Background to the research project

This chapter reports on findings from a government-funded project conducted in the Bundaberg area throughout 2013. The project involved the design and implementation of a reading intervention in local schools. The intervention specifically targeted struggling readers from low socioeconomic backgrounds in the upper-year levels of primary schooling with a view to increasing their participation in further education. The project, which was called Reading SMART, concentrated on teaching strategies for navigating and extracting meaning from the type of real-world, authentic, complex texts that these readers were likely to meet in curriculum learning areas and ‘real-life’ contexts. This focus was informed by research which reveals that as many as 25 per cent of Australian students cannot read at a level to support their learning on transition to secondary school (Rivalland & House, 2000). Scaffolded learning support, confidence, and time and opportunity for discussion are identified as essential processes for helping upper primary school students overcome recurring comprehension difficulties and the disengagement in reading that frequently accompanies these difficulties (Woolley, 2006).

Teacher aides (TAs) were identified as key school staff with the capacity for addressing many of the issues confronting disengaged struggling readers. This recognition was underpinned by the knowledge that TAs perform learning support roles for low-achieving students in schools, especially those students experiencing reading difficulties (Bourke, 2009). In addition, TAs have been shown to demonstrate strengths in providing the type of individualised support that improves students’ confidence, motivation and positive dispositions towards learning (Mostert & Glasswell, 2012). However, research studies also conclude that even though TAs are routinely deployed to work with struggling readers in schools, they often lack the knowledge and skill in the use of effective instructional strategies for older students with comprehension difficulties (Fried, Konza, & Mulcahy, 2012). These findings provided important background for instigating and enacting an engaged research project that relied heavily on the adaptive expertise of this community group for success. The intervention required TAs to exercise independent decision-making and autonomy as they modelled skilled reading behaviours for students and devised questions and feedback that were responsive to each student’s demonstrated progress. It was obvious from the outset that these outcomes were dependent on a process of community learning for both researchers and participants if the project’s goals were to be achieved.

An invitation to participate in the program was sent to all schools in the region at the end of the 2012 school year and the principals of 11 schools committed to involvement and the subsequent delivery of the intervention. These schools formed a group of ‘statistically similar schools’ (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2012, p. 5). This term derives from their classification as disadvantaged on a national scale which gauges the relative educational advantage of student populations through reference to the socioeconomic characteristics of their school communities. The principals of these schools were asked to nominate TAs on their staff who they considered to be suitable participants for the project. This process signified recognition of the capabilities TAs had to offer for improving student reading outcomes within the organisational structure of the participating schools. The nominated TAs were informed that participation in the project involved a year-long commitment to professional learning and delivery of the intervention in their particular school settings. They were also given the opportunity to decline participation without sanction from their school administrators.

Thirty-two TAs participated in the Reading SMART project during the 2013 school year. Twenty of these participants worked in schools that committed to the project soon after initial contact was made. These TAs gave their informed consent to interviews conducted in November and December 2012 prior to the intended launch of the intervention at the beginning of the following school year. This strategy was employed to ensure that the design of the intervention materials and accompanying professional development program took account of TAs’ everyday experiences and perceptions on the roles they performed in schools. The interviews were semi-structured and used open-ended questions to elicit TAs’ perspectives on their roles as learning support workers, their knowledge of the reading process and instructional strategies for teaching reading, and their attitudes towards professional learning. Data from these interviews are reported in the next section of this chapter using pseudonyms to protect participants’ confidentiality. These data were analysed using scholarly literature to identify significant patterns and themes emerging from the participants’ own words. The analysis explains the meanings that participants attached to the symbolic boundaries defining their identities as TAs in disadvantaged school communities and exposes the organisational discourses potentially affecting their adaptive capacity for change.

The conceptualisations of community that emerged from the interview data depict TAs as members of three distinct groups: a) employees within a particular organisational structure; b) instructional guides for struggling readers labelled as educationally disadvantaged by nature of their socioeconomic backgrounds; and c) willing participants in a professional learning community. Examination of the first two of these group memberships concentrates on the contexts in which the participants experienced being a TA and is supported by the researcher’s own reflections on the TAs’ working conditions, preparedness for their roles and the basis of their employment in schools. Conclusions from this part of the analysis are used to identify implications for the development of ‘shared professional learning spaces’ between university researchers and communities that overcome the power implications of discourse memberships that threaten to constrain reciprocity and true collaboration.

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