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Literacy Methods: Shame or Safety?

I was speaking at a high school where I had one hour to train 30 staff members in spelling with the English code which meant no time for the usual asides, quips or soapbox moments. I found myself saying, “I love the idea of very high expectations, but…” and moving on before I could expound. I did get to share this slide, but, again, with no time to discuss the concept of every classroom being a “shame free learning space”.

Screenshot (39)That lack of explanation bothers me because the essence of That Reading Thing is not just that it’s a sound method for teaching reading and spelling, but that it’s deliberately designed to work for the most vulnerable, disengaged, angry, (add your own adjective) learners.

The “but” of my first sentence is this: high expectations are marvellous as long as there is a safety net for those who have years of educational failure behind them.

If a 13/15/20 year old can’t read very well then they have already experienced enough shame. If they’re not already angry, they soon will be. These are the young people who show up to their first TRT session, saying, “I’ve been told I’m unteachable.”

If they don’t get angry, then they will attempt invisibility to avoid the humiliation that comes from not being able to do something that seems to come so easily to their peers. They’re the ones who come to their first TRT session saying, “I’ll never learn to read.”

When asked who told them that, they’ll say a teacher.

A teacher? I’m not sure that’s literally true. I hope no educator, even with a throw-away comment, told them they’d never learn to read. What I do think is that the everyday experience of shame has made them believe they’ll never be able to read.

So what makes That Reading Thing so different? Here’s what Professor Greg Brooks noted in his evaluation:

The key factors in TRT enabling many of these young people to make such good progress are (I surmise) the fact that all tuition is one-to-one and not like school, the use of an approach which makes immediate sense to the students and enables them to detect their own steps of progress, however small, and the programme’s distinctive feature dubbed ‘The Deal’.

To expand that a little – the features that set That Reading Thing apart are the deliberate antidotes to the shame that struggling older readers experience whenever they encounter the written word.

  • The Deal is this: you never have to know anything we haven’t learned together. This means that, from the first moment, they are exceeding the tutor’s expectations and their own. The flip-side of the The Deal is they do have to know what you have done together, making high expectation a weekly achievable goal. It’s on this basis that they go from reading and spelling words like admit and combat to words like attraction, instructions and recognition in a few hours. (see Structure below)
  • The First Lesson Rule is that the student has to be doing something in the first That Reading Thing session that they didn’t think they could. This is often spelling the word ‘fantastic’. It’s part of what we mean by “not like school”.
  • Student-centred. The age appropriate content of TRT is carefully designed to be discovered by the student as the tutor guides with no explanations allowed unless asked. Students also take control of the materials, using them in a way that makes best sense to them. I had a 12 year old who lived in a chaotic household. His great joy was to take the board and draw 20 neat boxes where he could fill in answers during the lesson. Others just throw the words down and erase them as we go.
  • Structure. Equally important is that this student-centred learning happens within the context of very structured content. The structure allows for incremental achievable progress. It also means they don’t have to master anything before moving on because the design ensures new skills and information are practiced at future levels in increasingly complex and interesting vocabulary. This experience of moving forward without boring repetition is strongly motivating for people who’ve felt stuck and unhappy in their literacy.
  • One-to-One isn’t an optional feature. It’s the key to moving quickly and getting students feeling confident enough to re-engage in education in weeks rather than months or years. It’s their one hour a week where they feel safe to make mistakes because they trust that the response will always be kind and helpful. They learn that not knowing something can be positive rather than embarrassing and that risking making a mistake leads to real learning. There is no way for them to learn this when they are feeling anxious about failing yet again in the presence of even one other student.

Over the next while I’m going to be knocking (virtually, mostly) on the doors of as many alternative education providers as I can to let them know that there’s a way to engage that one young person who is in danger of being labeled “unteachable”.

2 Responses

  1. An excellent post, Tricia. And you are, indeed, a most excellent teacher.

  2. Tricia
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    That’s very kind, thank you.

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