A few months ago, I was outraged, as were many teachers who work in secondary education, to read the Evening Standard splash on literacy statistics. Today, I read the National Literacy Trust’s annual survey on reading, entitled ‘Setting the Baseline’ and was pleased to see that someone is actually taking into account views of young people on their understanding of reading today – how they feel about it, how often they do it and what they actually like reading.
As expected, the list of items that students claimed to like reading differs somewhat from the list Michael Gove recommended in March earlier this year after a visit to the US charter schools run by KIPP. I have visited KIPP schools in New York and admire their dedication to the raising of literacy standards amongst the most deprived students in the state. What Michael Gove may have missed about KIPP is that their whole approach to reading is different to ours. Reading in a KIPP school is central to everything – classrooms are decorated using themes from books, words are displayed everywhere, there are sofas for children to sit on and read quietly and until students reach the required reading age, the curriculum is solely designed around Literacy, Mathematics, Science and Social Sciences (what we would term Humanities). Social Sciences lessons are literacy lessons in disguise – they teach reading skills through History, Geography and Religious Education. So, with all this in mind, how did Michael Gove come back from that visit to the KIPP schools and decide that a reading list and synthetic phonics were the biggest ‘take aways’ from that experience?
The students surveyed by the National Literacy Trust listed reading emails, text messages, websites and newspapers amongst their reading material, which just goes to show that reading is not, and will never be confined to reading books recommended by the state. Reading is a skill that needs to be used in the decoding and comprehension of everything that is written. It is not just a skill that allows someone to pass an English Literature GCSE (although, believe me, it helps), it is the difference between entire socio-economic statuses.
The findings from the National Literacy Trust are extremely interesting considering the screaming headlines in June, where the Evening Standard announced that a large swathe of young Londoners are illiterate, have no books in their homes and have parents who don’t read to them. At the risk of sounding like a TV presenter from a well known family quiz show, the survey says that only 3% of young people surveyed stated that they don’t have a single book in the home. The survey also points out, again, that young people from the poorest backgrounds, those receiving Free Schools Meals, are much less likely to have read a book recently. My own experiences, and those of my colleagues, show that the majority of students in our secondary classrooms can read. Their single word reading, their reading rate is not the reason they fail to achieve a chronological reading age score. It is their level of comprehension of what they are reading and a lack of exposure to language that causes an achievement gap. This gap that widens, almost unstoppably.
Richard Rothstein, Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute in the US and Board Member of the American Education Research Association, has written extensively on the achievement gap in the US, especially in ‘Class and Schools’ (2004). He is quick to point out that a lot of the findings from his own and others’ research in the US is mirrored here in the UK and his key point is that the achievement gap begins before the age of 3. Socio-economic differences – the gap between a working class child’s experience and that of a middle class child – make or break a child’s educational trajectory. Rothstein draws on his own and others’ research to assert small, but hugely important facts – the amount of words middle class children are exposed to can be a third higher than the amount of words a working class child is exposed to. How parents read – the questions they ask while they are reading to a child vary between the classes. Reading, for him, is not just about those who can and those who can’t. In other words, a phonics programme does not solve poor standards of literacy because the issue is so much wider and more complex than Michael Gove could even imagine. We cannot create a nation of literate, confident individuals by giving them a reading list and making them recite phonemes.
I believe that true teaching of literacy, in all of its many forms, cannot occur with any degree of success that we can be proud of until, like in KIPP schools, reading becomes central to everything. Reading, and the teaching of reading is more than just the ability to read the words on the page. In my department, we have been using Reciprocal Reading strategies developed by the Hackney Learning Trust – a programme of developing comprehension and vocabulary based on the excellent work of US educationalist and reading specialist, Lori Oczkus. We test our students to see whether it is their single word reading that needs development – and therefore a phonics programme is put in place for that child – or whether they have difficulty comprehending what they have read.
Even though I know the programme we have used is successful, I also know that it is not enough. I correct mistakes already made – what I would like to do is make sure that we don’t have to compensate for these mistakes. We have a strategy to deal with the symptoms of the problem, but we do not deal with the root causes of low reading ages in schools. We haven’t recognised yet in this country that we need to be bolder in our approach to raising literacy standards – that maybe we have to ignore accusations of being a ‘nanny state’ and intervene earlier in the relationship between parent and child. What could be wrong with explaining that simple adjustments to the way you read with your child could change their approach to reading later in life? What harm could there be in sharing some of the wisdom of organisations like the National Literacy Trust with would-be parents in an organised, state-delivered format? Can we not even begin to think how we could develop programmes, in school, in partnership with the NHS, in partnership with Social Services, to show parents of all backgrounds some of the skills they could easily employ in conversations with very small children? Is it not cheaper to teach a parent how to engage with a child through different reading materials than to maintain a prisoner in one of our jails for however many years?
