Star-t as you mean to go on

By Chris Jarosh

Evidence-based practice forms a core part of the teaching ethos at Brooklands Farm Primary School, with Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset used to encourage both teachers and students to thrive in a positive learning environment. With the first term now already over, Nicky Nash, Assistant Headteacher at the school, takes us through her experiences of aligning technology with theorist principles and explains why they believe it’s important to ‘Star-t as you mean to go on’…

At the start of a new school year, one of our priorities is identifying any gaps in learning that might have appeared during the six week break. We previously relied mainly on teacher assessments to identify where the children were in their reading development, but having introduced the Renaissance Accelerated Reader and Renaissance Star Assessments last year we are now able to validate teacher judgements and identify specific gaps more quickly and easily. A great anecdote came from one child who upon discussing his ‘post-holiday’ star test on his dashboard, noticed a decline in progress. When his teacher asked why this might be, he admitted that he hadn’t been practising his reading over the summer. Following this discussion, the child decided he would read every day and then take another star test the following week. In that short time, the child’s dashboard showed a significant improvement in his reading. This is a great example of how powerful ipsative assessment can be, if shared with the child in the right way.

Now, before going any further I think it’s important to point out that our school encourages a very personalised approach to teaching and learning. All teachers are trained to skilfully identify each child’s ZPD, or Zone of Proximal development, which is a concept developed by Vygotsky that refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. We also use the GROW Model (Goal, Reality, Opportunities, Way Forward) which is a simple yet powerful framework of coaching. We believe that children can set their own goals and self-regulate their learning. In order to do this, we teach children to use the Leuven Scales for Well Being and Involvement. These two sets of indicators allow children to develop self-responsibility and achieve deep learning. Our positive approach creates a learning culture that can be applied to teachers too. All teachers have a coach and are expected to be lifelong learners who take responsibility for their own development. I wanted to add this bit of context to the experience I’m sharing because I appreciate that many schools will follow different principles – but this doesn’t exclude you from adopting some of our ideas in your own setting. Hopefully, this has given you an insight into our philosophy. Now I’ll explain the detail of how we use Accelerated Reader in practice.

Accelerating Reading Progress

Last year we took part in the ‘Enquiring Schools Programme for CPD’ supported by NFER. One of the lines of enquiry we chose was to improve the quality of feedback given to children in reading and how to use this feedback to most effectively support their growth. The ‘read a book, take a quiz’ technique with Accelerated Reader proved an excellent way of engaging the children in their reading development by empowering them with a great choice of real books and giving instant feedback after a quiz. From a formative perspective this was great, but using it in conjunction with Star to support our summative assessment has really advanced how we approach reading development. The main reason for this is because Star gives us a dashboard report – a very easy to understand visual which we can then discuss with the children. This scaffolding approach gives them ownership of their own targets because we’re able to discuss where they are, where they want to be and then what they need to do to get there (in line with the GROW model). So in the context of using the technology, they take a Star test to know where they are, follow Accelerated Reader to help them make the progress, then take another Star test to see if they have achieved what they wanted to! This summarises the approach at a top line level. Now, I will share some practical insights into how we’ve integrated the technology into our school life.

My Star tips for reading development
  • Quizzes not tests
  • An Accelerated Reader quiz is taken after reading every book, which the children find fun in itself – but it also ‘normalises’ the process as a learning activity. So when they take a Star test, they don’t feel they are being put under scrutiny, they look forward to seeing the dashboard and evaluating their own progress. Plus, the Star assessment only takes about 20 minutes so it’s not too intensive and as it adapts to the children’s ability level, they are assessed within their personal potential. It’s never too easy or too hard – fantastic for keeping their development on track and keeping them motivated!

  • The power of choice
  • Whether it’s choice over which book they want to read or choice over when or where they feel they want to assess their progress with Star – giving children freedom to choose has been a really positive way of engaging them. Accelerated Reader has been valuable in supporting this freedom of choice approach as it’s not tied to a reading scheme, so the children have a wide range of real fiction and non-fiction titles to choose from. In line with the GROW model, the children also choose their own goals and decide their own plan for achieving it, which the technology aligns with perfectly.

  • Timing is everything
  • I know many schools choose to run the Star assessments termly, but we decided to run them every six weeks as we felt this would overcome the challenge of varying term lengths (so we weren’t comparing a five week term of progress with a six week term, for example). That said, the children can choose to take them more frequently if they wish.

    Leuven’s Well Being Scale is used to determine whether a child is feeling at ease, self-confident and happy. This is crucial to ensure that the child is taking the test when they are in a positive frame of mind. We also use Leuven’s Involvement Scale to make sure children are operating to their full capabilities. In particular, this scale refers to whether the child is focused, engaged and interested in their activity. The children know we expect a high level of involvement and that they are responsible for managing their levels of involvement to ensure they reach their potential.

Everything we do here at Brooklands Farm Primary School is designed to foster a positive teaching and learning experience for all. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how we are using Accelerated Reader with Star to enhance what we’re achieving with the GROW model and other learning principles. I would encourage any teachers who want to learn more about these practices to come and visit us. We’d love to share our experiences with you and help in any way we can.

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