jumping the literacy hurdle

Someone once said that getting a baby dressed was like trying to put an octopus into a string bag. I was reminded of that during another recent discussion with synthetic phonics (SP) advocates. The debate was triggered by this comment; “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”

This sentence looks like an essay question for trainee teachers – if they’re still expected to write essays, that is. It encapsulates what has frustrated me so much about the SP ‘position’; all those implicit assumptions.

First there is no ‘surely’ about any aspect of education. You name it, there’s been heated debate about it. Second, it’s not safe to assume schools should have a ‘most fundamental’ aim. Education is a complex business and generally involves quite a few fundamental aims; focussing on one rather than the others is a risky strategy. Third, the sentence assumes a role for literacy that requires some justification.

reading in the real world

Reading is our primary means of recording spoken language. It provides a way of communicating with others across space and time. It extends working memory. It’s important. But in a largely literate society it’s easy to assume that all members of that society are, should be, or need to be equally literate. They’re not. They never have been. And I’ve yet to find any evidence showing that uniform literacy across the population is either achievable or necessary.

I’m not claiming that it doesn’t matter if someone isn’t a competent reader or if 15% of school leavers are functionally illiterate. What I am claiming is that less than 100% functional literacy doesn’t herald the end of civilisation as we know it.

For thousands of years, functionally illiterate people have grown food, baked, brewed, made clothes, pots, pans, furniture, tools, weapons and machines, built houses, palaces, cities, chariots, sailing ships, dams and bridges, navigated halfway around the world, formed exquisite glassware and stunning jewellery, composed songs, poems and plays, devised judicial systems and developed sophisticated religious beliefs.

All those things require knowledge and skill – but not literacy. The quality of human life has undoubtedly been transformed by literacy, and transformed for the better. But literacy is a vehicle for knowledge, a means to an end not an end in itself. It’s important, not for its own sake but because of what it has enabled us – collectively – to achieve. I’m not disparaging reading for enjoyment; but reading for enjoyment didn’t change the world.

What the real world needs is not for everyone to be functionally literate, but for a critical mass of people to be functionally literate. And for some people to be so literate that they can acquire complex skills and knowledge that can benefit the rest of us. What proportion of people need to be functionally or highly literate will depend on what a particular society wants to achieve.

Human beings are a highly social species. Our ecological success (our ability to occupy varied habitats – what we do to those habitats is something else entirely) is due to our ability to solve problems, to communicate those solutions to each other and to work collectively. What an individual can or can’t do is important, but what we can do together is more important because that’s a more efficient way of using resources for mutual benefit.

This survey found that 20% of professionals and 30% of managers don’t have adequate literacy skills. It’s still possible to hold down a skilled job, draw a good salary, drive a car, get a mortgage, raise a family and retire on an adequate pension even if your literacy skills are flaky. Poor literacy might be embarrassing and require some ingenious workarounds to cover it up, but that’s more of a problem with social acceptability than utility. And plenty of jobs don’t require you to be a great reader.

It looks as though inadequate literacy, although an issue in the world of work, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. So why would anyone claim that teaching children to read is ‘the most fundamental aim of schools’?

reading in schools

There are several reasons. Mass education systems were set up partly to provide manufacturing industry with a literate, numerate workforce. Schools in those fledgling education systems were often run on shoestring budgets. If a school had very limited resources, making reading a priority at least provided children with the opportunity to educate themselves in later life. Literacy takes time to develop, so if you have the luxury of being able to teach additional subjects, it makes sense to access them via reading and writing – thus killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, because for a variety of reasons public examinations are written ones, literacy is a key measure of pupil and school achievement.

In the real world, if you find reading especially difficult you can still learn a lot – by watching and listening or trial and error. But the emphasis schools place on literacy means that if in school you happen to be a child who finds reading especially difficult, you’re stumped. You can’t even compensate by becoming knowledgeable if you’re required to jump the literacy hurdle first. And poor knowledge, however literate you are, is a big problem in the real world.

