Deprived pupils left to read alone

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Teachers may be using reading and writing tasks to keep children under control, reports David Budge.

Teachers in disadvantaged areas may be giving their pupils too many solitary reading and writing exercises and relatively few opportunities for classroom discussion, a Scottish study suggests.

The authors of the study, which covered four schools, are reluctant to make generalisations on the basis of such a small sample. But they speculate that longer writing tasks may sometimes be set to help maintain classroom control. In one school, 75 per cent of the English lessons they observed included a writing exercise of 20 minutes or more.

The study also suggests that children who live in disadvantaged areas may adopt a slightly different approach to their work. Unlike their more advantaged peers they appear to prefer whole-class instruction to individual tuition, the researchers say.

Jill Duffield and Sally Brown, of the University of Stirling, and Sheila Riddell, of Napier University, tracked 32 below-average and very low ability children through their first two years in four secondary schools.

In the two schools that had a more middle-class intake, writing took up 35 per cent and 29 per cent of the time. However, in the two schools that served poorer neighbourhoods writing occupied 41 and 48 per cent of the periods observed.

Eight per cent of lesson time was devoted to reading in each of the more advantaged schools, compared with 19 and 10 per cent in the other two schools.

The time allocation for discussion was, however, even more markedly different - 17 and 25 per cent in the more middle-class schools and only 3 and 6 per cent in the others.

"With more reading and writing done as homework in the higher socio-economic status (SES) schools there was opportunity for joint reflection and whole-class or group discussion, as well as individual teacher feedback," the researchers say.

They also noted that children in the more advantaged schools were given more explicit advice on how to redraft their work.

In the lower SES schools, teachers spent more time on instructions and spurring the children into action than they did on feedback and reflection.

"At the high SES schools, pupils including lower-achievers seemed able to relate more readily to adults in their learning tasks," the researchers add.

"There was no evidence that pupils at the low SES schools liked their teachers any less . . . They took a 'heads down' approach to academic work, however, preferring to be given instruction as a class and then be left to get on with it."

Jill Duffield and her colleagues argue that studies such as theirs act as a reminder that school improvement programmes must be rooted in how teachers make sense of their worlds.

"We also want to build understanding of how pupils in varied social circumstances perceive their life in school in relation to learning," they say. "This is a vital area for promoting opportunity for achievement."

"The social class dimension in a school effectiveness study: classroom approaches to learning and teaching", by Jill Duffield, Sally Brown and Sheila Riddell.

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