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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.


Inquiry is vital

The New Zealand Curriculum provides a succinct rationale for teachers to inquire into the effectiveness of their teaching: “Since any teaching strategy works differently in different contexts for different students, effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students”.

Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35

Learn more about the teacher inquiry cycle and read case studies of effective teacher inquiry.

Read a case study about a teacher using an inquiry approach to improve the narrative writing of her mainly Pasifika learners.

Understanding the literacy teaching/learning relationship

Inquiry into the literacy teaching – literacy learning relationship is a cyclical process in which the teacher asks:

What is important (and therefore worth spending time on), given where my students are at?
This focusing inquiry establishes a baseline and a direction. The teacher uses all available information to determine what their students have already learned about literacy and what they need to learn next.

What literacy teaching strategies (evidence-based) are most likely to help my students learn this?
In this teaching inquiry, the teacher uses evidence from research and from their own past practice and that of colleagues to plan teaching and learning opportunities aimed at achieving the outcomes prioritised in the focusing inquiry. This inquiry can be framed around the  Guidelines for Effective Adolescent Literacy Instruction.

What happened as a result of the teaching, and what are the implications for future teaching?
In this learning inquiry, the teacher investigates the success of the teaching in terms of the prioritised outcomes, using a range of assessment approaches. They do this both while learning activities are in progress and also as longer-term sequences or units of work come to an end. They then analyse and interpret the information to consider what they should do next.

Effective professional development employs a similar inquiry cycle as effective teaching, and for a similar reason:

Since any professional development strategy works differently in different contexts for different teachers, effective professional developers require inquiry into the impact of their facilitation on their teacher-learners.

As a Literacy Leader responsible for teacher professional development you need to:

  • identify students’ literacy learning strengths and needs
  • identify what new knowledge and skills your teachers will need to address these students’ needs
  • engage your teachers in tailored professional development
  • support and challenge teachers to implement new approaches in their classrooms
  • evaluate the impact of teachers’ changed actions.

Student-focused inquiry

The first step in any literacy teaching or professional development cycle is to identify your students’ learning strengths and needs in relation to content-area literacy demands. For example, in a unit on geology in Science, students will likely be required to understand and use technical vocabulary, read scientific texts that present complex information in non-linear ways, and write an explanation, for example, about a scientific process such as erosion or deposition, and so on as determined by the curriculum concept being taught. Teachers need to know what the literacy demands are before they can plan deliberate student-focused inquiry, and teaching actions.

Using the Literacy Learning Progressions to frame your inquiry

It is important that teachers find out about more than just their students’ literacy achievement – they also need to know about literacy-related knowledge, skills, strategy use, and attitudes. Much of this information will NOT be provided by any single, standardised assessment.

The  Literacy Learning Progressions (LLP) (Ministry of Education, 2010) are a very valuable tool for framing teachers’ student-focused inquiry as they describe the literacy-related knowledge, skills and attitudes students are expected to have at different levels of the curriculum. The Literacy Learning Progressions can inform your inquiry because they provide a reference point or benchmark you can use to identify students’ literacy strengths and learning needs.

For some English language Learners it will be more appropriate to use the  English Language Learning Progressions.

Multiple sources of information

It is important to base your inquiry on a wide range of formal and informal sources of information. Many important aspects of the literacy knowledge, skills, and attitudes described in the Literacy Learning Progressions and English Language Learning Progressions are NOT assessed by tools such as e-asTTle or PAT. For example, consider different ways you might find out how well your students are doing in relation to this expectation:

“...find, select, and use a range of texts for specific learning purposes in different areas of the curriculum, making decisions as they read about the usefulness of the text for the purpose (e.g., by using a variety of criteria to evaluate the readability, accuracy, relevance, and status of the information and ideas they find)” 
Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 19.

It is unlikely that a formal test will be much help in finding this out!

Learn more about making  overall teacher judgments.
Sources of information that will help teachers’ student-focused inquiry include:

Formal literacy tools such as:

Informal classroom-based evidence such as:

  • student work in books
  • subject-based reading and writing tasks including  Assessment Resource Bank tasks
  • observations of students
  • student voice.

Data analysis

Some important principles to do with analysing data are:

  • benchmarks or reference points
  • achievement level and progress
  • averages and distributions
  • disaggregation
  • acceleration.

