Literacy standards always make for a good story in the press, and in today’s Sunday Times Joan McAlpine picks up the theme. In the “Ecosse” section of the paper, a curious anomaly in a newspaper called The Sunday Times Scotland, she comes to the weary conclusion that the solution to poor literacy is to introduce more tests. I couldn’t agree less.
As a positive antidote to the simplistic panaceas represented by the above, for anyone attempting to acquire a true understanding of the issues involved in improving literacy, I couldn’t recommend highly enough the amazing Proust and the Squid by Professor Maryannwe Wolf. Subtitled The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, it looks at how reading and writing have developed over the last six thousand or so years, traces the stages of reading development from emerging pre-reader through novice reader and decoding reader to fluent-comprehending and expert reader, and finally looks at the nature and possible causes of dyslexia. Wolf concludes incidentally that there is no single cause of dyslexia but that the causes are many and varied, as reading brains (and the humans attached to them) do not all develop in the same way, and that the connections between the parts of the brain utilised in the reading process can be made differently in different individuals. Put simply, there are no simple explanations for dyslexia and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution.
The development of reading and wider literacy skills in young people comes increasingly under the spotlight in Scotland, especially following the latest HMIE report Improving Scottish Education, from which Mc Alpine reaches the conclusion that we need more tests. The report suggests that the problems encountered in upper primary and lower secondary have not gone away and are not really being addressed. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that the measures we are using are quite arbitrary, not really appropriate and don’t actually measure what we think they do. Secondly, we are struggling to come to terms with the notion that what constitutes “literacy” is going to be different in the future from what it was in the past, and we fail to recognise that we are using a standard model which is thirty or forty years out of date.
Having said all of that, there is no doubt that there are two aspects of reading development which need to be tackled as a matter of urgency. One is the huge discrepancy which exists by the time young people enter the formal education system. Wolf sums it up eloquently thus:
“Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified and stored away in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them.”
If schools or early years establishments are to provide that experience for young people who do not have it at home, they are going to need the funds to do it, as working intensively on a one-to-one basis with young developing readers is the only way to do it.
The other key issue, identified in every review of education of the past few decades, is the failure of many young people to develop significantly from the decoding stage – what a friend and colleague of mine wonderfully refers to as “barking at print” – to the sophisticated fluent-comprehending stage where the reader learns to make inferences, read between the lines and think beyond the text. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one of them has to be that teachers are often ill-equipped to deal with the transition through these various stages in the development of the reading brain, and are therefore not able to make explicit the strategies needed by the young reader to move from one stage to the next. Now that is an issue which needs to be addressed and one to which I will return in due course.