As a teacher and professed literacy geek, I cannot explain how terrifyingly unambitious government approaches to raising standards in literacy can be. It feels like we have the knowledge of how to begin to deal with the issue of low literacy standards, but it’s like a jealously-guarded secret that we can’t share with the masses. What exactly are we afraid of?
The average number of words used in response to a question asked by a teacher in some classrooms? Four, I was told. Now, I know what you must be thinking when you read this statement masquerading as a statistic – teenagers have always been surly and unresponsive, right? Teenagers aren’t supposed to actually talk to adults – look at Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ caricature. That’s pretty close to reality, right? We don’t need to worry about this issue.
The Rose Review, published in 2006, made clear the links between the ability to speak and listen effectively, stating that “Speaking and Listening, together with reading and writing, are central to children’s intellectual, social and emotional development.” I am aware that the National Literacy Trust, an organisation in which I have absolute faith, has been trying to address the issue of articulacy for years. Their ‘Talk To Your Baby’ campaign was practical and dealt in its entirety with the concept that unless very young children have the ability to express themselves, serious problems will occur later on in their education. In my time as an English teacher, I have seen the skills of speaking and listening dealt with really well and, as you may expect, also really badly. The idea that teaching a child how to be articulate is extremely important isn’t new but it remains an afterthought in some teaching.
For many in education, it comes down to this: can a child give me the answer – in four words or fewer, it doesn’t matter – or can they explain how they got to that answer? In the current climate, league tables create pressure to raise levels of attainment, which means that all too often, the skill of articulating an opinion or thought is left to one side. It is entirely understandable, but incredibly frustrating. We want to develop those skills, but in limited timeframes, with modular exams bearing down on us and changes to coursework now adding to the treadmill of assessment, often the choice has to be made to do things quickly instead of well.
Recently, it has been made horribly clear that you can have a GCSE or two and still not be able to get a job. Sky News interviewed masked youths, apparently involved in looting in London, who said that they had their qualifications and still didn’t have jobs. It seems that both Boris Johnson and I agree on one thing: developing literacy skills is the best tool we have in our belt against the kind of civil unrest we have seen this month. What Boris doesn’t understand is that is not just reading that creates citizens who can engage in society; it is being able to explain what they have read and how that relates to their own experiences. It is the ability to formulate complex sentences in speech and writing. Explicitly teaching the skills of speaking and listening is just as important as delivering front line reading recovery.
In all of this, it can be argued that there is a direct link between the lack of ability to articulate oneself and the perceived lack of opportunity in society. People don’t give jobs to those who can’t construct a sentence, verbally or in writing. People who can express themselves clearly and with reason are listened to, those who shout or stumble over their words, often not – it is a harsh reality, but we would be naive to ignore this uncomfortable truth. If you aren’t confident enough in your own ability to explain your qualifications and skills in an interview, or to interact with colleagues, or to present in public, what are the chances that you are going to try and find a job in the first place?
Over and over again, recently, I have heard the rioter’s refrain: “We’re not being listened to!” and while I imagine that is true, the matter of whether you are listened to or not involves deep-seated ideas about language and speech.
Whether we like it or not, people are judged on their ability to speak and listen effectively, especially in a public forum. The training for a life of being listened to begins in our classrooms. This year, the exam board introduced a spoken language study as part of the English Language GCSE course – and watching students confront their own language idiosyncrasies was fascinating. They understood the superfluous nature of sentence fillers and how that makes you sound unsure, or hesitant in certain situations. They also understood that using conventional – and by that I mean, socially acceptable – language ensures that you can be part of a wider society. Speaking in a highly localised dialect means that you choose to alienate some listeners, who may not understand certain words or phrases used by teenagers speaking what they call ‘Hackney’.
What does this mean for speaking and listening in schools? Unfortunately, the concept is often only dealt with by English Departments, who by the very nature of the curriculum develop those skills – sometimes inadvertently. Then they remember two months before the exam that speaking and listening coursework needs to be completed and artificial scenarios are used to tick that exam board box. The issue becomes speculative because there are very few schools in which there is a real and relentless focus on developing children’s abilities to speak and listen in all contexts, in all subjects and in all situations. What if the expectation was that Science, Maths and IT teachers also taught speaking and listening skills? What if we all said that we wanted more than four words in response to a question? What if we asked better questions that meant that students had to develop responses?
For my students, so much of their confidence is related to whether they feel they can make themselves heard and express what they mean. Inevitably, so many behaviour issues stem from those students’ lack of verbal skills. Schools need to begin questioning themselves as to whether they have a policy on the development of oracy and how it relates to every subject taught. Children are asking to be listened to; let’s give them the skills they need to make themselves heard.
