Theory and Research into Practice

Professor Kevin Wheldall – Theory and research into practice

Professor Kevin WheldallIn my research career, spanning over 37 years now, I have had little time for so-called pure research. I have had my more esoteric moments (researching eye widening and eyebrow raising in response to surprise in nursery school children, for example!) but they have been rare. There has simply been too much to be done on a practical level. I believe firmly in evidence-based practice and see experimental and behaviourally based educational psychology as the main means by which we can address the problems confronting education. I tire very quickly when faced with post-modern speculation and so-called critical theory (Wheldall, 2006; Carter & Wheldall, 2008).

This is not to say that I have no interest in theory or that I have not attempted to contribute to the development of psychological models. Kurt Lewin used to say that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. I agree with this, but also believe that practice undoubtedly influences theory. In considering the influence that my research may have had on practice, I shall focus on two areas: classroom behaviour management and reading instruction, since it is a source of continual amazement to me that we teach neither of them well in education faculties.

My work has clearly identified (and this has been replicated many times) that classroom behaviour of most concern to teachers is not violence and aggression (as the media would have us believe) but rather the relatively trivial but persistent and time-wasting behaviours such as ‘talking out of turn’ (TOOT) and ‘hindering other children’ (HOC). TOOT and HOC account for the vast majority of teacher complaints about student behaviour and lead to low levels of student on-task behaviour. Being on-task (paying attention to the teacher and getting on with your work) is a necessary (but not, of course, sufficient) condition for learning to take place in the classroom. Our observational studies have repeatedly shown that while teachers typically praise students for good academic product, they almost never praise them for behaving well in class. But by using methods based on positive teaching (rather than continual reprimanding), teachers can be readily trained in how to use positive reinforcement to increase levels of on-task behaviour in their classroom. We have repeatedly demonstrated this to be the case.

The other necessary condition for learning to take place is effective instruction, but we hardly ever seem to employ it in schools! This is particularly evident in the teaching of reading. In spite of the failure of so-called whole language in teaching reading, this is the approach that most teachers identify with and which dominates practice in our schools. Even when young children fail to learn to read, we tend to give them more of the same in the form of Reading Recovery. Our experimental research clearly showed that Reading Recovery is, at best, effective for only one child in three exposed to it (Center, Wheldall, Freeman, Outhredd & McNaught, 1995). But it is only now, many years after we showed this, that Reading Recovery is beginning to be questioned.

This frustration with ineffective instruction in reading and related skills led to the development of MultiLit. By employing a rigorous, intensive, systematic, skills-based program of instruction, my partner and colleague, Dr Robyn Beaman, and I have demonstrated repeatedly that low-progress readers can make extraordinary progress. By incorporating what we have learned about how reading works from international research over the past 30 years and coupling it with what we know to be the most effective methods of instruction, we now have a program that makes it possible for most non-readers or low-progress older readers to reach, at least, functional literacy. Moreover, by using curriculum-based measures of reading such as the WARP, we can track the progress students are making over successive weeks and modify their instruction accordingly. More recently, we have demonstrated that MultiLit also proves to be very effective with indigenous students in remote Aboriginal communities, helping them to catch up with their non-indigenous peers in reading and related skills.

Read about Kevin’s induction into  Macquarie University Innovators’ Hall of Fame

On Australia Day 2011, professor Kevin Wheldall was awarded the Member of the order of Australia (AM) for services to children’s literacy

Key references

Center, Y., Wheldall, K., Freeman, L., Outhred, L. & McNaught, M. (1995) An evaluation of Reading Recovery. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 240-63.

Wheldall, K. & Beaman, R. (2000) An evaluation of MultiLit: ‘Making Up Lost Time In Literacy‘. Canberra: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Wheldall, K. (2006). When will we ever learn? In K. Wheldall (Ed.), Developments in educational psychology: How far have we come in 25 years? (pp. 1-12). London: Routledge.

 Further references

Merrett, F. & Wheldall, K. (1990) Positive Teaching in the Primary School. London: Paul Chapman.

Multilit (2007). The Multilit reading tutor program. Sydney: Multilit Pty Ltd.

Wheldall, K. (ed.) (1987) The Behaviourist in the Classroom. London: Allen & Unwin.

Wheldall, K. (2009) The Wheldall assessment of reading passages (WARP). Sydney: Multilit Pty Ltd (in press).

Wheldall, K. & Madelaine, A. (2000) A curriculum-based passage reading test for monitoring the performance of low-progress readers: The development of the WARP. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 47, 371-82.

Wheldall, K. & Madelaine, A. (2009) Manual for the Wheldall assessment of reading passages (WARP). Sydney: Multilit Pty Ltd (in press).

Wheldall, K. & Merrett, F. (1989) Positive Teaching in the Secondary School. London: Paul Chapman.

Wheldall, K., Mittler, P. & Hobsbaum, A. (1979, 1987) Sentence Comprehension Test. Windsor: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Wheldall, K. & Poborca, B. (1980) Conservation without conversation? An alternative non-verbal paradigm for assessing conservation of liquid quantity. British Journal of Psychology, 71, 117-34.