Literacy ethos slammed

30th April 2010 at 01:00
Curriculum will have no impact without radical overhaul of current approaches, claims expert

Schools are basing decisions about how to teach reading and writing on "myths" and "what the school down the road is doing", according to a literacy expert.

In a hard-hitting critique of current approaches to the subject, Vivienne Smith, a lecturer and researcher at Strathclyde University, believes that, despite the rhetoric about literacy being at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence, it will make no impact if things remain as they are.

Her comments came in an address on Monday to the annual conference of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee, and are particularly significant at a time when the Donaldson review is investigating how teachers are trained.

Education Secretary Michael Russell has scaled back the cross-curricular testing of literacy and numeracy proposed by his predecessor, retaining them simply as tests in English and maths.

The arguments over the best way to improve reading and writing will be further heightened following a TESS review of assessors' comments on the performance of pupils in last year's exams. A string of criticisms on "incomprehensible" English featured in a range of subjects.

Dr Smith argues that the way forward is not to redouble efforts to do more synthetic phonics or comprehension skills, but to acknowledge that the two biggest predictors of how quickly a child will become literate are the socio-economic status of their parents and their gender. These factors were routinely overlooked by schools, local authorities and government, she said, although her view is not shared by other experts.

"We are solving a problem with an inappropriate cure," Dr Smith added. "Like trying to cure kidney failure with aspirin, it is the wrong treatment."

She called for better leadership at local and national level so classroom teachers, who may struggle to keep up to date with the latest research, could teach reading and writing in the most effective way.

Dr Smith carried out her analysis of how literacy was taught in Scotland with her colleague Sue Ellis, a literacy expert also based at Strathclyde University.

They found that the speed at which people learned to read and write was determined by social factors, such as who they were and what they wanted to be, and was not just a cognitive process.

But, in schools, policy decisions were rarely made on the grounds of a social understanding of literacy, Dr Smith said.

She criticised the VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openings and punctuation) method of teaching writing. It was "like a disease" in schools but was "based on nothing", she said.

Dr Smith added: "It treats writing as if it were a combination of individual skills, but it ignores the social world in which writing is used.

"Writing is a social act: you write because you want to say something and, although you need to look at punctuation and vocabulary, they come second. You start with what you want to say and find the words for it."

When research was taken into account in Scottish schools, it was often flawed. "Myths" such as boys not reading fiction and being incapable of writing for long periods, because their brains worked differently in some places, were accepted as fact.

"There is no proof boys' brains work significantly differently to girls'," Dr Smith said. "We need to make sure our policy is informed, well thought through and dripped down to teachers in the classroom."

Meanwhile, exam assessors have found poor English is damaging students' chances across all exam levels, even at Advanced Higher. They discovered that last year:

  • most Higher physics candidates performed "quite poorly" in written descriptions and explanations;
  • answers by Advanced Higher French candidates were often spoiled and occasionally incomprehensible because of poor English;
  • chemistry Higher candidates answered questions well "except when required to do extended writing", while a "fair number" at Advanced Higher lost marks "due to their inability to express themselves clearly in writing";
  • the standard of many Higher computing responses was "well below that expected", largely because of poor written English;
  • Spanish Advanced Higher candidates' spelling and punctuation in English was careless, and many did not know to avoid colloquialisms and contractions such as "wasn't" or "doesn't";
  • inaccurate use of apostrophes was a bugbear in Higher English, as was incorrect punctuation around words such as "however", "therefore" and "this".
    • Psychologist Tommy MacKay, who earned renown for helping West Dunbartonshire to eradicate illiteracy in primary schools, was not surprised by the negative comments.

      He has championed synthetic phonics, but said "sound grammar teaching" was also crucial to literacy in later life.

      Pupils in recent times had been put at a disadvantage due to a "very significant departure" from explicit teaching of grammar, amid the widespread belief they would pick up the required language skills without formal instruction.

      Even growing up in middle-class homes surrounded by books was no guarantee of high literacy, Professor MacKay said, if children did not get the right instruction.

      Contrary to Dr Smith's view, he said research suggested that literacy levels did not always correlate with socio-economic status. Although high levels of poverty correlated with poor literacy, the research showed literacy might tail off and even fall at the top end of the socio-economic scale.;


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