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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Differences between overachieving and underachieving classes in reading: teacher, classroom and student characteristics

Volume 12 Number 4, December 2012; Pages 339–366
Ulla Damber, Stefan Samuelsson, Karin Taube

A Swedish study has examined factors influencing the literacy acquisition of grade 3 students. The researchers examined average literacy performance, at the classroom level, of 1,092 grade 3 classes in Stockholm and surrounding suburbs. They identified 94 overachieving (OA) and 94 underachieving (UA) classes, after controlling for both SES and home language of students. To identify the respective characteristics of each type of class, they sent questionnaires to teachers and to students. The results indicated three key characteristics that distinguished OA from UA classes, when both SES and home language were controlled for. Firstly, OA classes tended to have more experienced teachers. Teachers' experience level may be an effect as well as cause of student achievement, since teachers of OA students may for that reason be more likely to stay in the profession. In either case, however, the finding highlights the value of having experienced teachers mentor less experienced peers. Secondly, students in OA classes undertook more voluntary reading and were more likely to read newspapers at home. The result emphasises the fact that students' literacy levels depend on their print environment, not simply on individual ability levels. The third distinguishing element was use of authentic literature in the classroom. Associated with this element, students in the OA classes were more likely to write letters to authors and to take part in dramatisations of stories. A fourth characteristic of note was classroom climate. In OA classes students' attitude to peers was more positive, as assessed by both teachers and the students themselves; students had a more positive attitude to schoolwork; and teachers felt more confident about meeting classroom demands. However, while this characteristic was evident when SES was controlled for, it disappeared when students' language background was also controlled for. This finding points to the importance of having teachers equipped to deal with issues raised by students' language and cultural backgrounds. In more general terms, the findings also suggest the heavy impact of SES and language factors on literacy learning. Once these two influences were controlled for, there was no statistically significant difference between OA and UA classes in terms of factors that are sometimes highlighted in research literature, such as the number of teachers in the classroom, the number of years that the teachers had spent in teacher education, and, in most respects, the methods teachers use for reading instruction.


Subject Headings

Primary education
Teaching and learning
Social classes
Socially disadvantaged
Language and languages

Ants, apples and the ABCs: the use of commercial phonics programmes in prior-to-school children's services

Volume 12 Number 4, December 2012; Pages 367–388
Stacey Campbell, Jane Torr, Kathy Cologon

Commercial phonics programs are now widely used throughout the English-speaking world. The programs, often produced by sizeable corporations, typically include a range of books, DVDs, instruction manuals and other resources. The programs are usually based on a systematic, explicit approach, where groups of children 'recite, chant and review phonemes and graphemes'. Commercial phonics programs may also employ the synthetic phonics approach, where children learn phonemic, phonological and alphabetic skills in isolation. Proponents make strong claims for the effectiveness of commercial phonics programs as a way to advance young children's literacy. However, the effectiveness of such direct adult-run group approaches has been challenged by many early childhood teachers, who believe that children best learn phonics through literacy-rich play, and that children connect with print via the sharing of books, dramatic play and nursery rhymes – devices which integrate speaking, listening, reading and writing. Covering only one aspect of reading, commercial phonics programs are not well placed to address other elements of literacy such as vocabulary and comprehension. Such programs cover only 'around 90 phonic rules, whereas children need to understand over 500 spelling and sound relationships', which suggests that the providers of these programs do not envisage them as a total solution to children's early reading needs. A further problem is that the professional development that comes with such programs may be limited to the essential initial training needed to implement them. For the current study researchers surveyed staff at early childhood centres in Sydney to investigate the adoption and use of commercial phonics programs in preschool settings. They distributed 900 surveys and received 283 responses. Most respondents worked in not-for-profit services, in contrast to the prevailing pattern in the industry, which is dominated by for-profit services. Results indicated that commercial phonics programs were used in 36 per cent of respondents' workplaces, while 57 per cent of respondents reported having used such programs at some point. Commercial phonics programs were used significantly more often by staff in long-day care centres than in preschools. The programs were less often used by staff with early childhood university qualifications; by staff in not-for-profit services; and by staff with 15 or more years of experience. The most common reasons cited for the use of commercial phonics programs were pragmatic: acceptance of parents' wishes or managerial directives, or acceptance of the programs as the status quo. Other respondents supported them on the basis of children's perceived enjoyment of the programs, or simply their own preference. Only three explained their support for them in terms of their pedagogical value. Other potential reasons why centres adopt such programs is for their visibility to parents as a means to address their children's literacy needs; as an approach considered suitable for less qualified or experienced staff; and, for larger corporations, as a standardised program consistent with the minimisation of staffing costs.


