Education: In the beginning is the word

More than half English 11-year-olds have below average reading skills. Emma Haughton reports on the latest salvoes in the ongoing battle for literacy
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The Independent Online
As the general election approaches, literacy is a battleground for both main parties. Today, David Blunkett, shadow Secretary of State for Education, launches Labour's plan for every 11-year-old to reach the expected standard in reading. Last week, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, announced government moves on the issue, including an inquiry into why boys have more literacy problems than girls and the setting up of a basic skills helpline for parents.

Statistics are piling upon statistics to leave us in no doubt that British children are struggling with the written word. Last month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that nearly half of British adults lack the literacy skills to cope with modern life, while weeks later an analysis of National Curriculum test results for seven- year-olds by the Social Market Foundation confirmed a "major crisis" in the teaching of primary English. Indeed, in 1995 more than half of 11- year-olds failed to reach the expected reading standard. For many, English is fast becoming a foreign language.

While neither party disputes that positive parental attitude and good nursery education can make a huge impact on reading skills, solutions are likely to focus on schools and their potential to help children to overcome less favourable circumstances. The problem is some are much better at it than others. Even in those schools with similar social intakes, the variations in achievement are overwhelming, says Michael Barber, professor of education at London's Institute of Education and chair of Labour's Literacy Task Force.

"In schools with less than 5 per cent qualifying for free school meals, some will have 100 per cent of pupils gaining level four at age 11, while some will have just 20. There is a very wide spread of performance."

Inevitably, teachers are finding themselves in the line of fire. Teacher training colleges, for instance, have been heavily criticised in recent years for turning out raw recruits without the skills to teach reading in the classroom. "We don't teach children how to read properly," Professor Barber says. "There's never been an attempt across the country to teach primary school teachers how to teach children to read, and government regulations require so many things to be done during their training that there's a great deal of confusion and little guidance."

While efforts are under way to bring prospective teachers up to scratch, the Literacy Task Force has already proposed a programme of literacy summer schools as part of its plans for redeeming the pledge to raise the reading age of all 11-year-olds to their actual age within 10 years. "An ambitious target," Professor Barber says, "and of course there will be children with special educational needs that will prevent them reaching it, but we need to expect that all children will succeed."

He favours the New Zealand approach to literacy: the first wave, teaching children to read properly, will bring 80 per cent to the required level; a second wave "reading recovery" approach will mop up all but the 5 per cent with special educational needs, who are then targeted with a third wave of individual support. And after decades of debate we do now know the best way to teach children to read, Professor Barber says: specifically allocated time for literacy instruction - rather than hoping it will be picked up across the curriculum - combined with systematic teaching with reading-related tasks at appropriate levels.

This is in essence the method underpinning the National Literacy Project, launched in January in nearly 300 primary schools around the country. It aims to boost the quality of teaching through more focused literacy instruction and better classroom management, while improving schools' management of literacy through targets, planning, monitoring and evaluation.

"The project is starting from the fact of life that classes are quite large and you've got to find a strategy to cope with that using existing resources," says John Stannard, director of the National Centre for Literacy and Numeracy. "This is a tried-and-tested approach which raises expectations. It gives teachers things to aim for."

Participating schools commit themselves to a tight programme of term- by-term teaching objectives, with an hour a day dedicated to literacy teaching by whole-class and group instruction using shared texts. A far cry from the common method of hearing children read individually, Mr Stannard says. "Teachers tend to teach children reading individually, but in a class of 30 there just isn't enough time, and if they all read different texts you can't easily extend and develop that work. The children who suffer most are those with least confidence, who need most help."

Barbara Daykin, reception teacher at Badock's Wood primary in Bristol, started using the project this term. "It's largely a question of organisations" she says. "We had to look again at the organisation of the school day to fit in the literacy hour, but we have found it's given us a structure and a framework on which to plan our teaching systematically."

And it is a structure which she believes has been sadly lacking for many years. "Teacher training doesn't equip you to go into the classroom and teach children how to read and write," she says. "You learn a lot of learning theory about how children learn, but you don't really know the nitty-gritty of where to start, especially at the early stages."

But while the National Literacy Project is endorsed by Labour's Literacy Task Force, others have reservations. Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, thinks there is a real danger of over-prescription. "You wouldn't tell doctors to give antibiotics to everyone," he says. "Teachers need opportunities to improve and guidance on best practice, but it is important for them to feel they are more than just technicians."

Since the Government extended its remit 18 months ago, the Basic Skills Agency has adopted a more hands-off approach - funding and evaluating literacy projects at more than 100 secondary schools and piloting a basic skills quality mark for primary schools.

It is a course more likely to find favour with those like David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who believes the tectonic shift of education reforms is largely responsible for literacy problems.

"We're in favour of good ideas, but we need more time in the curriculum rather than people waving around one teaching method or classroom management technique as the be-all and end-all," he says. Mr Hart argues that the National Curriculum, with its detailed prescription on nine subjects and complex testing arrangements, has put tremendous pressure on the timetable, making it difficult for schools to concentrate on the basics.

Ultimately, however, the roots of the reading crisis may be wider and deeper than teaching skills or curriculum demands. As Professor Barber points out, social expectations in Britain are depressingly low.

"We put up with huge levels of inadequacy across the board, from trains that are always late to plumbers who don't fix things. It's the same fatalistic attitude with literacy - we think some people are bright and some are not. We don't expect or believe that everyone can learn to read"n

`Look at the letter carefully, Joshua - say the sound and find the picture that begins with it'

"I'm going to count to five. Let's see everybody's eyes looking this way." Twenty-five pairs of eyes turn towards Barbara Daykin, and the chatter of four- and five-year-old voices dies down. It is 9.30am, and the reception class at Badock's Wood primary near Bristol is starting its daily literacy hour.

"Put your hand up if you remember the name of the story." Ms Daykin points to the title page of a large picture book. Several small hands thrust upwards.

"I Want My Bear?" tries Ella.

"No, let's look at the first word," Ms Daykin says. "It's `Where'."

"Where's My Teddy," Adam shouts out triumphantly.

"Well done, Adam," Ms Daykin says. "But don't forget to put your hand up."

Ms Daykin repeats the process for the author and even the publisher - it is clear that books are taken very seriously here.

"Let's read the words together ... Eddy's off to find his teddy, Eddy's teddy's name is Freddy ..." A confident chorus accompanies Ms Daykin as she underlines each word with her finger.

She picks out a question mark. "Put up your hand if you remember what this is. Annie, can you remember what this means?"

"It's asking you a question," Annie says.

The children are clearly enjoying the story, and seem so familiar with its rhymes and patterns that it is surprising to discover that this is only the second time they have read it.

Later, in an almost seamless transition, the class splits into five ability groups. Two disappear outside with class assistants for guided reading; three remain for activities related to the story.

One constructs teddy bear puppets, another makes their own Eddy and the Teddy books, while Ms Daykin concentrates on six fledgling readers. They move on to match letters to pictures on cards. "Look at the letter carefully, Joshua - you need to say the sound and find the picture that begins with that sound."

Only towards the end of the hour does the impeccable class organisation begin to show signs of strain. A boy wanders across the classroom and pauses by the bear book we began with. "I'll tell you the story," he says to me, turning the pages and repeating everything he can remember. I have to smile. He may be playing up, but he clearly has not lost the plotn