Play-based curriculum benefits young children and teachers

Findings from a randomised controlled trial of Tools of the Mind (Tools) suggest that the programme improves kindergarten (Year 1) pupils’ academic outcomes in reading and writing, enhances children’s joy in learning and teachers’ enjoyment of teaching, and reduces teacher burnout.

The Tools programme is a play-based preschool and kindergarten curriculum that emphasises self-control, language and literacy skills. The study, published in the journal PLoS One, analysed the effectiveness of Tools on kindergarten teachers and 351 children (mean age 5.2 years at entry) with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in 18 public schools in Canada. Schools were paired with closely matched schools and then randomised to either the intervention group or control group. Teachers in the intervention group received a three-day workshop on Tools before the school year began, along with funds for resources. Control group teachers were offered the same amount of training hours and funds for whatever training and resource materials they wanted.

The results showed that pupils in the Tools group made greater improvements than pupils in the control group on standardised tests for reading and writing. By May, three times as many children in Tools classes than in control classes were reading at Grade 1 (Year 2) level or better. Similarly, three times as many children in Tools classes than in control classes were able to write a full sentence that they composed themselves. Tools teachers also reported that their pupils could continue to work unsupervised for two and a half times longer than control teachers estimated for their pupils, and that 100% could get back to work right away after breaks, compared to 50% of control children.

The Tools programme also had a positive impact on how teachers felt about teaching. More than three-quarters of Tools teachers, but none of the control teachers, reported in May that they were still enthusiastic about teaching.

Source: Randomized control trial of Tools of the Mind: Marked benefits to kindergarten children and their teachers (September 2019), PLoS One

Using expressive writing to reduce test anxiety

Test anxiety can have negative impacts on pupils’ performance and psychological health. This study published in PLoS One examined whether expressive writing could be beneficial to alleviate test anxiety. Lujun Shen and colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial among high school pupils in China who were facing The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gaokao), which is considered a crucial exam.

The study randomly selected 200 pupils (aged 16-17) from three high schools in Xinxiang city. Pupils were first assessed for eligibility. A sample of 75 pupils was recruited into the study for having a high level of test anxiety. Next, 38 of the pupils were allocated into an expressive writing group, and 37 of them were allocated to a control writing group. Pupils in the expressive writing group were instructed to write for 20 minutes about the positive emotions they had each day, consecutively for 30 days. Pupils in the control writing group were instructed to write about their daily activities consecutively for the same period of time.

Pupils were assessed using the Test Anxiety Scale (TAS) during the recruitment (late April), and after the end of the writing (early June). The study also analysed summaries of the writing manuscripts of the 38 expressive writing group pupils for qualitative data. The findings were as follows:

  • The expressive writing group scored significantly lower than the control writing group in the Test Anxiety Scale post-test.
  • There were no significant gender differences in the post-test TAS scores.
  • Qualitative analysis of the writing found more elements of positive emotion in the last ten days of expressive writing compared to the first ten days among the expressive writing group.

The authors suggest that expressive writing is an easy, inexpensive, and convenient method to cope with anxiety because it does not require a psychological counsellor nor a specific location.

Source: Benefits of expressive writing in reducing test anxiety: A randomized controlled trial in Chinese samples (February 2018), PLoS One, 5(13).

Phonics works, but other approaches need more research

A new meta-analysis published online in PLoS ONE has concluded that phonics is the only approach whose effectiveness on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading difficulties has been proven.

The research aimed to determine the effectiveness of a number of different treatment approaches for improving the literacy skills of children and adolescents with reading problems. A total of 22 studies met the search criteria, and these assessed a number of approaches: phonemic awareness instruction, phonics instruction, reading fluency training, reading comprehension training, auditory training, medical treatment, and coloured overlays.

The analysis concluded that teaching phonics is the only approach proven to have a statistically significant effect on reading and spelling performance. However, this approach was also the most intensively investigated, and therefore the only one where enough trials had been conducted to provide a reliable answer.

The Education Elf blog provides further analysis of this research.

Source: Effectiveness of Treatment Approaches for Children and Adolescents with Reading Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials (2014), PLoS ONE.

Preschool music hits a wrong note

A new study assesses the effects of early music education on children’s cognitive development. The researchers conducted two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) with preschool children. The experiments investigated the cognitive effects of a six-week series of 45-minute music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts lesson (visual arts, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2).

After the six weeks the children were assessed in four cognitive areas in which older arts-trained pupils have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. The authors initially found that children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than the children from the visual arts class, while children from the visual arts class showed greater visual form analysis ability than children from the music class (Experiment 1). However, a partial replication attempt comparing music training to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings (Experiment 2).

The combined results of the two experiments were negative: overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. The authors say that their findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music lessons.

Source: Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment (2013), PLoS ONE, December 2013.

The gene genie

Researchers at King’s College, the University of Warwick, and the University of New Mexico have published a new paper exploring the role of genes in educational achievement. They wanted to test the hypothesis that genetic differences (heritability) in educational achievement persist throughout compulsory education, as assessed by GCSEs at age 16.

The authors used data on 11,117 twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 recruited into the Twins Early Development Study and considered genetics, shared or common factors, and non-shared or unique environmental components. They found that heritability was substantial (58% of the variation) for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects. In contrast, the overall effects of the shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by twins growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounted for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores.

They suggest that the significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement can be attributed much more to genetics than to school or family environment, and conclude that this supports personalised learning.

Source: Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16 (2013), PLoS ONE.

Is success in school infectious?

A new article has revealed the “social contagion” of academic success within children’s friendship networks. The authors, from a school and university in New York, analysed the correlation between high school pupils’ academic progress over one year and the social environment that surrounds them in their friendship network. Information about the pupils’ social network came from the results of an electronic survey asking them about their friendships, while data on their academic progress came from their school, using a Grade Point Average (GPA) – the average of a student’s grades. Pupils whose friends’ average GPA was greater than their own had a higher tendency toward increasing their academic ranking over time. Conversely, the ranking decreased for those whose friends’ average GPA was less than their own.

Source: Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network (2013), PLoS ONE.