Working the clock and "the literacy block"
The Victorian Government Schools Agreement details the workload for teachers. When working full-time, there is a maximum of 22.5 hours allocated to face to face teaching if we are a primary school teacher, and 20.5 hours if we are a secondary teacher. The remaining time is for work directly related to teaching and learning, as well as other duties within the school setting. A full-time primary school teacher in theory has a workload then of something like 22.5 hours face to face with their students, 7.5 hours for work directly related to teaching and learning (e.g. planning, preparation, assessment, professional learning, peer observation), and 8 hours for other duties (e.g. yard duty, meetings, assembly).
Time is one of our most precious resources in education. How we use our face to face time with student matters. I would argue that achieving maximal time on task (time quantity) and maximising what we do with that time (time quality) is one of our biggest challenges in education. I do not mean to oversimplify the complex nature of teaching and teacher effectiveness, as outlined by Stronge, Ward and Grant (2011, p. 340).
"Effectiveness is an elusive concept to define when we consider the complex task of teaching and the multitude of contexts in which teachers work. In discussing teacher preparation and the qualities of effective teachers, Lewis et al. (1999) aptly noted that “teacher quality is a complex phenomenon, and there is little consensus on what it is or how to measure it” (para. 3). In fact, there is considerable debate as to whether we should judge teacher effectiveness based on teacher inputs (e.g., qualifications), the teaching process (e.g., instructional practices), the product of teaching (e.g., effects on student learning), or a composite of these elements."
There are many factors that set highly effective teachers apart. Here are just a few of the things that highly effective teachers tend to do habitually:
- have more time on task with students actively engaged in learning
- have clear learning objectives (they know exactly what they want their students to be able to do by the end of the lesson)
- have clear sequencing of knowledge, skills, and tasks
- follow the stages of practice or a gradual release of responsibility model
- provide clearer instructions
- provide many models/worked examples
- ask more questions and use questioning as a deliberate, frequent technique to check for understanding and provide feedback
- provide more feedback
- clearly outline their expectations for student behaviour and learning and follow through with these
- better organise and manage their classroom in terms of behaviour, disruptions, and routines
- foster personal responsibility in learning
Burns, Riley-Tillman and VanDerHeyden (2012), as well as Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs and Barnes (2019), detail what effective teaching can look like at the whole-class level (Tier 1 instruction). Two recurring questions in both books are along the lines of:
Is a research based core curriculum in place and is that curriculum being followed with sufficient instructional time and with effective techniques?
Is the instructional environment one in which students are actively engaged, non-instructional time is kept to a minimum, and most students are responding accurately? For those students who are not, are they receiving corrective feedback?
Time, and what we do with it, can be our greatest asset.
Working the clock
Doug Lemov (2015) has two invaluable teaching techniques that serve to address how we can use our time more effectively and efficiently. They are 'Work the Clock' (Technique 30, p. 220) and 'Every Minute Matters' (Technique 31, p.224).
Work the clock
"Measure time - your greatest resource as a teacher - intentionally, strategically, and often visibly to shape both your and your students' experience in the classroom." (Lemov, 2015, p.220).
Lemov says we measure things because they matter. There are several suggestions provided as to how we can 'Work the Clock'.
Show the Clock: Make time visible to your students and show them how you allocate time for each activity. Show them how you track the passage of time during tasks. This can help students be more attentive and mindful, and sends the message that there is careful and wise allocation to certain tasks. It is a useful tool for teachers to discipline themselves too, to avoid spending 20 minutes on something that only required 10.
Use Specific and Odd Increments: Lemov says that time limits like 5 or 10 minutes contain an implicit "approximately" or "about". If we say, spend five minutes or ten minutes on something, we rarely stick to time, and it becomes an open ended task. We can be specific and hold students to it (exactly 5 minutes) , or vary the numbers (especially using odd numbers; exactly 3 minutes) to make teacher and students more mindful of time passing.
Set Goals: Lemov talks about making time management a team sport. Set goals as the teacher for yourself, and set goals for your students, with the aim to accomplish things with the greatest efficiency (obviously without unduly rushing).