SP advocates would say that the reason some children find reading difficult is because they haven’t been taught properly. And that if they were taught properly they would be able to read. That’s a possible explanation, but one possible explanation doesn’t rule out all the other possible explanations. And if Jeanne Chall’s descriptions of teachers’ approaches to formal reading instruction programmes are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that all children are going to get taught to read ‘properly’ any time soon. If some children have problems learning to read for whatever reason, we need to make sure that they’re not denied access to knowledge as well. Because in the real world, it’s knowledge that makes things work.

Now for some of the arms of the reading octopus that got tangled up in the string bag that is Twitter.

• I’m not saying reading isn’t important; it is – but that doesn’t make it the ‘fundamental aim of schools’, nor ‘a fundamental skill needed for life’.
• I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to read; they should be, but variation in reading ability doesn’t automatically mean a ‘deficit’ in instruction, home life or in the child.
• I’m not saying some children struggle to read because they are ‘less able’ than others; some kids find reading especially challenging but that has nothing to do with their intelligence.
• Nor am saying we shouldn’t have high aspirations for students; we should, but there’s no reason to have the same aspirations for all of them. Our strength as a species is in our diversity.

Frankly, if forced to choose, I’d rather live in a community populated by competent, practical people with reading skills that left something to be desired, than one populated by people with, say, PPE degrees from Oxford who’ve forgotten which way is up.


17 thoughts on “jumping the literacy hurdle

  1. Oh my, Sue. Why didn’t you just edit the casual sentence if it bothered you. Something like,
    “Few would argue with the contention that schools are expected and, for good reason, obligated to teach children how to read.” You may not like that wording but any wording along those lines would have avoided the “disagreement.”

    Actually, your title “jumping the literacy hurdle” doesn’t meet standard literacy conventions, it i’m Sure YOU no That, and it’s beside the point.

  2. Hmm. Is there a link to the “discussion”? The only information we have here is the sentence. Without further context, the sentence isn’t about “reading” it’s about the “fundamental aim of schools.” With editing along the lines i suggested, would you still have been bothered enough to object at length?

    • It starts here

      What happens if one ‘just edits’ is that people pick up on every edited word and scatter in many directions – understandably if one has challenged what they are saying in the original sentence and each edited word sparks a chain of thought.

  3. This is a brave piece, Sue.

    Schools have a huge responsibility when it comes to reading. They must recognise and take measures to identify and alleviate reading difficulties as far as they are able. However, at present we do not know whether it is possible to eradicate illiteracy. The figures hover obstinately, as you have shown in previous blogs. While waiting to know the remedy for illiteracy we have to ask how we can best serve the interests of pupils who are not attaining functional literacy, or whose literacy will be inadequate for many purposes, should the remedy remain unknown (if there is one). So, while we make every effort to teach children to read well we also have to make every effort to teach children despite the fact that they cannot read well.

    Should we just accept illiteracy and decide, perhaps as the child reaches the age of 11, that they will learn better in a non-academic environment, where they are taught stuff which is ‘literacy-lite’? No, we have to provide every opportunity for all children to learn a breadth of skills and knowledge – and to become literate. This breadth of skills and knowledge will include stuff which does not require high levels of literacy (and that are nonetheless valuable for that), and pupils with poor literacy skills will thus be given opportunities to work around those problems, in the same way that a hearing- or sight- impaired pupil might be equipped to make choices matched to their individual circumstances.

    It’s strange and counter-intuitive to think that an ideal might involve acknowledging a level of illiteracy as a fact and working with that fact: meanwhile deploring stigma for illiteracy as you might deplore it in the case of physical disability. But isn’t this just what we have to do until that elusive remedy (or, more likely, those elusive remedies) are discovered?

    For those who think they have discovered the remedy in SSP: the evidence that SSP training leads to fully effective reading for every pupil is not there. But it seems to be an effective tool for the teaching of decoding for many pupils. There’s a problem with the way it has been introduced. It reminds me of the lit up numeral on my car’s console, telling me to change up/down. As the driver I can see the road situation and sometimes it doesn’t justify the change of gear: I ignore the light. Teachers are not being allowed to use judgement of what is needed in a classroom situation. They are being told to obey the SSP light no matter what the classroom situation tells them.

