Encountering research: glimpses from England

15 August 2022

Gill Adams

bridging | connections | literacy teaching | personal & professional | Primary literacy | Research | research and practice | Teachers

In our last blog, Julia noted how municipalities in Norway worked to bridge research and practice. This got me musing on this notion of bridging across and the separation it suggests, even as it points to possibilities of connections.

As summer holidays are approaching, thinking about bridges took me off in my mind to the Scottish islands. Many were once only accessed by sea, often involving challenging navigation around low lying reefs and rocks that were likely to sink sailors without local knowledge or clear charts. Now some of these islands are connected by bridges and causeways as well as, or instead of, ferries. The ferries remain my favourite way of travelling, giving time to experience the journey, to pause and notice seals basking. That slowing down on the boat crossing acts as a preparation for island life and reminds me of the change in pace I experience between teaching and research in my university life. A different focus, a slowing down, time to play with ideas, to linger. How do teachers in schools manage this shift?

Alternatives to bridges between islands remain but may be less frequented. Walking on Eigg last year I came across a couple using sea kayaks to travel between islands. They had paddled over from Rùm, taking a meandering route dictated by tides and winds. Unhurried, they took time to make the traverse. In this next phase of our project we are exploring possibilities for supporting teachers to engage critically and confidently with literacy research, aiming to mull things over together, to open up spaces to make connections with research.

Connections may initially be forged across new terrain, linking spaces, groups and individuals. These links shift, some falter, others become more passable as they are travelled back and forth. This passage back and forth, making connections and bridging across, takes many forms. The teachers participating in our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project have already provided us with valuable glimpses into the way some of these connections and bridges are formed between literacy teaching and research evidence and how they endure. Connections are multiple and complex. These connections range widely – these few examples from teachers’ encounters with literacy research are selective but valuable in providing brief impressions of the complexity of teachers’ daily lives.

As we’ve talked with teachers, I’ve been struck by the variety of sometimes surprising routes that teachers reported research traveling to them, which suggests something about the inseparability of teachers’ personal and professional lives. Here is an example where one teacher talked about her research log:

‘There’s a link from my mum from The Guardian about how – oh no, it’s not The Guardian, it’s from theconversation.com about how grammar teaching should change’.

Does a personal connection, in this case the teacher’s mum sharing the link, influence engagement?

Another teacher told us how she approached a friend who worked in university teacher education for advice on how to enrich her classroom practice: ‘So she kind of encouraged me to doing things like joining some professional organisations, like the UKLA’. The new connections made subsequently ‘opened up just a set of encounters’ with research.

Time, a challenge mentioned in our May blog, isn’t the only barrier that teachers have mentioned as they share their encounters with research.

One teacher found their route to research thwarted as they struggled to gain access to articles protected by journal’s paywalls:

In terms of encounters, I think the biggest challenge is getting access to the research itself. […] You might find that you want to get access to an article or a journal and it’s like you feel like you’ve got to almost dance around to try and get access to it, whether it’s through – there was one recently that I was looking for and I ended up going through, having to find the researchers’ university web page and get through there to see if it was open access

Despite these difficulties, described by one teacher as ‘dancing around’, the primary teachers we have spoken to so far in the project are encountering research. As they create and navigate routes, they develop connections, using bridges like the Conversation article referred to above, research shared freely. Resources like this allow more direct access to research: a visit to the webpage prompts readers to sign up for newsletters, dropping research directly into their mailboxes; twitter followers are ‘fed’ constant updates. Often when I read this kind of research digest, I start to follow a research trail, perhaps to the original research, other work by the same author, or I might head off in a different direction, pursuing an idea raised in the article. But, like the teacher who received the link from her mum, it might be some time until I read the article, waiting perhaps for a provocation, a reason to return to it.

Of course, it isn’t sufficient simply to have well-signposted, accessible bridges – we need a rationale to make connections.  The teachers we’ve spoken to articulated how they deliberately sought out literacy research, often in response to a need arising from reflection on learning and teaching.

