Monday, December 21, 2015

Peer2Peer: Mentoring

Most children have the potential to achieve and succeed in their life goals. However, not all children receive the support that they need. In fact many students simply give up and drop out of school. One of the most effective ways to learn and succeed in academia is to link with a peer mentor. The word 'mentor' comes from the Greek word for 'steadfast' and 'enduring'. It is interesting to note that researchers have found that young people who overcome poverty to reach tertiary education often have a mentor  as a role model. The American 'Student2Student' program is an example of one such voluntary project that aims to develop this type of mentor and mentee relationship.

The Student2Student mentoring program gives American high school students the opportunity to mentor younger middle school and elementary school students. The program matches students with their future career interests. It provides an enriching platform to guide the younger student by connecting with older mentors with community resources. It benefits everyone. The mentor is given an opportunity to invest time and effort into guiding younger students while developing collaborative and leadership skills. Younger students benefit from this as they are guided in their future aspirations by linking to motivated older mentors and possibly developing connections to community and business interests.

In Australia there are at least 1 in 10 students of low socio-economic backgrounds that do not meet the minimum reading standards of the national tests (NAPLAN) in years 3, 5, 7, and 9. Over 40% of the adult population in Australia do not have adequate literacy skills to cope with the demands of modern society. Moreover, people with low literacy skills are less likely to complete school, more likely to be unemployed and on social security, as well as more likely to experience poor health. The 'Smith Family' is a charity organisation that believes that every child deserves a chance in life. They support more than 638,000 Australian children living in poverty. One of their major concerns is that children in low socio-economic circumstances receive the extra support with reading.

The Smith Family have a peer mentoring program also called 'student2student program. In their 2013 report, 'Improving through peer support: The student2student program' they give a summary of the effectiveness of peer support for reading. In this report they state "Literacy skills are central to an individual's employment prospects, the ability to manage one's health, be an informed consumer and an active citizen. Without solid literacy skills it is very difficult to achieve technological literacy and governments and businesses are increasingly using digital platforms to provide a range of services."

At the completion of their 2012 student2student program more than 9 out of 10 students (93%) showed an increase in their reading ages relative the the start of the program. Approximately 64% of the mentees made an overall gain of at least 6 months in their reading performance. Mentors generally agreed that they had enjoyed participating in the program, particularly when they saw evidence of their buddy's reading improvement and engagement. The report goes on to say, "There is considerable evidence on the effectiveness of using trained peer tutors in programs aiming to support children with reading difficulties (Woolley and Hay, 2007). Peer tutoring is based on co-operative learning, and when children are in an environment of mutual support, where co-operation, shared goals and a sense of responsibility for the reading process are promoted, a sense of belonging, accomplishment and increased motivation will be achieved (Grimes, 1981 cited in Woolley and Hay, 2007). The one-on-one nature of peer tutoring is seen as contributing to increasing the student’s engagement as well as maintaining their attention to the text for longer periods of time (Woolley and Hay, 2007). The last is important given the relationship between reading frequency and skill." 

Above are two peer mentoring support programs that have been highly successful. Even though they have a similar name their focus is slightly different. However, one wonders if the essential elements of both programs could be combined. This would simply mean matching older and younger students with the same interests.


Grimes, L. (1981). Learned helplessness and attribution theory. Learning Disability Quarterly, 4, 91-100.
Woolley, G. E., & Hay, I. (2007). Reading intervention: The benefits of using trained tutors. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 30(1), 9-20.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vocabulary Development for Readers with Autism

Reading expands the breadth of a reader’s vocabulary, which in turn contributes to reading efficiency.  In other words, the more you read the better reader you will become because a richer vocabulary gives more meaning to what is read. The opposite is also true, the less you read the poorer will be your vocabulary and the harder it will be for you to bring meaning to text. Normally, good readers learn most of their new words by using the context and their own experience of the world to add meaning. Often this meaning will initially be a gross approximation to the actual meaning of the word. However, after many encounters with the same word in a variety of contexts the reader will refine the depth of meaning and also see how meaning can change from one context to another.

Many children who have mastered decoding may have difficulty with reading comprehension, particularly after year four. This is because the language structures are much more complex, much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, the types of texts differ from the more familiar narrative structures that they have been accustomed to in the lower grades, and the emphasis or focus shifts from decoding to comprehension. Often children with language deficits will struggle and appear to fall behind at this point. Reading becomes harder and they tend to avoid reading, which then contributes to poorer vocabulary through lack of exposure to new and unfamiliar words. This becomes a self-defeating cycle of poor reading comprehension and reading disengagement.

