The context of this Action Research (AR) project based within an inner city, secondary school. It is a mixed gender school with a cohort of 650 students ranging from Year 7 to Year 11. The area surrounding this school is economically deprived with 4/5 children eligible for free school meals. Last year (2009) the school had exceeded the government benchmark target of 30% of students achieving five GCSE's including English and Maths. However, there was a clear spread between A-C grades between the two core subjects whereby the Maths department achieved a 70% success rate compared to English department achieving only 40%. Some Mathematic practitioners would argue the poor results in English were are as a result of ineffective teaching practice, whereas the counter argument derived from the English practitoners was that 80% of students were EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners and consequently found literacy more difficult than numeracy. I believe that both arguments jointly played a part towards this.
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I derived my area of study from a departmental meeting at the start of the academic year. The Head of Department (HOD) aimed to challenge the new cohort of Business Studies' students to attain a grade higher than their predicted grade. This was based on our past performance where the students attained two grades higher in their Maths GCSE's compared to Business Studies.
I used Kemmis and McTaggart's (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) AR model to guide my pre-conception that if students were able to understand the content of the work set then this would increase student attainment. I also used Elliott's (1991) and Sagor's (1992) suggestions on working in collaboration with others because as Elizabeth Kasl and Lyle Yorks (2002) stated 'it is by working in collaboration with others that we are able to achieve the most'. I discussed my initial actions with my critical friend a TESMC Coordinator (Teaching, English as a Secondary Language in Mainstream Classrooms) a Literacy Lead Practitioner and colleagues working within my department. The feedback gathered steered towards poor writing skills as a barrier to success. As a result, my AR then shifted direction to focus on whether the implementation of writing strategies improved student attainment within 10B Business Studies.
Refined focus of my AR enquiry
An agreed set of actions were proposed at the end of my first written assignment to test my hypothesis by implementing five writing strategies. However, due to the timings of the school calendar and the remainder of the Business Studies units that were required to be taught, it would have only been possible to implement three writing strategies. This was to increase validity of the data gathered as each strategy would take several teaching sessions to effectively implement and analyse. Trying to accommodate several writing strategies briefly may not have had the same effect. This view was agreed by both my critical friend and HOD who also suggested that the benefits of this decision were readily obvious; as to exercise all writing strategies at once would have obscured the true origins of any improved results. A period of one month would inevitably provide a reasonable amount of time over which results would be aggregated and compared for each strategy.
Action plan of implementation
The revised action plan consisted of embarking on a detailed investigation into whether scaffolding, writing frames and word banks improved student attainment.
Although the three writing strategies formed part of the third cycle of my AR research (Appendix 1), all three paved their way into their own mini cycles. Each writing strategy had to be planned, then delivered and the impact of this was then analysed via multiple mediums through my journal entry and questionnaires. Each strategy provided opportunities to reflect on my actions, allowing me to make any necessary amendments before continuing with the implementation of the subsequent writing strategy. I also reminded myself to remain flexible throughout the process to accommodate the unknowns that may need to be investigated before continuing with my existing AR cycle. McNiff (1988) describes this as the 'messiness' of AR, where a process turns into spirals on spirals:
Aim: To gather sufficient data to verify whether writing strategies have the desired effect of improving student attainment.
Collecting data is imperative and an integral part of action research, in this context, results from the writing strategies employed are of huge interest. Such data provides 'information and impressions necessary for reflection' (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1982). Prior to any action being taken it is crucial to determine precisely the type of data that is required to be obtained (McNiff and Whitehead, 2006). The triangulation process that involves the collection of two or more types of data is used to optimise the credibility and validity given to the results that are attained. I used methodological triangulation which involved using a number of methods that would be used to cross check my analysis.
