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The Child Behind the Data

Most teachers and schools collect data of one sort or another.  We collect reading data, maths data, phonological and phonemic awareness data, attendance data, writing data – if you can teach it, you can collect data on it. Let’s not forget the mandated system wide data collection such as NAPLAN.

Many of us lament that this data collection is necessary at all and see it as a waste of time. We see things online and in conversations with statements like “we need to concentrate on students, not data” or “We didn’t get into teaching to collect data”.  If we do have to do it, we might get an assistant to do the assessment and we record data that sits on a database or in a book never to be looked at again.

The problem is that behind every piece of data is a child.  Good data helps us to know a child.  It helps us ‘see’ what that student needs from us. Without knowing exactly where a child’s strengths and weaknesses are, we cannot properly target our teaching to intentionally and purposefully help the child’s skills grow.  Far too many students start and end the school year with a similar level of skill.  The ‘top’ student in your class deserves to grow, as does the ‘lowest’.  John Hattie says that we should be aiming for at least 12 months growth for 12 months at school and I think that’s a pretty good measure.  Even children will a reading difficulty can achieve this goal.

When we think about literacy, data collection might look like the following:

  • Phonological and Phonemic Awareness monitoring (informal through observations or formal through and interview based assessment)
  • Phonics knowledge (monitoring in lessons or one or one assessment)
  • Spelling (Norm referenced assessment such as COST)
  • Overall reading assessment according to a norm referenced and/or standardise assessment  (such as NEALE analysis of reading ability)
  • Writing development – monitoring against the Australian Curriculum.

Data collection and use does not have to be a useless waste of time. Used well, it can enhance the effectiveness of your teaching, involve students in setting goals about their own learning and provide valuable feedback to all stakeholders.

Having data at our fingertips can mean the difference between having certainty in our teaching and a ‘hit and hope’ approach.  ‘Hit and hope’ means that a whole lot of children miss out on accessible learning. ‘Hit and hope’ means that many children will spend their days in your classroom just grasping the edges learning, only occasionally feeling successful. 

How do we use data effectively without having it take over our whole teaching lives?

  1. Be selective. Where possible, only collect data that will inform and enhance your teaching.  Of course we all have to do things at times that are school and system mandated, but there are always decisions that we get to make ourselves.   
  2. Be clear about what you need to measure at what stages of development and how you will use this to inform your teaching.  Early readers need us to have specific data on phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, reading rate and then comprehension as they develop.   As students progress, we can use spelling data to help us learn about students’ advanced phonics knowledge, we don’t necessarily need to have each student complete an interview style assessment.  We also need to focus strongly on fluency and comprehension.  
  3. Include data summaries in your planning and group children according to achievement level. 
  4. Use these groupings to set achievable goals for children. This doesn’t mean that you need to have 3 different sets of planning for your 3 groups.  Just be aware of where each group is up to so that you can appropriately differentiate and scaffold.  This also enables you to record adjustments for the NCCD (Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for School Students with a Disability).
  5. Include your students in review data and setting goals.  Kids get a real kick out of see their growth in numbers either on a class data wall or on a more private individual tracking sheet.   We often forget that while we have the big picture of growth in our heads, they don’t know where anything starts and ends.  It can feel to them like one long string of lessons with no markers. 
  6. Break the goals down into even smaller steps for your struggling students. One of the keys to keeping kids engaged in learning is making growth visible. When student growth is slower than their peers, giving them their own road map to success can be really motivating. 

Using data will be as effective as you make it.  If you view data collection and use as a nuisance that you have to endure, you will miss an opportunity to really target your students’ exact point of need. However, if you view it as a resource that removes the guess work from your day and helps to make success visible to students you may well find your teaching to be so much more rewarding.

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