    • You’ve put your finger on it exactly.

      Because our collective knowledge is accessed via writing, it’s tempting to think that our individual knowledge is dependent on it in the same way, so in order to learn anything we must have a certain level of literacy. But most of us, however literate we are, rely far more heavily on the spoken word for our own knowledge.

      I was at university before I actually needed to get my knowledge directly from written texts. Prior to that, most of what I learned was via teacher talk. The education system required me to read, sure, but what I actually needed to read to get the knowledge was minimal.

      One of the students on my course was blind; although she could read Braille, most of what she needed to read for her course wasn’t available in Braille, so she had a couple of buddies who would read the material aloud for her to record. She’d also record lectures.

      It would be interesting to know how much reading and at what level, different people actually do on a day-to-day basis.

  4. Two “Laws” (in the sense of logical incrementalism [as I understand it])
    1. All problems are people problems.
    2. All people problems are communication problems.

    The confusion is in the words “literacy” and “decoding.” “Illiteracy” as it is being used in this colloquy is akin to “sin.” It will never be eradicated, and it can always be debated. For these reasons, “literacy” is a feckless term in technical considerations of schooling.

    “Decoding” as used here, under-conveys the matter. The English Alphabetic Code is the link between our spoken and written language. (We wouldn’t be having this colloquy were it not for the Code.) Teaching children how to handle the Code is something that can be reliably accomplished, now. The results of the Yr 1 Screening Check are the evidence of how well schooling in England is doing in getting the job done. With just a tad more examination of the evidence, the schools and classrooms where the job is not getting done can be identified. That’s the status at the moment.

    Is there a better step to take than “looking at the evidence” or is there other evidence we should be looking at?

  5. It would be interesting to know how much reading and at what level, different people actually do on a day-to-day basis.
    The evidence would depend entirely upon how “reading” is defined. At one extreme, a lot of people would die because they wouldn’t be able to read the labels/directions on medicine. Of course they could rely on someone to tell them, but that would be “secondary reading.” The same goes for eating–menus, recipes. Written language and icons symbolizing spoken language are embedded in just about every aspect of current life.

    So the evidence runs from “all the time” to “almost never”–roughly speaking and depending upon what horse the reader/author wants to ride/kick.

    At the other end, as you note in the blogpost, some define “adult functional literacy” in a way that a high proportion of adults “can’t and don’t read.” And some are bothered bothered when any child is not spending a goodly amount of spare time “reading and enjoying books.”

    Essentially I am saying that there is more to knowledge than reading. So maybe we should be looking at evidence about knowledge too.

    That supports the two “Laws” I quoted. Had my life depended on it, I’d never have guessed that this is what “jumping the literacy hurdle” means.

    Do you know of anyone who wouldn’t agree that there is more to knowledge than reading? Sir Jim Rose, who kick-started SSP in his report to Parliament was careful to say in the very next sentence that the instruction “should be embedded in a rich curriculum” (blah, blah). The way subsequent events have unfolded, concern about the (blah,blah) has far out-stripped the examination of the evidence on how the implementation of the recommendation in his first sentence is going.

  6. I think the observations you make here, Sue, are important in relation to the Matthew Effect. Readers gain knowledge more quickly and easily than those who struggle with reading. Therefore to minimise the Matthew Effect it is important that all children learn to read. However, some children are slower than others in learning to read and some do not achieve functional literacy in the present circumstances. We should never be complacent about this and part of the lack of complacency is about not sitting around waiting for a child to learn how to read effectively. Growth of knowledge, especially in the early years, can be based on non-literacy experiences and shared literacy experiences, and this might also minimise the Matthew Effect for children who aren’t reading. I wonder what effects the early emphasis on accurate reading has on the breadth and balance of the curriculum – essential for the inclusion of less able readers?

