Literacy standards: Why the facts make good reading

The Government has been criticised for squandering £500m on its literacy strategy, but there's real evidence that it has worked. Geraldine Hackett reports

Thursday 15 November 2007 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Teachers used to think reading could be taught by simply listening to each child read aloud from the book in front of them. Queues would form, sometimes at both sides of the teacher's desk, as children waited their turn for the teacher's attention.

Those days are not so far back. In 1996 inspectors from Ofsted visited 45 inner-city primary schools in London and found that teachers were still spending large amounts of time listening to individual children read while the rest of the class struggled on their own or scratched their names on the desk.

Kevin Burns, who was until recently the co-ordinator for reading in Tyneside primary schools, admitted he left teacher training with little idea about how to teach reading to children. "I would listen to one child at a time," he said. "I qualified, yet I really didn't know much about reading."

For the past three years he has been helping teachers implement the Government's national literacy strategy. Teachers, he says, are now much better at teaching reading.

The effectiveness of the Government's literacy strategy has been hot news because of research by Peter Tymms, professor of education at Durham University, who says the Government has squandered £500m on reading strategies that have barely raised standards in England's primary schools. But Andrew Adonis, schools minister, argues that standards in primary schools are at their highest ever. Reading scores have risen 17 percentage points since 1997. And it's not an opinion, it's a fact, says Adonis.

Since Labour came to power, reading has become a political battleground. Ministers slap down academics who query whether the literacy strategy has worked, mainly because primary schools are the only part of the education system that appears to be doing better than before Labour arrived. So who is right?

It is almost a decade since primary schools introduced the literacy hour. Teachers were told to abandon attempts to teach children to read by getting them to memorise whole words (the "Look and Say" method). The national literacy strategy transformed the way reading is taught in primary schools.

Designed mainly by John Stannard, a former primary HMI, the strategy introduced systematic phonics and was the first attempt to get all teachers to give roughly the same lessons. Not all teachers were happy with it because it told them exactly what they should do – down to a minute-by-minute structure for the literacy hour.

The experts, however, were convinced the strategy would shift reading standards. "It had to be better than what had gone before," says Jim Rose, another former primary HMI, and government adviser.

Between 1997 and 2000 the strategy produced remarkable results. The number of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 – able to read – shot up. The proportion reaching the required level in reading rose from 48 to 75 per cent. These 17 percentage points are the improvement Adonis pointed to with such certainty. It was a triumph because children who don't achieve level 4 by the age of 11 are unlikely to get five good GCSEs, the minimum to secure a good job or move on to further education.

The Blair government – still struggling to bring about any improvements in state secondary schools – could at least claim it had pushed up standards in primary schools.

Doubts about the scale of success first surfaced in 2004 when Tymms insisted that the results exaggerated the real improvement in reading skills that had taken place. Unfortunately for the Government's publicity machine, the independent Statistics Commission sided partly with Tymms. It said the Government should not make such bold claims about standards because the scores did not directly equate to standards. Not only are teachers smart enough to teach to the test, the test can only identify a narrow range of skills, it added.

Tymms returned to the attack recently in a paper for the review of primary education carried out at Cambridge University, arguing the Government's figures were bogus. There had been no great improvement in reading standards, he said. "I don't think Adonis believes the figures he was quoting," he added.

Wynne Harlen, professor of education at Bristol University, piled in with another paper saying that the tests put too much pressure on children and the results were often inaccurate. In her view, tests should be replaced by assessments done by teachers.

These critiques have fuelled the anti-tests lobby. According to Sue Palmer, an independent literacy expert and author of Toxic Childhood, children are being drilled to pass tests, which is turning them off reading. But Adonis stands his ground on the scale of improvement. "We absolutely say that the 17 percentage points rise (in scores) indicates improved standards," his office said last week. "We don't accept that improved results are down to 'teaching to the test'."

But does the row over scores and tests mean that children in primary schools in England are not learning to read? In recent international comparisons, our nine-year-olds look smart. England came third out of 35 countries, behind only Sweden and the Netherlands, in the International Literacy Study in 2001.

According to the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, there was much to be proud of.

"It shows," he said," that the national literacy strategy we set up five years ago to raise standards in primary schools is working."

As ever, not everyone agreed. There were complaints that a single reading test could not be translated into different languages and cultures and that the results had been distorted because England had excluded more children with special educational needs than other countries.

Even Tymms, however, concedes that most children are learning to read pretty well. "Most [children] cannot read before they start school and the vast majority of children are able to do so by the time they move to secondary school," says his most recent paper. "The general consensus is that this process is a successful one and it has been ongoing for generations."

The reality is that children with supportive parents will pick up reading by the age of seven and most will be reading for pleasure by the age of 11. The greater focus on phonics and more structured teaching has helped them get to grips more quickly with reading.

What should be worrying the Government is the 7 per cent who start secondary school without the reading skills to do the academic work. They number around 40,000 a year; they are predominantly boys, and there has been no improvement in their reading skills in the past decade.

Their numbers are not huge, but they are the ones that hang around street corners or end up in prison because they can't get a job - the youths that ministers want to keep in schools or on training courses until they reach 18.

The latest review of the literacy strategy, carried out by Jim Rose, says schools should teach synthetic phonics whereby the sounds and blends of letters are taught before children see any books. Rose wants schools to introduce phonics to children at five. Ofsted reports have in the past been critical of what they see as a reluctance among teachers to pay sufficient attention to phonics.

The Sun recently took a similar view, accusing teachers of being opposed to phonics because they see phonics as "right-wing".

Jean Milham, head of Morningside primary in Hackney, east London, credits the strategy with having been a great force for good. More than half her pupils are on free school meals and by 2001 around 50 per cent were reaching level four in the tests. "It brought structure back into the teaching of reading and our results improved," she says. "At one time teacher training colleges were not teaching their students how to teach children to read. The teachers we have now are far more skilled."

In North Tyneside, Kevin Burns, the area's literacy coordinator until taking a headship in September, agrees that the teaching of reading has improved no end. Teachers are not drilling children, he says. At five, children are learning letter sounds. At seven, there is a daily 20 minutes of "guided reading". The class is divided into groups of four or six according to ability and the teacher deals with each group in turn.

"When I first qualified I taught children to read by listening to them in turn and so did lots of other teachers," he says. "Teaching is far better now."

The Government's critics are probably wrong. Schools want to push up scores and may do far too many practice tests, but that doesn't mean the results are meaningless. No one says children at private prep schools are over-tested and they do far more tests than children in state schools

Teachers are now better at teaching children to read and it is the quality of teaching that matters. There is a hard core of poor readers, however, many of them boys, many on free school meals – who do not make enough progress to succeed at secondary school. Adonis may cling to his claim that reading has improved by 17 percentage points. The fact is that for some the strategies have not yet begun to work.

Tymms may be right that the Government has exaggerated the scale of improvement, but he fails to give credit for the revolution in the quality of teaching reading in primary schools. That could well be worth a tidy sum.

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