I’m not going to lie to you folks, the summer period means something of a hiatus in my usual ranting. Instead, the summer holidays bring with them what seem to me like gentle reflections on the state of the world. There will be time enough to rant in the autumn term, says my slowly unwinding consciousness, when I am tired and the kids have managed to take me from zero to one-sixty in the space of a week and a half. For now, just amuse yourself with light observation and the occasional philosophical musing. You have all the time in the world.
So, have I thought about teaching in the past four days? Well, yes. It happens quite a lot, inadvertently or otherwise, whether I am a school or not. Take as an example the fact that I have already refrained from blogging about children who are colour coded according to their ability in one school, already restrained myself from responding to Katherine Birbalsingh’s ridiculous tirade against the father of Anders Breivik, already pondered on whether my classroom will be repainted (and, therefore, stripped of all my lovely display), already bought a new diary for the autumn term and already planned my first lesson for the Year 10 Functional Skills course I am unfortunate enough to have on my timetable. It involves balancing inspiration with a sense of real, unimagined menace.
It was Geoff Barton’s tweet on pupils’ inability to distinguish between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ that prompted this stroll through my opinions. It is an endless source of frustration for me when I have to correct this error in students’ writing. Imagine the look on my face when I meet an adult who can’t distinguish between the two words, or many other words that pose a similar quandary to the more linguistically challenged amongst us. My instinct is to consider it laziness on the part of adults and students alike. However, something akin to rage erupts beneath the surface of my skin when the assumption is made that it is my fault that students cannot choose the correct homonym. I am constantly reminding students of the rules, making games and rhymes to help them remember the difference and using the walls of my classroom as a proxy teacher, with commonly misspelt words displayed in the correct format, with definitions to hand, just in case.
I ask myself, as someone who has a tendency to ruminate over little things: what can I do? If someone could explain to me how to fix this issue magically, or even better, without the aid of magic, I would be eternally grateful. I try to think back to when I was young. What made me remember the rules and want to use them? Without getting all misty-eyed and rose tinted about it all, I recollect being ashamed of myself when I made mistakes. Do I see the same shame in my students when they mistake common homonyms? Well, no.
The logical conclusion to this is to bring back shame with a vengeance. I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek, as I don’t normally use shame as a tool in the classroom. There is something to be said about the reinforcing of messages from all adults about the importance of care in spelling. If I am saying it, the teacher in the next room should also be saying it, as should the child’s parents, as should their potential employers. Sometimes, you do hear grown ups saying: “don’t worry, my spelling is terrible, I still got a job!” That is about the time I start to gouge my own eyes out in despair. Maybe if we were all a little more horrified about the misspelling of ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ then students would be more likely to self correct.
Now, back to my coffee and magazine.
It’s a difficult one, isn’t it, when you’ve got an issue that is particularly thorny. I’ve been mulling this one over for a while now. Thanks to today’s Independent article on falling rates of literacy in the poorest children (‘Three in five of the poorest 11-year olds lack basic literacy’), I’ve been spurred on to contribute to the debate on the aforementioned issue. The article purports to be about literacy; however, it points out that the “vast majority of the 165,000 pupils covered by the research [are] white Britons” and that they are “twice as likely to be unable to meet minimum GCSE standards”.
I am yet to work in a school in an inner city London that deals with the problem of white working class underachievement in education. I once attempted to raise the idea as part of a wider discussion on ethnic minority underachievement. Some schools have external providers to support their African-Caribbean pupils, or their Turkish/Kurdish pupils; some schools use charities to raise the attainment levels of these groups of students, people who may have an insight into cultural experiences that I, as a classroom teacher, may be unaware of. The groups have culturally specific names to allow them to create a sense of identity within the school like “The African-Caribbean Forum’ or ‘The Turkish Achievement Group’, to show those students that their ethnicity and cultural heritage is celebrated. Our discussion on having a similar group to raise attainment in the white working class didn’t last very long. We got stuck on a name.
A raft of uncomfortable questions ensued. What do you call a group targeting white working class students? How do you explain that this achievement group is for white students only? If you have African or Turkish groups, it is called celebration, but if you add a white group, does it become segregation? Do we slip into the murky realms of feeling a little bit racist? It wasn’t really spoken about after this. It seemed that the issue was just a little bit too large for this conversation.
It’s not like the problem hasn’t been identifed. Type into Google ‘Ofsted white working class’ and you will find a plethora of articles and academic research into the problem; in particular, you will find extensive research into underachievement by white working class boys. So why, then, is it so hard to stand up and say: “Yes, it is a problem in our schools and we can’t ignore it because it makes us feel slightly nervous”?