‘I started doing other bits of research, which I really enjoyed, and looking into different things and I think that it is those things where you’re then looking at what doesn’t work in your classroom that then inspires you to then go and research into that’. 

‘At our school, we have done disciplined inquiry in the past, so we have all come up with a question linked to our pupils and […] our kids are just rubbish at spelling, they just find it really hard, so I wanted to look at the memory and recall of the common exception words in KS2 and that was something that we did as a research project and the plan was, until COVID came, that we were going to present this and so I think that quite a lot of small scale research happens without us really knowing that we’re doing small scale research’

In these extracts, research is becoming part of teachers’ practice. They have decided the focus of their research together.

Participants have raised questions about planning, co-constructing and strengthening connections or bridges between research and practice. These questions, and the subsequent conversations, will help us explore how teachers’ critical engagement with research can flourish, a focus of our project.

If you are a primary teacher and are interested in getting involved in the project, do get in touch. We are holding more teacher focus groups in the autumn term and would love to hear from you. Please contact us at remple@shu.ac.uk or register through our website.

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.

How do teachers encounter research?

May 05 2022

Cathy Burnett

About project | Policy context | Primary literacy | Research context | Teachers

In the recent Schools White Paper Nadhim Zahawi includes a commitment to ‘placing the generation and mobilisation of evidence at the heart of our education system.’  The mobilisation of research evidence is a key concern of our current ESRC funded project, Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education (ES/W000571/1), which is exploring how research moves to and between teachers. The project is a partnership between Sheffield Hallam University, Lancaster University and University of Stirling.  Our starting point is that the mobilisation of research is an increasingly complex business.

We are interested particularly in research that has potential to speak in useful ways to literacy education in primary schools. Literacy is a huge area and there is a wide variety of research available internationally that could be of value and interest to primary teachers. Some of this focuses on pedagogical approaches (such as the use of drama or group discussion) but there is also work that provides useful insights into children’s experiences of literacy at home and at school, as well as that which generates searching questions about the purposes and priorities of literacy education.

Some research, such as that funded by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) draws on the findings of randomised controlled trials to try to identify approaches that might impact on attainment as measured by standardised tests. Other research draws on qualitative methods to examine children’s experiences in depth and in detail. These different kinds of research all have potential to feed teachers’ professional thinking and decision-making but it may be that some kinds of research travel more widely than others.

In supporting the mobilisation of research the government has pledged to continue its support for EEF. EEF has done a considerable amount of work in recent years to fund and disseminate the results of randomised controlled trials and to synthesise the findings from research more widely. Consequently, for many schools, they are the go-to source of evidence to inform decision making and resource purchase. There are, however, myriad other ways in which teachers encounter research, linked for example to colleagues, universities, professional associations, social media, independent consultants and ‘research-informed’ resources as well as their own investigations and enquiries. And digital technologies play a role too,  for example through platforms such as Mesh Guides and through the work of algorithms in personalising search results. Given this, in order to understand how research mobilises and get better at facilitating connections between research and practice, we need to know more about how the work of different organisations and individuals combine with digital technologies to bring some research evidence to the fore while other potentially useful studies sink without trace. 

Through Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education we want to understand more about this complex area. Part of this involves identifying any patterns in the kinds of literacy research that gain attention and exploring what happens to the meanings of research findings as they move between individual and organisations. Are subtleties lost as research is summarised for different audiences? Are methodological caveats acknowledged? Are new meanings added as the findings of different studies combine?  By understanding these processes better we hope to arrive at effective ways to support teachers’ engagement with a wide range of literacy research which will be useful to schools and MATs, to policy makers, educational organisations and associations and to different research communities concerned with the mobilisation of research.

If you would like to know more about the project please get in touch with us via email (remple@shu.ac.uk) . If you are a primary teacher working in England and would like to be involved, you can find out more and register your interest to participate here: https://shusls.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0ceGu0gIKRinGpo.