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In education, translating evidence into practice is a process which involves everyone, from classroom-based teachers, to school leadership teams, local authorities and the wider education communities.
The evidence in that process needs to be qualified. Really effective and high impact practice in the classroom comes from high-quality research evidence – evidence that may have psychological and sociological, as well as educational aspects.
I’m interested in the translation journey, and how we know it actually works. How do you take something derived from a lab scenario or research papers and really action it effectively?
Research conducted by Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain and others has shown that it’s not just the number of words that children know, but the depth and breadth of what they know about each word that really impacts on their ability to draw meaning from a text.
Comprehension relies on the reader possessing semantic, phonological and syntactic knowledge – that is, knowledge of what the words mean, what they sound like and how they can be used.
When children read for pleasure they are meeting words again and again in different contexts, and it is through these encounters that they begin to develop a really nuanced understanding of how language works and what the words mean.
For example, let’s think about the word ‘blue’. To have a real depth of vocabulary understanding about the word blue, you would need to recognise that blue is a colour and know lots of other words that mean the same thing (words that refer to the same colour). You would need to be able to discuss the differences between these colours - what is aquamarine, or navy, or azure, for instance, and how do they vary?
You would also need to know about the phonology of ‘blue’; its phonemes, words that rhyme with blue or words that don’t rhyme with blue and their respective orthographical differences. You would understand semantic or syntactic knowledge about how the word can be used – whether that be as an adjective to describe the colour of something, or to describe feelings and emotions, or even an action in the past tense (e.g blew).
It is clear that teaching words in isolation is not enough: it is getting children to understand the relationship between words and text that really fosters advancements in literacy.
There is a significant correlation between socio-economic disadvantage and lower language acquisition on entry to school. Hart and Risley’s “The Thirty Million Word Gap” (2003) is often cited to substantiate claims for a relationship between levels of word exposure in the home environment and the rate of vocabulary acquisition in young children.
The easy inference to draw from this study is that if you come from a poor family you have poor vocabulary, but that isn’t always the case, and it’s really important that we don’t sweep all children into the same net.
Further distinctions are necessary: does a child with a low vocabulary have ‘delayed’ language or ‘disordered’ language, for instance. Do they need therapy, or do they need their teachers to be really focussed on language teaching?
At Aspire, we hold a lot of communication events where we talk about how to ask the right questions of research and we encourage a healthy level of scepticism about the evidence we are presented with. We talk a lot about trustworthiness - you cannot assume that the evidence you read is robust simply because it is published in a journal. In psychology, for example, in the past 10 years or so, replications of important research studies haven’t been able to find the same reported effects as the original published study.
The Trust’s work on literacy is underpinned by the EEF guidance reports. These reports are informed by a strict research protocol, and therefore help us to have more confidence in their trustworthiness. We are of course excluding a great deal of really good research and really strong evidence by using the EEF reports as the basis for our work, but this must be weighed against their advantage as a reliable and cohesive body of literature from which we can initiate conversations with teachers about the effectiveness of evidence-based practice.
The Aspire Educational Trust tries to make sure that all the judgements we make, and the recommendations and support we give to schools, is rooted in really strong evidence.
The way this evidence is actioned and the outcomes it generates can look different in different schools.
If, for instance, we are looking at spelling, we would explore with subject leaders what the evidence suggests about effective outcomes in this area. We would talk about how it is important that children learn to hear the sound of the words, and develop competency in recording letters in the correct sequence and recognising orthographic patterns.
While these evidence-based objectives should remain consistent, the activities undertaken to achieve the broader outcome of better spelling may vary from classroom to classroom or from school to school.
One school might decide that doing word sorts is the best way for their children to grasp orthographic patterns, while another will give their pupils worksheets and get them to colour in different patterns. A different school might select a “pattern of the week” to study, while another may elect to teach word patterns via a rule-based approach.
For different year groups, classes and teachers, the learning solutions can look very different, but their ‘active ingredient’ – the evidence which drives them – remains the same. Isolating what works where is the challenge we face.
Read Dr Deborah Netolicky’s blog post ‘How schools can engage with research and evidence’
Watch the video to find out how our InCAS assessment for children aged 5-11 helps teachers identify learning support needs.