Research says that unless teachers themselves experience the struggle of actively engaging with texts, it would be difficult for them to encourage their students to do likewise. Our researchers put this to the test.
Developing students’ critical literacy and reading skills is a key learning outcome in Singapore’s secondary English syllabus (Ministry of Education, 2001). However, research findings indicate that the use of texts in classrooms has been largely limited to extracting information, with very little need to interpret or generate new knowledge.
To address this disparity, a research team from the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) began the project, “Building Teachers’ Narrative and Textual Capacities“, a two-stage intervention into secondary English classrooms in Singapore. Beginning with teachers’ own reading practices, the team hopes to influence how literacy is taught and learned in the classroom.
Where’s the gap?
This research project was designed to first develop teachers’ narratological and textual capacity, that is, their ability to understand and interpret various texts.
According to Dr Jim Albright, the project’s principal investigator, “Teachers’ narrative competence is a neglected aspect in professional development for improving students’ literacy” (Albright, 2006, p. 8).
True enough, researchers found that many of the teachers had been “conditioned” to think that there is a fixed, singular meaning to each text. This mindset is then passed on to their students through a rigid reading pedagogy.
The research team contends that if literacy is basically about “having access to the practices involved in the making and remaking of textual meaning”, then the limited capacity of English teachers to engage in such meaning-making in turn limits students’ ability to interpret texts creatively (Kwek, Albright, & Kramer-Dahl, 2007, p. 76).
At the same time, teachers who believe that textual meanings are determined tend to have repertoires of readings that are narrow and limiting. This can also affect how their students will be able to interact with the different texts they read in the classroom. As Dr Albright puts it:
To address the gaps in reading pedagogy, the research team organised reading circles where teachers come together regularly to discuss their responses to the texts they are reading. These texts could be literary, non-fictional or professional texts, and are either selected by the researchers or collectively chosen by the group.
These reading circles are important because though these teachers teach reading, they have little time to read outside their areas of work. Also, some teachers are “poor” readers themselves – that is, they do not think critically about the texts they read nor respond creatively to what they read – criteria that they expect of the students they teach (Kwek et al., 2007).
Unlike book clubs, where discussions are limited to an exchange of personal opinions, the reading circle texts are chosen to encourage critical discussion related to their professional practice. The discussions are scaffolded by the researchers, who seek to link the teachers’ own reading experiences and personal experiences with what is mentioned in the texts, and to consider how such texts may be useful for their classes.
Developing professional capacities
The merits of employing teachers’ reading circles in their professional development have been documented extensively. Among other things, they facilitate an environment for professional development by opening opportunities for a diversity of personal readings within a safe and intellectually supportive context.
The reading circles provide teachers with a shared meta-language to talk about both the texts and about their pedagogical practices. “Working together the goal is to have teachers see that their engagement with these texts is enriched by sharing multiple and varied interpretations,” notes Dr Albright (2006, p. 24).
“It is hoped that participants will come to feel a responsibility to help their colleagues learn through their sharing of their interpretations,” he adds. “They may come to recognise that their colleagues are resources for their own learning and reflection, and thus, develop a commitment to their collective growth.” (Albright, 2006, p. 24)
It is hoped that this enhanced capacity in turn would help them to design more effective lessons, which is the focus of the second phase of the research. It is also hoped that these teacher communities will later be propagated across other levels and schools.
The research team has been actively involved in two “neighbourhood” schools since January 2007. Despite some initial resistance, the reading circles are now into the second year (over 15 sessions). Over 20 teachers from the two schools are participating in the project, all of whom are lower secondary English teachers.
It is encouraging to note that the teachers strongly believe that reading is crucial in improving their students’ English language competency. They also recognise that there is a need, in their reading curriculum and in their daily classroom interactions, to connect more strongly with their students’ out-of-school textual experiences and practices.
These realisations form the foundation for the next phase of the research, which is focused on curriculum design and implementation. Here, the objective is to encourage teachers to use the knowledge and skills developed in the first stage of the project to improve their teaching practices. They will also be asked to do their own action research projects to find out more about their students’ literacy practices.
> Read more about this project here.
> Read about other CRPP projects on student reading:
Albright, J. (2006, April). Skinning the textual cat. Paper presented at the LangScape conference, Singapore.
Kwek, D., Albright, J., & Kramer-Dahl, A. (2007). Building teachers’ creative capabilities in Singapore’s English classrooms: A way of contesting pedagogical instrumentality. Literacy, 41(2), 71-78.
Ministry of Education. (2001). English language syllabus 2001 for primary and secondary schools. Singapore: Curriculum Planning and Development Division.