Testing versus Teaching


Guest post by Sally Clendon, PhD

This is my third year of facilitating whole-school professional development projects in New Zealand schools. The focus of these projects has been on implementing a comprehensive approach to literacy for all students. It has been a very exciting and challenging journey that has stretched us daily in terms of our attitudes and beliefs, our knowledge and skills, and our literacy teaching practices. There have been a number of major learning milestones, including:

  • Embracing the emergent view of literacy and recognizing that every student is somewhere on the continuum of literacy learning.
  • Realizing the importance of access to communication for true engagement in literacy learning.
  • Maximizing the amount of time available to teach literacy across the school day.
  • Moving away from a mastery approach where students have to prove they know something before we expose them to new learning.
  • Recognizing the difference between testing and teaching.
  • Making sure that every student has a “pencil”.
  • Understanding that writing is much, much, much more than handwriting.
  • Recognizing the importance of building comprehension, and not just focusing on word reading.
  • Seeing the power in personalizing the curriculum especially for older readers and writers who may need lots of motivation to get re-engaged in literacy.
  • Learning to be patient and give things time.

One of the major milestones listed, “Recognizing the difference between testing and teaching,” is the focus of this blog posting. It represents one of my own greatest “aha” moments (thank you, Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver), and I believe that it makes a critical difference to the kinds of learning opportunities that we provide for our students.

As is often the case, the best way to illustrate this milestone is to share a story. In one of the special schools that I work with, we started our literacy project by assessing all of the students. One of the trends we noticed was that a number of the students with emergent literacy skills were particularly weak in the area of print concept knowledge; for example, they didn’t appear to understand concepts such as that we read the print (not the picture) in a story, and that we start at the top and move from left to right across a line, and then sweep down to the next line in the story.

When we met to discuss how we would work on building these understandings, a lot of the suggestions involved showing the students a text and then asking them to respond to prompts such as: “show me where to start reading,” and “which way do I go now?” This sparked a great discussion and eventually a big “aha” moment. We talked about how those prompts are identical to those that were used in the print concepts test that we’d administered as part of our emergent literacy assessment battery. We also discussed how teaching a test is problematic in that it compromises the integrity of that assessment.

Through the discussion, it became apparent that one of the main reasons for wanting the students to respond to the prompts was so that data could be readily collected each and every day. We talked about whether this was actually necessary, particularly for students with complex communication needs who often face a barrage of questions across their day. The discussion led to even bigger questions and lots of self-reflection around whether our data collection practices were influencing the type of instruction we were providing. See – I told you, it was exciting stuff!!

We then looked at alternative ways to teach these skills. We decided that instead of testing these skills, we would model them in rich, meaningful, learning contexts. We would assess them again, but not daily. Instead we would readminister our assessment battery six months down the track to see if there had been any progress in the students’ understanding. We would also track progress through narrative assessment and document any observations that illustrated student learning in this domain.

One of the teaching strategies that we used involved drawing the students’ attention to important print concepts during shared storybook reading. We drew from Laura Justice’s work around print referencing (Justice, 2004). Another strategy that we implemented was a daily morning message (Hall & Williams, 2000) where the teachers wrote a short message to their students and talked aloud about important print concepts as they wrote. The feedback from teachers has been great with some students starting to give the teacher instructions about what they need to write, e.g., “You need to start with the letter D”, “You need a capital letter for Wednesday”. One student has also started writing her own morning messages.

“Daily Morning Message”

The lesson for us has been that we need to teach our students concepts so that they understand them and can use them. Providing them with rich, meaningful, authentic literacy learning opportunities is essential for this. One of the big differences between teaching and testing is cognitive clarity. If we train literacy skills in isolation and rely solely on a drill-type approach, we may see improved scores on an assessment. The risk we take, however, is that we won’t have students who understand why the concepts they are learning are important and we won’t have students who are able to generalize outside the specific lesson context. We need to push for more, and trust in the power of high-quality teacher and peer models. I am looking forward to sharing more of our learning milestones at ISAAC 2014 – hope to see you there!

Sally Clendon is a Consultant and Senior Lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand. On July 20th Sally Clendon and Jane Farrall, Consultant, based in Australia, will be co-presenting a full-day ISAAC 2014 Pre-conference Workshop titled, “There is No Can’t”: AAC, Literacy and Meeting Complex Needs. Register online here.

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