Research - What's in a name? Confident readers

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Improving remedial students' literacy is all in the branding

Rebranding "remedial" education with the politically correct term "coaching" has played a beneficial role in improving children's reading skills, a leading academic has suggested.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said that coaching did not carry the stigma of remedial education, even though it was a "repackaging" of a similar idea. The term "coaching" suggested that anyone could benefit from the practice, even Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, he said, as he unveiled a major review of international research on literacy teaching.

Professor Topping examined more than 2,300 pieces of research published between 1970 and 2012, from around 10 countries, the majority of which were English-speaking. He narrowed this pool down to the 291 most useful studies.

"Some 40 years ago there was considerable literature in the UK finding that 'remedial' groups were not effective, which led to the disbandment of many of them," the report says. "It is interesting to see a similar idea now resurfacing under a different name. It doesn't have quite the same negative connotation, although it's much the same thing."

Professor Topping said that the word "remedial" had been used by children to bully others. "Whatever word a teacher uses can be abused like this," he said. "But 'coaching' is a milder term which is rather more difficult to pervert."

Coaching also tended to involve shorter, more intense bursts of teaching in smaller groups, which might partly explain why research found it to be more successful than remedial education, he said.

Mick Connell, interim joint director of the UK's National Association for the Teaching of English, said that when he started teaching in the 1970s, "remedial" was a neutral word, but that its meaning of providing a "remedy" had been subverted.

"It came to be such a bad word, we had to ban it. It came to mean a negative - that you would never catch up," he said.

He added that different forms of coaching and mentoring had proved effective in primary classrooms, especially encouraging children to coach each other. But he also said that children had a habit of corrupting whatever words teachers and schools used to describe things.

Professor Topping's report into preschool and early primary literacy also reviews a large number of studies on parental involvement. Almost all are optimistic about the results of parents helping at home. In addition, the study finds that by using letter names instead of letter sounds when reading with their children - in contrast to the phonics-based teaching that has grown in popularity in schools - parents are able to have a positive effect on their children's learning.

Professor Topping also concluded that in-service training for teachers did not always have much impact. The fault was not necessarily with the quality of training but was often down to excessive demands on teachers. "They might think, 'Oh, that's a good idea,' but never get around to delivering it - teachers are incredibly busy people," he said.

The report further finds that the role of classroom assistants is generally positive, fostering a "growth in reading skills". For many children, Professor Topping said, gains in reading achieved with the help of classroom assistants appeared to last.

But Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Scottish nursery and primary school leaders' union AHDS, questioned whether rebranding educational approaches would have much impact. "If the process itself is actually the same, I would have to imagine that the difference in outcomes would be fairly marginal," he said. "You can call a fork a spoon as much as you want but you won't be able to eat soup with it."

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