Dr. Judith M. Newman



St. Boniface Literacy Project



Our focus on learning about the children through close and systematic observation has helped the teachers become much more aware of the children's avoidance and anxiety behaviours and to intervene more quickly in supportive ways. Their increased focus on observation has raised the need for developing new record-keeping strategies which in turn has raised questions about instructional strategies in general.

  • The behaviour of our at-risk students demonstrates a high level of anxiety and avoidance. This anxiety/avoidance takes many forms: withdrawal, acting out, inattention, defensiveness, dependence. Sometimes a child demonstrates a predominant anxiety/avoidance behavior, sometimes a range. We've become more adept at noticing and identifying these behaviours. We've begun to develop a list of such behaviours.
  • Being able to observe and identify the children's anxiety/avoidance has made it possible to engage in instruction that seeks first to diminish and subsequently to eliminate the anxiety. We have explored a range of ways of providing instructional support to discover what works with each individual child. Different strategies are needed for different children.
  • We have observed the children's anxiety/avoidance behaviours in one-to-one settings, in small groups, and in whole group instruction. The teachers have discovered that the opportunity to work with the child individually has enhanced their own ability to pick up on anxiety/avoidance behaviours in the classroom and, rather than attempt to deal with that behaviour directly, they are now becoming more adept at providing support which allows the child to engage. They have learned that not every child needs the same support.
  • Since the beginning of the project (in late September) the teachers have identified a marked decrease in the children's dependence. The children are all now much more able to initiate literacy activities and to sustain engagement.
  • By changing their focus from "fixing the child" to "learning from the child" the teachers have discovered how to respond to the individual child's needs in ways that lead to less avoidance and more engagement on the part of the child.
  • The teachers' observations of their individual case study children has proved beneficial with all children in the classroom. The teachers have learned to be more observant of all their students and are now more knowledgeable about their individual strengths and their learning strategies.
  • We've discovered it's important to record behaviours that are no longer happening as well as new ones that are emerging. The absence of anxiety/avoidance behaviours is as strong an indicator of engagement as the development of strengthened learning strategies.


The teachers have been exploring ways of putting the learner in control of the learning. They've learned to start with the children's vulnerabilities, finding out what they are and ways of compensating for them. What they've found is that this sort of support has relaxed the children to an extent that all of their parents have commented on it and the children are demonstrating considerably increased engagement with and success in literacy activities.

  • We have worked to discover exactly what the case study children are capable of doing independently. Being able to identify their independence level is crucial because it provides an indication of what engagement looks like for a particular child. It offers a baseline against which to assess their anxiety/avoidance behaviour.
  • Once we've located what the child can do independently, we have explored increasing the complexity of the literacy task with an eye to providing just enough support to help the child sustain his/her engagement. We've discovered various ways of keeping the child going in one-to-one instructional situations and then attempted similar strategies in small group and whole class situations. We're learning that judicious attention to what the children are attempting to do and offering support as quickly as possible has allowed the children to function more independently for longer in the classroom.
  • We've extended our exploration to situations which are beyond the students' current level of functioning in order to discover ways of helping the children participate and learn from complex literacy activities although they are yet incapable of engaging in them on their own.
  • We've explored ways of creating a balance, both for the individual case study children, as well as for the classroom as a whole, between activities which the children can engage in independently and those which require some or a great deal of support.
  • We've begun to identify and describe various kinds of support:
    • working at a task together—shared reading, shared writing, working collaboratively, then offering the child an opportunity to attempt the task independently (being ready to 'share' again if it should be needed)
    • providing practice within a group context and for a real audience (not just teacher as examiner); i.e., readers theatre creates a situation requiring repeated readings of a difficult text in a group context as well as for subsequent performance for a real audience
    • asking the learner if help is needed, then asking the learner to identify what help would be useful
    • asking questions
      • to help the learner analyze the task situation
      • to help the learner verbalize the strategies they're using
      • to help the learner verbalize other potential strategies
      • to find out "How did you do this?"
    • providing the learner with some choices for the outcome of what they're doing
    • making it legitimate and encouraging the children to work with partners
    • demonstrating and verbalizing our own strategies, talking about how we engage with reading and writing
    • providing the children with exemplars and a range of printed resources
    • pointing out when the children are successful


The teachers have learned a great deal about learning and teaching. They've learned to slow down, to give the child time, to take their lead from the children at the same time not losing sight of the complex tasks they want them to be able to handle independently. Most important, they've begun to learn from the individual instruction how to keep the child in the classroom and to learn in small group and whole group situations.

  • We've learned to shift our gaze from teaching to LEARNING. Our emphasis on learning to observe, on making inferences and interpretations from our observation, serve as a basis for instructional decisions and has shifted our attention to learning from the learner.
  • We've discovered that the children have a range of productive learning strategies at their disposal but that our instructional activities haven't always permitted the children to use them. We're learning to make openings for the children to use and extend their strategies.
  • We've found that growth can be very uneven. Gains can be made in one aspect of literacy and not with others at a particular time. Growth in reading may not be mirrored by growth in writing; and the converse—growth in writing can outstrip growth in reading.
  • There is no one path to literacy proficiency. Some of the children have engaged with reading more easily; others have taken off with writing.
  • We've explored ways of more closely integrating reading and writing activities. We've found the children become more independent readers/writers when the reading is supported with writing and the writing supported by books.
  • We've learned the importance of not lowering the goals for the at-risk children. We've learned not to be afraid of keeping them in challenging situations but to find ways of supporting them so they can be successful.