If we’re connected on social media or you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may know my time has been limited over the past couple of years while I’m undertaking my doctoral study. This has sometimes meant I’ve had to miss a course or conference I’d otherwise have attended due to study commitments or impending deadlines, so I was pleased when I realised I would be able to attend the 2020 Conference of Patoss (Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties).
I booked my ticket long before any hint of lockdown, and I was looking forward to a day meeting likeminded teachers and assessors, visiting the exhibitors’ stands and catching up with some familiar faces. This year, that wasn’t to be. We wondered whether the conference would be cancelled or postponed, and I think we were all pleased when the announcement came that the conference would be held online.
I’m reasonably familiar with working online – my first lectures were recorded in 2016 as part of an online course (the Accredited Learning Support Assistant qualification accredited by the British Dyslexia Association). At the time, I had the option to simply record a voiceover, and I opted to do this, as I lacked the confidence to include a friendly video recording of myself speaking (which I’ve since regretted). Since then, as well as lecturing and presenting ‘in the flesh’, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in live online Q&A sessions and webinars, and to attend plenty of online training, doctoral supervision and related forum sessions. I’ve also clocked up many hours of online tutoring, so it’s become a familiar environment. Nevertheless, I’d never attended a conference online.
I’ve been attending conferences since I worked in commodities back in the last century, and to be honest, nothing much had changed, until now. If there’s a choice of speakers, you try to find the room and somewhere to sit in plenty of time, you try not to inconvenience your neighbour as you shuffle through the conference materials or your notebook, or take a sip of water, or whatever. You hope someone else will ask the question you’re interested in, or that if they don’t, your own question will come across as interested and respectful, not foolish or rude. At the end of a talk, you are either relieved you don’t have to move rooms or grateful for the chance to stretch your legs.
The conference was scheduled to start at 10am. Before the opening address from Patoss CEO Lynne Greenwold, there was an introduction to the webinar platform, explaining how to ask questions, etc. This was repeated at the start of the afternoon session, too and was thoughtful, but I was surprised it had not simply been covered in our joining instructions.
The opening lecture ‘Wake up to Thinking Skills: revitalising whole class teaching to support the inclusion of all learners’ delivered by Dr Amelia Roberts, focused on the everyday skills needed by teachers to support all students. By using practical, engaging techniques, we can guide our students to own their learning – so much more powerful than employing traditional didactic chalk-and-talk. This lecture resonated with me, not least because it is how I learn best myself. Many of the strategies discussed were practices I had employed first as a classroom teacher, then as a learning support specialist. They were the types of activities and accommodations that had been covered in great detail during the SpLD module of my MA SEN, and that I had incorporated into my Masters action research project for my dissertation, the same ideas I often focus on in my own teaching, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, that I use in my day-to-day tutoring of university students and the types of recommendations I often include in the relevant sections of SpLD assessment reports. It is always reassuring to feel that we are all on the same page. For anyone who’s interested in learning more, you find some suggestions under the Skills for Learning and Study Skills tabs. I’m adding the resources list from the presentation below.
Dr Amelia Roberts’ recommended resources list:
Supporting Communication Classroom Observation Tool from the amazing for at the Communication Trust – do have a good look around the site, as there are so many excellent resources
NRICH – maths at the University of Cambridge – terrific resources I frequently recommend in blogs and reports
Let’s Think – projects to develop student’s reasoning skills
Thinking Through Primary Teaching by Steve Higgins
P4C Philosophy for Children a subscription website (some superb free resources have been made freely available during the current lockdown)
Information and resources from UCL’s Centre for Inclusive Education
The second morning lecture was delivered by Professor Kate Nation, “Learning to read and learning to comprehend: approaches appropriate to teaching and effectiveness of taking those approaches.” This also resonated with me; early in the lecture, Prof Nation reminded us that reading and writing are not natural human activities, but constructs – something I often press upon parents and teachers bemused by a child’s difficulties. We were reminded that reading and writing skills and difficulties are highly heritable, and that for reading comprehension to develop, learners need to be able to both decode individual words and to understand the language of the text. This constitutes the so-called Simple View of Reading described by Gough and Tunmer (1986) and Rose (2006).
