Literacy needs a lot more than lip-service

The upcoming World Congress on Reading will provide a timely showcase of what can be done, says Bill Gatherer.

WHEN I first began to study and research literacy teaching (as a lecturer at Jordanhill and then as an HMI), the overriding problem schools faced was the sheer poverty of a large percentage of the families the pupils came from.

Children from adverse social backgrounds did badly at school because they were handicapped in many ways. They were less healthy. They lacked the skills, attitudes, values and social habits. They were less able to concentrate on tasks, less questioning, less creative, less fluent in standard English, less able to deal with abstractions.

The education system had been developed to cater for a social class that possessed the attributes essential for educational success and teachers could not, and could not be expected to, provide conditions to counter these malign influences.

I am well aware that many of these notions have been in large measure discounted. Modern nursery and primary schools give children a congenial learning exper-ience, expert teachers using up-to-date approaches, well designed materials in bright and spacious classrooms. Children are better taught and teachers better trained.

Although much of this progress derives from broad improvements in provision, not a little of it is due to the advent of child-centred ideas firmly established mid-century by the Plowden report and the Primary Memorandum in Scotland. In my experience, the work of the United Kingdom Reading Association (UKRA) has been hugely important in bringing teachers together to learn about and benefit from research and development.

The central roles now assigned to friendly discussion, creative and transactional discourse, reading more relevant writings, exchanging insights into differing interpretations of the real and imagined world - in academic terms, the uses of elaborated codes of speech and writing - are all the product of pupil-centred education.

There are now many learning strategies available for helping young people to create language contexts for interacting with others, expressing their values, ordering their own responses to the living environment in which they operate as human beings.

These are the competencies of higher-order literacy. They cannot be overtly taught; they have to be acquired through experience - learning English by using it. They are extended by literate reading and ample practice in purposeful discussion, writing and reading. Outside the home the teacher is the best, and often the only, collaborator in this long enterprise of cultivating the higher literacy that constitutes a good education.

But we have to ask ourselves whether the conditions prevailing in schools (especially secondary schools) allow teachers to fulfil this role adequately. For nearly a century there have been clamant demands for more effective literacy teaching at secondary level - pleas that every teacher should be a teacher of English.

In the 1970s, the "language across the curriculum" movement culminated in the report of the Bullock committee, A Language for Life. The politicians failed to grasp the importance of this powerful treatise (and probably couldn't read it). Subsequent governments have done little or nothing about it.

I understand that there is now a renewed interest in the issue but it remains to be seen whether any genuine action will be taken. The secondary curriculum remains stubbornly subject-centred, taught by teachers preoccupied by the need to cover the syllabus content in a given time. The pity of it is that these teachers, highly educated in their disciplines, have so much to offer as influential adults able to engage pupils in the kind of reflective discourse that develops them intellectually.

The importance of literacy in the modern world can hardly be exaggerated. Good citizens need to be able to access and judge the thinking of others, particularly those who purport to lead us. Our hopes of helping young people to develop as intelligent citizens depend on the quality of our literacy teaching.

The World Congress on Reading in Edinburgh this summer (July 29-August 1) will offer us an opportunity to showcase pupils' writing and teachers' achievements. More important, it will give us the chance to learn about the latest thinking from a wide range of experts from every part of the world.

Bill Gatherer is a former chief educational adviser in Lothian Region.

The upcoming World Congress on Reading will provide a timely showcase of what can be done, says Bill Gatherer

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