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Defining excellence and equity in early reading instruction

Over the weekend I presented at the Learning Difficulties Australia conference. I was honoured to be a joint recipient of the 2022 Mona Tobias award, and consequently a speaker at the event. As part of the same event, I was privileged to meet and spend time with renowned reading researcher Professor Linnea Ehri who was in Australia to receive the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties Eminent Researcher Award and present on her vast body of work.

My presentation was titled 'Defining excellence and equity in early reading instruction'. This post is an outline of my presentation, for those who have asked for a recording or slides.

Setting the scene with Ron Berger's Ethic of Excellence

“If you are going to do something, I believe you should do it well. You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it.” (Berger, nd)

Setting the scene with the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration

Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity

  • provide all young Australians with access to high-quality education

  • ensure that young Australians of all backgrounds are supported to achieve their full educational potential

  • encourage young people to hold high expectations for their educational outcomes, supported by parents, carers, families and the broader community

  • promote a culture of excellence in all learning environments

Defining excellence

Dictionaries define excellence with words and phrases like outstanding, the very best, and high quality. That is what we are striving for. There are no shortcuts and there must be collective commitment to the process. I love Sonia Thompson's definition in her great book.

An ethic of excellence is a “a moral imperative to strive toward greatness” (Thompson, 2022, p.13)

A moral imperative is a powerful consideration. For me it means being determined to find success, for our students, our teachers and our school.

“For any school striving for excellence every day, the process is never fast. Rather, it is slow and deliberate and takes patience and time.” (Thompson, 2022, p.14)

Defining equity

In Thompson's book, linked above, she provides some key quotes from the National Equity project which I think are helpful. Equity involves the following.

Removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor” (National Equity Project, nd)

Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive school environments for adults and children” (National Equity Project, nd)

For me, an ethic of equity means believing all students can achieve and doing whatever possible to close achievement gaps.

Schools that succeed

Many have written about school improvement and what successful (excellent and equitable) schools do. Something that can often be observed is that they do not tend to succeed in idiosyncratic ways. That is, they are not special, unique, rare, novel, or especially innovative in their approaches or staffing (Thompson, 2022). They tend to do tried and tested things well and in combination, so impactful tipping points are reached.

There are behaviours, patterns and practices that can often be observed across excellent and equitable schools. They tend to have replicable approaches, structures, systems, and techniques, which in theory can be applied by leaders of other schools with good success. Successful schools, at least in the literacy domain, also tend to recognise that evidence based practices have three key interrelated and important components (often referred to as E3BP in the literature):

  • the best external evidence (research consensus)

  • the best internal evidence (our in-house data, teacher expertise)

  • the best available contextual evidence (our students, school, and wider community considerations/needs/perspectives)

The following sections detail my perspective on what it takes. I've included examples from Year 1 and outlined some of the processes we've implemented in our school, with initial success.

Codifying for replicable results

1. Specify the knowledge

Essential: Detailed, well sequenced, cumulative, high-quality curricula

  • What quality metrics do we use for curriculum selection?

  • Are we continuously building on what was previously taught?

  • Can we articulate specifically what will be taught when?

  • Do learning outcomes precede lesson planning? [backward design]

  • Do we ensure the intended curriculum is enacted?

  • How do we make decisions around sequence and pacing?

Example: Phoneme grapheme correspondences to be taught each term of Year 1, building on what was taught in Foundation (Prep/Kindergarten)

2. Allocate sufficient time

Essential: Consistent and appropriate time allocation to the various components

  • Can we document how much time is allocated and justify why?

  • If we’re saying it’s important, do we ensure it takes place? How?

Example: Time allocation across core literacy skills and English

Core literacy [1 hour 5x per week]

  • 30 minutes of whole class phonics instruction with differentiated support

  • 10-15 minutes of handwriting instruction with differentiated support

  • 10-15 minutes of oral reading fluency routines with differentiated support

English [1 hour 5x per week]

  • Reading and discussing rich informational and narrative pre-complex/complex texts

  • Vocabulary instruction

  • Academic and oral language

  • Writing and writing instruction (embedded in content)

3. Explicit and responsive teaching

Essential: Novices require structured, scaffolded explicit instruction, several opportunities for practice, feedback and review, and differentiated support

  • Do we teach first?

  • What occurs before independent application/practice?

  • How much repetition, practice and review do we provide?

  • How do we scaffold and differentiate support in real time?

