The Literacy Teaching

Sturtevant and Linek (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007) present the very heartening and intriguing results of an attempt to introduce pedagogical peer mentoring in another, decidedly alien country and culture. The study location was a nation with an ancient and proud history. Macedonia has more recently experienced only one generation of independence from the former USSR and its idiosyncratic educational policies and practices. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 241)

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The authors describe an international yearlong effort that trained Macedonian teachers in a variety of literacy training techniques. The project also prepared them to train and lead colleagues in their home schools to apply these techniques. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 242)

As a part of the study process and its follow-up, participant responses to the training, and their implementation of it, were documented and analyzed. They were, overall, largely positive. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, pp. 244-248)

This article did not address whether the techniques imparted to the study participants were effective at the classroom level, and actually taught the students to read any more effectively than prior methods.

The study design, under the aegis of project called Secondary Educational Activity, involved recruiting a group of 100 Macedonian teachers from 15 vocational schools, and bringing them to one location for a two-stage training process. A dozen educators who had created the curriculum for the study, as well as another 10 literacy educators were the presenters for the material.

In Phase 1, they were introduced to a number of innovative approaches to teaching literacy. In Phase II, they received instructed in training their peers in these techniques. These educational sessions, totaling 120 hours, took place in 3 to 4 day sessions over the year. The study participants were expected to return to their regions and impart the lessons they had learned to another 200 teachers at an additional 35 schools. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, pp. 242-244)

After Phase II, the study participants were administered a questionnaire consisting of two questions. The first asked what the SEA training contributed to the participant’s professional development and status, and the second endeavored to determine what dilemmas or problems the participant had to overcome to participate in the study. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 244)

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As noted earlier, these were overwhelmingly favorable. Participants felt empowered in their status vis-à-vis colleagues, and energized in the classroom. They frankly noted their concerns about continuity of support during the training process. They also reported the logistical challenges of being away from their classrooms in an educational system with fewer mechanisms for substitute teaching than western countries have in place. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, pp. 244-248)

The specific techniques that were taught are straightforward and would not be unfamiliar to any teacher trained in recent years:

  • Understanding the special learning needs of adolescents and structuring learning for them
  • Finding ways to engage them (for example through self-questioning exercises)
  • meeting the student where they are (for example, using visuals)
  • introducing material and exercises which are relevant to the students’ lives and embedding teaching into natural daily activities ( for example, through community partnerships),
  • using a wide variety of formats to elicit consciously correct speech, and stimulate writing (for example, double entry journals, interviews, role playing, oral history) (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 243)

The article did not address, nor, it appears, did the SEA project, the question alluded to earlier, regarding the effectiveness of these techniques in the classroom. The teachers reported success in ameliorating the atmosphere and attitude of their classes. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, pp. 245-246, for example)

However, the authors shared no data in this article that would demonstrate a causal relationship between the new techniques and greater or swifter mastery of reading and writing. It is safe, however, to assume that a teacher imbued with a new enthusiasm, self-respect, enhanced status among peers, and sense of mission regarding literacy is going to be a more effective instructor, irrespective of the details of the techniques they use.

However, consider where these Macedonian teachers started from, burdened with a legacy of old Soviet-style rigid pedagogy. One teacher, after all, described the previous ambience of classes as a “winter sleep”. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 247) Anything new and specifically targeted at adolescent needs would be likely to aid matters, if only via the Hawthorne effect. This is the putative phenomenon that any special attention paid to any given group of workers/learners results in improved performance, at least over the near term. (Draper, 2009)

Additionally, the technique of” each one teach one”, of which this project represents a slightly modified example (each one teach two), is highly attractive. (Sturtevant & Linek, 2007, p. 248) It offers advantages both from a cost standpoint, and in terms of securing cooperation and universal ‘buy-in’. If any school system were proposing to introduce any novel pedagogical methods, this would be a reasonable system. Yes, the process of introduction would be slower than if every teacher attended training themselves, but the material might ‘stick’ a bit better.

In conclusion, this was an interesting and daring attempt to drag the literacy teaching of an entire country into a new era. It seems to have every hope of succeeding. The specific techniques as well as the peer mentoring method of dissemination are quite likely to be effective in many environments, especially where the funding is limited and the social/institutional inertia is powerful. Certainly, literacy is so critical to the success of students and the ultimate success of a nation that all hopeful strategies deserve consideration.

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Works Cited

Draper, S. W. (2009). The Hawthorne, Pygmalion, Placebo and other effects of expectation: some notes. Web.

Sturtevant, E. G., & Linek, W. M. (2007). Secondary Literacy Coaching: A Macedonian Perspective. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy , 51 (3), pp. 240-250.

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