Subject Headings

Early childhood education
Educational evaluation
New South Wales (NSW)

The role of environmental print in emergent literacy

Volume 12 Number 3, September 2012; Pages 231–258
Michelle Neumann, et al.

Environmental print consists of non-continuous print encountered in real-life contexts, such as logos for toys, a single-word traffic sign, shop signs, or logos for commercial products found in the home. Environmental print is visually attractive and meaningful for young children. It is also free, and available across all social boundaries. However, the value of environment print for developing young children's literacy is debated, with critics pointing to its highly contextual nature. The article reviews academic literature covering each stage of children's acquisition of literacy skills. During their early development, infants learn to differentiate pictures, letters and numbers as symbolic systems and to grasp that they communicate meaning. At about the age of two, they start to understand a sociocultural context for these symbols. They also start to test their understandings of the symbols' meanings. At this stage parents or other adults begin to interact with children in ways that help their learning. However, theorists debate the importance of such 'logographic reading' of environmental print for children's later literacy development. Some theorists downplay its significance; studies have shown that when contextual clues are withdrawn from a symbol, young children are no longer able to decipher them. Other theorists, however, argue that logographic reading is best understood as a stage of literacy development, and that further development can be encouraged when adults offer scaffolded learning opportunities. In early childhood classrooms, environmental print can be used in play settings such as a 'grocery store', where children can engage in meaningful interactions with logos and signs, helping them grasp the links between print and oral speech.


Subject Headings

Child development

How flexible is the national curriculum?

Volume 10 Number 3, December 2012
Mark Gould

The Australian Curriculum: Science 'is usually misrepresented as confining and restrictive by teachers because of the structure of content descriptions'. However, background documents to the science curriculum 'give clear permission to treat the statements flexibly'. There is a 'clear implication' in these documents that teachers may 'adapt the curriculum to meet the diverse needs of learners'. The curriculum provides a map defining key indicators of learning, helping teachers to identify current levels of student achievement and adjust their teaching accordingly. The curriculum therefore helps teachers to cover gaps in particular students' knowledge and allows them to set the level of challenge higher or lower than that officially described as appropriate for a given year level. The article includes a table that illustrates the author's case in relation to physics over years 8 to 10. It sets out achievement standards, physics content descriptions, implied concepts, and possible contexts for their implementation. The author then describes how he has made use of the curriculum's flexibility to create a student-centred learning environment in his classes. He decides on a unit of interest or potential interest to students of their age, that meets the majority of students' needs in terms of scientific literacy, numeracy and other generic skills. He negotiates alternative approaches for individual students with different needs; they tend to comprise between 10 and 40 per cent of the class. In either case, the unit is based around tasks that the students largely undertake themselves, singly or in groups, with little direction from the teacher who supports particular students as required. Assessment occurs at two levels: 'day-to-day informal' and formal assessment upon completion of the task. One of the potential benefits of this approach is to re-engage disaffected students.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Secondary education
Science teaching

The absorption of recent graduates into the Australian labour market: variations by university attended and field of study

Volume 46 Number 1, March 2013; Page 14–30
Ian W  Li, Paul W. Miller

A study has investigated how university students' fields of study relate to their later occupations and earnings in the workforce. The study occurs in the context of public discussion over HECS subsidies provided to students in the fields of mathematics, statistics and science. It is also informed by earlier studies comparing the supply of graduates in given fields to the demand for their qualifications in the labour market, and related to this issue, the extent to which graduates are over-qualified, under-qualified, or precisely matched to the requirements of their current occupations. In general, studies have found that workers' earnings are higher when they are employed in occupations that demand their particular qualifications; they tend to earn considerably less when employed in other occupations, or when their qualifications exceed the level demanded for their occupation. For the current study researchers examined data from the Graduate Destination Survey (GDS) 1999–2009, which is taken four months after students have graduated from their course of study. Results indicate that about 45 per cent of new Australian graduates are over-qualified for the jobs they are in four months after their graduation. The graduates who were most likely to be over-qualified for their current work had majored in 'the natural and physical sciences, agriculture and environment, society and culture, and creative arts'. Within this group, graduates from the natural and physical sciences were the ones most likely to be over-qualified. Graduates from nursing courses were by far the least likely to be over-qualified, suggesting strong demand for nurses in the labour market. Graduates from education courses were slightly less likely than average to be over-qualified. Other graduates less likely than average to be over-qualified were those having studied medicine, engineering, and information technology. The study also investigated employment patterns and earnings effects associated with the groupings of Australian universities from which students had graduated. The authors noted, however, that none of the university groups were 'able to offer protection to their graduates from the adverse consequences of over-education in the labour market'. (See also news item in The Australian 13 March 2013 referring to the article. In the news item one of the study's authors is reported as saying that while the survey was taken four months after graduation, 'an early mismatch of qualifications and employment tended to persist'. – CL )


