Mertzman, T. (2008). Individualising scaffolding: Teachers’ literacy interruptions of ethnic minority students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(2), 183–202. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2007.00356.x
The article, Individualising scaffolding: Teachers’ literacy interruptions of ethnic minority students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, discussed a group of teachers’ scaffolding techniques of interruptions during literacy instruction. Interruptions from teacher to student are a common practice, especially when getting students to learn how to read, but little research has been done to analyze the types of interruptions teachers implement, to which specific students that teachers are interrupting as well as what effect interruptions have on literacy development. Before the study was conducted, participating teachers were interviewed to determine their beliefs and approaches around literacy instruction. The study showed, however, that teacher beliefs often contradicted or conflicted in some way with actual instructional practice. A key finding is that with ethnic minority students, teacher interruptions were more frequent and were more often related to a phonics or accuracy issue instead of an issue related to reading comprehension.
A particularly helpful heading was “Research on teachers’ literacy interruption” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 187) because it allowed me to quickly go to that section to see what is out there in terms of this topic. There is not a whole lot of research out there, but something the author did write in this section that I was not too surprised about was that students in lower ability reading groups were interrupted more than students in higher ability groups (Mertzman, 2008). This implies, however, that if a student is in a lower-ability group, they will end up reading less on a daily basis than those students who are in a higher ability reading group. This made me quickly see the relevance of this issue to not only instructional scaffolding, which is the breaking down of concepts in order for students to learn, but also to the hot topic of ability tracking. This caused me to ask, if students read less in lower ability classrooms, does this mean that we should discontinue ability tracking? It’s a complex question, but one that I began to think about right away as result of this section.
Another helpful heading was entitled, “Overall patterns of teacher interruptions: more focus on word recognition than on text meaning” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 190). This told me right away that teachers cared more about phonics than comprehension. In other words, in this study, it was found that teachers felt that it was more crucial that kids could read the words accurately than be able to understand what they actually mean. This made me think of a concept that I am learning in my human development class, in that kids at this age are cognitively able to realize that words represent concepts, so it is crucial that we focus on both the pronunciation and meaning when kids come across words.
Contribution to the Field
One major contribution to the field of early childhood literacy and instruction is the identification of the types of interruptions that are implemented in classrooms. This allows early childhood educators to discuss these types of interactions with colleagues in order to be cognizant of them and improve upon them. The types of interruptions that teachers implement are: “student or teacher model, scold, praise, repeat answer, explain the right answer, focus on meaning, focus on word recognition and sounding out Convergent questions” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 191). Knowing what these interruptions look like in practice will allow us to study them more in the future, especially as there are positive interruptions that provoke student academic achievement and those interruptions that hinder it.
Data Collection Methods
This study was conducted through examining four different classrooms within the same school closely. It was made clear to teachers that the point of this study would be to analyze interactions between teachers and students, but interruptions were never mentioned in order to avoid the problem of participants being self-conscious about these types of interactions. Once teachers were selected, each teacher was observed for two entire days of instruction in order to provide context for student behaviors throughout the day. Then, the period of class that was exclusively devoted to literacy instruction was filmed. Immediately following the literacy period, the researcher interviewed both teachers and students that were interrupted. The filmed segments were then played back to the interviewees in order to get a sense of what thoughts and feelings the participant had behind that interruption. Then, transcripts were consulted in order to begin the data analysis process and the identification of types of interruptions occurring.
The key question that the author was trying to answer was whether literacy interruption patterns were different with students from different races/economic classes (Mertzman, 2008). Unfortunately, the findings were that yes, they are. In the interviews conducted before the study, teachers never once mentioned socioeconomic status or race as a means to individualize instruction. However, as ethnic minority students were more likely to be interrupted than their white, higher income peers, it seems that teachers do in fact consider race and class as a factor when making instructional decisions. Additionally, the fact that the interruption types were more likely to be a word recognition/phonics issue does not support a balanced approach to literacy (Mertzman, 2008).
New ideas this study suggests for my area of interest
The author made it clear that interruptions can be a powerful force to effectively scaffold a child’s instruction. As this study identified interruptions that would foster a balanced approach to literacy, I began to think of cues that could be taught to teachers during professional development. I thought how when I go and observe teachers, I can specifically focus on the interruption types, the frequency of them and to whom they are being given in order to come up with appropriate suggestions for instructional improvement. I also thought about how we can connect positive interruptions to the idea of helping students manage their uncertainty within the context of learning how to read.
It is important to note, as disturbing as the results of this study are, that this was a very small-scale study. Only four teachers were studied and the school was in a rural area of the Southeastern United States. Therefore, to get a better sense as to whether race and socioeconomic status impacts teachers’ literacy scaffolding, larger studies in more diverse settings should be executed.