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  What Works - The Work Program

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Scaffolding at Wiltja Annexe of Woodville High School, Adelaide

The case study | Teachers' comments (2001)

The case study

The following is an adaptation of the case study about Wiltja which was published in What Works? Explorations in improving outcomes for Indigenous students (2000).

The project is an accelerated reading and writing program for primary and secondary Indigenous school students from remote communities in South Australia. Coordinated by a team of researchers from the University of Canberra, the project has been implemented on two sites - the Wiltja Annexe of Woodville High School in Adelaide, and the Amata Primary School located south of Uluru. This case study is drawn from the Wiltja Annexe.

Wiltja provides three programs for Indigenous young people from the Anangu and Pitjantjatjara lands. The opportunity is provided to access urban secondary schooling, and to complete South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) courses. Students with potential for further academic development are nominated by their teachers in these remote communities and, following consultation with parents and family members, travel to Adelaide to participate. Students live in a hostel at Northfield, and participate in a tutorial program on most weeknights that is designed to support their school-based program. Around seventy students are enrolled in the Wiltja program at any one time. The demand for places far exceeds those that are available.

Brian Gray and University of Canberra colleague Wendy Cowey have been developing a 'scaffolding' approach to literacy for more than a decade. The reason for this work has been the apparent gap in literacy outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The team's research indicates that many of the current literacy practices in use with rural/remote Indigenous students limit their chances of success. The team found, for example, that the copying and memorising of text were common practices, and that relatively few students were able to independently read and write by the time they reached secondary school age. Many adolescents were being instructed with literacy materials designed for much younger students in the early years of schooling.

Building on the work of Bruner and Vygotsky, the team has developed an approach that makes the knowledge of literacy development more explicit. The approach employs a sequence of strategies that provide scaffolding support for students to read complex texts fluently and accurately, and then to use the features of literate language that they are learning to read in their own writing.

A group of five teachers has worked collaboratively with the research team to implement the scaffolding approach at Wiltja. As the following comment reveals, some members of the group were highly receptive.

One teacher commented:

I have been teaching Anangu students for about seven years, and have never felt particularly successful in the various schools in which I have taught in terms of literacy outcomes. After looking for some time for an alternative, I was relieved to get involved in the scaffolding approach. Other schemes that I tried, such as phonics, didn't address the needs of fifteen-year-olds with reading ages of six- or seven-year-olds. Junior primary methodology just wasn't working with these kids.

One of the main changes to teachers' practice involves a significant change to their questioning technique. Rather than asking students questions that they may not be able to answer, teachers construct their questioning in ways that clarify appropriate responses before answers are sought. The objective is to create a supportive learning environment that will foster greater student participation.

Initially, some teachers were sceptical of this technique, fearing that they would be stifling student creativity and self-directed learning:

A major point of resistance for many experienced teachers, given that it is so personally challenging, is the need to review your whole questioning technique. This was certainly the case for me, as I was concerned that by feeding answers to students I would be inhibiting independent thinking skills. Actually, this has tended to have the opposite effect, because the kids feel so much more confident, and are asking more critical questions.

Significant increases in student achievement have been measured. For example, all students have advanced by one or more levels in reading and writing based on the national English Profiles.

At the same time, teachers have noted a range of student learning outcomes that are more difficult to measure, like an increased level of student engagement in their learning. Video and anecdotal evidence reflects much higher levels of student participation - especially in terms of the quality of dialogue between students and teachers as well as students themselves. Another reported outcome was student enthusiasm to select their own texts, something no teacher in the project had experienced previously.

Kids are more prepared to have a go, in terms of volunteering answers. There is no shame involved about making mistakes, and students are more willing and able to help each other along. Previously, these kids were really reluctant to participate. For example, students would pull their jumpers over their heads and suchlike. I have also noticed that words like 'Wiya!' (No!) and 'Lanma!' (Boring!), which were commonly used by students last year, are noticeably absent this year.

What factors are critical to ensuring that the process that has been initiated at Wiltja can be maintained and/or expanded in future?

It was clear that input from the external research team was crucial, both during the early planning and implementation stages and for monitoring and refinement. Of equal importance has been the development of a team approach among a core group of teachers, together with the enthusiastic support of the principal. As the principal put it:

There is the issue of critical mass. You need a group to become strong enough to support each other and assist in the training of new members... We are maintaining literacy as a core focus, rather than taking on a range of issues. In other words, we are trying to do as well as we can in literacy, and not be distracted by other things. There is a real sense of determination here... That means persistence, and hanging-in there when there are frustrations and difficulties.

Teachers' comments

In 2001, Wiltja is continuing with Scaffolding Literacy. Here are some comments from current teachers.

About the age-appropriate texts used:

Some of our kids have been bogged down in a cycle of remedial stuff for so many years and there's not much scope in that at all. Whereas these texts are really carefully chosen. One of the hardest things sometimes is choosing the text but they're carefully chosen and they're chosen for a reason and with each text you can bring out something for the students. For instance, you can look at how an author has introduced time or the way a character is concerned about something. Kids can see what it's about, it's at their interest level, and in the end they can use these ideas themselves. The texts give them tools they can use. The whole teaching thing doesn't get hijacked by other issues.

About whether students resist the intense concentration on a text:

I thought they would, but they don't. Because they can see that what we're doing is preparing it for them to be able to read it. And we're getting them to look at what's in the text and understand it and then when they come to read it they realise that they know what it's all about. So, even though they might have forgotten how to read this word or that word, they can still remember what it's all about.

About students' attitudes to their work:

It's like what we're teaching is not just how to read but the purpose and the why of it. And I find that the focus now is on meaning and making sure that the students are getting meaning. Then they are getting appreciation from reading and they have success because they're engaged straight away, and they're active, they're part of it. Even the minute we read and they follow and we teach them how to follow along the strip they feel they're part of the process. And then the next minute when we're highlighting or text marking they have an action to do.

About being methodical and focused:

My experience of literacy has been that if you don't make it a really priority, if you didn't have a real commitment to it then nothing much will change. You have to be explicit about your teaching as well. With the scaffolding, the kids realise fairly quickly what you're trying to do. And they realise that pretty well every step of the way they're going to be successful. There are no tricky bits. They know if they learn this bit, then they will be able to answer the next question.

And by showing them what's happening in the text, when the next bit comes along they've already got some underlying knowledge. I think it's the explicit teaching but it's also the success bit. Kids are successful every time they have a literacy lesson.

About working as a team in the school:

The discussions among us [staff] are great. We meet regularly after school and talk about the texts ourselves, which is not something I've been used to in teaching. And we try to be open and honest about how we're going and how the kids are going. We learn from the process and you keep at it because you can see good things happening for kids.


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