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I agree with Cohen et al (2007) that more than one type of data should be obtained as exclusive reliance on one type, may be considered bias or at a worse case scenario it could be seen as a distortion of the researcher's image of a specific aspect of reality that is under investigation. This process is argued by Patton (1980) who lay criticisms towards triangulation stating that it 'can mean a series of poorly implemented methods rather than one approach well executed'. However, through my own action research I believe that this cannot be true of all methods so I refute his criticism.
Multi method data collection is very useful in enabling one to compare and contrast data with regards to th0e results and any analysis and conclusions. This is supported by Elliot (1991) and suggests that using a variety of data collection methods and gaining the views of others strengthens the validity of the AR process.
Focus groups (Internal Verifier (IV), Literacy Coordinator and six students);
The work produced by students.
One of the methods by which the research data was gathered was through the use of four scheduled focus group meeting, comprising of a small number of students (six), one Literacy Coordinator an Internal Verifier (IV) and myself chairing the sessions. These sessions were held at different stages of my inquiry. I decided to include the Literacy Coordinator as she is leading practitioner in literacy so possessed the necessary experience and expertise required for an informed and useful discussion. Whilst the IV is confident in assessing higher order work and his given grades have not been overturned by the external verifier. This shows his ability to accurately judge the standard of written pieces of work against the assessment criteria. Both practitioners are beneficial to the research as they are able to accurately assess whether implementation of writing strategies has had the desired affect.
As there were timetabling constraints, the sample of students was only a small number as my focus group sessions had to be tailored around the availability of the IV and the Literacy Coordinator. This was during school hours which meant that it was impossible to involve a larger cohort of students as it would have affected their learning. However, the chosen students consisted of three boys and three girls chosen through random selection for each gender. This selection process was conducted in this manner in order to reduce if not eliminate accusations of bias.
I led the focus group discussions which involved speaking informally about students' writing skills including allowing them to examine six pieces of their written essays. Cohen, et al (2007) highlighted that focus groups should revolve around a central discussion between the participants. I attempted to maintain this throughout the process of this research.
In accordance with the need to negotiate and secure access ethically, in other words elicit informed consent I agree that participants should be fully informed of the facts that would be likely to influence their decision about whether to give consent (Dietner and Crandall, 1978, cited by Cohen et al, 2007). I dealt with this issue at the start of the AR project. However, I was aware that this could lead to the argument that informed consent could introduce bias (Cohen et al,2007). As a practitioner it would not have been ethical for me to have withheld this vital information surrounding the purposes of my research. To overcome this, I fully explained my research intentions to the group and answered any questions raised about the whole process of this research.
The second method of data collection was through the use of questionnaires (Appendix 2). I decided to use this method as it was an effective avenue of 'eliciting other people's observations and interpretations of situations and events, as well as their attitude towards them' (Elliot, 1991) which can be easily and conveniently filled out by students.
A template questionnaire was drawn up and was piloted to a sample group of students chosen at random to determine any flaws that would affect the validity of my research. The main concern about the questionnaires, were whether the language used in the questionnaire would be easily understood by the students involved in the research. This could then be corrected to ensure that the final data gathered was accurate. There were no problems with this dry run as the questionnaire was easily understood by the students. This then led to the submission of the questionnaire to determine the views of the students at the conclusion of each writing strategy.
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I used a variety of open and closed questions to gather the relevant information required for careful determination. Cohen, et al (2007) discovered that highly structured, closed questions were useful in order to provide data that could be statistically analysed which I do agree with. The open questions would allow for students to express their views on each strategy and provide opportunities for in-depth views to be generated where closed questions would not allow. However, Macintrye (2000) states that open questionnaires can yield a low response as the process takes some time to complete compared to closed questions. To also respect ethics of this research and privacy of all participants, the questionnaires were anonymous for the students. This had the added benefit of allowing participants to express their views without prejudice or feeling that a particular line of expression had to be taken.
