IN FOCUS: Literacy

On 10 May students across the country in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will ‘knuckle down’ for three days of NAPLAN.

The assessment program continues to attract widespread commentary in the media each year, generating lively conversation among parents and educators nationwide. With it comes its staunch advocates and equally critics and of course much debate - NAPLAN forces schools to teach to the test and hence a narrowing of the curriculum; the test holds schools accountable; it causes unnecessary stress for children; it illustrates a widening gap in national literacy and numeracy rates; and let’s not forget the old public vs private stand off.

Yet, like most things in education, it’s not a case of it being good or bad. Education is complex and learning is relational, it’s human. The problem isn’t necessarily NAPLAN itself, but perhaps the unwarranted emphasis placed on the results and the narrow narrative this can generate amid the ‘noise’.

When it comes to talking about literacy and indeed numeracy, for us at Brisbane Boys’ College, it’s all about developing relationships as the foundation for learning. We know that boys learn their teacher first and foremost. When a boy knows he matters, only then will he be willing to really commit to learning.

As a diagnostic tool, NAPLAN has its role to play, but it’s the process of improvement that we’re most interested in and how we can equip boys with the thinking skills required to get from A to B, or perhaps, B to A. We’re interested in developing their communication skills as a means to improving their higher order thinking and ability to comprehend - be it in English or Maths, Science or History. Most importantly we want to provide our boys with experiences that enable them to transfer their skills; this is where the real learning and growth takes place and this is why we’ll continue to invest in relationships first and foremost.

So when it comes to NAPLAN, yes we will be using the data (as one piece of evidence) to continually inform our teaching and learning strategies. And yes, our results matter - we have a critical role to play in shaping national literacy and numeracy. But NAPLAN represents only one piece of the pie - exceptional teachers, exceptional culture, ongoing professional development and the partnership between parent and school all form part of the equation.

Our job, as educators, is to know your son, tailor his experience and support him as an individual. This sits at the heart of our guiding philosophy ‘All about the boy’. Our approach is, of course, supported by a range of initiatives designed to strengthen the learning experience such as the dedicated Early Years spelling program run by our Centre for Thinking and Learning and the Accelerated Reader program in the Middle School, which you can read more about below.

Avid readers make avid writers

As the saying goes - ‘avid reader, avid writer’. This year, Brisbane Boys' College introduced Accelerated Reader, a program created by Renaissance Learning to engage students in developing their literacy skills. All Year 7 boys are currently participating in the program, with a marked enthusiasm for reading already visible across the cohort.

Research has shown that reading is the most effective way students can improve their outcomes. Year 7 represents an ideal group to participate in this style of program. At this age, boys are enthusiastic, responsive to praise and have a strong desire to achieve. It’s also where boys are learning to consolidate their reading and comprehension skills. The more success they have at this level, the better they will do in the future.

Beyond this, the program is also about fostering good habits and getting boys to think positively about reading and writing. It’s not uncommon to hear boys grunt or sigh when you mention these two words.

Boys undertake an initial quiz to determine their book level and are then provided with a list of titles (which vary in difficulty within a specified scale) and must read to progress to the next level. Boys are required to complete a comprehensive quiz, which relates to each individual book, to demonstrate their understanding. These questions require boys to draw on higher order thinking skills and are written in a similar way to that of a NAPLAN writing assessment.

As a boys school, the program is particularly fitting - it draws on their love for competition. Boys are rewarded for improvement. Many programs like this define individuals by their ‘reading age’, and this can, at times, be disheartening for students, and it’s certainly a counterintuitive way to motivate boys. In this instance the reward of improvement feels much more authentic and relevant to their lives.

When it comes to boys enjoying reading, they just need to find what they like. It’s our job to provide these opportunities for discovery, and to highlight that making the time to read is as important as making time to play sport or learn a musical instrument.

When you look at these types of initiatives within the context of ‘preparing’ boys for NAPLAN, the difference lies in the ongoing and developmental nature of the program as opposed to the point-in-time test. Boys can be a little more literal in their thinking in comparison to girls and ‘reading in between’ the lines doesn’t always come naturally. Accelerated Reader helps them with inference (pertinent to NAPLAN) and cross curricular comprehension and enables them to practice these skills regularly.

The program is supported by a team of teaching staff including each boy’s English Teacher, Library Staff and their Literacy Teacher (ASC teacher). This approach enables teachers to work together, share insights about each boy, strengthen their understanding of him as an individual and, as a result, target the way in which they teach. It’s differentiated learning and teaching in action - the key to improving a student’s literacy skills and overall learning outcomes.

A head start in the Early Years

Last year, Brisbane Boys’ College introduced a dedicated spelling program for its youngest learners in Prep to Year 3. The program honours the different way in which boys learn and focuses on getting boys to ‘think about their thinking’ as a tool for tackling spelling challenges.

The program is based on phonics, with phonological awareness recognised as a crucial foundation skill for the development of spelling and reading, this skill being the ability to attend to, identify and manipulate sounds in words.

Instead of boys simply learning a list of words, they learn the various components of the English language and how to put them together. This approach provides boys with a framework for understanding language as opposed to just learning individual words. For example, if they are confronted with a word they have never seen before, they are equipped with strategies to unlock it.

This approach is particularly important in the Early Years as boys acquire the fundamental skills to succeed in literacy.