Paramount importance that children achieve good levels of literacy

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Few would disagree that it is of paramount importance that children achieve good levels of literacy in modern society. At an individual level, literacy has a profound effect on overall quality of life, self-identity, and the capacity to function in an ever more complex world; and at a macro-level, the success of society depends on a well-educated, highly literate and adaptable workforce (Riley, 2001). Improving literacy learning has been a dominant theme ever since the development of statutory education over the last one hundred years or so. However, with the recent advent of the digital age and the need for skilful use of information communications technology, the importance of children becoming proficient with literacy skills is becoming ever more pressing.

As part of their ambitious school improvement programme Government implemented the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in English primary schools in 1998. The aim of the NLS was to raise literacy standards in primary schools, and improving literacy was seen as the key to raising educational levels generally across the curriculum. In the 'Introduction' to the NLS 'Framework for Teaching' (Department for Education and Employment [DfEE], 1998) the reader is informed that 'Literacy is at the heart of the drive to raise standards in schools' (p. 2). Improving literacy was to be achieved by implementing a major programme of reform of literacy teaching. The NLS introduced an approach to literacy that, according to Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) reports, was not consistently or uniformly in use in schools; namely, a move away from individualised methods to whole-class and group teaching; making more links between reading and writing; introducing more systematic use of phonics; and a strong emphasis on more direct or explicit teaching of literacy skills (Beard, 1990, 2000).

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Although aspects of the NLS have been welcomed, including the focus on whole-school strategies (Frater, 2000), the literature critiquing the NLS is beginning to grow. Mroz et al. (2000) raise concerns that teachers have been pressurised into using more directive forms of teaching that reduce opportunities for pupils to question or explore ideas in depth. They argue that some of the styles of teaching prescribed in the NLS are at odds with social constructivist theories of learning that emphasise the importance of pupils playing an active part in their learning. This, it is argued, results in interactions between teachers and pupils that are cognitively undemanding, where pupils are often 'mere listeners or respondents' (Mroz et al., 2000, p. 387). Evidence that the NLS, with its emphasis on pace and speed, may militate against cognitively rich interactions between teachers and pupils comes from observational research conducted by English et al. (2002). These authors found that since the introduction of the NLS some teachers appeared to ask fewer challenging questions and had fewer sustained interactions with pupils.

Another criticism relates to the lack of emphasis given to meaning in the theoretical model of reading outlined in NLS documents, which, it is argued, is fundamental to the process of reading being purposeful and rewarding for children. Indeed, Riley (2001) points to the cursory manner in which reading is theorised in the NLS documentation, giving teachers only a superficial insight into the complex field of literacy acquisition. Wyse (2003) argues that the pedagogic strategies of the NLS Framework for Teaching do not rest on adequate empirical evidence, and that the causes of any improvement are therefore ambiguous, a point also made in the evaluations by Earl and colleagues from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (Earl et al., 2000, 2001, 2003). The debate about whether the pedagogies of the NLS should be expected to bring about improvements in literacy continues (e.g. Hiebart, 2000; Beard, 2003), and there is further debate about whether there is good evidence of real improvements.

The success of the Government's pressure to improve the standards achieved by

school pupils is often assessed by looking for rises in the performance of children as

measured on Standardised Assessment Tasks (SATs) at the end of each Key Stage

4, S. Meadows et al. of education. The evidence is mixed. A government report on the NLS (Ofsted, 2002) provides an overview of the first four years of its implementation, and includes a summary of the standards attained by pupils. In 1998, 64% of 11-year-olds achieved level 4 in English, and by 2000 this rose to 75%. Ofsted reports on literacy standards (Ofsted, 2003; 2004) indicates that although government targets for primary English have still not been met, there is some evidence of a slight improvement in the results for pupils in Years 3, 4 and 5 in the 2004 national tests (after a period when results had been static). Despite primary literacy targets not being met, Ofsted has maintained that the NLS has had a significant impact on pupils' literacy levels. This assertion has been questioned. Not all commentators are willing to take this claim as evidence of real improvement in pupils' achievement. Those dismissing the reality of improvement on SATs use a number of arguments against them (Smith et al., 1999; Davies, 2000; Gold, 2002). One basic concern is about the independence of the teaching and assessment processes. SATs are administered in school by class teachers, the people who have been responsible for teaching the pupils being assessed, and thus are vulnerable to charges of bias in the direction of judging pupils' performance more favourably than it objectively deserves. Furthermore, schools are judged on their pupils' success rate on SATs and claims have been made that schools have submitted falsified records in order to boost figures for league tables. Additionally, there have been suggestions that SATs measure a rather limited amount of learning as related to the NLS. Improvement might have been brought about through the introduction of'high stakes' tests, resulting in teachers teaching exactly what the test requires, in which case the pupils' improved performance might be limited to the tests rather than reflecting real improvements in the quality of pupils' learning (Black et al., 2002).

