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Improving literacy through differentiation and the importance of effective feedback

Author: Louise Eldridge

Louise discusses improving literacy through differentiation and the promotion of self-regulated learning by providing students with effective feedback. This case study focusses on task design and feedback for the school's Year Eight Geography cohort with whole faculty involvement.


The focus school for this case study is a secondary school in the northern suburbs of Adelaide with approximately 850 students. The school has a rich multicultural community with many immigrants and refugees amongst its cohort and therefore has a large number of students from English as an additional language backgrounds. There are also many students who have poor literacy skills and the school is committed to improving and supporting these students. Many families are on school card and come from families in the construction, manufacturing and farming industries. As a teacher of both Geography and English, I was excited when the school's leadership team undertook a commitment to 'The Literacy Project' in 2016. This project had a focus on improving literacy across the school in all faculties, regardless of whether it was literacy rich or not. The idea being that the faculty as a whole would identify what forms of literacy were used in the senior years and ensuring that there was a clear progression from Year Eight through to the senior years.

As my contribution to this project, I completed a unit for the Year Eight Geography cohort. We chose a geographical report for students, and I created a step by step resource booklet where they could learn what is involved in writing a report, which included images, maps, contents pages and SPICESS elements of geography (Space, Place, Interconnection, Change, Environment, Sustainability and Scale). The main focus of this inquiry was Wilpena Pound. This project was to be completed by Year Eight Geography students, using the same booklet and assessment sheets.

As part of this process, we looked at the feedback sheet and decided to make changes to the way that we provided feedback to the students. Historically we had always used an A-E grade for each assessment element. These elements didn't always match with the ACARA learning outcomes and course objectives. We had begun to undertake the Certified Educational Assessors course (CEA) at school and wanted to incorporate what we were learning. We needed to incorporate ACARA and from research I completed in 2015 around assignment sheets and feedback for my professional learning project, I chose to incorporate the 6 + 1 approach to feedback (Culham 2003). This approach provided constructive feedback to the literacy elements of the work (for example voice, vocabulary, content/ideas, organisation, sentence fluency and conventions. The plus one was presentation). We also felt that a rubric was the best format to present the information, as indicated in the evidence in my previous research (Sadler 2009, p 163).

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Based on what we had done in the course, there were several areas that we felt could be improved when creating this task. We looked at the language that we used and thought hard about the terminology used when putting together the task to ensure it was accessible to everyone, even those with poor literacy (IEA 2016).

The next focus area was differentiation. Our school has many students with poor literacy or learning challenges. It was important for us to differentiate the task by scaffolding the activities so that it was accessible to all students. To achieve this, we stepped through the process methodically, with the aim of looking at one element of SPICESS each lesson. An example was given for each element (using Uluru as an example) and an exemplar of how success was meant to look was shown (Hattie 2012, p 53). We considered not only the word count but flexible management as well (IEA 2016). We asked students to complete this task on a computer and were able to assist at all times. We allowed extra time for those who needed it to complete a specific element, (Tomlinson 2010, p 263) and in some places gave the students a starting point for their research with good online resources that they could use to find information. This also helped to model good information literacy skills.

In order for the teachers to make good judgments and be fair and equitable, I created a report on Wilpena Pound so that the teachers would have an exemplar of the appropriate information to be included within the report. This helped in terms of moderation and interpretation of the task, to ensure we were all on the same page.

When we looked at the feedback sheet, we wanted to try something different. As we had with literacy, we decided to use the 6 + 1 approach (Culham 2003). This enabled us to make clear judgments on the work that the students produced. It also benefitted teachers who didn't teach English. One of our teachers felt that they lacked considerable skill in literacy. By outlining the different elements, it allowed him to meet the project goal of improving literacy, as well as helping him to step through the elements with confidence. However, I feel that the feedback sheet still needs improvement. By using the sheet, I identified some areas which weren't clear and showed how important progressive comments are. They also need to be focussed more on process, task, self-regulation and self-level of the task, which we overlooked (Hattie & Timperley 2007).

The feedback sheet also gave us the opportunity to assess geographical and literacy skills. We found that if the subject is not English, then students don't give much consideration to their literacy and quality of their work. By using this approach, and ensuring students received information about what they were to be marked and assessed on, students had to take literacy more seriously and try harder.

As a faculty, we decided to moderate the inquiry report together (Bolt 2011, p 157) as the evidence has repeatedly shown the value in this process for both teaching staff and students. This proved to be beneficial and allowed us all to see the differences in how the content was taught, what elements were successful and any other ideas people came up with. It also allowed us to see any differences in the way we marked the work. Given that the other teachers were not English teachers, they were marking the literacy component slightly differently and were not necessarily looking for the same things in the writing that I was. We were then able to discuss this as a group and came up with a faculty approach to elements like spelling, sentence structure and use of noun groups and adjectives.

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Action Plan

As a faculty, we met a couple of times to discuss the literacy skills of our students and contemplated how we could improve their literacy and what approach we would take. We decided to create a unit of work which focused on the literacy required in a Geographical Inquiry with a particular focus on how we provide feedback to our students.

To undertake this activity, I wrote a booklet which stepped through the process of creating a geographical inquiry and an assessment sheet. I worked together with the Deputy Principal (DP), who is a Geographer and has a good insight into the language of Geography and how to construct the report. The DP gave me several elements to incorporate.

The final product included a work book for the students to use, an assignment and feedback sheet, and an exemplar of the final product for the teachers. This was circulated amongst the faculty for feedback with modifications made based on the feedback. We anticipated the task would take up to two weeks' worth of lesson time, and would be a summative assessment task.