I used the work produced by the students taking part in the focus group to determine the impact, if any, of whether the implementation of the writing strategies improved student attainment. The Literacy Coordinator and the Internal Verifier also discussed the work with the students. This process was to sustain the reliability of the process as the work could be cross examined with the data gathered from the focus group and the completion of the students' questionnaires.
Evaluation of research methods
An uncontrollable variable in relation to data collection was that certain students over the three month period had booked days off school or were absent due to illness. This may have affected the results as certain more able students may have been away which may have in turn affected the numbers that were able to write pieces of work independently as compared to the less able students or vice versa. However, as the questionnaires were distributed to the entire class, initially as a dry run followed later by the actual questionnaires and used in conjunction with other methods of data collection (focus group, students work etc) limited the probability of whether the results were viable to take precedence.
Using a sample of 6 students for the focus group meant that the opinions gathered were not representative of the whole class; 10B. This may have made the results obtained from such a method to be susceptible to bias and of limited validity. Even though the results may have supported the assertion that lack of writing skills affect students grades in assessments, such results have to be treated with discretion as the sample size was small.
One problem that I encountered with the focus group was that I had scheduled 4 meetings of the focus group; at the start of the AR project, after the completion of each of the 3 strategies and at the end of the AR project to gather overall opinions of the strategies that were implemented.
However, on the day for which the third meeting of the focus group was scheduled the school was closed to all staff and students due to unforeseen circumstances and the meeting could not be rescheduled for another day due to the constraints of the teaching timetable. This meant that proceeded to the next theory without having cross evaluating the findings during the focus group. We did however, hold the forth focus group meeting after the completion of the third theory which was also the end of the AR project.
I kept a journal throughout the implementation of my AR project as it was useful for a variety of reasons such as it helped me to reflect on the issues raised during the process of the AR project and critically review their effect whether student attainment improved. Campbell et al, (2004) suggested keeping a journal to gather data about a situation because "reflective writing is a major tool for a teacher researcher" Holly, (1998) (cited by Campbell et al 2004) stated, to be reflective, a journal should contain "deliberative thought and analysis related to practice"
I feel that my journal writing was not detailed enough to be analysed in-depth and that I may have not have been able to absorb and therefore transfer to my journal every issue or incident that occurred. This may have been partly due to my lack in ability to comprehend the situation and partly to the time consumption of the process of understanding and then writing about an issue.
Evaluation of writing strategies:
As part of the implementation of my AR project I supported the students through the topics and made the content considerably simpler for them to comprehend and understand in accordance with Vygotsky's Scaffolding (1967) theory integrated within the Teaching and Learning Cycle (2007). This method of support was perhaps a more successful method compared with the other two methods; I did however identify its flaws. Analysing my journal entry about the implementation of the scaffolding strategy, I found that the students enjoyed taking the role as the practitioner modelling the answer on the white board and gave positive feedback about both myself and the students modelling a joint answer, such as "I feel I now understand how to write a similar answer on my own". Regardless of the positive feedback during the implementation stages, I realised from my observations that the students struggled to write an answer to the same standard independently. This view was shared upon the analysis of the summative questionnaire.
The more able students within the sample class did not encounter any difficulty when writing pieces of work independently after the joint construction process. However, the less able students became heavily reliant on this method and found it somewhat difficult to transfer their writing skills to a new topic question that was devoid of joint construction and modelling.
My critical friend suggested prior to the implementation to make sure I had to make sure students were confident in completing each stage before moving to the next stage. Upon my analysis, I felt that I may have rushed through the strategy and this is why the end result did not work as effectively for the lower ability. Vygotsky (1967) stated that teacher and student modelling should be mastered prior to the progression to the independent construction stage. Further analysis of the students work during the focus group session somewhat supported the above view.
Upon this analysis, as a practitioner involved within the research, I made it a first priority that prior to the implementation of the penultimate strategy I needed to seek training on this. This was to ensure that I had the expertise to effectively deliver this strategy within my teaching programme. Gratefully my Literacy Coordinator was helpful in catering for my need and provided one to one support towards the teaching and planning of this strategy.
