It's a matter of time for literacy

1st August 2008 at 01:00

Heart-searching is occurring in the educational world over one of our most basic tasks, the teaching of literacy. Statistics suggest that 15 per cent of adults lack the functional literacy skills expected of an 11-year- old. The recent OECD report on Scottish schools illustrates the growing gap between the attainment of the top and bottom cohorts, with the poor literacy skills of the poorest cohort identified as a major barrier to accessing the wider curriculum.

Almost a decade ago, English primary schools introduced the literacy hour. Teachers had to abandon look-and-say approaches to reading. The national literacy strategy introduced systematic phonics and a structured, prescriptive approach to literacy.

Even now, however, there is division between those who favour analytic phonics and proponents of synthetic phonics. In Scotland, Clackmannanshire has adopted the synthetic phonics approach with well-publicised success, while North Lanarkshire's active and co-operative learning approach rests mainly on synthetic phonics.

Success in literacy comes from more than teaching methods. The National Literacy Trust suggests that among the variables in literacy acquisition are quality of teaching, school effectiveness, home literacy modelling, early language development, the quality of pre-school support and peer- group influences.

A small but noticeable proportion of children enter school with the odds stacked against them. Families where reading together, let alone supporting homework, is beyond parents; an age where other media have made literacy less attractive; and a consumerist ethos creating an expectation that good things can come without effort, all militate against success in reading.

These factors not only limit literacy skills for our least able young people, but have also impacted on poor higher-level literacy skills across the population.

A Curriculum for Excellence, insisting that literacy is no longer solely the responsibility of the English teacher but of all teachers, will have an impact. Many teachers close to the end of their careers will recall such a premise in the 1970s with the report Language Across the Curriculum. It might be suggested its excellent practice died a rapid death on the cross of subject specialisation: "I'm a physics teacher, I don't teach literacy." And expecting literacy to be taught by those uncertain of their skills in the area may be a real issue. Staff develop- ment and a seismic culture change will be required in many secondary departments.

Literacy, or the lack of it for many, is a problem without simple solutions, which the Scottish Government and authorities need to acknowledge. Answers may include early intervention, synthetic phonics and a more joined-up approach. They may require resources, but that is secondary to time, and time in a horrendously over-crowded curriculum is short.

The heroes of the debate will be those with the courage to say what has to go to make room for the necessary additional work on literacy.

Alex Wood, is seconded headteacher of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh.

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