Drop Everything and Read and Write (DEAR)

London South East Colleges (LSEC)

The London South East Colleges (LSEC) Drop Everything & Read, Drop Everything & Write (DEAR) Project, inspired by the National Literacy Trust national scheme to boost reading for pleasure, was devised in response to a need identified in our GCSE English and Functional Skills learners for a scaffolded approach to reading and writing.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].

Summary

A skills gap in comprehension, identified earlier by teachers, was impacting upon successful achievement. Summative/ formative assessments showed that learners were routinely mis-reading texts and failing to understand or confusing the basic foundations of any given text, leading to a ‘de-railing’ in understanding and, therefore, lower level answers. This gap between becoming “efficient decoders” to “strategic readers” (Vacca, 2002) is identified as the pivotal point at which implied meanings and inferences can be deconstructed. The DEAR Project, we felt, could address such key issues by implementing appropriate interventions to skill up our learners.

At LSEC we felt that to support our learners to make this shift a three-pronged approach was necessary. In the transition from secondary to FE, learners we observed required a new incentive to read and re-discover the magic and pleasure of reading. The DEAR Project, partnering up with The Reading Agency and their Quick Reads Scheme would provide access to easy readers to help bridge the gap between “reading frequency” and “reading attainment” and drive a renewed pleasure in reading and hence motivation.

Secondly, scaffolds, via a guided reading programme, would be required to support learners with comprehension and critical analysis reasoning and critical questioning. Further, “increasing students’ reasoning skills, metacognition and structured reflection was vital to develop confidence, resilience and skills of inference, deduction and analysis” (Laurie Smith, 2018).

By supporting learners through a guided weekly programme of close reading and analyses with scaffolds, an incremental process and ladder of questioning would equip learners with the art of deconstruction, key to deep close reading.

The first and most common reason for not being a fluent reader is that the learner does not yet know how to decode well. Decoding accuracy is the first pre-requisite to fluency.
(Wolf, 2008)

Thirdly, it would be insufficient for learners to be merely “efficient decoders” and “strategic readers”: to attain well, they must also become skilled writers. We therefore felt that the DEAR Project must also equip learners with the scaffold to support them to make the deep connections between the writer’s methods and the application of these in their creative writing tasks. By becoming more conscious writers fully aware of their “art and craft”, learners can take full command of their own “authorial intentions” and skilfully “craft” their writings to greater effect, (Myhill, 2014).

Informed by these research findings in metacognition, critical analysis reasoning and questioning and the art and craft of conscious writing, the DEAR Project at LSEC was born and launched in September 2019.

Rationale

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:

  1. To help tackle feelings of dis-engagement
  2. 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:

  1. To widen access and raise the active engagement of our learners in reading and writing.
  2. To roll-out the Quick Reads initiative to stimulate renewed appetites for reading both inside and outside the classroom.
  3. To equip learners with a scaffolded approach to reading comprehension.
  4. To support learners to develop a more rigorous approach to the cognitive processing and analyses of texts and make connections with their own writing.
  5. To furnish learners with a creative writing checklist and map to guide them through their writing tasks.
  6. 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).

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Feedback from learners was collated via a number of strategies. Learners contributed their feedback on the DEAR Project via a Post It Learner Wall. After each DEAR lesson, learners were invited to post-it their responses to the DEAR lesson strategies utilised. Learner response was generally positive: learners reported that they found the mutual and collaborative reading comprehension strategies very helpful for breaking down both barriers in class and also in reading comprehensions.

The progress of two particular learners was monitored throughout the project. These were both adults, returning to the classroom after a period away due to employment and motherhood. Both initially expressed a deep anxiety about returning to the classroom and their skills in reading comprehension and in writing. However, over the course of the DEAR Project, the confidence of both grew steadily, as did their reading abilities, language and narrative analyses, and above all, their self-esteem.

Learner A demonstrated a great progression both in reading comprehension and, most interestingly, in her creative writing. Having entered the GCSE Course at a Level 1 she is now scoring consistently Grade 5 and above.

Learner B found the DEAR Reading Circles and collaborative approaches to reading and language analyses supportive prior to any independent study. Learner B has now moved from Level 2 and consistently scores Grade 4/5.

It was observed, via marking and assessment processes and feedback from learners, that both the DEAR Reading Comprehension Questioning Strategies (CARs and CAQs) and the DEAR Writing Checklists and scaffolded writing resources had led to marked progress in learners’ work.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Through the launch of the DEAR Project at LSEC greater collaboration has been seen between the English department and LRCs. In addition to our work in the classrooms, The Reading Agency Quick Reads initiative was publicised in our LRCs and greatly supported by their teams giving rise to far wider dissemination cross-college. As a result, loans on the Quick Reads rose significantly and learners enjoyed swapping Quick Reads, sharing and supporting each other with their reading and participating in reading circles and writing workshops.

Feedback from both LRC staff and from learners on the DEAR Project and The Reading Agency Quick Reads has been positive and both the envisaged widening access to reading and boosts in active engagement in reading and writing have been evident in learners’ renewed engagement.

Learning from this project

The DEAR Project was successful at several levels. Firstly, the active manner in which learners embraced the project and engaged in the The Reading Agency Quick Reads initiative was refreshing and unexpected. Learners in FE, it would seem, when offered the right texts and a guided framework and structure via a Reading Scheme like Quick Reads will engage in reading enthusiastically.

Key to the successful roll out of the Quick Reads Scheme was the support of The Reading Agency and our LRC Team Leaders, Carole Burd and Karen Oliver. The DEAR Project was given a lively and highly visible launch in the LRCs, which, we believe greatly contributed to learners feeling a sense of ownership and desire to engage.
Further, it was intriguing to discover that our Post-16 learners really enjoyed a structured approach to reading comprehension. They found the laddered approach to questioning and the bite-sized and graduated sign-posted ways into text via CARs and CAQs helpful for illuminating their way through what, on first reading, appeared dark and dense texts.

A further discovery was the enjoyment learners gained from reading together in Reading Circles and teasing out meanings collaboratively via the graduated questions. It was pleasing to see learners offering peer support and probing one another’s responses to text, answering questions, formulating their own ideas and developing the courage to read aloud to each other, to question the text, the writer and one another and also to read aloud their written responses, particularly in our DEAR Writing Workshops.

From a professional perspective, a key learning point for future planning will be to map into the design of our teaching resources the key connections between the unseen text, the language methods used by the writer, and the dove-tailing of writing tasks that can mirror these for our learners. The fusing and synergies of the approaches applied by Laurie Smith (King’s College) and Debra Myhill (University of Exeter) have had a transformative effect on the design of teaching resources for my learners. For the future then, as well as scaffolding reading comprehension, we will be supporting our learners in a deeper, more metacognitive approach to their own creative writing and the production of their personal narratives.

One of the most powerful outcomes has been the cross synergy of ideas and their applications through digital technologies. During the DEAR Project and in our classroom delivery here at LSEC many of these e-learning strategies as Audible, Padlet, Mentimeter, Tricider, Google Classroom and IntoFilm have been trialled and found to be highly effective. These, along with the DEAR reading and writing strategies will continue to inform our practice.