  7. The spirit of the text is willing, nemocracy, but could use a bit of unpacking.

    Readers gain knowledge more quickly and easily than those who struggle with reading.
    This muddles the “acquisition of information,” the “acquisition of how to handle the Alphabetic Code–the link between spoken and written English”, and “individual differences in learning, generally.” That is, children who have been taught/earned to read have an advantage. as do children who have more information, as do children who generally learn academic matters rapidly.
    Instruction can provide equal opportunity for all, thus negating the detrimental consequences of the Matthew Effect for individuals, but the Effect, per se, is an asset for humanity.

    Growth of knowledge, especially in the early years, can be based on non-literacy experiences and shared literacy experiences, and this might also minimise the Matthew Effect for children who aren’t reading.
    From birth, children are “growing knowledge” faster naturally than any formal instruction can hope to compete with. Pre-speech infants can be taught “Baby Signs” very readily, and that’s an advantage for both infants and carers. But other than that, there is little formally that needs to prepare children for “school.” With few exceptions, all children enter Reception with “good enough” vocabulary and spoken language capability to make reliable instruction in how to handle the Alphabetic Code feasible. That instruction will negate the Matthew effect insofar as reading is concerned, but not insofar as other aspects of schooling or the childrens life-in-general is concerned.

  8. I’m not sure what you mean by the Matthew Effect being an asset for humanity. It is of benefit to individuals that having foundational knowledge facilitates the growth and development of further knowledge, but it also means that others are left behind due to a lack of foundational knowledge – hardly of benefit to those individuals. Surely the Matthew Effect is just the description of a neutral observation – a fact which needs to be taken into account. I agree that any foundational skill or knowledge (not just knowledge of reading) will be beneficial – that is what I am saying. It does not have to be reading ability, or ability to handle the alphabetic code. This is something we should take advantage of rather than pushing the alphabetic code as though progress in reading is the only progress that can be made.

    Yes, children are growing in knowledge from birth. This knowledge is based on experience. Children do not have equal amounts or types of experience, and can always learn more from planned experiences provided in school, many if which will improve language skills and bring literacy closer.

    • I have no fundamental disagreement with the spirit of this, but again the text is weak. The only”Foundational knowledge” needed for reliable reading instruction is participating in everyday conversation, Teaching/l learning how to handle the Alphabetic Code is the “knowledge of reading” that enables children to read any text with understanding equivalent were the communication spoken.

      The second paragraph is platitudinous; everyone would agree with it, but it has no consequential instructional import.

      What I intended to say re humanity and Matthew Effect is that outliers are consequentially beneficial in human history/evolution. Everyone can’t be an outlier, which differentially benefits individuals, but not humanity. I was referring to schooling matters specifically, not to econonomic matters generally.

  9. The ability to participate in everyday conversation is more elusive than you think, and everyday conversation is a different thing for different children. It does not always prepare them for words and concepts dealt with in beginner decodable readers. But we’ve had this discussion before, so I’ll just refer you back to the previous occasion. It’s clear this is not a platitude – as you disagree, believing that reception age children will all have the language knowledge necessary.

  10. Hey, I happened to stumble across the origins of the sentence, “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”

    The American Federation of Teachers makes an explicit statement about priorities: “Teaching children to read is the most fundamental responsibility of schools.” Although health and safety might be seen as even more fundamental, schools do not exist in order to provide health and safety. They provide health and safety because children are entrusted to them to learn – and the most important skill they need for learning is reading.

    So the sentence traces back to the US. But not to the American Federation of Teachers; it’s from the National Education Association, a rival teachers union:
    Teaching children to read is the most fundamental responsibility of schools, and parents can reinforce the learning by making a habit of encouraging their child to read in some way every day. When students learn to read, their knowledge increases in all subjects. That is why “learning to read” transforms into “reading to learn.”/b>

    The NEA has been sponsoring “Read Across America Day” for 18 years.

    This year they their tune on what’s most important for schools to .
    “Of all the things we teach our kids, the most important is a love of learning, and when they unlock that potential, oh, the places they’ll go!”

    Actually, what schools teach kids more reliably is to hate school and reading. And where a lot of those kids go is to prison. But a good time is had at all the Dr Seuss celebrations every year, and it helps the cash flow of book publishers.

    Turns out that “Everything But, Jumping the Literacy Hurdle” would have been a more apt title for the blog.

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