To what extent do teachers’ beliefs affect their ability to develop successful classroom practice over time? This question is relevant to many aspects of teachers’ roles. Our interest was in understanding how teachers feel about how they see their ability to support children with reading difficulties. Supporting children to learn to read is seen as a critical component of primary education and as the development of polices around teaching reading through phonics have shaped practice in state schools in England it is in the spotlight more than ever. At the same time there is a sustained anxiety amongst some parents to find a reason, in the form of a label, for the difficulties their children experience.
In our recent investigation we surveyed the beliefs of teachers in primary schools in the North-east of England in relation to supporting children who struggle with learning to read
From our perspectives as academic educational psychologists we are interested in what is known as ‘efficacy beliefs’ which can be defined as the teacher’s individual belief that they can act to make a positive difference. In our recent investigation we surveyed the beliefs of teachers in primary schools in the North-east of England in relation to supporting children who struggle with learning to read. Our questionnaires were designed to elicit responses indicative of teachers’ beliefs that they could do things that would make a difference for these children (their efficacy beliefs). We were also interested in whether or not they thought difficulties with reading were ‘essentially’ biologically distinct and immutable.
Two versions of the questionnaires were developed. In one version children were described as having ‘reading difficulties’. In the second version the words ‘reading difficulties’ were replaced by the word ‘dyslexia’. From all teaching staff in 23 primary schools in the NE of England an opportunity sample of 267 teachers (just over half of all the teachers in these schools) agreed to participate. Schools were matched by number on roll, number of children entitled to Free School Meals (FSM), and number of children labelled as having Special Educational Needs (having statements of special educational needs). All teachers in a school were invited to respond to one variant of the questionnaires. Teachers in a matching school were asked to complete the alternative variant.
We found that when presented with the ‘dyslexia’ variants teachers’ beliefs about being able to do things to achieve appropriate outcomes (their efficacy beliefs) were a) closely associated with responses to items that revealed beliefs that ‘dyslexia’ was biologically determined, immutable and culturally specific; and b) that their beliefs in their efficacy did not increase with experience.
On the other hand, when presented with items describing children as having ‘reading difficulties’ teachers’ efficacy beliefs about being able to motivate and engage children in appropriate tasks were only weakly associated with an element of essentialism we termed ‘cultural specificity’. However, more significantly for us these teachers’ beliefs in their efficacy increased with greater experience.
we suggest that ‘reading difficulties’ may be a more positively helpful label (if any labels can be helpful) than ‘dyslexia’
This may have importance since in general when teachers profess stronger efficacy beliefs these have been associated with better outcomes for children. It is reasonable to anticipate that teachers in their professional careers will encounter a number of children who find it harder than some others to acquire skills in aspects of literacy. Our research suggests that if such children are described as having ‘dyslexia’, then, all others things being equal, teachers appear to be unlikely to gain in confidence that they can intervene effectively. Accordingly we suggest that ‘reading difficulties’ may be a more positively helpful label (if any labels can be helpful) than ‘dyslexia’. The reason we would offer conclusion is that this seems to open the door to a virtuous circle of increasing teacher efficacy beliefs as teachers accumulate experience of work working successfully with children having ‘reading difficulties’. Our proposition is that this could lead to better outcomes for children.
We have just published the study of teachers’ beliefs about teaching children who have some form of difficulty with reading (Gibbs, S. & Elliott, J. (2015) The differential effects of labelling: How do ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading difficulties’ affect teachers’ beliefs? European Journal of Special Needs Education (In Press) doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2015.1022999).