When it comes to literacy, let’s start at page 1

1st April 2016 at 00:00

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently launched a competition aimed at nurturing a lifelong love of reading. P4-P7s will be encouraged to read as many books as possible each year, and a judging panel will award prizes to the schools and pupils that shine.

Let’s ignore the fact that the challenge will include a list of “recommended texts” (à la England’s former education secretary, Michael Gove). To me, anything that boosts reading for pleasure is a good thing. Whether it’s the Scottish Book Trust, Dolly Parton or Ronald McDonald giving books away, I’m all for it. (Goodness knows we need all the books we can get with so many of our school libraries under threat.)

Given the benefits of reading for pleasure, we should be all over it like a rash. Research shows that children who regularly read for fun improve their vocabulary and spelling – it can even be linked to performance in maths. Not just that, from the ages of 10-16 reading for pleasure has been shown to be even more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education.

Set against Scotland’s poverty-related attainment gap, the news that reading for pleasure can actually mitigate children’s home circumstances is something we cannot afford to ignore. In addition, when you learn that Scotland is below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average for the “index of enjoyment of reading”, it’s clear something must be done.

But here’s the thing. Reading-for-pleasure initiatives are important – it’s just that they preach to the converted. Building a reader requires three things: decoding (being able to read the words on the page); comprehension (understanding those words); and motivation. Sadly, initiatives fail to tackle the real problem at the heart of the attainment gap: the 20 per cent of children in Scotland who struggle with reading.

Reading for pleasure is a worthy cause but, crucially, you have to actually be able to read in the first place to take part.

It is easy to roll out literary competitions, and it’s easy to be passionate about libraries and reading for pleasure. What’s more difficult is recognising and addressing the systemic problem in Scotland when it comes to teaching reading. Our initial teacher education courses are consistently weak on the pedagogy of teaching beginner readers.

Our national documents – Curriculum for Excellence, Polaar, Education Scotland’s early reading briefing, the Scottish government’s Literacy Action Plan – paint a confused and contradictory picture of what it is we should be doing in classrooms.

Worst of all, there’s a serious lack of professional knowledge when it comes to the pedagogy and practice of how to teach all children to read. If we truly want to make a difference to the attainment gap, then it is this that must be urgently addressed.

Anne Glennie is a former primary teacher who works as a consultant through her organisation the Learning Zoo

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