Visible Learning in Literacy: 3 Takeaways from John Hattie and Nancy Frey

Opportunity to learn with renowned education researchers and practitioners rejuvenates the mind and reignites the passion in many educators. In the second of our two-part series, Steven Anderson and I share what we learned from the Visible Learning Institute in San Diego, this time with a focus on literacy. Head over to part one to see our initial thoughts and shares.

The second day at the Visible Learning Institute in San Diego provided attendees choice in one of two paths in which to learn;  literacy and math. Steven and I jumped at the chance to learn from Nancy Frey and chose the literacy learning to continue to grow our knowledge in this area for supporting educators around the globe. Frey and Doug Fisher (her colleague) have worked extensively with John Hattie in the realm of literacy practices and transferring his research into practice. They have multiple books with Hattie, two of our favorites being Visible Learning for Literacy Grades K-12 and Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom, Grades 6-12. 12.

Frey consistently delivers high-quality and classroom applicable learning during her workshops and this experience was much the same. During Day 2, she used a combination of research, theory, and classroom application to deepen our understanding of high-impact instruction during each phase of learning.

3 Takeaways:

Constrained and Unconstrained Skills – Constrained skills are those that have boundaries and edges to them and are acquired at concrete stages of development. These include phonemic awareness and phonics. Unconstrained skills are boundless, limitless and continue to grow throughout life. These include vocabulary and comprehension. While no argument can be made against the direct instruction and learning of constrained skills, Frey reminded us all that they are important but not sufficient. Leveled texts are great for learning constrained skills, but unconstrained skills are not developed through these types of texts. Both constrained and unconstrained skills develop independently; it is important for all educators in all subject areas to pay attention to both.

Reading Volume – The amount one reads is important, but do you know how important it is for our students? Frey offered statistics to drive home the point about reading volume. Reading 20 minutes a day = 1,800,000 words per year & 90th percentile on standardized tests. Reading 5 minutes a day = 282,000 words per year & 50th percentile on standardized tests. Finally, a student who reads only 1 minute a day = 8,000 words per year & 10th percentile on standardized tests. Assumptions that all kids have access and time at home to read will not increase reading volume; instead, make time for students to read in your classroom.

In addition, as Frey reinforced, students need both content specific reading but also need the exploration of texts beyond the content. If a student enjoys to pleasure read graphic novels we should not dissuade that student from choosing them. Rather, we should support them while still exposing them to content specific passages and texts.

Surface, Deep, Transfer Learning – Hattie, Fisher, and Frey discuss a scale for learning and divide it up into 3 parts of a triangle. Surface, Deep, and Transfer Learning make up this scale representing learning as a process, not an event. Along with the description of each, Frey offered high-impact instructional strategies to support learning.

Surface – Surface Learning, the base of the triangle, is learning that takes place during the acquisition of skills and understanding of concepts. Learners often recognize patterns and start to build foundational knowledge to support the next level of the triangle, Deep Learning.

High-Impact Instructional Strategies to support Surface Learning and the effect size:
  • Repeated Reading (.67)
  • Feedback (.75)
  • Collaborative Learning with Peers (.59)

Deep – Deep Learning builds off of the Surface Learning students acquire. As Frey states, you have to know something before you are able to do something with that knowledge. Deep Learning consists of consolidation through connections, relationships, and schema to organize skills and concepts. Deep learning is also used to consolidate constrained and unconstrained skills. Students need more complex tasks to deepen their own learning.

High-Impact Instructional Strategies to support Deep Learning and the effect size:
  • Concept Mapping (.60)
  • Class Discussions (.82)
  • Metacognitive Strategies (.69)
  • Reciprocal Teaching (.74)

Transfer – Finally, learning and school should not stop with just Surface and Deep Learning. Transfer Learning is self-regulation to continue learning skills and content independent of the teacher. Frey admits, not everything we teach or learn is worthy of Transfer Learning. Transfer Learning places more responsibility on the learner to question, investigate, and organize to propel their learning.

High-Impact Instructional Strategies to support Transfer Learning and the effect size.
  • Reading Across Documents to Conceptually Organize (.85)
  • Formal Discussions, Debates, Socratic Seminars (.82)
  • Problem Solving (.61)
  • Extended Writing (.43)

PBL – Problem-based Learning – effect size is low at surface level learning (.15) but significantly higher at Transfer level learning (.61)

As Day 2 came to a close, our minds were spinning with information and ideas. Nancy Frey not only shared Visible Learning in Literacy but invited us to consider what approaches work best at the right time for the right learning, never to hold an instructional strategy in higher esteem than a student, and our favorite, “Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design.”

5 Practices to Stop Using NOW!

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I can’t think of one educator I have met throughout the years that has not had the best interests of kids in the forefront of their mind. Teaching is more than a job, it’s a passion, and teachers put in countless hours refining their craft. I, too, spend much time between the pages of research on best practices in literacy, supporting educators, and administrators who are involved in making decisions for their districts. In a recent post, I shared classroom practices that boost student achievement based off of the work from Hattie, Fisher, & Frey. In this post, I plan to use the same references and share 5 practices that are commonplace but hold no statistical data to support their impact on achievement. In fact, many of these practices actually hurt kids more than help them and should be stopped!

