy education in turbulent times

May 31 2022

Petra Vackova

COVID-19 | Primary literacy | Research | Teachers

When we launched our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education research project we knew that listening to and thinking together with teachers must be at its core. In the current turbulent educational climate, in which teachers are dealing with the effects of a COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to come together, to talk, and to learn from teachers about what we can do to support and build a strong, equitable, and forward-looking education system for all. Reading worrisome newspaper and magazine headlines that teachers are “overwhelmed and exhausted” and teachers are “buckling up under strain,” or hearing directly from teachers that their workloads have tripled as colleagues are off-sick or quitting due to rising pressures, we knew that getting teachers to commit to yet another project, adding another to-do-item to their already long list, would not be easy. Nevertheless, more than 30 teachers at different career stages and with different roles have already signed up to take part in our project. Some of these have been teaching for many years while others are newly qualified. Some are Literacy leads, others are headteachers or have other roles. Many share a passion for English and literacy. Attending our workshops in between meetings, after work, and taking time away from family, these teachers have engaged with us in future-looking discussions about the intersection of research and literacy education, demonstrating the considerable enthusiasm and commitment that teachers dedicate to their roles and to education even at the most difficult of times.

And so we are here, in the midst of the exciting first phase of our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project in which we are talking with teachers about their experiences of accessing, exchanging and conducting research, while still recruiting more. The challenges facing teachers today are plentiful and real, yet they are finding the time and energy to share their experiences with other teachers, researchers and stakeholders to reinvigorate current debates about the relationship between primary literacy research and practice.

The teachers taking part in our project are collectively discussing and carefully logging how, when and where they encounter research in primary literacy and/or English. The goal is to produce a rich dataset on the complexities of teacher’s experiences of research that illuminates the scope, nature, and mediation of teacher’s encounters with research within formal and informal contexts. The aim of this first phase is to explore how literacy research moves to and between teachers, which research gains traction and which does not, and the role played by different brokers (e.g., charities, influencers, algorithms) in helping research to travel through complex and intersecting networks within the field of primary literacy.

In this research we are discussing various aspects of research mobilities in focus groups and interviews. We are also asking teachers to collect examples of ‘encounters’ with research, using a method inspired by the lifelogging methods of Alberto Frigo (2017). We wanted an approach that would take as little time as possible, that would fit easily alongside teachers’ many other commitments and that teachers could adapt to suit their personal preferences. We have therefore asked them to log any times in which they feel they are engaging with/in, accessing or drawing on research. They are doing this in whatever way suits them. Some are taking photos, others are simply making lists, and others are using apps such as Jamboard and Notability. One participant has taken up a one-second everyday video diary. Teachers are then meeting up with other teachers to share and reflect on their encounters and their relationship with primary literacy research.

As is clear from what teachers have told us so far, the relationship between primary literacy research and practice is complex and research is mediated in a multitude of ways. Schools or MATs, for example, might use resources or interventions underpinned by research or implement policies based on EEF’s guidelines for primary literacy. Sometimes the relationship is minimal or indirect.  One teacher noted “I think in primary schools a lot of research tends to be watered and filtered down through a different scheme that somebody else has taken and interpreted that research, or a different curriculum programme that somebody else has taken that research and watered down and filtered in.” At other times, teachers access research that’s directly linked to their professional interests or needs. They might be concerned for example that some children are not motivated as readers or about how to accommodate the different languages that children speak. This might lead them to refer to books or to social media or to organisations such as  the Chartered College of Teaching, United Kingdom Literacy Association or Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. They may consult teachers or consultants across the country and beyond using social media. They may also be engaged in research or enquiry themselves or belong to a teacher research group.

There certainly isn’t one single conduit for research. What is certain is that despite being stretched in ways that no one could have imagined a couple of years ago, these teachers are going above and beyond to access, exchange, and share research to inform their classroom practice. This is not always easy but can be key to supporting children in classrooms. As one teacher told us: “I suppose, it is ‘challenging’, sometimes research is very challenging to understand.  And the pressures of time, to be able to sit there and go through it thoroughly and there’s so much of it.  But so useful when you do find something that can impact on your practice.”

We’re still in the early stages of the project and are currently looking for teachers who might like to participate in the Autumn term. We’re keen to gather a wide range of experience through this work and to learn from a wide range of teachers. If you think you would like to be involved, please contact us at remple@shu.ac.uk or register through our website.