I had written a whole long post on this topic last week, and was just waiting for some data to finish it up, but then something tragic happened, and it all got deleted by accident (ctrl+z did not work!). So I'll try my best to recreate what I had written (and perhaps it will be better).
Two terms ago I changed the way I taught reading. I was souring on the effectiveness of achievement (ability) groupings in everything and this was the last frontier. I wrote some initial thoughts after one term, but now I have some data to back things up. In those two terms, 19 of my learners participated in the mixed-achievement groups, reading two novels over the two terms. This change started in early May and the latest results have come during early September, so the time frame is approximately 4 months. Over those four months, the average improvement in reading age has been 9.9 months, more than double what would be expected The smallest improvement was 3 months and the largest was 21 months. Though this is not exactly a scientific study, it does show that a) I'm not crazy for doing this and b) even if the reasons for their improvement did not include the way I taught, it's clear that the mixed-achievement groups does not hinder learners from improving and the children are not subjected to who is in the lowest group. I wish I had taken some other data at the beginning of this (asking learners if they enjoy reading, if they think they are good at reading) as that may have been more valuable, but anecdotally, the class tells me they don't want to go back to the old way.
Furthermore, while looking at the reading results, I had a look at my writing results as well, a subject in which I have not had achievement groups all year. On average, compared to their term 1 Asttle results, my learners have improved an average of 3.1 points on the scoring rubric, which translates (roughly) to 1.5 sublevels, which is approximately the amount of progress expected in a whole year. So overall, my students have improved more than what would be expected over that time.
Given the improvements, I have spent some time thinking about why this might be, and I came up with several reasons:
Though the choice I gave my learners was not very big, I let them choose from books they would enjoy (Roald Dahl) and didn't force any particular books on them (in fact, there was a multiple step process to figure out which books to read, each step involving learner voice). Having children choose what they read puts a lot of the ownership back onto them, they want to read those books, and they are excited to talk about them.
A lot of the work was based around discussions and questioning, directed by both myself and my learners. Since all learners came from different backgrounds and experiences, mixing up the groups provided for richer discussion and thought about the books. Children who have never worked together before had a chance to share their ideas with each other. This is always a good thing, getting ideas and ways of thinking shared between learners, and having them support each other in developing their comprehension strategies.
Enjoyment, not Shaming
Most children who are not in the top group do understand what this means. By focusing on enjoyment over achievement (on an arbitrary scale) learners are more engaged and enjoy reading more. When reading is enjoyable, they do it more often. When they do it more often, they get better at it.
Most of the work I do with the groups for their novels, revolves around SOLO maps and using them to understand the book a bit better. From the first to the second term, there was a marked increase in confidence of students using the maps, to the point where some didn't even need me to walk them through it. They were able to think about what happened in the book critically and delve deep into the meaning of what the author wrote.
Rather than give learners books that are "at their level," more difficult books (which are chosen by the children) push them to learn more. They are motivated to read the harder books and when they go back to their levelled tests, they seem much easier by comparison, which helps them succeed more easily.
Overall, I'm extremely pleased with how this reading (and the writing) program has gone this year. My learners are clearly more confident with their learning and sharing what they know (though this is not just because of the reading, but it has played a part in it) as well as working as a team. Incidentally, it has been harder to prove an improvement in math results this year as it is not as easily quantified (or at least I haven't yet tried to do so). Has anyone else tried mixed-achievement reading? Has it been successful? Any comments would be greatly appreciated.