Making Research Come Alive

How can classroom teachers get the latest thinking on instruction and learning? A series of plain-language monographs is helping teachers turn research into practice.

by Stuart Foxman

Above: Jonathan Bolduc, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, co-authored the monograph Placing Music at the Centre of Literacy Instruction.

As former classroom teachers, Kingsley Hurlington, OCT, and Alex Lawson understand the value of bringing research about education to the front lines. They also know that the types of articles published in refereed journals, while vital, aren’t always accessible.

No slight intended. Hurlington himself is a research associate at Trent University’s School of Education and Professional Learning. But he was a high school teacher first and describes with bemusement “the secret language of researchers.” For her part, Lawson, an associate professor of mathematics education at Lakehead University, says research needs to be “pulled off a dusty shelf and used.”

That’s the goal behind a series of research summaries produced by a partnership between the Ministry of Education’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat and the Ontario Association of Deans of Education. What Works? Research into Practice began in 2007 and comprises over two dozen monographs written by scholars at Ontario universities – Hurlington and Lawson among them – who are experts in education.

Each peer-reviewed paper is just four pages, with a strict word count, a simple structure and a limit on citations. In clear language they discuss issues related to K–8 education, with an emphasis on literacy or numeracy learning, and include recommendations for classroom practice.

“We’re trying to go beyond what’s obvious and promote conversations that teachers maybe haven’t thought about,” says Deborah Berrill, OCT, who edited the series and is the Founding Director of Trent’s School of Education and Professional Learning.

Patricia Manson, OCT, Senior Executive Officer at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, adds that “Teachers are lifelong learners who are continually searching for ways to assist students in their learning. What Works? Research into Practice is one place to find that information.”

The monographs are sent twice a year to every Ontario school, faculty of education and teachers’ federation. They are also available online on the Ontario Ministry of Education web site.

The researchers gain a wider audience, and the audience gains practical information to inform their teaching, says Jane Gaskell, Dean of OISE/UT, who was a catalyst in developing the series.

How is the success of the series measured?

“Having thoughtful teachers who question their own practice,” says Berrill.

Five questions were triggers for five of the monographs:

Some monographs directly address literacy and numeracy issues; others touch more broadly on the needs of particular groups and on helping students face and overcome challenges.

Learning what emerged from each paper illustrates how the series is indeed turning research into practice.


Pre-school and kindergarten teachers find that incorporating music into literacy instruction improves listening, cognitive and linguistic skills.

Do math rules add up?

In math, there’s one right answer but more than one way to get there, notes Lawson, whose monograph is Learning Mathematics vs Following “Rules”: The Value of Student-Generated Methods.

There’s growing evidence that students are learning to apply math rules without a real understanding of the math. Equally troubling, student difficulties often stem from traditional math instruction.

When students learn double-digit addition and subtraction, errors often occur as they try to follow rules (for example, carrying and borrowing) that they don’t really grasp. You get buggy algorithms, like 28 + 29 = 471 – here, the student added 2 and 2 to get 4, then 8 and 9 to get 17, but transposed that into 71.

With extensive practice, most (but not all) children learn to use traditional algorithms with some competence – but often at a price, says Lawson. “Kids stop making sense of math and just do what the teacher tells them.”

The research suggests more effective means of math learning:

“Children will discuss and argue their way to the mathematical truth,” says Lawson. Moreover, students who are encouraged to experiment with their own solutions are less prone to making errors than students in traditional math classrooms. They also develop a deeper comprehension, Lawson reports. “More children genuinely understand – and enjoy – mathematics.”

In the key of learning

Understanding and enjoyment: When those two keys fit, they can unlock achievement in any area. That’s certainly true when it comes to early literacy.

The monograph Placing Music at the Centre of Literacy Instruction notes that, from the time of pre-school, children have musical knowledge. There’s emerging evidence that musical activities can encourage young learners to focus on the sound structure of language. That improves their listening and develops their cognitive and linguistic skills, and in the process helps them acquire strategies to learn written language.

Jonathan Bolduc, an assistant professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education, co-authored this study with his colleague Carole Fleuret. Bolduc reports that pre-school and elementary programs that combine musical activities and literacy instruction have seen improved student scores on reading and writing tasks.

Teachers are lifelong learners who are continually searching for ways to assist students in their learning.  

One of his suggested teaching practices involves singing – create a repertoire by setting your own lyrics from the topics covered in class to familiar melodies. Singing helps children develop their melodic and rhythmic skills and has a direct impact on their ability to recognize rhymes and which syllables get accented.

For another activity, “play” a word on a percussion instrument, emphasizing the accented syllables. Then choose another word with the same number of syllables and ask the student to “play” that one. Next, associate the rhythmic sequence with the sequence of syllables (for example “TA-ble” or “PEN-cil”).

To add a melodic dimension, choose a three-syllable word, like “pa-ja-mas.” Pair it with a three-note melody, sing the word and have the student reproduce it. Repeat the activity dropping one note and therefore one syllable. The child then sings and names the unit missing from the melody. Bolduc says this builds skills in segmentation, deletion, categorization and the blending of phonological units.

He says that children develop most of their musical ability between ages 4 and 6 – a crucial period for developing literacy. “When we use music, we see it in psychomotor development and the development of perceptive skills but often don’t make the connection with learning skills in the classroom.”

And, says Bolduc, don’t forget one of the most important advantages of using music. It’s fun!

Fighting stereotypes

Anything that advances achievement is music to the ears of teachers. But much education policy and literature revolve around the underachievement of one group – boys, specifically their engagement with literacy. That raises a critical question, which Wayne Martino poses in his monograph: Boys’ Underachievement: Which Boys Are We Talking About?

Yes, boys underachieve in many cases. However, “boys get isolated into a homogeneous group, and it’s more complicated than that,” says Martino, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Western Ontario.

Martino contends that the notion that schools are failing boys or that boys will automatically benefit from a “boy-friendly” curriculum, more male teachers or single-sex classrooms is simplistic. But it has resulted in interventions designed to cater to perceived common interests and learning styles. Boys are often presented as an undifferentiated group, based simply on being boys.

“I think there’s a problem with stereotyping any group,” says Martino.

He believes that teachers can play an important role in promoting less stereotypical conceptions of what it means to be a boy. Good pedagogy for boys (and girls) involves what Martino calls classroom management 101:

Not all boys underachieve. Research says that socio-economic status and geographical location, for example, affect the education performance of specific groups of boys and girls. Martino says a “which boys/which girls” approach will help educators determine the most productive intervention for struggling readers and at-risk students.

“Teachers,” he says, “are at the centre of such education reform – reform that resists oversimplification of differences in gender and achievement.”


Integrating Aboriginal Teaching and Values into the Classroom – Native-language teacher Verna Hardwick, OCT, with students at St. David Catholic Elementary School in Sudbury.

Good life teachings

Achievement and respecting students’ values are central issues for Pamela Toulouse, an assistant professor at Laurentian University’s school of education. A new body of research notes that self-esteem is key to the success of Aboriginal students, who require “a learning environment that honours who they are and where they’ve come from.” So writes Toulouse in her monograph, Integrating Aboriginal Teaching and Values into the Classroom.

The gap in education achievement between Aboriginal and other Canadian students is “alarming,” states Toulouse, who comes from the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. Genuine progress requires strategies that nurture the Aboriginal model of self-esteem – the positive interconnection between “the physical, emotional-mental, intellectual and spiritual realms.”

What does this mean in practice?

Toulouse builds her paper around the seven Ojibwe good life teachings – respect, love, bravery, wisdom, humility, honesty and truth. “That’s like character education – how we live,” says Toulouse. Each value translates into implications for education. Consider how the first three can play out from day to day:

Getting there requires wisdom (share effective practices in Aboriginal education through professional development and research), humility (acknowledge that we must learn more about the diversity of Aboriginal peoples) and honesty (review the factors that encourage change in education, and be responsible and accountable for driving that change).

Finally, we arrive at truth. Says Toulouse: We need to develop measurable outcomes for Aboriginal student success and use them as key indicators of how inclusive the curriculum and pedagogy really are.

Helping students bounce back

Teachers are at the centre of such education reform – reform that resists oversimplification of differences in gender and achievement.  

Many students achieve despite risk factors, setbacks and adversity. What accounts for success in the face of life’s challenges? Resilience isn’t “some magical trait that is unique to some children and absent in others,” says Hurlington. Instead, as he suggests in Bolstering Resilience in Students: Teachers as Protective Factors, it requires the right kind of supportive setting.

Resilience is a capacity that all youth have for successful development and learning, but three protective factors are key: caring relationships, high expectations and opportunities for meaningful contribution. Here’s how to create environments that foster all three:

Students can surprise us, says Hurlington, so give them all the chance to do so. Thinking back on his high school teaching days, he pictures the skateboarding slackers who seemed not to care a whit about learning. But, he says, watch them in the skate parks as they nail a trick that took dozens of hours and failures to perfect. “Are you telling me those kids don’t have resilience?”

“Everyone has strengths, and if you understand them amazing things can happen,” he adds. “Don’t write anybody off.”


Ruth Marinelli and her family-studies students in the midst of a community clean-up outside Bur Oak SS in Markham

Aha moments

The monograph authors say they were thrilled with the chance to write not just for fellow researchers but for the classroom teachers who will ultimately make the findings in the series come alive. “This should be accessible so someone can pick it up and go, ‘Aha,’ ” says Hurlington.

Bolduc has published in many scientific journals but argues that concise monographs like these make it possible to contextualize a subject without including complex theoretical concepts. With that stripped away, he says, it’s easier for teachers to see practical applications and facilitate learning. Teachers who have read the monographs agree.

“With academic journals, you’re not always sure you got the point. Here, it’s written in regular language, with strategies to follow,” says Ruth Marinelli, OCT, who teaches family studies at Bur Oak SS in Markham.

Marinelli read Hurlington’s monograph in March. She says she routinely tries to support the kind of students he writes about, by making a point of learning what happens in their world beyond school, for instance. She was struck by how Hurlington logically laid out things that can help students become more resilient. “It’s something I’ve been doing, but I hadn’t put a name to it,” she says.

Now, Marinelli plans to adopt some of Hurlington’s advice, like posting student strengths on a bulletin board for all to see. “A lot of kids feel invisible at school, that there isn’t anybody who cares, and all they want is to know that you do,” she says. She has also passed along the monograph to her school’s literacy teacher and librarian and hopes it will raise awareness – and action.

That’s what Lawson’s monograph did for Nicole Walter-Rowan, OCT, an elementary math resource teacher at Lakehead District Public Schools in Thunder Bay. She’s using the research with teachers to explore how children are thinking their way through math problems and to construct questions that better address that thinking.

“It helps us make a shift in problem solving and can lead to deeper mathematical thinkers instead of just number crunchers,” says Walter-Rowan.

What Works? Research into Practice intentionally covers wide ground. “A lot of things play into achievement besides literacy and numeracy,” says Berrill, citing as an example Hurlington’s paper on resilience.

According to Manson, the ideas in a monograph might lead principals to drive change school-wide, while other times teachers might just try something and share the results.

“We’re trying to encourage the sense that we’re a professional learning community as we raise the bar on student achievement and close the gap.”