When will literacy get its fairy-tale ending?

15th May 2015 at 01:00
Despite the best efforts of Curriculum for Excellence and groups such as the Scottish Book Trust, children's reading levels have fallen. Emma Seith finds out what's being done to turn the page

Commissions have reported, action plans have been put into motion. Under Curriculum for Excellence, literacy is a hot topic: teachers have been told to share the responsibility for fostering it at school, and at home families are encouraged to "play, talk, read" to their children. Meanwhile, every child in Scotland receives 12 free books before they even reach P1. Indeed, 720,000 tomes a year are handed out under the Bookbug scheme.

Scots could be forgiven, then, for having been cautiously optimistic ahead of the publication of the biennial Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (bit.lyScotLiteracy2014) last month. But the report, which looks at how well children are performing in reading, writing, listening and talking in P4, P7 and S2, shows that standards have fallen.

The proportion of pupils performing well or very well in reading fell across all groups: in P4, it dropped from 83 per cent in 2012 to 78 per cent in 2014; in P7, from 90 per cent to 88 per cent; and in S2 from 84 per cent to 80 per cent.

The report states: "For all stages, the lower performance in 2014 [in reading] was attributable to a decrease in pupils performing very well at their relevant curriculum level in 2014 compared to 2012."

There was no difference in P4 performance in writing between 2012 and 2014, but again, at P7 and S2, performance was lower. In 2012, 72 per cent of P7 pupils performed well or very well, but by 2014 that had fallen to 68 per cent. Performance in S2 writing was down by 9 per cent, from 64 per cent of S2 pupils performing well, very well or beyond the level expected in 2012 to 55 per cent in 2014.

`Hard nut to crack'

So, why are efforts to promote literacy in Scotland not making a difference? Some experts say that universities are failing student teachers and children by not placing enough emphasis on literacy teaching. Another concern is that schools don't gather the rich data they need to identify how they can best support their pupils.

There has also been criticism of projects that run for three years - or five at best - and then disappear, whether they have been successful or not. The failure to tackle the dip in performance when children move from primary to secondary is another sticking point. But above all, improving literacy is simply "a hard nut to crack", experts say.

"Teaching children to read and write is complex," says professor Sue Ellis, co-director of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Education and Social Policy.

"[Literacy] is affected by individual circumstances and skills, but also by social context. It is about what goes on in terms of teaching in the classroom. But it is also about how well children are motivated to become independent readers and writers, which is about the opportunities and motivation they get outside as well as inside school, and the extent to which reading and writing are part of the social fabric of their lives."

Open books

Researchers have long known that girls outperform boys in reading and writing, and that children from the least deprived backgrounds outdo the most disadvantaged children.

These trends are reflected in the Scottish Survey of Literacy. At every stage, girls outperform boys at reading and writing, except reading in P7, when they do equally well. The difference is most pronounced in writing in S2: 63 per cent of girls were classed as performing well, very well or beyond the level expected compared with 47 per cent of boys.

Meanwhile, the survey found that, by the end of primary, 56 per cent of children from the most deprived areas of Scotland were writing well, very well or beyond the level expected compared with 77 per cent from the least deprived postcodes. In reading, the figure was 81 per cent against 93 per cent.

Reading for pleasure is what makes the difference, researchers believe. One organisation trying to instil good reading habits from an early age is the Scottish Book Trust, which distributes four packs of books to every child in the country before the age of 5. And from next year, it will extend the scheme to P2 and P3 pupils, TESS can reveal.

The move - part of the Scottish government's pound;1.5 million Read, Write, Count campaign - is likely to result in an extra 360,000 free books being given away every year. Currently, 720,000 books are gifted annually at a cost of pound;1.7 million.

"Access to books is the great leveller, and the mechanism by which everybody can be given the best possible chance to succeed," explains Marc Lambert, director of the trust.

The packs for school-age children will include resources on writing and counting, and Lambert says that professional development on how to use them will be available to teachers.

The trust will also be expanding its Assertive Outreach programme. This scheme aims to introduce the principles of library-based Bookbug sessions - talking, singing and sharing books with young children - into the homes of vulnerable families in Scotland.

Meanwhile, moves are afoot to grant every child in Scotland automatic library membership, with projects up and running in all 32 councils. Some local authorities are looking to enrol pupils from P1, while others plan to work with registrars to make children library members from birth.

With all this activity going on, some believe that schools and teachers could be doing more. Teaching unions, however, say that the fall in teacher numbers, rise in class sizes, "unsustainable" workload and budget cuts make that unfeasible.

"Austerity-led measures have an impact on performance, just as deprivation at home impacts upon pupil attainment," says Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union.

No more `input-outputs'

According to Ellis, schools need access to better data on literacy focusing on what matters most - pupils' comprehension, decoding fluency and engagement - at a point in the year that is useful. Schools also need to become better at analysing that data. This means moving away from what she describes as "the input-output approach", or "if they are bad at x, you give them more of x".

"If a child is poor at decoding - reading slowly and stiltingly - the solution might not be for them to read more with the teacher," Ellis explains. "It might be that you need to make reading more exciting, make them see it as something they do out of school, or provide them with more books - not reading-scheme books."

The aspiration of Curriculum for Excellence that every teacher - regardless of subject specialism - should be a teacher of literacy has not been realised, Ellis argues. Teachers have to be able to create a learning mix that works, but studying literacy development and teaching is not always a major plank in initial teacher education, she says.

Ellis wants the General Teaching Council for Scotland to review whether sufficient weight is given to literacy teaching in teacher education programmes. Some institutions allocate just 20 hours in a four-year degree - four times less than others.

Secondary subject specialists also need tailored advice on effective literacy pedagogies for their area, and time to work out how best to integrate literacy teaching and subject content into their lessons, she says.

Although CfE makes it clear that literacy should be a priority well beyond English departments, schools are missing opportunities to raise literacy standards and "not yet fully recognising the impact that literacy has on learning and achievement across all curricular areas", according to Education Scotland's new 3-18 Literacy and English Review (bit.lyLiteracyReport).

Secondaries are also delivering a curriculum that is too fragmented in early secondary, says Keir Bloomer, deputy convener of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's education committee. The dip in performance between P7 and S2 in reading and writing, highlighted by the Scottish Survey of Literacy, is of particular concern, he adds.

"We have known for half a century that the early secondary curriculum is too fragmented and that a significant minority of pupils begin to disengage, but no effective action has been taken," Bloomer says.

"CfE was designed to address this issue. However, secondary schools have been distracted from reforming their programmes in S1 and S2 by the need to introduce new exams. The priority should have been S1 and S2 but, in practice, it has been the senior phase. This is the most important strategic error made in the introduction of CfE."

In the wake of the survey's results, the Scottish government has said that work to improve literacy in schools will be "stepped up". It has also pledged that Education Scotland will focus more on literacy during school inspection, provide more resources for teachers and deliver a national improvement framework to provide "the data we need to ensure that every child can achieve the high standards set out within CfE".

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