April 11, 2003
Literacy – what are we doing right?

Like Natalie Solent (blogger archiving buggered blah blah scroll down to April 10 2.51pm) I am intrigued by this in the electric Indy the day before yesterday, which says that English children are doing really quite well at literacy, compared to children from other countries.

Children in English primary schools are among the world's best readers, although they spend more time watching television or playing computer games than their peers in most other countries.

A survey of reading standards of pupils aged nine and ten in 35 countries put the English in third place, beaten only by those in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Two immediate responses: Wow! and: Why? Aren't English schools supposed to be all over the place literacy-wise? That's certainly what I've been saying here.

What follows is only guesswork, but for what it is worth, here is my guess, at least concerning where to look for an answer about what is going on here.

The more I study literacy, the more I am convinced of the vital, pivotal, crucial role of parents. When it comes to teaching nuclear physics or brain surgery or medieval French, no good schools means no good students, but the lower down the education tree you go, the more parents can and do contribute. Although even at the very top they make a big difference, by pushing their kids to learn things that they themselves may not understand.

Suppose your kids are being "taught" at a "look and say" dominated school. Suppose, that is to say, they are being mis-taught, in a way that, uncorrected, would slow them down horribly and might well make them dyslexic. What do you do? Complain? That would almost certainly do nothing except make enemies of your child's teachers. Send them to another school? Home school them, perhaps? Maybe, but these are horribly big and disruptive procedures. The sensible thing to do, and if I ever have kids it is quite possible that this is what I and/or mumwill do, is teach them literacy yourself, for about a quarter of an hour per day, probably making use of the reading material that the school is supplying.

The Anglo-Saxon world has been fraught with rows about literacy teaching, and this is because the state of official literacy teaching in the Anglo-Saxon world has been uniquely chaotic, uniquely deranged by look-and-say methods. It's another big, big question why that is, but my theory is that because English spelling is so all over the place compared to most other spellings, just giving up on phonetic spelling is, although horribly damaging, a more tempting error IN Angl-Saxonia than elsewhere.

But if that's true, what is England doing right? How come we came third in that survey, rather than twenty-third or thirty-third?

Well, something else that has happened in the Anglo-Saxon world is that there has been a ferocious counter-revolution in response to look-and-say. Organisations like the Reading Reform Foundation, already referred to here on several occasions, most recently in this posting, have lambasted the educational establishment, screaming at them and begging at them to mend their ways.

Most of this screaming and begging has failed, if by success you mean beating sense into teachers, and into the Men from the Ministry. The new "national literacy strategy" is and remains a shambles. Things are improving slowly, but nothing like fast enough to explain England getting a literacy bronz medal.

But what if, although the RRFers have mostly failed to spread enlightenment to teachers, they have succeeded in spreading enlightenment, if not to all parents, at least to a great many of them?

Plus, maybe you do have to give the government some credit here. They haven't improved literacy teaching very much, but they have at least made a great fuss of the matter - "national literacy hour" and so forth, to the point where parents are noticing, and, unlike most of the teaching profession, they are now applying their commonsense to the matter of teaching their own children.

And that's not even to mention the explosion in private tutoring that is now occurring. This too is, of course, parent driven.

Because of their failure to straighten out most of the teachers, I have tended to regard the RRF and their ilk as, although right about reading and writing, inept about politics, and I think that's true. But what I think this survey may be picking up is that when it comes to simply spreading their ideas among regular people, the RRFers may have started to win a huge victory. Thanks to them, and allies of them like, if I may say so, me, parents all over the English speaking world are now giving a few minutes a day to teaching their kids letters and sounds, and maybe buying "synthetic phonics" videos, and then later helping their kids with their homework in a way that actually helps. And this may now be adding up to a huge educational success story. And if the teachers take the credit for all this, well, so what? The important thing, from the parental point of view, is to get the job done.

There is much talk from people like me about the "educational private sector", by which I mean alternative schools. But by far the biggest educational private sector is the home.

The newspaper story I've been quoting from makes much of exactly how much time children spend watching TV. If they spend all night, they don't learn literacy skills well. If they watch quite a lot, but not all night, they do much better. The implication is that this may throw some light on the educational value or lack of it of TV.

I think what it throws light on is the differences between some parents and otehrs. It doesn't take long to teach literacy, provided you do it approximately right. The big difference is between doing a bit per day (or so), and not doing any. The TV findings, I think, point to that difference. TV all the time kids are being raised as near barbarians, by near barbarian parents. TV some of the time means a much happier story.

If the story that I'm telling, about parental educational input, is right, it would also make sense of another finding that literacy surveys like this one always find:

The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, also confirmed the findings of a recent study that the gap between the highest and lowest performers was greater in England than in most countries.

… my take on that being that parental input is more important in England, where official literacy teaching is so bad and where the rows about this have been so loud, than elsewhere.

As I often say at the end of my more speculative blog-postings: I don't know, but it makes sense to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Literacy