SharpReading BLOG

Thoughts About Teaching Reading


Student Engagement?

Lately I have been laser focused on the implications of the latest cognitive research on brain activity during the act of reading comprehension. 
Fascinating stuff... 

But just the other day I ended up teaching a group of Year 5/6 kids in a classroom where it became very very obvious that even thinking about the finer points of verbal reasoning was a massive over-reach.

They were barely present!  Constructing meaning? 

There was no way that was going to happen. We are talking about having the cognitive awareness to be able to process all the words and ideas in a sentence to interpret accurately the author's intention? 

They were demonstrating the attention span of a gnat.

Not surprisingly given societal trends, the research on attention span says that the average AS for adults is currently down from 12 seconds (20 years ago), to 8 seconds.
I can feel that myself. Apparently, a goldfish can exhibit 9 seconds of attention span.

Well these guys had it down to about 3 seconds. Some of this could be interpreted as 'bad behaviour' but the initial problem is the absence of engagement in the learning task.

The learner brains were not even aware that there was in fact some learning to be had and the dopamine available as a result (that chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good when learning occurs). So it was back to basics. Forget about the learning. That wasn't going to happen until they could get a feel for how we were going to do it.  

My basics included

1. Minimise the teacher talk (zip the teacher lips). Teacher talk is just an invitation to go somewhere else in the brain of these 'learners'.

2. Push hard on a very tight, highly repetitive lesson structure with PACE (it moves so quickly there isn't time to disengage), and PASSION (high teacher energy and urgency - gestures and facial expressions instead of words).

The issue is that I had to have one available - a tight routine that is.  Ahhh...fortunately SharpReading routines are perfect for this. 

They were initially designed that way to prise the locus of control out of my teacher hands and foster 'independent practice'. That's another way of saying 'get the kids doing the work and problem-solving their own efforts'. That is usually hard for the teacher brain to accept let alone knowing HOW to do it.

BUT... I know that these routines also have a significant impact on gnatish behaviour. Engagement breeds more engagement! (It's all about dopamine). I also remembered that the last unit of our Stage 3 course is all about this...

UNIT 8: Student Engagement. 
Maybe it is time to make it UNIT 4 as I suspect being tucked away at the end of a course is not where it is needed most. You see, I had almost forgotten about it myself. 

Headlines from Unit 8 - If I remember rightly it goes a bit like this...
 a) Have a repetitive routine and stick with.
It may take a few lessons to dawn on these readers, but once they realise that there IS a routine...Done! 

b) Implement my routine with PACE and PASSION...already covered this. Experience tells me that if the students can become aware of the learning and experience the buzz associated, engagement will blossom and 50% of the behaviour issues will disappear. And that leaves the teacher to deal with the learned negative behaviour which is deliberate engagement avoidance.    

c) Employ 'soft' behaviour management strategies 
Have clear reasonable expectations about behaviour - keep restating them and reinforcing them. 

  • Asking students to fold their arms has an amazing settling effect on their physiology (it worked with these kids! Try it!)

  • Scan the group (especially the peripheries) - be aware of students disengaging - don't ignore it - use a 'soft' response; pause, a look, a name, a non verbal prompt (tap the text). Catch disengagement early before it escalates.

  • Verbally acknowledge kids doing the right things rather than acknowledging the kids who aren't.

I am amazed at how few teachers bring these soft strategy tools out of their toolkit. Maybe we have become so hung up on all the behavioural labels that we hand out that we treat everyone as being an exception to our rules of acceptable behaviour. 

d) Have a not-so-soft option
If a student is unable to conform with reasonable behaviour expectations then they lose the privilege of being part of the group.

What does that mean?...Have a boring alternative activity they have to complete (a worksheet).

Eventually, MOST students will come to the conclusion that they are 'missing out' and modify their behaviour accordingly.

All of the above means that I am not going to be distracted by the learning that is or isn't happening until the students ARE actually engaged.  

Phew...NOW I might be able to focus on the impact of verbal reasoning on sentence comprehension. 


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