I’m not someone who often uses the term ‘political correctness gone mad’, and in order to keep your readership and respect, I won’t say it. But you have to admit, there’s something we should be talking about and we’re just not. Fear can be an incredibly powerful inhibitor of action and if teachers are afraid of discussing something because they may be accused of racism, or ridiculousness, then we leave the problem to fester. I feel decidedly uncomfortable with that notion, simply because the long terms effects of ignoring this problem may be much worse than the twinge of discomfort felt in useful and important discussions, where clear strategies are established for the re-engagement of the white working class.
It has taken a few days for me to write this, simply because the Evening Standard front page two days ago left me in the sort of rage that doesn’t lend itself to blog posts. ‘A city of children who cannot read’, screamed the oh-so sensationalist headline. Cue pages and pages of so-called insightful journalism. I read all the pages, took a few moments in a dark room and decided to take a tactical pause.
Congratulations, Evening Standard, for a) pointing out the bleeding obvious to anyone who teaches and b) managing to make a pig’s ear of the whole thing. Thanks to organisations like FullFact, who have unpicked the statistics the Evening Standard used, it is clear that the numbers alone don’t add up. What bothers me most about the whole thing is the lack of clarity on what the actual issue is.
My hackles went up when I read the articles because, as is so often the case with articles about education, the implication is that somehow teachers are getting things wrong, that we aren’t educating the nation’s children and ensuring that they are capable of fitting into the capitalist machine as productive and efficient citizens. It seemed that the Evening Standard couldn’t really decide who to point the finger at. They started with schools (“this goes to the heart of our education system”) and moved swiftly to the government ( “years of government initiatives and investment have failed”). The full article decided to focus on the “plight” of poor Aurelia, who doesn’t have a single book in her home. It would seem at this point, the Evening Standard had defaulted to its usual editorial standpoint: let’s blame the immigrants. Aurelia and her mother are clearly recently arrived Eastern Europeans. Most teachers will agree that the rate of language acquisition of newly arrived Eastern European children is quite phenomenal. Were the Evening Standard blaming Aurelia’s mother for not being able to speak English fluently and therefore, aid Aurelia’s progress at school? Again, unclear. Taking the Evening Standard’s statistics, “72,00 British schoolchildren [are] arriving at high school every year unable to read to the expected level”. Is Aurelia one of these children?
I am bewildered, dear reader, most bewildered.
At times like these, when the truth is hidden underneath mountains of statistical excrement, I try to focus on what I know. Sometimes, I can find comfort in this place, sometimes I just work myself into a minor frenzy and have to be brought back down with a nice glass of wine and some Choco Leibniz.
What I know, after eight years in teaching, is this: some children come to secondary school not able to read fluently. It’s not as simple as those who can and those who can’t. Some students read words well, but don’t have any comprehension of what they are reading. Some find it hard to decipher words, but when they have, they understand it perfectly. Some students, like Aurelia, arrive with a whole other language and learn English, slowly and usually to ‘playground proficiency’.
Are you still with me?
The issue of books has nothing to do with Aurelia. The issue of books is complex and related, as much as we all hate to admit it, to the class system and the value parents place on education. Ruth Lupton (2006) points out ‘most working class parents think education is important but they see it as something that happens in the school, not the home’. Various studies on the link between attainment and socio-economic status have pointed out the correlation between working class households, poor rates of literacy, the lack of engagement in school life and poor prospects.
When the Evening Standard so haphazardly points out that there is a city of children who apparently can’t read, they conveniently forget that by the time a child arrives in my classroom, it is a catch-up game they often can’t win. That child may not be able to read and this, funnily enough, is not the fault of the education system. They conveniently omit the fact that reading begins at a very early age, in the home, with a parent. The child sees that reading is valuable; they may see their parent reading a novel, or a newspaper – it doesn’t matter what it is – they see that reading is something important.
So the opposite happens when parents dismiss their own responsibility for the education of the children they have brought into the world. If education is something that happens in schools, and schools alone, what chance do those children have? Children learn their habits from their parents, they absorb values and they take on the messages presented by their parents’ every day actions. If the message is ‘this household does not see reading as important’, then regardless of whether there are books in the house or not, they will not read. It is rare in our schools to meet students who literally do not have a book in the house. It is more likely that their parents have indulged the idea that the PlayStation or the X-Box is more important. The games console takes pride of place in the living room.
The Evening Standard wants to shock us by declaring the levels of illiteracy in London. It would be more revolutionary to point out the elephant that has been rotting in the room for far too many years without mention. It is poverty of parenting that perpetutates the damning cycle of low socio-economic status in this country. It is poverty of parenting that causes children to reject educational activities. It is poverty of parenting, intentional or not, that leads to children who cannot read.