This report presents the findings of a research project which explored how the key competencies described in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) might be integrated with the teaching of reading in the middle years of primary school (Years 3–6). The project involved researchers supporting teachers to conceptualise key competencies more deeply and design and implement reading programmes which integrate the competencies.
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The aim was for researchers and teachers to work together to:
- critically explore ways to integrate the key competencies with reading
- use this emerging understanding of new possibilities to develop materials to support teaching programmes
- provide information for policy makers and teacher educators about the opportunities and challenges for improving learning through integrating reading programmes and the key competencies.
At the beginning of the research the teachers thought their reading programmes would change very little as a result of the integration of key competencies. Over time, a conceptualisation of key competencies as capabilities for lifelong learning and living with the potential to transform pedagogy, enabled teachers to see that change was indeed needed if their students were to live and learn in the complex, heterogeneous societies of the 21st century.
One change we saw was the use of background knowledge. Near the start of the research, episodes we observed suggested most teachers were unaware of the power of drawing students’ personal knowledge into reading conversations. Over the course of the project we saw key competencies develop as students and teachers learnt how to make use of who they were and what they knew as they made meaning of text.
As the research progressed it became clear that, regardless of which key competency was foregrounded, the same ideas surfaced. That is, we found there was a group of ideas that are engaged when any one of the five key competencies is modelled and discussed. An example of an idea engaged by all key competencies is that of interpretive space. In essence, when key competencies are integrated into reading programmes, the same effect occurs—interpretive space is opened up. This gives students more opportunity to make meaning according to the world they bring to the act of reading—as opposed to simply making meaning according to the world announced by the text. We found that, with more interpretive space available, students at all reading levels actively participated in literary discussions.
In turn, as interpretive space opened, students’ opportunities to learn increased. For example, the teachers in one school wanted to develop their students’ ability to relate to each other. Specifically, they wanted their students to develop a sense of empathy. It is important to remember that by now the teachers understood key competencies as capabilities for lifelong learning and living with the potential to transform pedagogy. This conceptualisation led them towards an expansive idea like empathy, which they knew to be crucial to living in a complex world, and away from a more skills-based approach to key competencies such as students learning\ to comment positively on each other’s work. The teachers believed reading fiction would be an ideal context for the development of empathy for three reasons: when reading fiction, readers are exposed to the unfamiliar perspective of the author; they are required to put themselves in the position of the various characters; and fiction offers readers the opportunity to experience the action of a text but at a safe distance—students are able to fully experience the action of the story but do not have to live with its consequences. The teachers undertook work designed to support their students to analyse how characters in picture books felt, and why they felt that way. With time, we saw students learn to relate the action of the story to their own lives, to begin to think about the idea of empathy, and to begin to understand and share characters’ feelings.
It became increasingly clear that, if the teachers were to successfully establish reading programmes within which key competencies might be developed, they would need a much deeper understanding of how texts work. In essence, we found that key competencies do not develop within reading programmes, at least not to any real extent, when teachers have a limited understanding of how to explicitly use the language, symbols, and texts of English. In the case of one school, the teachers wanted their students to see themselves as participating in, and contributing to, the discourse community of literary critics—skilled interpreters of text who engage in stimulating and challenging discussions with their peers. However, the teachers had a limited understanding of the kinds of knowledge needed to be a literary critic. The researchers wrote a teaching resource for the teachers which included a component designed to explicitly teach English form—the structure and language features of English. The resource successfully extended the teachers’ content knowledge which, in turn, led to quite dramatic changes in opportunities to develop key competencies.
We found that the integration of key competencies and reading draws students into conversations that engage them in reading as a dynamic, interesting, rewarding activity in much the same way as expert adult readers are engaged. In particular, integration of key competencies achieves this through encouraging the use of personal knowledge and making more interpretive space available. Notably, it is all students who become engaged in literary conversations.
We also found that the integration of key competencies and reading has led to the increased engagement of teachers. Although most of the teachers were active readers—members of “real world” reading discourse communities in their out-of-school lives who understood what it meant to make meaning of text—the role several adopted at school as “reading teacher” bore little resemblance to this. These two roles seemed quite distinct at the beginning of the project with teachers apparently suppressing any natural inclination to teach reading as they read in their out-of-school lives. But when teachers began to model what a “real” reader looks like, for example, when they took part in informed discussions with their students, modified their interpretations in response to the interpretations of others, conveyed a love of literature and a belief that literature can illuminate understanding of what goes on in the social as well as personal sphere, we saw increased the engagement of both students and teachers.