In addition, many children with high functioning autism have good to very good decoding skills and have a reasonable amount of reading practice. However, they have more difficulty connecting meaning to new words. They tend to concentrate on the detail and not so much on connected text such as; phrases, sentences, paragraphs and longer discourse. They often have language deficits that hinder this process and have difficulty making appropriate inferences. This may include their inability to develop text coherence, understand emotion and other character traits in narrative texts and have difficulties with executive functioning in working memory. These problems make it difficult for them to connect with prior knowledge, use the sentence and story context, and make appropriate inferences about the meanings of unknown words. Thus, they may read more but their vocabulary suffers as they progress through the grades. Usually these children are very intelligent and are able to cover their comprehension deficit but there will come a time when the texts that they are assigned become too difficult to adequately comprehend. What also makes detection difficult is the fact that they may appear to be reading fluently with expression but without adequate comprehension.

To help these students there are some very practical ideas that have been suggested by Susan Gately (2008 see article for more details). I have listed many of these ideas below but have structured the methods in terms of my COR Literacy Framework (See earlier Blog) (also see my earlier Blog series on Fluency).

Perceptual Level:
  •     Visually cued instruction – helps focus on relevant parts of information
  •     Graphics
  •     Colour
  •    Provide concrete and tangible information
  •    Focus in relevant parts of the story or information
Cognitive Level:
  •    Priming background knowledge
  •    Picture walks
  •  Visual maps
  •    Understanding narrative text structure
  •     Emotional thermometers
Metacognitive Level
  •    Think-alouds
  •      Reciprocal thinking (also refer to reciprocal teaching - Google)
  •     Goal-structure-mapping
  •     Decrease reliance on other prompts and increase independence

Details about these ideas can be found in:
Gately, S. E. (2008). Facilitating reading comprehension for students on the Autism Spectrum. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(3), 40-45.

For a more detailed explanation of vocabulary difficulties see pages 83-84 in:
Woolley, G. (2007). A comprehension intervention for children with reading comprehension difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 12(1), 43-50.

A very informative article and book chapter related to problems with vocabulary for children with ASD:
Lopez, B., & Leekham, S. R. (2003). Do children with autism fail to process information in context? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(2), 285-300.
Leekam, S. (2007). Language comprehension difficulties in Children with autism spectrum disorders. In C. Cain and J. Oakhill (Eds.), Children’s Comprehension Problems in Oral and Written Language: A Cognitive Perspective (pp. 104127), NY : Guilford Press.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Nine Effective Instructional Strategies

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Friday, May 8, 2015

What does Howard Gardner have to say about learning engagement?

Recently I spoke to my education preservice students about Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. The course focuses on assisting primary (elementary) school pupils with learning difficulties. Multiple Intelligences (MI) is a a very useful teaching tool when applied to differentiating the curriculum for children with diverse and additional needs. It is also a useful tool to foster motivation for those who appear to be unmotivated or hard to teach. The reason that I use the word appear is that in reality all people are motivated. The problem is that in some classrooms many children are motivated to avoid rather than engage with the content of the curriculum.

Howard Gardner
My students watched a short video clip of Howard Gardner sharing some of his ideas. They had heard about MI in other courses and were interested in seeing and hearing from the person behind this idea. What then does Howard Gardner have to say about some issues related to motivation and learning engagement?

Learners need to be actively engaged in different ways to explore important ideas and concepts. MI was developed to show how individual children learn in different ways. Gardner said that they should not be expected to merely memorise factual materials or to learn information in uniform ways. However, instruction that seeks to vary the form and mode of presentation and expression will be more likely to foster children's interests and motivation. Interested children are more likely to become active learners and apply what they are learning in meaningful ways.

We are living in an age in which we have instant access to enormous amounts of information on the internet. It has become more important to know how to connect with this information, create new understandings and develop meaningful ways of transferring ideas to novel situations. Teachers will facilitate a more enduring and deeper knowledge for the learner by enabling them to efficiently engage with this information.

Gardner suggested that assessment should be about setting learning goals and providing appropriate feedback to learners. He asserted that assessment should be something whereby learners themselves are the most active agents. For example, self-assessment should be an integral element of any assessment process.

The te@chthought blog gives four useful strategies to consider when teaching unresponsive students. One of the four strategies uses MI to provide an effective framework to diversify and differentiate instruction for all students including those that are hard to teach.

