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  What Works - The Work Program

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Scaffolding Literacy

About the Program | Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey talk with Geoff Ainsworth

About the Program

Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey contribute the following notes.


The University of Canberra Scaffolding Literacy Program was developed by Associate Professor Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey, a Senior Lecturer, at the University of Canberra. It draws upon earlier successful work by Brian with Indigenous students in Alice Springs which has been further developed and applied practically to achieve quite dramatic results with a wide range of educationally marginalised students in the ACT. More recently, the application of the program in Indigenous settings has demonstrated its ability to achieve dramatic gains in literacy competence.

Why it is more successful than other common approaches to Indigenous literacy?

The teaching approach adopted in the program takes a somewhat radical and direct perspective which allows students who may be performing years below their grade level to work at, or very close to, reading levels appropriate for their age. With careful teacher management and support of learning negotiation, the students work intensively on texts which are not modified in any way and which are equivalent to those which also challenge their more successful age peers. Furthermore, the primary method of delivery is the teacher working with the whole class.

This emphasis on the whole class working on the same 'high level' text confronts most common contemporary approaches to literacy which, instead, focus on determining individual performance levels for each child. In 'individualised' approaches, teachers are typically confronted with a wide range of ability levels. And, for schools serving Indigenous communities, the performance disparities are often wide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students as well as between Indigenous students themselves across the one classroom.

The conventional approach to this wide performance disparity involves the teacher in identifying each student's ability level and teaching to that level. Thus, if the child cannot read a book at say a Year 2 level, the conventional and seemingly common sense reaction is to place the child on an easier (Year 1) book and attempt to teach at that lower level in the hope that he or she will gradually improve. However, confining learners to low level books can cause serious difficulties.

These difficulties are especially significant when learners are required to work well below the expectations of their age level as is the case for the majority of Indigenous students. Children working on 'low level' books tend to reject them and at best develop 'short cut' ways of working that involve rote learning, other restricted memorising strategies and limited attention to decoding.

Even more important, however, is the fact that students working at low levels of text complexity cannot hope to catch up with their more successful peers. This is because, at the same time, these more successful students are working on more complex language, dealing with more advanced meanings and issues and continually employing more sophisticated decoding skills. The net result is that students who start behind not only stay behind but, over time, fall further and further behind.

How the teacher engages the children in effective learning

As its name implies, the pedagogy employs as its key element an approach to learning negotiation which has been termed 'scaffolding'. The pedagogy involves teachers in ways of interacting with children which are significantly different from those which are currently employed in either progressivist child-centred (eg, Whole Language) or didactic (eg, Traditional teacher directed or basic skills oriented) approaches.

In scaffolding interactions teachers manage learning engagement initially through modelling and providing information to learners rather than asking learners to 'discover' or explore using their own learning resources. However, the developing interaction process in the classroom is a highly dynamic one and the roles of teacher and learners shift as interaction progresses over time until the learners can function by themselves without teacher help. This kind of teacher support makes teacher expectations about the ways of learning and thinking necessary for school success clearly visible to learners, especially those who don't have the culturally acquired understandings necessary to 'tune in' to school learning without such explicit help.

The outcome is the development of students who are 'literate' in a sense of the term that is far broader than learning simply how to read, write and spell. While reading, writing and spelling form the core focus of the program, the program also provides a platform from which students can come to learn the 'ways of speaking and thinking' that are necessary for educational success.

How the teaching is sequenced

The core program is built around a systematic and progressive approach to literacy development. The approach leads learners through intensive exploration of high level text comprehension which pays careful attention to understanding the complex grammar that is encountered in literate text as opposed to everyday speech. As students begin to engage successfully with reading following this support, the emphasis shifts to development of high level decoding, spelling and eventually to writing.

Development across reading, writing and spelling is highly integrated. Children learn to spell and decode words they can already identify following intensive comprehension work. Furthermore, they learn to use the literate choices they have studied in comprehension activities in their own writing.

Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey talk with Geoff Ainsworth

Geoff Ainsworth:

Can you tell me what you mean by good teaching?