Subject Headings

Tertiary education

Strength training

Volume 33 Number 6, December 2012; Pages 24–27, 31

A recent report from the Wallace Foundation identifies five features of effective training for school leaders. The first is the need for careful selection of participants for training programs, to 'weed out candidates who are motivated by the raise or promotion' to be derived from the course, rather than the opportunity to improve student learning. Ways to select candidates include participation from education-system personnel and the use of research-based online screen tools. The second feature is to prepare candidates to improve instruction, 'not just manage buildings'. Techniques include the use of real-world scenarios and role-play. Another effective technique is to establish an internship alongside an experienced principal for an extended period, which provides abundant informal learning opportunities. Thirdly, the report recommends that US education systems use their 'consumer power' to influence the content of university courses, and fourthly, it calls for education systems and universities to collaborate in the design of leadership programs. The fifth feature is high-quality mentoring, rather than simply a buddy system that is 'only weakly linked' to the needs of the education system. Another option is the use of summer schools for leaders. While some of these options are expensive, education systems need to accept 'that there are no cheap short cuts' to high-quality leadership development. A 2011 analysis of five countries with high-performing education systems found that they all invested heavily in preparing high-quality school leadership. A six-year study of 180 US schools found that school leadership was second only to teaching as a school-based influence on student learning. The costs of such programs are significantly offset by slowing principal turnover in schools.


Subject Headings

School principals
Professional development
School administration
United States of America (USA)

Wide-open opportunities

Volume 33 Number 6, December 2012; Pages 28–31
Melia Franklin

Teacher leaders are leaders with the potential to hold formal leadership positions and who have nevertheless opted to remain in the classroom. These teachers can be of particular help in rural schools, where resources are stretched. They are visible from the way that they volunteer for leadership roles, read professional literature, attend conferences, seek other professional learning opportunities and seek to improve their teaching from meaningful feedback about their professional practice. They play the roles of 'resource provider, instructional specialist, curriculum specialist, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, mentor, school leader, data coach, catalyst for change, and learner'. Teachers often feel more able to seek advice and support from teacher leaders than those in official leadership positions. It is important for school leaders to ally with teacher leaders. School leaders can support them in a number of ways. They should fund professional development opportunities, including attendance at conferences, from which teacher leaders can report back on developments beyond the school. Teacher leaders should be trusted not only to prioritise issues but to make some decisions themselves. They should be consulted in meaningful ways. Without at least tacit support from teacher leaders, initiatives from above tend to fail.


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
School leadership
Rural education

Willingness to intervene in bullying episodes among middle school students: individual and peer-group influences

Volume 32 Number 6, December 2012; Pages 776–801
Dorothy L. Espelage, Harold Green, Joshua Polanin

Many anti-bullying programs encourage student bystanders to intervene in support of victims, but 'fail to have a conversation with children about how their intervening is viewed by friends'. A recent study has examined patterns of bullying behaviour among 346 students in years 6 and 7 at an Illinois school. The researchers focused on students' willingness to intervene during bullying incidents, and how peers influenced their willingness to become involved. Participants completed a survey covering friendship networks, empathy measures and self-reported attitudes towards bullying and their personal willingness to intervene against it. Evidence from the survey indicated that male students 'affiliate with peers who have comparable levels of willingness to intervene' against bullying, and that for year 7 male students, 'peer-group bullying influenced individual willingness to intervene'. These results were not found for girls: their willingness to intervene against bullying 'did not vary across female peer groups', and 'peer-group bullying had no effect on females' willingness to intervene'. The results suggest the need to address the influence of peer groups explicitly when implementing anti-bullying programs among boys.


Subject Headings

Middle schooling
Boys' education

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