I suggest to my students that they use MI to do a self-assessment.  In my experience teachers are inclined to teach from the perspective of their own MI. It is important for the teacher to be aware of this so that instruction can be targeted across all MIs. Being mindful of the range of interests and orientations within the classroom will help develop a balanced approach to accessing, presenting and expressing content and learning experiences within the classroom.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Jumping through hoops and barking at print.

Sometimes you just feel like pulling your hair out in complete bewilderment. This morning I was reading an article: "Pyne takes swipe at educators 'weird' attitude to spelling" (Weekend Australian, March 7-8, 2015). However, it is not surprising that the Australian (a prominent Murdock Press news paper with a national circulation) should promote the views in this article by Natasha Bita. In the past  the views of Kevin Donnelly, with his emphasis on direct teaching and synthetic phonics as the be-all and end-all of expert teaching, have been vigorously promoted. This equates to teaching a dog to jump through hoops. You can teach a dog to jump through hoops and measure the success of jumping through hoops but how meaningful is this?

Bita quotes Pyne as saying "For decades the advocates of phonics have been pushed to the back of the stage and in some cases treated as slightly eccentric." This is simply not true. Over the last few decades phonics has made a decisive comeback but has NOT had an impact on our literacy standards. Our declining world rankings in literacy as measured by the international PISA test results demonstrate this.

Another quote by Pyne on spelling is even more bewildering, "The view that children should be able to spell however they want to, and that requiring them to spell a certain way was oppressive."  In my 40 years of teaching I have never heard teachers expressing this type of view. There may be the odd one here or their but this is certainly not typical of the teaching profession. It would appear that some people are pushing a particular agenda but the outcome is that these unfounded assumptions merely add to the low esteem that teachers have to endure in our society and muddy the waters. In countries such as Finland teachers are more highly esteemed and the children do well on literacy tests in the international arena.

The only light at the end of the tunnel in the article is Brita's quote from Professor Ewing, "if children learn to decode words but do not know what these words mean, they will be merely 'barking at print' and... (not) comprehending the meaning of the text."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Working Memory and Mental Imagery

  • Mental imagery training enhances comprehension and is easy to teach
  • Pronouns provide cohesion and coherence for text comprehension

I have just returned from recreation leave and read an interesting article entitled 'Effect of imagery training on children's comprehension of pronouns' by Francey and Cain, two researchers from Lancaster University, United Kingdom.  The researchers were investigating children with good and poor listening comprehension, and their ability to identify the antecedents of personal pronouns in individual sentences and also to select the most appropriate pronoun in a story close activity.

Normally, as they read,  good comprehenders will construct an integrated situation model of the perceived sentence and story meanings as a cohesive and coherent mental representation. What usually underpins this process is the resolution of pronouns with their antecedents in the same sentence or previous sentences. Pronouns such as 'he', 'she', 'they' or 'it' are strategic in integrating information within and between sentences. This, however, may require the reader to use extra mental resources to make inferences particularly in situations where 'he' refers to one of two protagonists in the previous sentence. Poor comprehenders often have considerable difficulty with this process and consequently have difficulty with text integration and comprehension of the text discourse.

Good readers tend to generate mental imagery as they read, which benefits their text recall and extends their capacity to hold information while processing text during reading. Poor readers, on the other hand, seldom generate mental imagery while reading. However, in my own research I have found that imagery training is relatively easy and enjoyable for struggling readers. It is assumed that by generating mental imagery during reading the reader is enabled to carry over complex ideas embedded within an image while, for example, decoding, connecting text propositions, making inferences across text and linking ideas to the reader's background  experiences. Thus, mental imagery enhances working memory efficiency by utilising the visual mode of working memory to enhance the ability of the poor comprehender to retain detailed information.

The research findings confirm the notion that poor comprehenders have difficulties with language comprehension apart from decoding. Most poor comprehenders have good decoding but have poor language comprehension and this can be evidenced in the fact that they have significantly more difficulty with pronoun resolution. The research demonstrates that minimal mental imagery training can improve the reading comprehension performance of students with poor comprehension. Another finding is that there is strong evidence to support the notion that pronouns play a crucial role in comprehension and the construction of a cohesive and coherent understanding of text ideas. The findings of this study also give some support for Paivio's (1991) Dual Coading theory of cognition.

Francey, G., Cain, K. (2015). Effect of imagery training on children’s comprehension of pronouns. Journal of Educational Research108 (1) p. 1 – 9.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual-coding approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.