Anatomy of pedagogy

What makes a good teacher of literacy? Karen Thornton reports on the search for greater effectiveness

They are usually their school's English co-ordinator, have made good use of external in-service training, and use their classroom walls as teaching tools.

Effective teachers of primary literacy are not born, they evolve - by having time to reflect on their classroom practice and develop their own teaching philosophies, according to new research.

And while they may not be able to pick out their phonemes from their onsets and rimes, that kind of knowledge of language is implicit in their teaching and they are good at conveying it to their pupils.

Effective Teachers of Literacy, commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency, questioned 228 effective teachers and looked at 26 in detail. The results were compared to a control group of less effective literacy teachers, mainly maths co-ordinators.

The report, produced by researchers from Plymouth and Exeter universities, has implications for the content of initial teacher training and continuing professional development courses.

According to David Wray, one of the report's authors, the key - and new - finding of the two-year research project relates to how effective teachers of literacy use their knowledge of language.

Research in other subjects, such as science and music, has suggested that the most effective teachers are those with the best subject knowledge.

But the TTA research found that effective literacy teachers, while having good subject knowledge, could not express it in an abstract way separate from their teaching.

"It did not seem to be the case that the teachers selected appropriate ways to represent (pedagogy) pre-existing knowledge (content) to children.

"Rather, they appeared to know and understand the material in the form in which they taught it to the children, which was usually as material which helped these children read and write," says the report.

"The effective teachers' knowledge about content and their knowledge about teaching and learning strategies were integrated. They may once have known this material differently. But, through experience of teaching it, their knowledge seemed to have become totally embedded in and banded by their teaching practices."

Teachers themselves said they found in-service courses on specific subject content, such as grammar and linguistic terms and devices, of little relevance to their classroom practice.

"I was OK on it straight after the course, but it is impossible to remember for some reason. I really believe it's because it simply isn't how we do it in class," said one.

The report suggests professional development should focus less on teachers' subject knowledge and more on how that knowledge is conveyed in the classroom.

That may also apply to initial teacher training, where the new curriculum emphasises students' technical subject knowledge. David Wray is a little concerned the focus may be moving too much towards subject content, given the research findings.

"Teachers didn't know it (subject knowledge) in that explicit way - they knew it implicitly through the pedagogy," he said.

Teacher-training courses could support the development of more effective literacy teaching by ensuring students work on an extended literacy project of some kind, he added.

The effective teachers in the TTA report were likely to have undertaken such projects - an experience which helped them develop more coherent personal philosophies about literacy teaching.

The effective teachers also highlighted the importance of good, external in-service training - and, as most were English co-ordinators, had privileged access to it.

Mr Wray said: "Although being the English co-ordinator is a good thing for the co-ordinator and ramps up their expertise, it doesn't seem to do much for the other teachers in the school.

"Most of the funding and targeting has been geared towards subject specialists. There is evidence now that that is not enough - you have got to target others. Literacy is not something one person in the school can be good at; it's so crucial to the enterprise that everyone has to have expertise in it."

* The TTA plans to issue a summary of the report's findings shortly. The full 125-page report is available from David Wray, Schools of Education, University of Exeter, Exeter EX1 2LU, telephone 01392 262973.


* Are usually English co-ordinators.

* Have had high quality external in-service training.

* Are often members of support groups, such as English co-ordinators' groups.

* Have had time - often via involvement in project work - to reflect on their classroom practice.

* Have developed their own, coherent philosophy of literacy teaching.

* Teach grammar, sentence construction and phonics but in the context of improving children's reading and writing.

The report suggests:

* Rotating the English co-ordinator's role to spread expertise among other teachers.

* Redirecting some in-service funding towards support groups.

* Encouraging teachers to become more involved in education research.

* Concentrating less on teachers' subject knowledge in in-service training and more on how subject knowledge is taught to children.

* Engaging student teachers in small-scale research or project-based learning.

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