Still missing a literacy trick

19th November 2010 at 00:00

Save the Children has said Scotland lacks a mechanism for identifying the literacy issues that really matter. This is what I would most like the Scottish Government's literacy action plan to address.

Researchers have identified much of what makes an effective literacy learning mix in schools. The ill-tempered debates concerning the "best" method have been replaced by more evidence-based discussion about what works, for whom and when.

Studies show that highly effective practice in one context may be ineffective elsewhere, and information is getting more precise all the time. Phonics researchers can now predict the "mix" of explicit and implicit teaching and of child- and teacher-directed activities that produce the best reading outcomes for particular children. Those entering P1 with little literacy experience and fewer language skills make best progress on one type of contentpedagogy mix, whereas those who begin school in a more advantaged position make fast progress on a different mix.

Gender and socio-economic status are generally associated with reading attainment, but research shows that teachers and schools can mitigate their impact. Evidence-based information about what works would result in a huge pay-off for literacy attainment, and I would like to see Learning and Teaching Scotland provide it.

Without such knowledge, teachers tend to go with what sounds good. A lot of money, hope and effort gets wasted.

LTS, which provides curriculum advice, is focused on delivering Curriculum for Excellence and its website offers no information to direct teachers to the research that will help them make informed decisions.

In reading, three things really matter: phonics and word recognition (so that young children learn to decode words); comprehension strategies (so that readers learn how to make sense of what they read); and engagement (so pupils read enough to become fluent quickly and learn what books can do for them).

Secondary teachers need tailored advice on teaching comprehension in each curricular area. Primaries, many of which still frame comprehension teaching in terms of the "literal, inferential and evaluative" approach of the 1960s, need advice to re-focus their efforts. But try this: type "comprehension" into the search engine on the LTS website and see what comes up.

Another example is the way the term "coherence" has been misinterpreted in CfE. Teachers are planning integrated topics in the mistaken belief that this will deliver coherence and boost attainment. If they are happier teaching this way, fine. But in literacy research, the coherence that impacts on attainment is that created by pupils.

It comes when teachers prompt learning strategies to "travel" from task to task and curricular area to curricular area. To deliver it, teachers need to end lessons by asking, "What did you learn today?" and then, "Where else might that be useful?"

Those at LTS are skilled and dedicated, but they face a scary task. The system is not set up to focus on identifying the knowledge that would help teachers make evidence-based decisions. Instead, it collects generalised examples of "good practice", which may distract more than inform.

The outlook is not totally gloomy. CfE provides the freedom teachers and school managers need to make literacy teaching effective. We just have to make it powerful by harnessing research knowledge that is robust and focused on this freedom. The merger between LTS and HMIE may make this happen. I hope so.

Sue Ellis is a reader in literacy and language at Strathclyde University.

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