Literacy expert: Google 'better advice than LTS'

5th November 2010 at 00:00
Learning and Teaching Scotland's website criticised for poor support

Leading literacy academics have accused Scotland's curriculum development agency of failing to provide teachers with clear advice on the best ways to teach reading and writing. One witheringly suggested teachers would be better off turning to Google than to Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Improving pupils' literacy is a national priority. The Scottish Government's "action plan", launched last week by Education Secretary Michael Russell, aims to raise the standards of literacy for all.

But literacy achievement would "remain in the doldrums" in Scotland unless teachers were given effective information about the best ways to teach the core aspects, said Sue Ellis, a reader in literacy and language at Strathclyde University.

LTS, which is planned to merge with HMIE next year, had nothing "accurate or helpful" on its website, she said.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, agreed. Scottish teachers would be better advised to use Google than LTS if they wanted to find rigorous advice on what worked, he said.

The absence of expert advice was "disturbing", he continued. Teachers were being expected to reinvent the curriculum at a time when support at local authority level was being cut, the new National Assessment Resource was "inchoate", and national qualifications were "so vaguely specified" that even the balance between internal and external assessment was unknown.

Professor Paterson added: "The LTS website does not even offer links to the excellent systematic reviews of research in literacy teaching that are available from the Institute of Education in London."

Ms Ellis said: "Curriculum for Excellence gives teachers and schools freedom to choose what they do, in order to meet the needs of their pupils. But that freedom is of little use if teachers do not have easy access to reliable, up-to-date, research-informed information about the content and pedagogies that are likely to be most effective with different types of pupils."

The three basics of teaching reading in the primary school were: phonics, comprehension and engagement, Ms Ellis continued. Phonics was required to decode words, comprehension to understand what was read and engagement to ensure that children read frequently and widely.

"If I type `phonics' into the LTS website, I get four items, none of which explains how to teach it," she said. "If I type in `comprehension', the first eight items are about Cantonese and Mandarin, with only three items focusing on teaching comprehension in the primary school or across the curriculum."

In the absence of specific guidance, schools would opt for what sounded good, said Ms Ellis: "It's rather like choosing a dress that looks just perfect on Kate Moss and expecting it to look equally stunning in a size 18".

In the past six months, Ms Ellis had written or emailed LTS nine times highlighting her concerns. She had even written to chief executive Bernard McLeary, raising the issues and offering her help but to no avail. She concluded: "Whatever the Scottish Government says about literacy being important, it's not making its policy body, LTS, prioritise it."

Fiona Norris, former literacy team leader at Learning and Teaching Scotland and now the organisation's programme director for targeted support, stressed that the LTS website was "a work in progress".

A word's worth: What LTS has been doing to support literacy learning

The National Literacy Network is a forum for discussion and for the dissemination of information involving those responsible for leading literacy within councils. Over the past year the network has been addressed by Robert Fisher, professor of education at Brunel University; Sue Palmer, author of many books on children's literacy; and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

- The Knowledge of Language website provides users with a checking point for elements of the English language such as parts of speech, punctuation, grammar and syntax, tricky spellings and common confusions.

- Continuing professional development which focuses on developing critical literacy is being delivered by the LTS literacy team. It is planned to reach about 2,000 teachers in every council area; CPD to improve literacy through all subjects is being delivered for the third year.

Support system

Scottish Labour has pledged to employ 1,000 extra teachers to support pupils with literacy and numeracy problems if it wins power in next May's Holyrood elections. Hundreds of additional classroom assistants would also be recruited.

The cost of the policy would be pound;30 million, the party estimated. The cash would go to local authorities and it would be up to them to employ the additional staff to deliver one-to-one tuition and specialist programmes, a spokesman said.

Labour shied away from saying the money would be ring-fenced but the party in government would ensure it was spent as intended, he added.

The specialist literacy and numeracy roles would be open to experienced and new teachers, the party spokesman continued. Where older teachers got the jobs, that would free up places in schools for new recruits, he said.

The policy was announced by party leader Iain Gray at Scottish Labour's conference in Oban last weekend. "The SNP has thrown 2,900 newly-qualified teachers on the scrapheap," he said.

"So we will offer as many of them as possible the chance of training and a contract to join our literacy and numeracy drive."

  • Original headline: Google `has better advice than LTS', says literacy expert

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