Results of an early literacy intervention to improve reading outcomes

Evidence for Learning in Australia has published an evaluation report of a randomised controlled trial of MiniLit, a small group, phonics-based programme for struggling Year 1 readers. The intervention is targeted at the bottom 25% of pupils struggling to read, and focuses on improving pupils’ literacy in five areas: phoneme awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The programme involved struggling readers from Year 1 classes in nine Australian primary schools located in New South Wales, and consisted of 80 one-hour lessons delivered four to five days per week over 20 weeks. The lessons were delivered in school outside of regular lessons by teachers to small groups of up to four pupils. A total of 237 pupils participated, of which 119 were allocated to the MiniLit intervention group and 118 to the control group. Pupils in the control group received the school’s usual learning support for struggling readers, which could include whole-class approaches and/or support programmes for struggling readers.

Overall, there was no evidence that MiniLit had any additional impact on pupils’ reading at 12 months, measured using the York Assessment of Reading Comprehension – Passage Reading (YARC-PR) tests compared to pupils receiving usual reading support (ES = -0.04). However, there were some positive effects for reading accuracy (ES = +0.13) and reading rate (ES = +0.06). There was also evidence of improvement in foundational reading skills at six months, particularly letter sound knowledge, which was also sustained at 12 months.

The researchers point out, however, that the findings were dependent on the quality of the MiniLit lessons which were provided to pupils. Schools were limited to 20 weeks’ duration, and in many cases, teachers reported that this length was not sufficient to complete the programme for all groups. They suggest that improving how MiniLit is implemented may lead to more positive outcomes; however, this requires further evaluation to determine.

Source: MiniLit: Learning impact fund: Evaluation report (2019). Independent report prepared by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne for Evidence for Learning

An evaluation of QuickSmart Numeracy

QuickSmart Numeracy is a 30-week maths tutoring programme from Australia that uses teaching assistants as tutors. Its goal is to increase basic maths fact automaticity/fluency in pupils in Year 4 and Year 8 who perform in the bottom third of their national cohort as measured on standardised testing, the premise being that increased maths fluency allows pupils to devote their concentration to maths concepts instead of fact recall. Researchers from the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia, recently examined the effects of the programme on pupil achievement in a randomised controlled trial.

Subjects were 288 Year 4 and Year 8 pupils from 70 classrooms in 23 Sydney Catholic Schools in New South Wales who scored below the 30th percentile on national standardised testing. Baseline testing was done in March 2017 using the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) Progressive Achievement Test – Mathematics (PAT-M), with post-testing in May 2018, six months after the intervention ended in December 2017. There were no significant differences between the experimental and control groups at pre-test. Randomisation among pupils who qualified for tutoring was done in each class, with all pupils attending regular maths classes and pairs of experimental pupils being pulled from other classes to also receive half-an-hour of QuickSmart tutoring three times a week for 30 weeks.

Results showed a non-significant difference (+0.08) favouring the experimental group in Year 4, and an effect size of +0.01 (n.s.) for Year 8. Authors noted that not all of the pupils received the targeted hours of tutoring due to recruitment and testing processes.

Source: QuickSmart Numeracy. Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (April 2019) Evidence for Learning

Findings from an evaluation of Thinking Maths

Evidence for Learning in Australia has published an evaluation of Thinking Maths – a professional learning programme for maths teachers to support pupils’ maths learning during the transition between primary and secondary school (currently Year 7 and Year 8 in South Australia).

The evaluation involved 158 schools in South Australia, which were randomly assigned to the intervention (63 schools) or the control group (104 schools). Teachers participated in 30 hours of face-to-face professional learning delivered at 4–5 week intervals over three school terms. The programme focuses on three areas for better teaching and learning of mathematics: (a) using quality task design, (b) sequencing a conceptual development, and (c) using research-informed effective pedagogies.

Pupils whose teachers received Thinking Maths made additional progress in maths when compared to business-as-usual maths classes (effect size = +0.05). However, there were differences between primary and secondary school pupils: the effect size for secondary pupils (Years 8–10) was -0.16, whereas the effect size for primary pupils (Years 5–7) was +0.14.

Source: Thinking Maths: A professional learning program supporting teachers to engage middle-school students in maths. Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, (September 2018). Evidence for Learning, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)

Preventing depression in secondary school pupils

Helen Christensen and colleagues conducted a cluster randomised trial to investigate the effectiveness of an intervention for the prevention of depression in secondary school pupils.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, reported on the results of a trial of the SPARX-R programme, a gamified online cognitive behaviour intervention that is delivered to pupils prior to facing a significant stressor – in this case final secondary school exams.

A total of 540 final-year pupils from 10 secondary schools in Sydney, Australia, took part and clusters at the school level were randomly allocated to SPARX-R or the control intervention (lifeSTYLE, an online interactive control programme). Interventions were delivered weekly in class under teacher supervision, in seven 20- to 30-minute modules. Symptoms of depression were measured by the Major Depression Inventory (MDI).

Pupils in the SPARX-R group showed a greater reduction in MDI scores than those in the control group, both post-intervention and at the 6-month follow-up. Effect sizes were small post-intervention (+0.29) and at the 6-month (+0.21) and 18-month follow-ups (+0.33).

Source: Preventing depression in final year secondary students: school-based randomized controlled trial (November 2017), Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol 19 (11).

Impact of secondary school mindfulness programmes

Catherine Johnson and colleagues carried out a randomised controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness programme (called “.b mindfulness” for “Stop, Breathe and Be!”) to measure impact on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being and mindfulness.

Five hundred and fifty-five pupils in four secondary schools in South Australia participated (mean age = 13.44 years). Pupils were assigned using a cluster (class-based) randomised controlled design to one of three conditions: the nine-week mindfulness curriculum, the nine-week mindfulness curriculum with parental involvement, or a control (business-as-usual) curriculum.

The evaluation found no differences between the mindfulness groups with or without parental involvement and the control group at post-intervention or at the six- and twelve-month follow-up. The researchers conclude that further research is required to identify the optimal age, content, and length of programmes delivering mindfulness to teenagers.

Source: A randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program for early adolescents: Do we have the recipe right yet? (September 2017), Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol 99

Unpacking the evidence on cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory – the theory of how the human brain learns and stores knowledge – is supported by a number of randomised controlled trials and has significant implications for teaching practice.  A report from the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in New South Wales, Australia, examines the existing research on cognitive load theory and what it looks like in practice. The first part of the report explains how human brains learn according to cognitive load theory, and outlines the evidence base for the theory. The second part examines the implication of cognitive load theory for teaching practice and describes some recommendations that are directly transferable to the classroom. These include:

  • Worked example effect – pupils are shown a problem that has already been solved (a “worked example”), with every step fully explained and clearly shown. Pupils who are taught using lots of worked examples learn more quickly than pupils who are asked to solve the problems themselves.
  • Modality effect – evidence suggests that working memory can be sub-divided into auditory and visual streams, so presenting information using both these methods of communication can increase working memory capacity – for example, when using a diagram and text to explain something, the written text can be communicated in spoken form.

Source: Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand (August 2017) Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation