Supporting students with their reading

A five-year longitudinal study, the Supporting Behaviour in the Early Years Project, concluded in 2019. Part of this study included tracking the word-level reading trajectories of 118 children in Grades 1, 2 and 3. Alongside this, their teacher's concerns and the support provided to students was also tracked.

The paper, A longitudinal analysis of the alignment between children's early word‑level reading trajectories, teachers' reported concerns and supports provided, presents findings from the study. In this Q&A, we hear from three of the paper's authors, Professor Linda Graham, Haley Tancredi and Professor Pamela Snow on the study's implications for educators.

Can you tell me about the Supporting Behaviour in the Early Years project and why this reading research in an important part within it?

The Supporting Behaviour in the Early Years project is a longitudinal study that commenced in 2014. This study tracked the development, school liking, language, learning, relationships and behaviour of children from state schools servicing disadvantaged communities in South East Queensland. The study commenced when the children were in Prep in 2014 and followed them to Grade 5, in 2019.

The study investigates the child and classroom characteristics that predict why some children begin to display disruptive classroom behaviour and whether they receive the right supports when it matters. Reading competency is a key variable of interest because previous studies have shown that unaddressed early reading difficulties can lead to academic underachievement and disruptive behaviour. In the analysis published in February this year, we mapped children's reading trajectories against teachers' reported concerns and the supports they said were being provided to determine whether or not children's early reading difficulties were being accurately identified and addressed.

Why did you set out to conduct this research? What were you expecting to find?

We know that around 5-10 per cent of children will experience persistent reading difficulties, which may result in a diagnosis of dyslexia. However, there are also many students who experience early reading difficulties who, given appropriately targeted, timely and high-quality interventions, may master the skills necessary to be a competent reader. We also know that many young people in alternative education settings and juvenile detention have very poor reading skills and that many missed out on support in the crucial early years of school.

We therefore wanted to find out about children's word-level reading trajectories over time. In addition, we wanted to learn about the concerns that these children's teachers had about their students' learning and/or behaviour, as well as what supports were put in place to support these children. This is important because if we want to stop children falling through the cracks, we first have to know where those cracks are.

How did you assess the word-level reading trajectory of a student?

We know that to ‘crack the code' of reading, children need to master two main skills: (i) they need to quickly and easily translate letters into sounds, and (ii) they need to be able to match the word to an item in their oral vocabulary.

To assess both of these skills, we used the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (Second Edition; TOWRE-2). The TOWRE-2 has two subtests, which look at word recognition (sight words) and phonemic decoding (‘sounding out' words). In this study we looked at the data for 118 children and their results on the TOWRE-2 in Grades 1, 2 and 3 and mapped their scores over time using the standardised achievement levels. Over time, the achievement of our children could be characterised by five change groups: Average and above, borderline, declining, improving, and consistently below average.

You found that some educators involved in the research occasionally misjudged the appropriate support for a student. Did your research point to any way in which this could be avoided?

Yes, our findings indicated that teachers' concerns and the supports provided to children did not always align with the reading difficulties that students were experiencing. In many such cases, teachers were distracted by visible (external) characteristics, principally behaviour, and seldom did they question or investigate what might be driving that behaviour. Reading and language difficulties can manifest through both internalising (anxiety, task avoidance) and externalising behaviours (disengagement, classroom disruption). Supports commonly provided to these children, like a behaviour plan or extra teacher aide time, mistake treating the symptoms for the cause.

Children who had a language background other than English performed better overall. Why is this the case?

Only 65 per cent of students from an English language background achieved scores in the improving, consistently borderline, and average or above achievement categories, versus 78 per cent of students with a language background other than English. We also found that more than half the children in the improving group were from a language background other than English.

With regards to overall performance differences between these two groups, we cannot discount the possibility of sampling bias, in that parents of children from a language background other than English who had stronger English skills elected to participate and that our sample is not representative of all ESL [English as a Second Language] learners. That said, we did have many children whose parents spoke almost no English.

With regards to the higher percentage of ESL learners in the improving group, we hypothesise that these students' lower reading skills at Grade 1 may have been because of their developing English proficiency. As their English skills improved, so did their reading skills. These findings challenge English language learning status as an explanation for reading difficulties.

What are the implications of this study for classroom educators? What should they take away from this research?

Teachers are required to make fast-paced decisions, often on imperfect information. The findings of this study should remind teachers to problematise the information they have to hand and the assumptions they employ in their sense-making process. This study shows that it is especially important for teachers to resist common stereotypes about socioeconomic status, English language background and student behaviour, and to investigate all possible reasons for students' presenting characteristics, including difficulties with reading and phonemic decoding.

What's next for this research, and the longitudinal study?

This six-year longitudinal study concluded at the end of 2019 when participating children completed Grade 5. Our task now is to determine group trajectories, this time focusing on teacher reports of student behaviour. From there, we will examine the types of supports provided to children, how well they performed in NAPLAN, whether their language profiles differed, how their attachment to school and teachers changed over time, and what role the quality of teaching and relationships with their teachers played in children's learning and behavioural outcomes.

The authors say in many cases, teachers were distracted by visible characteristics, principally behaviour, and they infrequently questioned or investigated what might be driving that behaviour. Supports commonly provided to these children, like a behaviour plan or extra teacher aide time, mistake treating the symptoms for the cause.

Reflect on a time you recently offered support to a student. Was this based on their classroom behaviour? Did you investigate what could be driving this behaviour? How could you ensure you seek to do this more frequently with students?