  • How do we ensure the highest quality whole-class instruction?

  • What supports do teachers receive to keep getting better?

  • How and when do we provide additional support to students?

We provide progressively intense instruction (Hughes & Dexter, 2011, p.4) as per the Response to Intervention framework:

Tier 1: whole-class core instruction (primary prevention/proactive; 70-90%)

  • High quality curriculum, evidence-informed instructional methods, formative assessment

  • Universal screening (benchmarking 3x per year)

Tier 2: small group additional instruction (secondary prevention; 10-25%)

  • Increased dose of Tier 1 instruction, formative assessment

  • Time limited (10-20 weeks) with 3-5 students per group (3 x 30 min sessions per week)

  • More frequent progress monitoring (every 3-5 weeks)

Tier 3: specialist support (tertiary prevention; 2-10%)

  • Highly individualised/targeted curriculum and instruction

  • Increased frequency and extended duration with 1-3 students per group (45-60 mins daily)

  • Even more frequent progress monitoring (every 1-2 weeks)

We increase intensity by:

  • Using more teacher-led systematic explicit instruction and feedback

  • Conducting it more frequently

  • Adding to its duration

  • Creating smaller, more homogenous groups

  • Relying on educators with greater expertise

(as per Burns et al, 2012; Fuch & Fuch, 2006; Fletcher et al, 2019)

We provide supports for teachers who are striving for excellence and equity:

  • Formal training in programs and approaches

  • High quality instructional materials (strong core curricula)

  • Weekly in-house professional learning

  • Consistent plannings structures

  • Consistent lesson structures

  • Time allocation and pacing supports

  • Strong classroom routines

  • 1:1 coaching

  • Learning Walks

  • Codified impactful responsive teaching techniques (Instructional Playbook)

Example: Unit planner with (1) knowledge and (2) time specified and scaffolds for (3) explicit and responsive teaching

4. Assessment, curriculum and instruction alignment

Essential: We are clear on what we are teaching therefore on what we are assessing, and we select the most valid and reliable tools for formative and summative assessment.

  • Do we use reliable and valid assessment tools? How do we know?

  • Do we assess what we teach and teach what we assess? What does this look like?

  • Are we clear on what success looks like in our setting? What are we aiming for and why?

Example: Assessment schedule in Year 1

Our results: Teachers

Staff feedback on our whole school approach to professional learning and practice excellence is very positive. Here is our current DET staff opinion (satisfaction) survey data on professional learning.

State: 71% Similar schools: 69% Network: 64% Our school: 94%

Our results: Students

Full credit and congratulations to our phenomenal early years teachers who are responsible for the impressive results below. Hold in mind, students in Year 1 in 2021 had not attended our school in their Foundation year, so they had only three terms of our curriculum and instruction rather than the typical 7 at the time of assessment.

Closing comments

Every school has a culture which is usually a consequence of attitudes, behaviours, expectations, and values. Strive for a culture of excellence and equity. Strive for excellent and equitable teaching practices. Strive for excellence and equity in student achievement (lift the tail, narrow the spread, growth for all).

Having codified active ingredients is essential to achieving excellence and equity:

  • Specify the knowledge.

  • Allocate sufficient time.

  • Explicit and responsive teaching

  • Assessment, curriculum and instruction alignment

Significant investment in professional learning is critical to building a shared, cohesive body of knowledge and impactful teaching practices.

  • PL should be evidence informed, sustained, collaborative, and challenging.

  • PL should improve student outcomes.

  • PL (and ongoing practice improvement) should be valued and prioritised by leaders and teachers.

We are proud of our work, but some words of caution. I do not pretend to have all the answers. This is one example, in one school. We have only been operating for two years, and thus have so much more refinement to do. It may also be easy to commend or see this as a success story, which it is to date, but our ability to maintain results like these will be our true test. It's also easy to use these results as evidence it can be done, and of course it can be done, but those not doing this work in schools are at risk of severely underestimating what it takes, and this is only illustrating one small (but essential) area of the English curriculum.

Yes, we have research consensus regarding effective practices across most aspects of literacy education. Yes, we have clear findings from Response to Intervention research that show us what is potentially possible in schools and systems. But, research to practice is hard because it's fraught with contextual factors and often unpredictable variables. Even with the best available evidence, high quality instructional materials, strong leadership, and great teaching, implementation and maintenance is challenging and ongoing work. A culture of excellence and equity requires sustained attention, rigour, and unwavering commitment.

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