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Reading, writing and hysteria

MPs have sparked a national panic about 11-year-olds' literacy levels. Yet many supposedly 'illiterate' children can actually read perfectly well. Joseph Lee reports

This week, more than 600,000 10 and 11-year-olds sat national curriculum tests. If past years are any guide, about a fifth will miss the Government's target for reading.

This figure triggered a national panic about literacy when it was widely publicised after the recent House of Commons education selection committee report about the teaching of reading.

The report, Teaching Children to Read, reignited the debate on the best way to teach reading. But the MPs' central assumption, that there is a crisis in literacy, went unexamined.

After casting doubt on the validity of improvements in test scores over recent years, the report said: "Even if Government figures are taken at face value, at age 11 around 20 per cent of children still do not achieve the success in reading (and writing) expected of their age. This figure is unacceptably high."

Smooth and bureaucratic phrasing from the committee was easily translated into media outrage. "Why can't 20 per cent of our children read properly?"

asked the Daily Express. The Times said: "Schools still cannot teach pupils to read by age 11."

The papers agreed that a fifth of children could not read to an appropriate level by the age of 11. In the most extreme cases it was suggested these children were illiterate, or could not read at all.

Teachers and headteachers were dismayed by the furore.

"It gives the impression the system is disgorging illiterates onto the nation," said John Gawthorpe, head of Mayhill junior in Hampshire. "We have signally failed to convey what an achievement for some pupils level 3 is.

To read some of the papers, level 3 is akin to scratching in the ground with a stick, which is not true."

So when this year's 11-year-olds receive their reading test results, what will it actually tell us about the state of literacy in England and Wales?

According to Paul Black, emeritus professor of science education at King's College, London, even the most sympathetic newspaper reports exaggerated the sense of crisis in their interpretation of the 20 per cent figure.

Professor Black chaired the Task Group on Assessment and Testing, which drew up the blueprint for the national curriculum levels. He says the test levels were designed to be a mid-point of the ability range of 11-year-olds. By definition, a significant minority would be expected not to reach level 4.

"At any age there is a wide range of what children can achieve, and there is little point in talking about a minimum for all," he said. "It would not surprise me to find that there were 20 per cent below level 4, 20 per cent above it, and 60 per cent in the middle. To say it is a minimum level changes the rules of the game and criteria in ways that were never envisaged by those who drew them up."

Teachers also criticise an excessive focus on the children who fail to reach level 4 because of the inevitable arbitrariness of exams. Often, very little separates a child who just misses the level from one who scrapes through, Hillary Bills, president of the National Union of Teachers, says that at the union's spring conference this year, she illustrated teachers'

frustrations by producing two pieces of work from the writing tests. One was level 3 and the other was level 4, but both lay on the borderline.

To the audience of teachers, the only noticeable difference was that the "failed" pupil had put quotation marks around the whole of his answer, because he misunderstood the question and thought it should be a speech.

Ms Bills, a headteacher at Holyhead primary school in Sandwell, says: "It made the point about how awful it is when some children just miss out. In any exam there is a natural distribution curve. Many of the children who achieve level 3 go on to secondary school and get better and better."

In 2001, 36 per cent of pupils who achieved level 3 at key stage 2 went on to achieve level 5 or above by key stage 3. Moreover, it is expecting too much of teachers to bring all pupils up to level 4 when so many have special needs, Ms Bills says. She points out that there are more than 1,400,000 pupils in the school system who are either on the special needs register or were given statements last year, according to the Department for Education and Skills.

At 17 per cent of the school population, that could account for almost all of the pupils who do not reach level 4.

"Unless you take special educational needs out of the equation, you are never going to have all 11-year-olds getting to level 4," she said, adding that some of the questions do not help. Her pupils in urban Sandwell were particularly baffled by a passage in a test about an Impala doe.

So if the design of the tests and the spread of ability in schools prevents us drawing too many conclusions about the state of literacy, what can we say about the achievement of a child who reachers level 3?

In the words of the attainment targets produced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority: "Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately. They read independently, using strategies appropriately to establish meaning. In responding to fiction and nonfiction they show understanding of the main points and express preferences. They use their knowledge of the alphabet to locate books and find information."

"Fluency and accuracy" are a long way from not being able to read properly.

The select committee admitted that even defining what we mean by reading is problematic, saying it involves several processes. It says pupils need to translate the symbols on to the page into known words,understand their meaning and follow the progression of a story. Yet the QCA's description makes it clear that pupils at level 3 must be able to decode, understand and respond appropriately.

Level 4 is rather different. It is widely agreed that it represents the ability needed to succeed at secondary school. At this level, the QCA says:

"In responding to a range of texts, pupils show understanding of significant ideas, themes, events and characters, beginning to use inference and deduction. They refer to the text when explaining their views. They locate and use ideas and information."

Dr Marian Sainsbury, head of literacy assessment and research at the National Foundation for Educational Research,was insistent that it was wrong to describe children at level 3 as having failed in any sense. She said the quality of children's responses to their reading is being emphasised at level 4: "It shades into literary criticism. It's quite ambitious: to get all the marks, you would be showing some sophisticated comprehension skills," she said.

She also concedes that any reading test is almost always a test of writing, even though pupils may be stronger in one than the other. "We do have this conceptual difficulty because reading is something which goes on in people's heads," she said. "We have to find evidence it is happening without looking directly into pupil's brains."

The select committee acknowledged the difficulties of making generalisations about literacy levels from the tests, saying that too many different measures were used to define literacy.

One problem acknowledged by MPs is using a measure that defines illiteracy as "ability below that expected of a child's age (as measured by key stage tests)". "In these cases, it is possible for a child to have a significant mastery of reading and to be able to cope with quite sustained texts while still being described as 'illiterate'," their report said.

The select committee did not call children illiterate, and was consistent in using the level 4 measure. Yet by giving the mistaken impression that level 4 is the standard expected of all pupils, they have left children who had achieved level 3 and can read "fluently and accurately" vulnerable to the charge of illiteracy.

Heads and teachers know full well that these children are far from illiterate. Is it too much to hope that, after this year's test results, the Express might acknowledge that too?

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