In the 1990s, two different studies began tracking the outcomes of reading interventions in Scottish schools. One, run by Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston then from the University of St Andrews, started in 1992/3 in schools in Clackmannanshire, which hugs the River Forth, just to the east of Stirling. The other began in 1998 in West Dunbartonshire, with the Clyde on side and Loch Lomond on the other, west of Glasgow. It was led by Tommy MacKay, an educational psychologist with West Dunbartonshire Council, who also lectured in psychology at the University of Strathclyde.
I’ve blogged about the Clackmannanshire study in more detail here. It was an experiment involving 13 schools and 300 children divided into three groups, taught to read using synthetic phonics, analytic phonics or analytic phonics plus phonemic awareness. The researchers measured and compared the outcomes.
The West Dunbartonshire study had a more complex design involving five different studies and ten strands of intervention over ten years in all pre-schools and primary schools in the local authority area (48 schools and 60 000 children). As in Clackmannanshire, analytic phonics was used as a control for the synthetic phonics experimental group. The study also had an aim; to eradicate functional illiteracy in school leavers in West Dunbartonshire. It very nearly succeeded; Achieving the Vision, the final report, shows that by the time the study finished in 2007 only three children were deemed functionally illiterate. ( Thanks to @SaraJPeden on Twitter for the link.)
Five studies, ten strands of intervention
The main study was a multiple-component intervention using cross-lagged design. Four supporting studies were;
- Synthetic phonics study (18 schools)
- Attitudes study (24 children from earlier RCT)
- Declaration study (12 nurseries & primaries in another education authority area
- Individual support study (24 secondary pupils).
The West Dunbartonshire study was unusual in that it addressed multiple factors already known to impact on reading attainment, but that are often sidelined in interventions focusing on the mechanics of reading. The ten strands were (p.14);
Strand 1: Phonological awareness and the alphabet
Strand 2: A strong and structured phonics emphasis
Strand 3: Extra classroom help in the early years
Strand 4: Fostering a ‘literacy environment’ in school and community
Strand 5: Raising teacher awareness through focused assessment
Strand 6: Increased time spent on key aspects of reading
Strand 7: Identification of and support for children who are failing
Strand 8: Lessons from research in interactive learning
Strand 9: Home support for encouraging literacy
Strand 10: Changing attitudes, values and expectations
Another unusual feature was that the researchers were looking not only for statistically significant improvements in reading, but wider significant improvements;
“statistical significance must be viewed in terms of wider questions that were primarily social, cultural and political rather than scientific – questions about whether lives were being changed as a result of the intervention; questions about whether children would leave school with the skills needed for a successful career in a knowledge society; questions about whether ‘significant’ results actually meant significant to the participants in the research or only to the researcher.” (p.16)
The researchers also recognized the importance of ownership of the project throughout the local community, everyone “from the leader of the Council to the parents and the children themselves identifying with it and owning it as their own project”. (p.7)
In addition they were aware that a project following students through their entire school career would need to survive inevitable organisational challenges. Despite the fact that West Dunbartonshire was the second poorest council in Scotland, the local authority committed to continue funding the project;
The intervention had to continue and to succeed through virtually every major change or turmoil taking place in its midst – including a total restructuring of the educational directorate, together with significant changes in the Council. (p.46)
The results won’t surprise anyone familiar with the impact of synthetic phonics; there were significant improvements in reading ability in children in the experimental group. What was remarkable was the impact of the programme on children who didn’t participate. Raw scores for pre-school assessments improved noticeably between 1997 and 2006 and there were many reports from parents that the intervention had stimulated interest in reading in older siblings.
One of the most striking results was that at the end of the study, there were only three pupils in secondary schools in the local authority area with reading ages below the level of functional literacy (p.31). That’s impressive when compared to the 17% of school leavers in England considered functionally illiterate. So why hasn’t the West Dunbartonshire programme been rolled out nationwide? Three factors need to be considered in order to answer that question.
1.What is functional literacy?