I also utilised Wray & Lewis' (1997) writing frame theory to see whether such frames would give students the ability to write independently or in some cases help them perfect their writing skills.
I found that the 18 out of the 24 were able to write pieces of work independently when the prompts were taken away. However the remainder of the students struggled as they found it difficult to write answers without assistance and repeatedly used the same connectives. It was also noted that 14 out of the 18 students who wrote independently were boys. This findings was similar to classroom based study conducted by Steve Adderley at Castleway Primary School (2000, cited at standards.dfes.gov.uk) to determine whether student attainment increased as a result of implementing writing frames. The study concluded that writing frames improved the boys' literacy. This was because boys have a more visual mind compared to girls and therefore tend to remember the prompts and can transfer them to write similar answers to new topic questions. These views were shared from with the IV and Literacy Coordinator.
However, I must be careful not to make a generalisable statement that boys benefitted the most from this strategy. As there are other variables that that could have come into play such as the topic area that was taught could have been easily grasped. As the deadline for this research was tightly fitted in with my teaching schedule, it was not possible to conduct some reconnaissance on this topic.
However, it was analysed that this strategy did not suit all of the students in the group an this was upon the review of my journal entry notes which suggested at the time of implementation of writing frames that some students struggled to write answers to a new topic question when the writing frames were taken away where some students remarked that they found it easier to answer the previous topic question which I had provided prompts for. This may be due to what Wray and Lewis (1998) wrote regarding writing frames; writing frames like classroom discussion helps students express themselves as they are receiving verbal prompts in classroom discussions or written prompts in writing which engage them and help them to start promptly as they are not presented with a blank page which most students find intimidating and therefore when the prompts are taken away students are left with a blank page.
The results of the questionnaire completed at the end of the implementation of the theory showed that 6 out of 24 students felt that they needed the prompts to help them to answer the question as they answered "No" to the question "Do you feel that you can now answer a new topic question without the need for prompts?" this meant that the use of the prompts had not given the students confidence to be able to write independently and had instead had the opposite effect which was not intended and therefore would not help to attain higher grades. This is again supported by Wray and Lewis (1998) theory that students find being presented with a blank paper unappealing and therefore affects their confidence and as a result underperform during lengthier written pieces of work.
After this I implemented Quandt (1973) theory whereby key words were used to seek to improve and effect some change in the students' ability to write effectively and answer questions independently. Quandt (1973) argues that the use of word banks would develop the learners if they wrote the key words down themselves. Anything that was written down by the child becomes personal to them; therefore they were more likely to understand the word.
The implementation of word banks supported Quandt's theory to a certain degree as 21 out of 24 students were able to correctly define business keywords. It was also noted within the questionnaire that the majority of the students did welcome the support of this strategy. However, when students attempted to write higher level answers 5 students failed to place the key words in the correct places and made inappropriate use of them in sentences which led to their work becoming confusing. So to answer my initial question, did student's results improve as a result of this action well for the greater number was the case. The view of was supported by the Lead Practitioner and the IV when they assessed the 6 pieces of students work and found that 5 out of the 6 pieces of work were written to a high standard and made effective use of the business key words.
The key answer I set out to find at this stage was; why a small number of were not able to make effective use of this strategy. Luckily for me one of the students who did not feel that this strategy worked for them was involved within the focus group and she replied that the key words were still new to her and there was no teaching on how these words would used when answering higher order questions. Vygotsky (1967) suggested teacher modelling and joint construction as a way of improving learning. The evaluation I draw from this strategy is that to improve effectiveness the use of word banks would require the practitioner to demonstrate this process in action.
My conclusion will be based around the following quotation by Fowell, S (1995) who suggest that "an action research approach to teaching can be used to improve teaching and learning practice".
