• Emina McLean

Knowledge is power

Updated: Sep 17

[This is the fifth story in a series about the journeys educators have been on to change literacy practices in schools. This educator, let down by their teacher training, was about to quit teaching after only one term, but a series of fortunate events transformed her belief in herself as well as her teaching career. Thank you for sharing your story, and for all of the work you are now doing to improve literacy practice across the various tiers of education. This is an unedited recount.]

As a new graduate teacher, I strolled into my first teaching position, a year two class in a medium social economic area, with confidence and the belief that my undergraduate studies had equipped me with the knowledge and skills I needed to be an effective teacher. As my university degree heavily endorsed a student-centered approach to learning whilst conversely dismissing teacher directed approaches, it was instilled in me that my primary role was to ‘facilitate’ a play-based environment where students would actively construct their own knowledge of curriculum concepts and content, including those associated with formal literacy. Intent on fostering a student-centered approach to learning, I spent the first four weekends of my teaching career tirelessly creating ‘hands on games’, resources and setting up aesthetically pleasing Literacy Centers in the hope of motivating my students to construct their own understanding of reading and writing, after all this was best practice, right?

Despite my considerable effort, I observed many students still struggling to grasp the abstract concepts I was required to teach. Feeling disheartened I decided after one term of teaching (and bucket loads of tears), that it wasn't the job for me. What happened next was one of many ‘Damascus moments’ in my career. My principal dissuaded me from quitting and assigned me an experienced ‘old school’ mentor teacher. Her literacy instruction was dissimilar to mine as she explicitly taught the prerequisite reading skills of phonemic awareness, phonics and systematic decoding. I observed her demonstrating and explaining the skills/concepts to be taught in a step by step manner and guiding student’s practice until they achieved mastery. I soon began to emulate her instruction, and to my surprise my students began to learn and I began to understand my impact on their learning. It was at this point that I truly began to understand the need for explicit and systematic instruction when teaching reading, spelling and writing.

Buoyed by my initial success, I developed an incessant thirst for learning more about both Explicit Instruction and evidence-based literacy teaching, knowing that I needed to develop my pedagogical content knowledge if I was to become an effective practitioner. I read widely, not via Dr Google but in the form of peer reviewed research papers, sought out quality professional learning opportunities, and observed ‘expert teachers’ in action. As my knowledge increased, I began to develop instructionally rich lessons that combined my understanding of both the principles of Explicit Instruction and the Science of Reading and Writing, and in turn observed visible gains in my students’ Literacy abilities. I was hooked, I now understood the power of instruction.

The following year marked a period of exponential growth in terms of my teaching and associated knowledge. Not only was I appointed the role of Pre-Primary teacher, but I continued to build my pedagogical content knowledge and refine my Literacy teaching. I developed and implemented a phonological awareness program that enhanced my teaching of structured synthetic phonics, and lead to systematic instruction in decoding and encoding. What happened next surpassed all of my expectations. By the end of first term ALL of my students began to read and write words and decodable sentences. With my end of year goal achieved, I continued to raise my expectations, and used oral language as a stepping stone to build their formal literacy skills; written syntax, spelling, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. These instructional methods continued to accelerate student learning, and by the end of the year all of my students were reading and writing at a level well above their chronological age.

My administration team encouraged me to share my knowledge and skills, firstly with teachers from within my school and eventually with teachers from schools across Western Australia through demonstration lessons, PL sessions and coaching. In the beginning I found this extremely intimidating as a young teacher, but my desire to increase teacher pedagogical knowledge in an effort to enhance the educational outcomes of children, ensured I pushed through the nerves.

Before long, I got a request from Dr Lorraine Hammond, Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University and an Explicit Instruction guru, to observe my Literacy Instruction. As one could imagine my legs were like jelly on the morning of her observation and I had an ongoing urge to blow into a paper bag, but our meeting confirmed that we had a very similar philosophy on teaching and learning and that we both had a weird affection for words.

Lorraine asked me to work with her and before long had me demonstrating literacy instruction to teachers across Australia, with classes of students I had never met. Lorraine does this too. It’s character building stuff, but Lorraine says that you can’t ask teachers to do what you are not prepared to do yourself. Before long she brought Dr Louisa Moats to watch me teach – I still lie in bed at night wishing I’d taken a selfie. I teach with Lorraine at ECU now and work in school supporting other teachers, but I continue to teach, that’s where my passion lies.

Working in diverse educational settings and with a wide range of teachers and students has cemented my educational philosophy; all children can learn and be successful at school when provided with high quality, evidence-based instruction, and all teachers can be effective when given the training and tools to do so. To those of you who have recently found yourself down the exponential rabbit hole of explicit literacy instruction, know that success is a journey and not a destination, go as fast as you can, but as slow as you must. Read far and deep and commit yourself to continuously building your pedagogical content knowledge; you have the power to change the lives of little people by making educational choices based on research.

Brooke Wardana


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