The 17% figure for functional illiteracy amongst school leavers is often presented as ‘shocking’ or a ‘failure’ on the part of the education system. These claims are valid only if those making them have evidence that higher levels of school-leaver literacy are attainable. The evidence cited often includes literacy levels in other countries or studies showing very high percentages of children being able to decode after following a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programme. Such evidence is akin to comparing apples and oranges because:
– Many languages are orthographically more transparent than English (there’s a higher direct correspondence between graphemes and phonemes). The functional illiteracy figure of 17% (or thereabouts) holds for the English-speaking world, not just England, and has done so since at least the end of WW2 – and probably earlier given literacy levels in older adults. (See Rashid & Brooks (2010) and McGuinness (1998).)
– Both the Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire studies resulted in high levels of decoding ability. Results were less stellar when it came to comprehension.
– It depends what you mean by functional literacy. This was a challenge faced by Rashid & Brooks in their review; measures of functional literacy have varied, making it difficult to identify trends across time.
In the West Dunbartonshire study, children identified as having significant reading difficulties followed an intensive 3-month individual support programme in early 2003. This involved 91 children in P7, 12 in P6 and 1 in P5. By 2007, 12 pupils at secondary level were identified as still having not reached functional literacy levels; reading ages ranged between 6y 9m and 8y 10m (p.31). By June 2007, only three children had scores below the level of functional literacy. (Two others missed the final assessment.)
The level of functional literacy used in the West Dunbartonshire study was a reading age of at least 9y 6m using the Neale Assessment of Reading Ability (NARA-II). I couldn’t find an example online, but there’s a summary here. The tasks are rather different to the level 1 tasks in National Adult Literacy survey carried out in the USA in 1992 (NCES p.86).
A reading/comprehension age of 9y 6m is sufficient for getting by in adult life; reading a tabloid newspaper or filling in simple forms. Whether it’s sufficient for doing well in GCSEs (reading age 15y 7m ), getting a decent job in later life, or having a good understanding of how the world works is another matter.
2. What were the costs and benefits?
Overall, the study cost £13 per student per year, or, 0.5% of the local authority’s education budget (p.46), which doesn’t sound very much. But for 60 000 students over a ten year period it adds up to almost £8m, a significant sum. I couldn’t find details of the overall reading abilities of secondary school students when the study finished in 2007, and haven’t yet tracked down any follow-up studies showing the impact of the interventions on the local community.
Also, we don’t know what difference the study would have made to adult literacy levels in the area. Adult literacy levels are usually presented as averages, and in the case of the US National Adult Literacy survey included those with disabilities. Many children with disabilities in West Dunbartonshire would have been attending special schools and the study appears to have involved only mainstream schools. Whether the impact of the study is sufficient to persuade cash-strapped local authorities to invest in it is unclear.
3. Could the interventions be implemented nationwide?
One of the strengths of Achieving the Vision is that it explores the limitations of the study in some detail (p.38ff). One of the strengths of the study was that the researchers were well aware of the challenges that would have to be met in order for the intervention to achieve its aims. These included issues with funding; the local Council, although supportive, was working within a different funding framework to the Scottish Executive Education Department. The funding issues had a knock-on impact on staff seconded to the project – who had no guarantee of employment once the initial funding ran out. The study was further affected by industrial action and by local authority re-structuring. How many projects would have access to the foresight, tenacity and collaborative abilities of those leading the West Dunbartonshire initiative?
The aim of the West Dunbartonshire initiative was to eradicate functional illiteracy in an entire local authority area. The study effectively succeeded in doing so – in mainstream schools, and if a functional illiteracy level is considered to be below a reading/ comprehension age of 9y 6m. Synthetic phonics played a key role. Synthetic phonics is frequently advocated as a remedy for functional illiteracy in school leavers and in the adult population. The West Dunbartonshire study shows, pretty conclusively, that synthetic phonics plus individual support plus a comprehensive local authority-backed focus on reading, can result in significant improvements in reading ability in secondary school students. Does it eradicate functional illiteracy in school leavers or in the adult population? We don’t know.
Johnston, R & Watson, J (2005). The Effects of Synthetic Phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study, The Scottish Executive website. http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/36496/0023582.pdf
MacKay, T (2007). Achieving the Vision: The Final Research Report of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative.
McGuinness, D (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
NCES (1993). Adult Literacy in America. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rashid, S & Brooks, G (2010). The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.