Thursday, 25 February 2016

What is 'literacy'?


noun  lit·er·a·cy  \ˈli-t(ə-)rə-sē\

Simple Definition of literacy

Popularity: Top 30% of words
  • : the ability to read and write
  • : knowledge that relates to a specified subject

This is what the dictionary meaning of literacy means, and the first part is probably what most of us traditionally view as 'literacy'. In fact when I was a teacher with my own classroom, I didn't teach reading and writing as two distinct subjects, I taught 'literacy', and this is how it appeared on my timetable. That was my entire concept of what literacy was!

Of course, that was some time ago, well before personal (actually, even shared)devices.  Now days, it is becoming more common to extend this concept and speak about 'multiple literacies'. So this may include concepts such as media literacy, visual literacy, digital literacy and environmental literacy. One important one for us here at Bradbury and of which I have spoken about before, is mathematical literacy, which is quite different to pure maths and takes our students way beyond algorithms. We believe that this literacy is as important as the dominant literacies of reading and writing. 

So then, what is a definition of 'literacy' that includes the concept of multiple literacies? Elliott Eisner suggests that it is a way of 'conveying meaning through and recovering meaning from the form of representation in which it appears' (p 353, 1997). I like this definition. Although already fairly old, I think it captures what we mean here at Bradbury when we speak about  literacy- in whatever form we are referring to.

Just for those who are interested, I came across this diagramatic representation of mathematical literacy recently, which I enjoyed dissecting. You will see that it adds two more 'literacies':Quantitative literacy and spacial literacy.

Eisner, E. (1997) Cognition and Representation, A Way to Pursue The American Dream? : Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Standardised Assessment in Bradbury

Occasionally, I am asked about when we 'do assessments' on our students. My reply is that we do this everyday, in every question we ask our students, in every observation we make and in every conversation we have with them. Continuous assessment is the lifeblood of our practice. It is how we know what to teach next , at what level to pitch our lessons and how to personalise the learning so that it meets the individual needs of our students. We call this 'formative assessment' and it takes many guises. It is assessment for learning.

There is another type of assessment also. This is summative assessment and is an assessment of learning. The one main tool we use for this purpose in Years 4-6 is the International Schools Assessment (ISA)
The ISA is designed specifically for students  in international schools whose language of instruction is English. We use ISA to test our students in: 

*Mathematical Literacy; 
*Reading; and

The ISA defines Mathematical Literacy as being:"an individual's capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. It assists individuals to recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and to make the well-founded judgments and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens."
Image result for exam sitting elementary studentsImage result for mathematical problems in elementary school

Reading is defined as being the ability to understand, use and reflect on written texts, in order to achieve goals,  "develop one’s knowledge and potential and to participate in society".

The writing tasks look at two genres:

1. Narrative: For this task, the students are asked to write a story or a reflective piece. The stimulus is usually a picture. The same prompt is used for all year levels. 

Image result for exam sitting elementary students2. Exposition/Argument: This  task requires a piece of writing setting out ideas about a proposition. A few sentences or a short dialogue are provided as a prompt. Students can take an explanatory approach (exposition), a persuasive approach (argument), or they can combine the two approaches. (

The ISA test is useful as it is not specific to a single curriculum and it tests core skills in mathematical literacy, reading, writing and the assessments are designed with the knowledge that more than half of the test takers have first languages other than English. The ISA includes writing tasks and open-ended questions to better show students’ thinking processes; and performance on the ISA can be related to international benchmarks;

As the ISA  provides diagnostic information that can be used at the school, class, or individual level; At Bradbury, we use the information received to  improve learning by:
Measure an individual students' achievement in order to reflect on and address strengths and weaknesses;
Monitor an individual's or group's progress over time;
Evaluate instructional programs against objective evidence of student performance, to diagnose gaps, and to measure growth in learning between year levels and longitudinally within one year level; and
Compare subgroup performance (for example, girls and boys; students from different language backgrounds) to see where there may be unexpected results and try to understand them.
An example of how we do this is a was our staff meeting on Monday afternoon. Staff were grouped in mixed year level/specialist teacher groups and given three sets of data: the mathematical literacy breakdown of performance in individual questions for the seven content and process areas  for Years 4-6. They were then asked to compare performance in each year group with that of the other two and look for trends, identifying areas of strength and areas where there was a common weakness. 

  By doing this, the expectation is that staff are then able to modify their teaching practice, ensuring that areas of strength are reinforced and areas of weakness are supported, as they have an understanding of how, across the three year levels, we are achieving. 

I also use the data to report to the Bradbury School Council, individual teachers use it to monitor progress and give information on individual performance and year groups use the data to analyse trends specific to their year group. The ISA is always a 'snapshot' of student performance on a given day, but it is useful to have externally referenced norms against which to judge our own levels of progress and achievement. On our website is a consolidated report to the Bradbury School Council showing our results as compared to other international schools.