Benchmarks or reference points: To make a judgment about a student’s literacy achievement or progress you need something valid with which to compare it. It is most useful to compare student achievement in your school with external benchmarks such as curriculum expectations and national means. It is important to look at both curriculum expectations and means as they will tell you different things. For example, the national mean score for Year 9 and 10 in e-asTTle reading is actually below the curriculum expectation.

Achievement Level and Progress: It is important to analyse students’ levels and their rate of progress. Consider the implications of the different patterns of achievement/progress for teachers of the four classes below:

Student voice

Your students are an important source of information about teaching and learning in your school as they experience it first-hand every day.

Student voice can include:

  • formal interviews with individual or focus group students
  • informal classroom conversations
  • surveys
  • end-of-lesson response sheets.

One approach that some Secondary Literacy Project schools have found manageable and effective is for teachers to select four to six focus students. Decisions about what students to include will depend on the professional learning focus. For example, if a teacher who identified that some groups (eg Māori boys) were making lower than expected progress, some of these boys could be included in a focus group.

Talking with students

Discussions with students could be used to identify their perceptions of:

  • what they know about their own literacy strengths and learning needs
  • texts and tasks they find more and less engaging
  • their aspirations and their perceptions of the relevance of literacy to these.

The teacher can then closely monitor the impact of changed teaching practices on students in this group. This monitoring might include the teacher:

  • jotting down notes about these students as they take part in new literacy learning activities
  • asking the students to write a short learning reflection at the end of each lesson
  • analysing these students’ work to see if the lesson achieved intended learning outcomes
  • regularly asking these students to articulate literacy strategies they are using to complete reading and writing tasks.

Inquiry about the teaching-learning relationship

After you have identified specific student literacy learning needs, the next step is to find out what the school can do differently to address these. The Guidelines of Effective Adolescent Literacy Practice provide a framework for identifying teachers’ professional learning needs.

A useful process for teacher-focused inquiry is:

  • identify specific student literacy learning strengths and needs
  • generate possible explanations or hypotheses for why this is occurring 
    (These should include any ideas put forward by the group.)
  • test each hypothesis systematically, and eliminate those for which there is no evidence.

Focus on those remaining hypotheses that teachers and leaders can influence and which are likely to be most ‘catalytic’, that is, those that will give the ‘biggest bang for your buck’.

Download the Word document below to assist with planing your teacher-focused inquiry.

Classroom observation

Classroom observations are a vital part of teacher-focused inquiry and are an important part of the professional learning cycle. Having ‘another pair of eyes’ in the classroom helps the teacher ‘see’ more of what is going on in their classroom.

Before the lesson: Discuss the purpose of the observation with the teacher. Set up protocols about when you will arrive and leave, how you would like to be introduced to the class, where you will sit, how you will interact with students etc.

During the lesson: Keep a record of relevant information in clear, precise, objective language. Avoid jumping to conclusions and emotive language.

Consider which of these statements is likely to lead to a constructive professional learning conversation:

  • “Your class was mostly off-task and out-of-control. You should have explained it more clearly and had extension activities available.”
  • “Five minutes after you introduced the activity, seven of the students I talked to had finished and said that they did not have any work to carry on with. Nine others had not started and said they didn’t understand what the task was.”

You may want to jot down your own questions or subjective impressions as well but it is best in the ‘Comments’ column.

After the lesson: Allow plenty of time in a suitable environment to provide feedback and have an in-depth discussion with the teacher about the lesson.

Literacy observation template

Before the lesson: Discuss the purpose of the observation, where you will sit, how you will interact with students etc.

During the lesson: In the ‘Running Record’ column, record exactly what happens in clear, precise, objective language. Write your own questions or subjective statements in the ‘Comments’ column.

After the lesson: In partnership with the teacher, discuss and annotate the transcript using the ‘dimensions’. Negotiate professional learning goals and next steps.

Download the Running record document to assist you in recording your observations.
running record (Word 33KB)

Further reading about inquiry

The University of Otago’s  National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) provides a national ‘snapshot’ of children’s knowledge, skills and motivation at Year 4 and Year 8, and is highly relevant to secondary teachers. NEMP reports are also available.

The  assessment community on TKI has much more detailed information about assessment.

More information about  formative assessment is also available.

Ministry of Education (2007).  The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited.

Ministry of Education (2010).  The Literacy Learning Progressions: Meeting the reading and writing demands of the curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited.

Published on: 05 Jan 2018