Use Countdowns: Use countdowns for simple tasks, transitions and wrap-ups, with the aim to transition to less narrated countdowns to minimise disruption to students (e.g. train students to listen for the alarm/beep/timer).
Every Minute Matters
"Respect students' time by spending every minute productively." (Lemov, 2015, p.224)
Recalibrate your thinking from "only 2 minutes left" to "wow, still 2 minutes more to maximise, that's too much to waste"
Believe in how much can be accomplished in a short period of time.
Back-Pocket Activities and Questions: Have independent, high value activities ready to go for students in each lesson, that they can complete if there is a disruption or you need to be completing something else.
There are many more details and instructional gems on page 226-232.
"The literacy block"
Natalie Wexler and many others have lamented the two-hour English Language Arts block in the United States, and they have reflected that more time on English (Literacy) has not resulted in improved student outcomes. Our situation is not too dissimilar here. It is typical to have a two-hour English/Literacy block, or at least to have 10 hours per week allocated to English/Literacy. The issue with this arbitrary time allocation is two-fold:
How the time is spent
How much time is productive and how much time is wasted?
How much time is teacher led learning?
How much time is student led learning?
How much time is independent practice of skills not yet mastered?
How much time is spent on independent reading and writing?
How much time is spent on small-group instruction that has not been demonstrated to be effective?
Is there a scope and sequence that determines what will be covered and when?
Is the core instruction evidence-based or evidence-informed?
Literacy (reading and writing) does not just belong in English
Reading comprehension and writing matter in every subject. I often ask schools, "Do students in your class speak or listen? If yes, you are a language teacher. Do students in your class read or write? If yes, you are a literacy teacher."
Reading comprehension and writing instruction are most effective when embedded in content.
Teaching knowledge, especially across subjects (including general academic vocabulary and vocabulary of the domain), improves reading comprehension.
Writing about what you have learned about improves knowledge building/retention and reading comprehension.
We want students to be able to read texts in History, Science, Maths, and so on. We want students to be able write well in all subjects, and to learn the nuances of academic language within those domains or disciplines.
Embedded reading instruction and writing instruction across subjects can significantly increase how much time students spend on honing their skills.
This obviously needs to be trialed and refined this year, but I have tried to be very intentional when creating our English timetable. I have used a combination of research findings (instruction/intervention studies) and the expert opinion of evidence-based/evidence-informed program developers to allocate time to tasks.
Word-level reading and spelling instruction is allocated 30 minutes per day in Foundation until Year 2. It is more like 20-30 minutes in Years 3-6.
Fluency instruction and practice (fluency pairs, choral reading, echo reading, repeated reading) is allocated 15 minutes per day across F-6.
Handwriting instruction is allocated 15 minutes per day. We know from around Grade 4 the primary way students refine their handwriting is through writing, but our new students have gaps, so handwriting instruction is occurring across the board.
Our Core Knowledge English unit is allocated 50 minutes in F-2 (the first time component is reading) and 60 minutes in 3-6. There is a focus on the development of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing in these daily hours.
In addition to the English Unit, reading comprehension, vocabulary and writing development are addressed in our Core Knowledge Humanities (History and Geography) and Science units. That is, reading and writing knowledge and skill development are embedded in the content across subjects. We have four hours a week dedicated to Humanities (3 hours) and Science (1 hour) units. I should mention that we will cover a lot of Humanities and Science content in English across the year too, it is not just about studying literature or narrative texts. For example, this term in English, on top of a Nursery Rhymes and Fables unit and another unit on Stories, our Foundation students learned about The Human Body and the Five Senses. In Term 2 they will cover Plants, Farms, Seasons and Weather, Kings and Queens, Taking Care of the Earth, and Prime Ministers and Australian Symbols, all within English.
Let's strive to spend every minute productively to improve student outcomes. Let's be intentional in planning and timetabling, to ensure adequate time on task, and that nothing that really matters is left out or only addressed superficially.