I first heard about the Matthew Effect in some training materials Geoff Barton put on his excellent website. Subsequently I read a call to arms on whole school literacy from the equally excellent David Didau (@learningspy) citing the same source. For the uninitiated, the Matthew Effect refers to Daniel Rigney’s book of the same name and is based on this passage from Matthew 13:12: “The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer”. Rigney applies this to literacy, arguing that:
“good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, (whilst) poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.”
This leads to the literate learning more, faster, whilst those with poor literacy skills learn less, more slowly. Ed Hirsch Jr builds on this theme in his book “The Schools We Need“:
“The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”.
There is no doubt this is happening at my school. We are doing exceptionally well with those who come to us with average or good skills already. We provide plenty of opportunities for them to develop more intellectual Velcro and progress rapidly. What we need to get better at is working with those who come to us in Year 7 without intellectual capital, who struggle to get a grip on the curriculum we offer and fall further and further behind. These are the students who often display low-level disruptive behaviour; without a handle on the curriculum that is being delivered they are left with little choice but to play up.
It took a chance conversation with our Head of English to remind me of an experiment we had run in the English Department of a previous school. I am committed to mixed ability teaching (here’s why) but the brilliant English teachers in the team were struggling with differentiation and asked if we’d consider setting. We compromised, creating mixed ability groups where the students were all weaker in either reading, writing, or speaking and listening according to assessment data. This allowed the staff to focus on developing that core skill; although the group itself consisted of students of the full ability range, what they all had in common was that their reading was weaker than their writing (or vice versa). It was a great success – teachers were able to differentiate the curriculum more effectively, and student outcomes improved, not just in the focus area but across the board at a faster rate than those grouped in the usual way. Why shouldn’t this work across the curriculum?
So this is the model we are going to adopt. From September, Year 8 and 9 will be grouped for almost all their subjects according to their area of greatest literacy need – reading, writing, or speaking and listening. I am hopeful that this will bring the teaching of literacy to the forefront of teachers’ consciousness across the curriculum and provide the necessary focus on a particular skill area. Thus, when teaching History to a writing-focus group, the teacher might spend a little longer teaching the skills of writing a good history essay, whilst the Geographer with the reading-focus group might plan a starter on skim-reading skills before tackling a lesson which requires reading from three sources. The Drama teacher who has a group with a speaking-and-listening focus could make an immeasurable difference, and an emphasis on presentation skills and group work across the curriculum for learners who struggle with those aspects could do the same.
Of course, this isn’t just going to happen. Teachers are going to need time to adapt their existing curriculum plans and schemes of work to look for the lessons which may need adaptation or variation depending on the focus of the group in front of them. They are also going to need the tools to deliver literacy skills to students with confidence. And thankfully, David Didau has provided those tools in an approach he calls “Literacy Cubed”.
I have adapted David’s approach into a single-side of A4 Literacy Cubed help-sheet for staff. There are nine strategies here to help develop writing, reading and spelling. More will follow on oracy, of course. But if everyone – each member of staff, in each lesson – was teaching these strategies, my hope is that it will provide those tiny hooks that some of our learners so desperately need so they can begin to cling on to the learning that is happening around them and, eventually, begin to turn that learning into hooks of their own.
Here’s the Prezi I’ve prepared to launch this with staff following really enthusiastic reception from SLT, Heads of Faculty and Heads of Year. I’ll use this blog to chart the progress of this approach, which is the first step on a wider “Learning without Limits” campaign for 2013-14. Of which, more anon…