Brian Gray:

Well, we mean teaching that's very focused and really quite intensive. When you're working in any kind of situation where the children are coming into schools without already having the understandings needed to succeed in that situation, you need some kind of process that actually socialises the children into the literate discourse that they're going to be dealing with. So that's got to be built in across your teaching, in every single thing you do. Good teaching is teaching that's really taking that into account. A lot of Aboriginal kids are outside the socialisation process that goes on in classrooms. They need to be brought in.


Is that what scaffolding's all about?


The term 'scaffolding' goes back to Bruner and others but what we mean is just the process through which children are given access to a discourse. Sometimes we describe it as the normal way parents act with kids. The parent lets the child do whatever the child can actually achieve but supports the child in the things that are beyond what the child can do if left to their own resources.

They work to make all of the presumptions of the discourse visible to the child. That's what we want to do.


How do you use texts in your classrooms?


First of all, if children have a history of not being successful, I'd say there's no point working with those children on low level materials. They've probably been doing that for years.


It seems unbelievable to some people that we say that if you've been struggling with kids who can't get past a one sentence a page reader, then you've got to give them harder books. It stops people in their tracks. But we're talking about dealing with texts in a very careful, structured way, and supporting children all the way to read them. Whatever age they are, kids have their own experiences and they're developing in every aspect of their own life. And so, of course, a child who's in Year 6 or 7 is not like a child in Grade 1 for example.

Very often because they're reading at a Grade 1 level there's a perception on the part of teachers that they're like a Grade 1 child, but of course they're not. They need to deal with texts which are appropriate to their own age.


Where's the focus of the teaching?


The focus is on the learning outcomes. It's not on forcing the children to comply with behavioural control regimes without any reference to teaching and learning. If you don't challenge Aboriginal students you might be able to achieve a calm classroom, but all you've got is a classroom where nobody learns anything. We've seen classrooms where the teacher spends their whole time trying to get activities that entertain the kids. For us, behavioural control is something that actually comes when children become task oriented.


So how do teachers react to that?


Well, it's understandable when teachers are under pressure, that they find this really hard to deal with. It's hard work sometimes! But teachers can very easily get pushed into a situation where they can't really do anything in the classroom or they're just keeping children amused.


Another thing that teachers worry about is the notion of cultural difference. Sometimes they worry to the point where they are very afraid and paralysed and unable to just communicate directly. They think you have to bite your tongue and hold back, because you might transgress. Then they try asking a few open-ended questions and the Aboriginal kids don't answer, so they think, well, Aboriginal kids can't answer these questions so it must be against the culture. But that's rubbish! It's just that they haven't been taught how to do it in this particular discourse.

Of course Aboriginal kids can succeed in school but they have to be taught about the discourse. We do a lot of telling and then we ask questions. Because only if you do it that way can the kids see what you're actually talking about.


Can you talk a bit more about the way teachers use questioning?


All of our language is part of a discourse and as such it's patterned. Sometimes teachers learn in teachers college that the only questions to ask are open questions. You know... open questions are good, closed questions are bad. The thinking is that we don't want to interfere with what the children are thinking therefore we never guide children in the interaction. So some teachers find it really hard to move away from the idea that they should never tell kids things. But it's fundamental to our work that teachers must guide children.


So you never want teachers asking open-ended questions?


No, what we say is that you have to ask closed questions as a means of teaching. Once you've had closed questions and the children have looked closely at the text, then that allows them to answer open questions because they then have the resources to answer them. What we're making explicit is all the processes that are involved in doing that.


What else do you see as important in Indigenous education?


One important thing is that Aboriginal kids give body signals that non-Indigenous teachers often don't understand. Sometimes we see classes and from the body signals you might think the kids aren't paying attention. The teacher is talking to them and it looks to the teacher like the kids aren't really connecting and they haven't got a clue what's being said. They might be looking away or looking down or playing with their hair. But actually they are engaged.

The teacher is then in a fairly sensitive kind of zone because they need to learn to read this situation correctly. Trying to make the kids sit up straight and watch you isn't the answer.



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