During course of this AR project I was able to work in collaboration with an Internal Verifier, a Literacy Coordinator and was supported by my critical friend who is a specialist in teaching English as a Secondary Language and this experience has helped me to improve my teaching practice as it has given me the confidence to trial a variety of strategies to best suit my teaching style and to gain the best from my students by tailoring each strategy to their needs. The AR project has also helped me to gain in depth feedback from my students which have been immensely useful towards the improvement of my own teaching practice.
Upon adopting a triangulation data collection approach this study has highlighted many positives and did pave it way towards improving the learning of students. Upon analysis of towards the quantitative data collated from the questionnaires and students graded work the student attainment did increase, however there was not a consistent positive correlation between all of three of writing strategies as some students performed better compared to the other two.
The Word Banks theory was successful as all the students in the class with the exception of 3 students were able to define business keywords. However, when the students were required to write a higher level answer 5 students failed to correctly apply the business keywords towards this task.
When I integrated Vygotsky's Scaffolding (1967) theory into my teaching I found that this method was most beneficial to the more able students in the class as they were the ones who were able to transfer the skill gained through the scaffolding method and were able to write a higher order answer independently for a new topic question while the lower ability students struggled to do this.
Writing frames were most beneficial to boys as they did better then girls when they were asked to write answers to a new topic question. When the writing frames were taken away there was still a gender divide as the boys performed better than the girls.
Therefore, implementing the writing frames theory on its own would not be beneficial. for this reason I suggest that writing frames be implemented as part of scaffolding process as my research highlighted and the study by Steve Adderley concluded that writing frames were best utilised when they were demonstrated by the practitioner. Demonstration is a form of scaffolding, described by Vygotsky as modelling (cited in Young, 1993) therefore, modelling and writing frames go hand in hand.
Overall each of the 3 theories was unable to provide a best fit approach to improve student attainment within Business Studies. However from my experience in delivering the three strategies, I came to think that these writing strategies could me amalgamated into one programme. For this reason my intention is to investigate this as my future research, in conjunction with trialling Graves (1983) Writing process theory that I did not have the chance to investigate within this AR cycle due to curriculum constraints.
Also, the theorist/academics writing strategies that I have used for the purposes of this research would never agree that three strategies would work in sync with each other, however Steve Adderley's (2000) practical classroom based study proves otherwise and has stated the positive impact scaffolding and writing frames have had towards increases boys' attainment. These successes I would like to trail into my teaching practice.
So I will continue with Kemmis's and McTaggart's cycle of Action Research (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) and move into cycle 4; however cycle 4 will not be the end as I believe that my proposed action will be a continual cycle of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and re-planning. This is because I now have the motivation and drive to become a reflexive practitioner and move away from being a reflective practitioner, Elliott (1995).
As highlighted earlier, I will move into cycle 4 of my Action Research. To support my future research I have adapted McNiff and Whiteheads (2006) guidelines on questions to consider when pursuing Action Research to my own questions which are outlined below.
What will I do about my concern?
I will intend to implement The Writing Process theory, scaffolding, writing frames, and word banks with class 10B.
I will simultaneously integrate all these tools into my lessons. The reason for this approach is I will be able to use the 'TLC' as and outline when planning my lessons and the Graves writing processes, Wray & Lewis's writing frames, alongside word banks can all be integrated within the TLC.
How will I ensure my analysis of the above data is fair?
To ensure the effectiveness of my action I will collect qualitative data by gathering the views of the student's from class 11B to see if their experience of writing strategies has improved their written skills. This data will be gathered through a questionnaire. Gathering this information will also strengthen the validity of my analysis.
My approach of data collection is supported by Elliot (1995) who suggests the importance of gathering data from other points of view for comparison purposes.
What potential problems should I be aware of that are outside of my control?
Student frequent absenteeism could affect the outcome of my study as the coursework produced may be of poor quality anyway. However, this will only be a potential problem if a high number of students were absent as the data gathered will not be sufficient to make any final conclusions.
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