Stop These 5 Practices Now!

  1. Ability Grouping – A common practice that has no evidence to support use is ability grouping. When students are grouped and one teacher gets the lowest performing students, another gets the gifted students, and so on, there is no positive impact on student achievement (even with the highest group the effect size is minimal). In fact, ability grouping tracks students and limits their potential. Ability grouping also continues to place low expectations on the students who struggle keeping them at a disadvantage and increasing the gap. It also affects self-esteem and socially isolates kids. ***Ability grouping is NOT Needs-based instruction with flexible grouping. This flexible and often short grouping of students is valuable and supports student-centered teaching.
  2. Matching Learning Styles with Instruction – Another common practice that has no evidence to support it is matching your instruction to a perceived learning style of a student. While it is important to note that everyone has preferences on how they access and exchange information based on content, surroundings, etc. it is also important to understand that these preferences can and should change. To match one’s instruction based on learning style of a student is limiting and labels students. Acknowledge that there are learning differences and focus efforts on multiple practices that ensure all students learning at high levels.  
  3. Test Prep – The problem with teaching to the test is that it is usually done in isolation and has insufficient research to prove positive effect size on student learning. Taking time to teach students the format of the test is short and appropriate, isolating and teaching test-taking skills is a waste of time and energy. Instead, weave the skills necessary to think critically, comprehend and construct knowledge, and make a claim with sufficient evidence within the units you teach. Embed these essential skills as part of every lesson, project, or inquiry so that when the test is in front of them students are actually being tested on what they were taught instead of teaching to the test.    
  4. Homework – Hattie’s research supports the current debate on homework that has been popping up on multiple platforms. Homework has little to no effect on student achievement. Elementary students who were assigned homework showed the smallest effect size with a steady increase in effect size in middle school and high school. When students are emerging readers, writers, and learners as they are in elementary school, homework that is assigned as more practice on a skill they are just starting to learn often ends with frustration and struggle. Furthermore, in the upper grades, more homework is often not the answer for raising student achievement. “ Do not ask them (students) to create a school at home where many students need adult expertise; while nearly all parents want to help their students, some do not know how. Many parents can be poor teachers of schoolwork!” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie).
  5. Retention  – Finally, grade-level retention is often based on poor literacy skills. Hattie found in his meta-analyses is that not only does this practice have no evidence to support it, the effect size is actually showing us that it is having the reverse effect and is harming kids. Retention often involves a student repeating the grade with the same instruction, curriculum, and support – why would we expect a change in student learning? Retention is damaging to the whole child and often leads to labeling, low self-esteem, and little to no increase in student achievement. Instead, focus should be on instruction and the RTI process to meet all student needs. Teaching is the greatest job in the world. The opportunity to impact a young life makes the pressures and demands worthwhile. And while no educator sets out to harm a child’s learning by poor practice, it is every professional’s job to understand where to focus their energy and use practices that will positively affect the students in their classrooms!

6 Practices that “Work” to Accelerate Student Learning

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In education, we are often inundated with programs, curriculums, and frameworks that are “guaranteed to increase student learning”. Promises of a silver bullet that will fix all learning difficulties find their way to teachers and administrators alike. But as John Hattie points out in Visible Learning, it’s hard not to show growth or “evidence” for a program when the bar is set at zero.

As I began my study of Visible Learning for Literacy, much of the initial learning was not concentrated on what works in literacy, but what accelerates students’ learning in any classroom. Hattie identifies what works in education based on his research and a hinge point of .40 or greater. (The hinge point is any influence with an effect size of .40 or greater as having a positive impact on learning where acceleration extends beyond what a student can achieve in one year of simply attending school.)

Identifying high-impact influences and practices enhance an educator’s role as they reflect and evaluate their teaching by placing research and evidence in their hands. “What Works” in the classroom shifts from a buzzword to intentional practice that will accelerate learning. While Hattie identifies many influences above .40, I’ve narrowed the list down to 6 that apply to all educators.

6 Practices that “Work” to Accelerate Student Learning

  1. Teacher credibility (.90 effect size) Trust, competence, energy, enthusiasm, and consistency are among the top characteristics students consider when determining if their teacher is credible and if they are going to choose to learn from them.
  2. Teacher-Student Relationships (.72 effect size) Positive teacher-student relationships involve trust, fairness, open communication and maintenance to sustain and impact student learning.  
  3. Classroom Management (.52 effect size) Students understand expectations and are consistently held to those expectations. Promotes healthy relationships with teachers and peers.  
  4. Self-Reported Grades/Student Expectations (1.44 effect size) Students set their own goals, monitor their own achievement, and reflect upon their process of learning.
  5. Teacher Clarity (.75 effect size) Learning targets are clear and articulated with success criteria. Students should be able to answer: What am I learning today? Why am I learning this? How will I know that I learned it?
  6. Feedback (.75 effect size) Just-in-time feedback identifies where the student is at, what the expectation is, and actions they can take to close the gap.

Simply put, be genuine and clear, relationships matter, create a safe environment that nurtures independence, and feedback moves students not grades!