Teachers reported that learners experienced malaise, inertia and a sense of defeat at the prospect of GCSE English resits, reading comprehension and successive analyses of unseen texts. Further, in the transition from primary to secondary and on into FE, learners often appeared to have lost that sense of excitement and the magic and ‘buzz’ that reading can inspire.
Learners also often appeared to ‘be getting the wrong end of the stick’, failing to understand the simple aspects of texts such as: Who the text was actually about; Who the narrator was; Setting of the text and the importance of context and period to the themes and pre-occupations of the writer.
Similar mis-understandings were observed in reading tasks completed by Functional Skills learners, leading to erroneous answers and successive failures in GCSE and Functional Skills exams for some learners. Furthermore, via DEAR learner engagement surveys, learners reported difficulties in comprehension due to complexity and obliqueness of language leading to barriers in their understanding and wider engagement in class.
Additionally, learners were struggling to apply with skill the language and structural devices they had been studying in texts, failing to make connections between analyses of writers’ language methods and their applications in their own writings. This weakness in demonstrating structure and cohesion and a secure application of language methods in their own writing was impacting on grades. Given that writing responses carry most weight in terms of marks, this, we felt, needed to be addressed.
In response to these skills gaps, we reasoned that a dove-tailed programme of scaffolds for reading comprehension and creative writing tasks would provide a way forward. To support learners to move from efficient decoders to strategic readers would require some innovative incentives, and scaffolds would need to implemented throughout the project.
The DEAR Approach in practice
Therefore, a new programme of incentives was devised. In partnership with The Reading Agency, their Quick Reads Scheme was swiftly launched to re-engage despondent learners. Quick Reads, it was hoped would serve a dual purpose:
- To help tackle feelings of dis-engagement
- To boost appetites for reading by creating an exciting ‘buzz’ during English induction and during classroom warm ups.
Running parallel to this reading the Quick Reads Scheme, scaffolded approaches to reading comprehension and writing were harnessed in the classroom. A tiered approach to questioning with conscious use of metacognitive theories via CARs (critical analysis reasoning) and CAQ (critical analysis questioning) was applied weekly with each unseen text.
These reading comprehension resources were designed to embed strategies informed by cognitive load theories to support with re-engagement. Using the DEAR 5 W’s (Who, What, Why, Where, When and How), matrices were devised for critical analysis reasoning (CARs) and critical analysis questioning (CAQs).
The aim was to break down unseen texts into more bite-sized chunks, so providing a clear focus for each question, helping to clarify meanings for learners initially and avoiding cognitive overloads.
Learners, via a laddered approach, would then apply these 5 W’s questioning scaffolds to unseen texts. The intention, via a graduated questioning approach, was to help them to grasp the basic facets and context of each text prior to any deeper language or structural analyses. It was envisaged that by conducting these primary excavations of each unseen text and before any deeper excavations, potential mis-readings and confusions could be ironed out together during DEAR Reading Circles and group analyses prior to independent study in reading and writing tasks.
Secondly, during our DEAR Writing Workshops, learners were furnished with DEAR check lists for each writing task. Using these DEAR scaffolds, it was envisaged that learners would gradually develop a discipline and rigour via which to more consciously apply craft, cohesion and structure to their own writing tasks.
The DEAR Project was designed with a six-fold intention:
- To widen access and raise the active engagement of our learners in reading and writing.
- To roll-out the Quick Reads initiative to stimulate renewed appetites for reading both inside and outside the classroom.
- To equip learners with a scaffolded approach to reading comprehension.
- To support learners to develop a more rigorous approach to the cognitive processing and analyses of texts and make connections with their own writing.
- To furnish learners with a creative writing checklist and map to guide them through their writing tasks.
- To nurture a greater desire, motivation, confidence and self-belief.
The DEAR Project in Practice: Reading Comprehension:
Themed lessons on texts were devised to escort learners through a series of questioning and cognitive processes from basic and key foundation questions (CARs & 5 Q W’s: Who, What, Why, Where, When and How) to more complex questions. This reading comprehension matrix was intended to help learners gain confidence in their grasp and basic understanding of the foundations of any text. The intention was also to equip learners to steer themselves up through these basic questions, establishing a fool-proof foundation and compass via which to secure accurate understandings of the text they were reading. As learners escalated through these scaled (CARs) questions, each reading comprehension would then graduate to questions devised to challenge their critical analysis questioning skills (CAQs). DEAR Reading Circles were used to further scaffold learners via the mutual support of group / peer debates and discussions.
Through DEAR Reading Circles it was acknowledged that readers learn via teacher / peer modelling “how to activate prior knowledge, to ask questions, to decide what is important in texts, to synthesise information, to draw inferences and to repair faulty comprehension” (Wolf, 2008).