Below is a summary of two recent Ph.D. studies that were carried out in schools with a high proportion of learners at risk (pupils of low socio-economic status and non-native speakers of the main medium of instruction). Together, they deepen our insight into the impact of teacher input and support on the school achievement and development of students at risk.
1. DNA in primary schools: In his quasi-experimental study, Koen Van Gorp invited six Flemish teachers of 12-year old kids to set up a series of classroom activities on DNA. Quite a challenging topic, because in the official Flemish curriculum DNA is part of science courses in the final grades of secondary education (16 to 18-year olds). Combining science teaching with language teaching, the teachers used a variety of methodological formats: whole-group activities, group work, individual work…. Koen Van Gorp aimed to find whether learners at risk would be able to build up pre-scientific knowledge and acquire academic vocabulary when exposed to complex subject matter. Which they did: at the end of the lesson series (spread over the course of a week) the students’ scores on a posttest were significantly higher than on the pretest administered at the onset of the lesson series. Quite strikingly, the pupils who had received more speaking turns during the whole-group activities made significantly more learning gains. This seems to imply that thinking aloud about difficult subject matter helps young pupils to develop scientific knowledge. However, there were vast differences between the pupils in the same class in the number of turns they were given. In view of the above-mentioned link between turn-taking and explorative thinking, teachers should monitor their turn-taking and turn-giving behaviour consciously; intuitively and unconsciously many teachers appear to be inclined to interact most with students of whom they have high expectations. Secondly, the study revealed that pupils differ widely in the sources they used to develop their thinking and vocabulary: some clearly preferred to learn independently by reading the source material they were given, others tried to get the most out of the group work and peer support, and still others were constantly trying to get the teacher’s attention to check hypotheses and ask questions. So, the lesson series probably worked that well for so many students in the sample because it contained all of the above-mentioned ingredients. High-quality education appears to rely on an interplay of a variety of sources and formats, allowing pupils to establish rich connections between their prior knowledge and new information. High teacher expectations are also crucial: if the lesson content is intrinsically motivating, learners at risk appear to be capable of coping with complex subject matter.
2. Between the lines: In her Ph.D. study Lieve Verheyden tracked the early second language writing development by pupils in the third and fourth grades of primary schools. All pupils were asked to perform the same writing task (writing down the story depicted in a cartoon without words) six times, spread over a school year. The pupils (most of them learners at risk) made significant progress. They became better for spelling, communicative effectiveness, length, accuracy, complexity of their output… But the progress was not linear: the pupils appeared to jump up and down, making huge progress between 2 consecutive sessions and then falling back again. “Spaghetti” is the term Verheyden used to describe the pupils’ capricious lines of development. The development of the different traits of the same students’ output was uneven and variable: for some students there appeared to be a trade-off between complexity and accuracy. And the students differed from each other in many ways: in terms of development, each student appeared to tell his own story. The impact of teacher support and feedback turned out to be considerable. Teachers who observed what a pupil was writing, and then tailored her input and feedback to the student’s work, clearly pushed the student’s writing development. Some teachers were pretty successful at “writing aloud”: recasting the pupil’s sentences aloud, inviting the pupil to reformulate and enrich the sentence, or demonstrating to the pupil how this could be done. In this way, the teacher could provide the student with vocabulary or ideas that the student could not come up with herself. In this way, “writing aloud” became “writing together”. Building oral bridges between the text and the absent reader. Showing a young learner at risk in a supportive way how stories and storylines can be built up with words. Again, this study was very encouraging in that it showed that all learners at risk made significant progress, especially if their output was enriched. In these cases where the teacher assumed that writing stories was too hard for some of the pupils, and the pupils were asked to write very short sentences (rather than a full-blown story) to avoid errors, the student development was slowed down, rather than enhanced. So, as in the previous study, teacher expectations had a strong impact on the richness of the interaction between the teacher and the pupils and on the writing development that resulted from the interactions. Especially for learners at risk, teachers make a crucial difference.