While I am fully supportive of the need to explicitly teach phonics and phonological awareness when teaching a child to read, I had always been a bit sceptical of the value of nonsense word assessments. However, that was before I was involved in teaching someone letter-sound correspondence and blending. It was through the act of doing that my understanding came. If someone could read the nonsense words correctly, then you knew for sure that they had mastered the knowledge required to blend and hadn’t, for instance, simply memorised whole words.
This process of understanding through doing reminded me of an article by Thomas Gusky, written over 20 years ago exploring the connection between professional development and teacher change.
Guskey suggests that most professional development activities are designed to initiate change in teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions, based on the theory that it is only through first achieving change on this level that change will occur in teachers’ behaviours and classroom practices (and these, hopefully, will lead to improved student learning). While in some instances this approach is likely to work, Guskey proposes that a different approach is more likely to be successful. He argues that it is not the professional development per se but rather the experience of successful implementation and impact that changes teachers’ attitudes and beliefs. As his model below indicates, “[teachers] believe it works because they have seen it work, and that experience shapes their attitudes and beliefs.”
Indeed, for me, it was only once I was engaged in the teaching of grapheme-phoneme correspondence that I really understood the use of nonsense words to assess mastery of this aspect of reading development.
Guskey’s model has several implications for how we think about and structure professional development as well as for how we should approach the roll out of any new policy initiatives – something that is front of mind currently given the change programme underway across the school sector and National’s recent education policy announcement. If a new programme or approach is to be implemented well, it must become a natural part of teachers’ repertoire of skills. This requires several conditions to be successful:
- Change in practice, and in particular those changes that are going to lead to the types of impact we really want to see on students’ learning and outcomes, are generally difficult to undertake and gradual.
- Therefore, teachers require ongoing support and follow up engagement to really embed a new approach or practice, and to be able to measure its impact.
- Teachers also need to receive regular feedback on students’ learning (and their own), so that they are able to actually understand the impact of their changing practice, and to make iterative adjustments.
- Teachers further require a sustained focus on preferably just one area of practice at a time. It is impossible to make meaningful, lasting change if you are having to spread your focus across multiple different areas, practices, or approaches.
- Teachers require time. Time to learn, to trial, to refine, to improve, and time for the impact of the changes to be realised and to become fully evident.
In an election year, when it would seem that education is going to become increasingly politicised, I hope that politicians and Ministry officials realise just what it takes for a new policy to actually become embedded in practice and to lead to positive change in students’ learning, and in particular the support and conditions teachers need for this to occur.
By Dr Nina Hood