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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Reading between the lines

Genevieve Costigan
Communications Officer, Knowledge Transfer Office, The University Of Melbourne

A version of this article appeared in The University of Melbourne Voice 14 July 2008. A research paper on the Literacy Assessment Project is currently in preparation.

Children’s reading improves when teachers apply developmental models, which focus on when students are ready to learn, rather than deficit models, which start from what students cannot do.

Developmental models of learning build on students’ existing knowledge. Rather than separating out struggling students for special attention, developmental models seek to identify the place of every student along a continuous developmental pathway. An understanding of developmental learning equips teachers to design and implement personalised learning plans that target each student’s needs. In turn, teachers are better able to acquire this understanding if they also have a firm understanding of how assessment can be used to enhance the learning of each child.

In 2004 a research project analysed a range of standardised reading comprehension tests aimed at Grade 3 and 4 children to see whether the statistics from the tests could help teachers better target the reading development level of their students. The project, known as the Literacy Assessment Project (LAP), was a collaboration between the Catholic Education Office Melbourne (CEOM) and a research team led by Professor Patrick Griffin, Director of the Assessment Research Centre in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

The data was analysed and mapped ontreading development levels to show the progression of children’s reading skills from the basic matching of words and pictures to sophisticated understanding of narrative texts. The researchers suggested that if the test score could point to one of the eight levels on the continuum of reading devlopment, teachers would have a better idea of how a score translated into a set of reading skills for each child.

The resulting project involved 70 teachers at 19 schools and approximately 1,640 students. The schools administered two reading assessment tools twice in each year to all students for the first two years of the project. Teachers marked the tests and recorded the results at item level for every student.

Teachers were asked to link the developmental level of individual students to an intervention strategy and then discuss it with their colleagues.

Professional learning

To implement the project a Professional Learning Team (PLT) was established at each school. A team leader was appointed by each PLT. These local leaders met with assessment specialists from the University as an interschool Leaders’ Team, which examined and discussed the assessments made by the school-level teachers. At these discussions the team leaders extended their knowledge of strategies for comprehension, and fed back the insights they gained to the literacy teachers in their own schools.

The work was supported by professional learning sessions for the team leaders, covering the interpretation of assessment data and ways to link it within teaching strategies. Wider professional learning sessions were held for all teacher members of the PLTs, led by external specialists in reading comprehension.

Results of the project

The gains made by students at the participating schools were substantial. After one year the gains in children’s reading at all of the schools were three times the state’s average gain in reading achievement. In one school it was five times the state average gain.

The research broadened from an analysis of test data to encompass new ways of teachers interacting with their students and the creation of professional learning teams in the schools, working together to investigate and extend their knowledge of strategies to assist students at different reading comprehension levels.

The participating teachers found that having this information helped them make decisions about how to teach children in the same class at different stages of reading development by using various strategies and teaching in smaller groups rather than to the whole class.

The encouraging results have led to the development of a new award course in Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, focusing on team leadership, the use of data for decision-making, and evidence-driven intervention programs. The course is the product of partnership between a community, a system of education, a set of schools and a University research centre.

The model is now used in almost 60 Catholic schools and is about to be implemented in the State Government's Northern Metropolitan Region of DEECD and in special schools as part of a current application for funding by the Australian Research Council, which could help bring the number to 200 schools. It is also being piloted in Western Australia with funding from Nickel West.

The project highlights the value of using assessment data as an evidence base for teaching. It also underlines the importance of professional learning that informs teachers about how to access, interpret and apply such data. Systems need to ensure that educators have appropriate data available to them, while also leaving schools and teachers free to act autonomously on the evidence.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Professional development
Educational planning
English language teaching
Educational evaluation
Primary education