University of Reading’s Institute of Education held a ‘research into practice’ event on May 26th entitled Language(s) and Literacy at Primary. The event was billed as an opportunity to bring together practitioners and researchers interested in primary aged children’s language and literacy development. There was a specific expectation that the event would facilitate reflection on the relationships between research and practice, and that practitioners would suggest ways in which the research agenda could and should be taken forward. Given recent discussions about the challenge of productive engagement with research by teachers (TES 20 and 23 May 2016 – links at bottom of post) events like this are extremely welcome.
I am told that the organising team worked tirelessly to encourage teachers and local authority staff to attend the (free) event. If my recent experience of trying to drum up interest among local teachers to attend a similar event here at Oxford Brookes is any measure, they must be heartily congratulated for their efforts: forty-six delegates packed two lots of three parallel workshop sessions and a plenary keynote. This was a fabulous example of research into practice.
Each of the three parallel sessions focused on a different theme: Reading Development, EAL (English as an Additional Language) and Primary (Modern Foreign) Languages. But, of course, it was the EAL sessions that I attended. By way of illustration of the whole afternoon, here is an account of one session.
Vincent Trakulphadetkrai and Jeanine Treffers-Daller reported on a study they conducted with EAL learners on the relationships between reading comprehension and success in maths. Trakulphadetkrai made the point that while EAL learners tend to be pretty good at decoding, this does not mean that they understand the words they have decoded. This is further affected by the potential for confusion presented by words with multiple meanings, and the difference between common usage and specialist usage of these words. For example, table, translate, volume, and similar are all examples of mathematical terms with nonequivalent homophones used in everyday English.
In their research, Trakulphadetkrai and Teffers-Daller sought to address questions concerning the difference between the performance of first language English users and their EAL peers on maths problems (both wordless and word-based problems), and to assess the extent to which EAL learners’ reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge is related to their performance in solving word-based problems in maths. An example of a wordless problem is 100÷4= and an example of a word-based problem is ‘The school playground is square. It takes 100 equal paces to walk the perimeter of the playground, how many paces is each side?’.
They worked with 33 Year 5 children, 17 EAL (representing 11 countries of origin and 11 different L1s) and 16 EL1 (English First Language). In tests on wordless and word-dependent maths problems they detected a statistically significant difference between performance on word-based problems between EAL and EL1 children. They did not detect a statistically significant difference between scores on wordless problems. This suggests that if we are to address the achievement gap between EAL learners and EL1 learners in maths, then word-based problem solving seems like a suitable target of our efforts.
Trakulphadetkrai and Treffers-Daller then assessed a variety of measures of reading proficiency (YARC test –comprehension, SWRT – vocabulary knowledge, and C-Test – language ability) and found statistically significant relationships between these measures and success in maths). They concluded that:
- Mathematical word-based problem-solving performance is related to EAL learners’ vocabulary knowledge.
- Language ability (C-test) and reading comprehension explain a large portion of EAL children’s word-based mathematical scores.
The floor was then opened to delegates to suggest what should be done next in the light of the findings of this study. Trakulphadetkrai led a discussion, soliciting descriptions of the experiences, ideas and suggestions of practitioners at the ‘chalk-face’ of EAL teaching. The group discussed the potential practical applications of the research and how it can be made most useful for those colleagues who are ultimately in charge of translating research into practice.
Being a part of these discussions was illuminating and has underscored for me the need to involve practitioners in setting agendas so that the research we do is useful. For what it’s worth, my thoughts were that if vocabulary knowledge is an important component of children’s success in maths, then maths teachers with EAL leaners need to make good quality vocabulary instruction an everyday component of their teaching. For me, Trakulphadetkrai and Treffers-Daller would be adding important information to the research literature on EAL teaching in the UK if they conducted an intervention study comparing the effects of such an approach with business as usual. Given the reticence that many of us in the EAL world have witnessed in our non-EAL-specialist colleagues to countenance incorporating EAL methods into their lessons (“I am a teacher of maths, not of English”), such a study should be accompanied by a process evaluation to see what the barriers are to implementing vocabulary teaching in maths lesson and how these might be overcome.
The organisers did a great job in conceptualizing and executing this workshop, and I hope to attend many more like it, at many more institutions, as the voice of practitioners joins the voice of academics to make research count for all.
Read more about teachers’ engagement in research at the links below.