Literacy is perhaps one of the most researched areas in education. Despite this there is no consensus regarding the best way to help those experiencing difficulty. Class teachers make decisions on a day-to-day basis, some informed by research literature, some by past experience, some by problem solving unique to a particular case. Whilst researchers and teachers share the same interest in an educational problem their respective orientations differ. Halsey (1982) rightly observed that traditional research values precision, control, replication and attempts to generalize from specific events. Teaching, conversely, is concerned with action, translating generalizations into specific acts, dealing with particulars outside statistical probabilities.
Hargreaves (1996) suggested that teaching is not a researched based profession and the ‘yawning gap between theory and practice’ persists today. Research can inform practice, but because of self-imposed constraints render it too narrow to serve as a foundation for practice. Much research is esoteric, or too general, seen as irrelevant by most practitioners. As Hopkins maintained: ‘The traditional approach to educational research is not of much use to teachers ….. (Teachers and researchers) live in different intellectual worlds and so their meanings rarely connect.’ (Hopkins, 2002: 37)
Clarke (1995) proposed specific solutions, advocating that research should offer information, inspiration, vision and support. He argued that if research is carefully designed, findings are shared and practitioners are involved, teachers can use research to obtain information to evaluate local and specific questions. They should find inspiration to improve pedagogy. They might view that which is familiar in a new light through investigations of models, concepts and theories. These arguments echo Stenhouse (1981) who called for researchers to justify themselves to teachers whom he proposed should be at the forefront of educational research. Teachers need to ally themselves with researchers who support evidence and explanations of good practice if they are to receive and become effective consumers and evaluators of research.
Professional responsibility demands that teachers should endeavour to consult research in selective and creative ways with a clear sense of applicability. Commitment requires teachers to maintain and up-date their knowledge base, also to examine their own practice to generate functional knowledge of the phenomena they deal with. In this respect, as Hopkins argues, classroom research provides an emancipatory alternative to traditional designs.
Through reviewing and extending strategies and skills practitioners become teacher-researchers, but the processes are different from those employed by larger scale research. A concern about practice, after reflection, involves discovering how far theoretical ideas are applicable in context. From this stance the teacher can develop findings that illuminate greater questions by rigorous attention to the detail of particular cases. Quantitative methodologies are useful in illuminating aspects of the professional universe, but applicability is more likely to be found at the interpretive, qualitative and ethnographic end of the research spectrum.
The topic investigated: My interest in literacy research was prompted by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee Report (2005) calling for a review of current prescriptions, an improvement in literacy rates by ensuring ‘suitable programmes are available to children who … require support’ and further research into the Literacy Strategy compared with other catch up programmes. This had relevance for a current whole School initiative to raise levels of achievement in reading and writing. In developing a focus that was viable, discrete and collaborative my intention was to examine the under achievement of Year 3 Learning Support pupils and their difficulties with high-frequency words, which they are expected to master by the end of Key Stage 1.
My aim was to investigate why pupils experience on-going difficulty in order to develop more effective teaching practices. To research theories relating to literacy difficulties and possible strategies, a literature search was carried out after discussion with colleagues regarding current practice and change. I compiled a list of research terms: National Literacy Strategy; Key Stage 1 and 2 literacy; high-frequency words; improving reading and spelling; self-esteem and illiteracy; motivation. Following an initial random search of the British Education Index database I refined the search terms using Boolean operators. For example, ‘literacy’, which yielded 2224 matches, was amended to ‘spelling difficulties’ AND ‘primary school children’ OR ‘primary education’, for which 8 records were found. Truncation symbols were used e.g. read? (39240 searches) and proximity searches were also carried out. Searches were then organised by publication date, (Appendices, p.26).
The process was time-consuming and problematic. I was unable to access the University Library e-journals via Ingenta, or Blackwell Synergy despite using Athens login, although SwetsWise worked in some instances. It was established that the Library holds only dated editions of certain journals whose currency might cast doubts on the usefulness of the research. To overcome these difficulties an inter-library loan was requested. However, without abstracts it was difficult to assess suitability, which resulted in random choices of literature.
Further searches were executed and the archives of www.nasen.org.uk were also used. Some papers were more pertinent; but for time constraints alternative material would have been selected for further inter-library loans. Nonetheless, the group discussions and collaboration that arose from identifying mutual problems and assessing strategies are essential for the ‘teachers (to be) intimately involved in the research process.’