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Phonics and Reading Lists Aren't Enough to Raise Literacy Standards

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A few months ago, I was outraged, as were many teachers who work in secondary education, to read the Evening Standard splash on literacy statistics. Today, I read the National Literacy Trust's annual survey on reading, entitled 'Setting the Baseline' and was pleased to see that someone is actually taking into account views of young people on their understanding of reading today - how they feel about it, how often they do it and what they actually like reading.

As expected, the list of items that students claimed to like reading differs somewhat from the list Michael Gove recommended in March earlier this year after a visit to the US charter schools run by KIPP. I have visited KIPP schools in New York and admire their dedication to the raising of literacy standards amongst the most deprived students in the state. What Michael Gove may have missed about KIPP is that their whole approach to reading is different to ours. Reading in a KIPP school is central to everything - classrooms are decorated using themes from books, words are displayed everywhere, there are sofas for children to sit on and read quietly and until students reach the required reading age, the curriculum is solely designed around Literacy, Mathematics, Science and Social Sciences (what we would term Humanities). Social Sciences lessons are literacy lessons in disguise - they teach reading skills through History, Geography and Religious Education. So, with all this in mind, how did Michael Gove come back from that visit to the KIPP schools and decide that a reading list and synthetic phonics were the biggest 'take aways' from that experience?

The students surveyed by the National Literacy Trust listed reading emails, text messages, websites and newspapers amongst their reading material, which just goes to show that reading is not, and will never be confined to reading books recommended by the state. Reading is a skill that needs to be used in the decoding and comprehension of everything that is written. It is not just a skill that allows someone to pass an English Literature GCSE (although, believe me, it helps), it is the difference between entire socio-economic statuses.

The findings from the National Literacy Trust are extremely interesting considering the screaming headlines in June, where the Evening Standard announced that a large swathe of young Londoners are illiterate, have no books in their homes and have parents who don't read to them. At the risk of sounding like a TV presenter from a well known family quiz show, the survey says that only 3% of young people surveyed stated that they don't have a single book in the home. The survey also points out, again, that young people from the poorest backgrounds, those receiving Free Schools Meals, are much less likely to have read a book recently. My own experiences, and those of my colleagues, show that the majority of students in our secondary classrooms can read. Their single word reading, their reading rate is not the reason they fail to achieve a chronological reading age score. It is their level of comprehension of what they are reading and a lack of exposure to language that causes an achievement gap. This gap that widens, almost unstoppably.

Richard Rothstein, Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute in the US and Board Member of the American Education Research Association, has written extensively on the achievement gap in the US, especially in 'Class and Schools' (2004). He is quick to point out that a lot of the findings from his own and others' research in the US is mirrored here in the UK and his key point is that the achievement gap begins before the age of 3. Socio-economic differences - the gap between a working class child's experience and that of a middle class child - make or break a child's educational trajectory. Rothstein draws on his own and others' research to assert small, but hugely important facts - the amount of words middle class children are exposed to can be a third higher than the amount of words a working class child is exposed to. How parents read - the questions they ask while they are reading to a child vary between the classes. Reading, for him, is not just about those who can and those who can't. In other words, a phonics programme does not solve poor standards of literacy because the issue is so much wider and more complex than Michael Gove could even imagine. We cannot create a nation of literate, confident individuals by giving them a reading list and making them recite phonemes.

I believe that true teaching of literacy, in all of its many forms, cannot occur with any degree of success that we can be proud of until, like in KIPP schools, reading becomes central to everything. Reading, and the teaching of reading is more than just the ability to read the words on the page. In my department, we have been using Reciprocal Reading strategies developed by the Hackney Learning Trust - a programme of developing comprehension and vocabulary based on the excellent work of US educationalist and reading specialist, Lori Oczkus. We test our students to see whether it is their single word reading that needs development - and therefore a phonics programme is put in place for that child - or whether they have difficulty comprehending what they have read.

Even though I know the programme we have used is successful, I also know that it is not enough. I correct mistakes already made - what I would like to do is make sure that we don't have to compensate for these mistakes. We have a strategy to deal with the symptoms of the problem, but we do not deal with the root causes of low reading ages in schools. We haven't recognised yet in this country that we need to be bolder in our approach to raising literacy standards - that maybe we have to ignore accusations of being a 'nanny state' and intervene earlier in the relationship between parent and child. What could be wrong with explaining that simple adjustments to the way you read with your child could change their approach to reading later in life? What harm could there be in sharing some of the wisdom of organisations like the National Literacy Trust with would-be parents in an organised, state-delivered format? Can we not even begin to think how we could develop programmes, in school, in partnership with the NHS, in partnership with Social Services, to show parents of all backgrounds some of the skills they could easily employ in conversations with very small children? Is it not cheaper to teach a parent how to engage with a child through different reading materials than to maintain a prisoner in one of our jails for however many years?

As a teacher and professed literacy geek, I cannot explain how terrifyingly unambitious government approaches to raising standards in literacy can be. It feels like we have the knowledge of how to begin to deal with the issue of low literacy standards, but it's like a jealously-guarded secret that we can't share with the masses. What exactly are we afraid of?