For over a decade, I’ve worked closely with speech and language professionals who assessed and supported my students. I was fortunate to participate in several weeks of training with the Southwark Early Years team, and have unapologetically borrowed ideas, activities and resources from gifted practitioners. I remember the debate around achieving a consensus for the term developmental language disorder, and have joined awareness-raising campaigns and attended training whenever possible. Prof Nation reiterated what we know, that weakness in oral language leads to difficulty in comprehension, and that reduced access to reading limits vocabulary development. We heard about research showing that structured support to develop oral language can lead to lasting improvements in reading comprehension. As well as reminding us of the excellent work of Professors Maggie Snowling and Dorothy Bishop, Prof Nation gave some links and book recommendations, which I’m sharing here, too:
Professor Kate Nation’s recommendations:
Language: the Elephant in the Reading Room a blog by Professor Maggie Snowling
The Education Endowment Foundation – recommendations to support language and literacy development, rated by cost and impact (search for their evaluations on programmes across ages, needs and subject areas, too)
Word Aware: teaching vocabulary across the day, across the curriculum from the brilliant Stephen Parsons (@WordAware on Twitter)
Perhaps appropriately for a virtual conference, the afternoon lecture was Professor Maryanne Wolf‘s ‘The Reading Brain in a Digital Age.’ The presentation was both enjoyable and inspiring, and ideas built on some topics that had been touched on in the morning in terms of accessible, engaging teaching methods and the development of language, but extended our thinking to consider changes as we enter a new, digital age. I was excited to see that the lecture would draw on collaborative work with Martha Denckla, whose work on executive function I had read.
Again, we were reminded that the human brain did not evolve to read. We revisited the basic of every specialist teacher’s training: phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax and morphology. We were reminded of the importance of explicit instruction, of supporting language development and vocabulary knowledge, and of the impact of genes. Prof Wolf discussed the mismatch between policy and practice hinted at by Prof Nation and talked about a subject I often bemoan: the mismatch in spending and resources between age groups… If we invest (time, money, resources) when learners are young, later difficulties may be reduced or avoided altogether. The current reality on both sides of the Atlantic is that spending is focussed on older students, whereas children’s natural capacity to benefit from interventions declines rapidly from the early primary years. Her graphical representation of this, with the spending curve intersecting the learning curve around the age of 5 years, was sobering to say the least.
I was interested to hear how reading can be seen to build skills for inference, deduction, empathy and critical analysis (check out Prof Roberts’ resources to support this in lessons). Prof Wolf explained that these skills have the power to unlock the potential of the dyslexic brain for disruptive, novel thinking, creation and solution of complex patterns other may not easily perceive. Again, we considered that well-known balance of strengths with areas that may be supported, whether through the strengths themselves, through strategies and techniques that we can help embed, by using assistive tech and accommodations or by any combination of these.
New to me was the idea that screen reading does not encourage the depth of thinking that book reading does. I am fortunate to have access to a full academic online library through my doctoral studies, and I will make time to read further and think more abut this. A meta-analysis of 50 studies this century covering over 170,000 young adult participants revealed that comprehension is better when reading is print rather than screen based. The digital chain hypothesis describes modern reading – we read more and quickly but not deeply, we are more distracted, we skim for relevant detail but our memory and attention are reduced. How then, to support our younger, developing and/or dyslexic readers?
Building on Vygotsky’s century-old idea of intertwining thought and language, that we can see when scaffolded self-talk leads to internalised strategies and memory for spelling patterns and mathematical procedures, Prof Wolf proposes a ‘Biliterate Brain’ through parallel print and digital learning. Children may learn to read and comprehend best from print, but they need the digital skills of coding/programming. Deep reading skills first acquired through print media can then be developed explicitly with and for screen reading. Through my work as a specialist teacher, I can see value in this approach.
Each lecture finished with a brief live online Q&A, and the lecture series ended with a panel discussion, which was interesting, but I must admit to being disappointed not to see Sir Jim Rose, who had been scheduled to participate. The regular topical address from Lynne Greenwold ‘Where are we now?’ gave us plenty to think about. Certainly there were lots of questions!
I know I could have been standing or practising yoga throughout the conference, but I didn’t. I sat, watched and listened, and I took notes for the better part of six hours. Of course, we broke for lunch, but that was rushed, as I had to feed the family, and of course, we ate sitting down. I’m looking forward to a ‘real’ conference next year.