After the task was completed we noticed a considerable difference in the quality of work. The language had improved considerably and in general, the students completed work in the correct format which incorporated the appropriate elements. From the work produced by the students, the assessment task provided enough detail to clarify what we required the students to produce.

The feedback sheet also worked well. Many of the teachers found that the marking process was much easier and felt they were able to identify where the student's strengths were which therefore showed their weaknesses. However, after using the sheet I felt that the rubric did not provide enough opportunity for specific details to enable the student to improve in future tasks. While I did allow a section to provide comments on two areas of strength and one area of improvement, I do not feel it was enough. I believe feedback is critically important and the research shows it is one of the most important elements to dictate future success, which is why I need to continue to work on the feedback sheet to improve it further (Lipnevich & Smith 2008). Also, the rubric took up a lot of space. I feel it is best that the feedback take up one page only. We moderated the task as a faculty which enabled us to ensure we interpreted the work in the same way and evaluated the students work similarly (Sadler 2013).

I also took into consideration things that I learnt from my previous year on assessment. I like to include imagery for students, so that the expectations are clear (for example a picture of a ruler for length, a calendar for the due date). I use boxes and limit the amount of words that I use. I try to be specific and to the point and have noticed that for students who struggle with literacy, this has made a huge difference.

It is worth considering the concept of assessment for learning as opposed to assessment of learning (Popham 2009, p 11). This task was most certainly an assessment for learning task, and therefore I should have provided students with the opportunity to make amendments and changes, and submit the work again considering the feedback that I provided them with. This is something that I will consider in the future.

After the test, I wanted to see what information the students retained. To do this I asked them to complete a worksheet which asked them some questions about what they had learnt (for example what SPICESS stood for, what TEEL structure (Topic-Explanation-Example/Evidence-Link) is in an essay, nominalising words etc).

The validity and reliability of the task seemed to be good as, on a whole, the tasks submitted by most of the students were set out the same and consisted of the correct information that we asked for. There was little variation. This showed that the task sheet was valid and reliable (Newton 2012).

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Findings and Recommendations

Overall, the faculty felt that the geographical inquiry was very successful. The quality of the student work was much improved and the feedback provided by the students indicated that they felt that they had clear guidelines as to what they were required to do. The feedback sheet provided them with an understanding of what they needed to do to improve the quality of their work next time, thereby enabling self-regulated learning. After discussing the project the following findings and recommendations were identified by the faculty:

  • Each Year eight geography class would complete the task as a summative assessment task.
  • The faculty will continue to use the 6 + 1 approach to marking and evaluating the students work.
  • The rubric approach will be used in the future.
  • The worksheet needs to incorporate the ACARA achievement standards like it did, however, the faculty needs to consider a better way to include them (Klenowski 2013, p 42).
  • The 6 + 1 rubric progression of the different elements requires revision and improvement.
  • The faculty will continue to evaluate and moderate the task each semester to identify limitations and improvements.
  • The faculty needs to consider incorporating some different options within the inquiry to further support students who require additional differentiation.

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The teachers and leadership team within the faculty felt that the project was very successful and the work was used as an exemplar for the other faculties within the school. The booklet was shown and the literacy focus of the assessment sheet was highlighted as a feature during the whole-school meetings.

One of the participating teachers outlined the process the faculty used and the improved outcomes we could identify. He went on to use the same assessment sheet for a Year nine geography class. Unfortunately, he did not modify it for the new cohort.

In completing this CEA action research, I have been able to identify areas of strength that I have in assessment, and also learnt many new ways in which I can do things better. I intend to review the assessment sheets that I used and, armed with the information I have learnt, make changes to ensure that my students are given the best possible opportunities to show their potential and demonstrate what they know, understand and can do.

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Bolt, S 2011, 'Making consistent judgements: assessing student attainment of systemic achievement targets', in The Educational Forum, vol. 75, no. 2, pp 157-172

IEA, 2016, CEA-Purpose and design, teacher notes, Institute of Educational Assessors, Adelaide, 6 September

Culham, R 2003, 6 + 1 Traits of writing: the complete guide, grades 3 and up, Scholastic Professional Books, New York

Hattie, J 2012, Visible learning for teachers: maximising impact on learning, Routledge, London

Hattie, J & Timperley, H 2007, 'The power of feedback', in Review of educational research, vol. 77 no. 1. pp 81-112

Klenowski, V 2013, 'Towards improving public understanding of judgement practice in standards-referenced assessment: an Australian perspective', in Oxford Review of Education, vol. 39, no. 1, pp 36-51

Lipnevich, A & Smith, J 2008, 'Response to assessment feedback: the effects of grades, praise and source of information', Educational testing Service, PDF, viewed 21 January 2017, https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-08-30.pdf

Newton, P 2012, 'Clarifying the consensus definition of validity', in Measurement: interdisciplinary research and perspective, vol. 10, no. 1-2, pp 1-29

Popham, W 2009, 'Assessment literacy for teachers: faddish or fundamental?', in Theory into practice, vol. 48, no. 1, pp 4-11

Sadler, DR 2013, 'Assuring academic achievement standards: from moderation to calibration', in Assessment in education: principles, policy and practice, vol. 20, no. 1, pp 5-19

Sadler, DR 2013, 'Indeterminacy in the use of preset criteria for assessment and grading', in Assessment and evaluation in higher education, vol. 34, no. 2, pp 159-179

Tomlinson, CA 2010, 'Grading and differentiation: paradox or good practice?', in Theory into practice, vol. 44 no. 3, pp 262-269

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