Understanding the Asttle data and finding reading and writing strategies

Today I met with Marc Milford our schools 'Student achievement co-ordinator' with the hope of understanding where our year 9 students (particularly our boys) were at with their asttle reading results and discuss strategies to engage and improve their writing results.

Marc had sent the asttle results to me earlier in the week and he'd calculated the average reading score (ARS) for the boys was at a 2b.  He said that it was not uncommon for decile 1 schools and that there are always variables that happen that may impact on the results - what happens on the day, how seriously the students take the exams etc so the risk of them not being 100% accurate is a factor to take into account.  There are 67 year 9 boys in total and I noticed there were a lot of students that measured >2b and that immediately worried me.

The writing test was conducted with two classes at a time in the library.  Initially they had problems accessing google but Marc's overall impressions during the tests were positive and he found that the majority of the year 9 students who sat the test were serious about it.

This years genre was 'Explanation writing' and this was a good genre to choose as could be found across curriculum areas and not just in English.  I found this to be an excellent genre that could be developed and strategised with carefully within an integrated programme for our year 9's.

We discussed reasons why the results could have been so low and looked at methods some teachers used when reading.  Students were found to be 'barking at the text' in that they read it for the sake of reading but didn't understand what they read nor could they explain it.

A well developed strategy used in primary schools is the reciprocal reading method, which allowed students the ability to break down a text within a group reading environment.  In a few of our units, we use reciprocal reading and it require students to get into groups and allocate roles to different people.  The roles are predictor, questioner, clarifier and summariser.  Although it helps students in a group collaborate together to complete their roles, I know that we fail to utilise the strategy properly in that the outcomes aren't successful in producing writing that shows real in-depth understanding of the text especially for each individual student.

Marc talked about 'information transfer' which allows students to transfer information that can be spoken, written or drawn into another form such as chart, grid or picture etc and vice versa.  A quote that Marc shared and I found quite cool was that the 'written language is nobodies mother tongue' and I totally get that!

We looked at a few examples of boring readings about Governor Grey and other early leaders in New Zealand and how they could be 'chunked' or broken into manageable pieces for kids to digest.  A key aspect of understanding that Marc shared was that you could give students a scanning sheet that students must find information in the text to sort out and it forces them to reread it the text- this essentially means they become more engaged in trying to understand what it means without trying too hard because they are almost trying to solve a puzzle (I know many of our kids would love a challenge).

Highlighting of key words, using vocab exercises, sorting, matching, jeopardy and designing 'cline exercises' were just a few of the strategies we covered in such a short time.  Although it felt like information overload, I could see the usefulness in using these strategies for the kids in my year 9 class.  By giving students a purpose to write for would force them to reread, something that I know at times we don't really provide.  On reflection, letting our kids decide the purpose could be more beneficial then the teacher deciding because they would see it as more meaningful.

A really cool unit that Marc shared with me was a junior english one called 'Family and holiday'.  Students were provided an interesting and meaningful context, with plenty of scaffolded frameworks that allowed them to build the skills they needed to write an answer that met a co-constructed (student and teacher) assessment criteria.  One of the tasks I found interesting is shown below:

A reading that Marc suggested would support this exercise was Knapp and Watkins 'Genre, text, grammar: Technologies for teaching and assessing writing (2005)' which recognised the need to be aware of the type of verbs, modal verbs, nominals (eg relational, saying, emotional) etc needed for writing.  Although I didn't quite understand the relevance of this reading at first, Marc simplified it further by say that 'writing the way kids speak vs. learning what written language looks like, is a skill that teachers should learn if they want kids to write an effective paragraph - language features are really important.

The fact that reading and writing skills 'can not be divorced' has shown me that both are equally important in ensuring our kids can achieve success across curriculum areas and across year levels.   The expectations that kids can 'read the question and answer it' is something that I've taken for granted and can see the need for more purposeful and effective strategies to support kids when it comes to reading and writing.

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