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In recent years central government has aimed to raise educational achievement, measured by national tests, in English, maths and science for pupils aged 7, 11 and 14. One specific aim was to ensure that 85% of pupils reach level 4 plus in English at the end of Key Stage 2. The literacy intervention in this large scale study aimed for at least 50% of pupils involved to reach level 2 at the end of Key Stage 1 and in turn increase the likelihood that pupils would reach level 4 at the end of Key Stage 2.

2.3 The Three Schools

Peel Street Primary School has existed since 1874 and

moved to its present building in 1973. There are 430 children on roll aged 3-

llyears, some of whom are accommodatedin mobile classroomst,h e main

building now being too small to house rising numbers. The 60 place Nursery is

in a separateb uilding adjacentto the main school. In 1992 43% of childrenw ere

eligible for free schoolm ealsa nd 142 weren amedo n the SpeciaNl eedsr egister.

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Housing in the area consists mostly of pre-war, terraced and

semi-detached dwellings with a high proportion of multi-occupancy. There is a

significant ethnic population, accounting for a growing proportion of the child

population, with a predominance of Muslim families (65% of Peel Street pupils

are Asian, 10% African Caribbean).

The headteacher had been in post for seven years at the

beginning of the project. She had in that time, made. significant changes and

improvements in the school and was keen for the school to develop its

community links. The school had a teacher responsible for Community Education

and Home/School Liaison and three language support teachers funded by Section

11. Peel Street Primary had been a school quick to take on new ideas and

initiatives and in many ways was at the forefront of innovation within the

Borough, winning awards for Curriculum Development (Jerwood) and

Management (British Standards 5750), while also implementing home-school

contracts and participating in the GRASP (Getting Results And Solving

Problems) project, sponsored by the Comino Foundation. A busy, lively school

then with colourful displays, regular school productions and its own steel band.

In spite of the lively ambience however, the attainment of pupils in terms of

reading scores and other standardisedm easuresw, as low.

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The Key Stage I SATs results for 1992 are detailed below

and suggest a long 'tail' at the lower end of the spectrum-

Table 2.1 Kpj Stage 1 SAT Results for Peel St School

En. PC2 W (Working LI L2 L3 L4

(Reading) towardLs 1)

% of 2 54 22 22 0

cohort I I I I II

In Year 6,49% of pupils achieveda standardisesdc oreo f

less than 90 on the NFER group reading test and on transfer to the High School,

the majority were found to be confident, happy and outgoing but lacking the

essentiasl kills requiredt o accessth e curriculuma t secondaryle vel.

The fact that many pupils entered the school with a very

limited acquisition of the English language was thought by staff to be a significant

issue in the debate about standards. In many cases, English was not used at all in

the home; while most children became fluent in English relatively quickly once

attending school, their parents, particularly mothers, often had a very limited

grasp of the language which meant that for effective home-school liaison, the

services of an interpreter were often required. The school had bi-lingual staff who

translated letters and notices into community languages but this had limited effect

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since many families were from poor farming districts in Pakistan and had not been

taught to read at all. Home visits revealed a dearth of toys and opportunities for

play in many homes, and a total absence of books. The prevailing attitude of

parents was that education was the business of schools and not really anything to

do with them and they were often resistant to pleas for their help and support in

term of sharing games and books or coming into school. Another obstacle to

progress was the practice of families taking extended holidays in Pakistan, often

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for six months at a time; this frustrated teachers who found that on returning,

children had often forgotten much of what they had already learned, particularly

in literacy terms.

" We try hard to show that we value their different

cultures, well the school reflects that, I think with the display and the sort of

celebrationsw e havef or Diwali and so on. Its difficult thoughs ometimesw hen

you know that what you send home won't get done. A lot ofparents make it clear

that what we do here in school has nothing at all to do with them. "

(Year 2 teacher)

The implementation of the National Curriculum had proved

to be a very heavy burden for many staff: not only had it demanded teachers' time

and energy in familiarising themselves with its content, but the record keeping

and assessment requirements were onerous, with teachers regularly working

twelve-hour days in order to "stay on top", (Martin, 1990). The reward for the

most hard working and conscientious of these teachers who strived to take it all on

board, is that every document has been changed at least once, in some cases two

or three times and by 1996 the arrangementsfo r teaching, recording and assessing

the National Curriculum bore little resemblanceto the original.

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Apart from the physical and mental pressure on teachers

was the issue of their absence from the classroom. The implementation of the

National Curriculum necessitateda great deal of extra in-service training which

took staff out of their classrooms and away from their pupils, resulting in some

cases, in lack of stability and continuity for children. When a teacher was in the

classroom, there were so many demands on her time, so many areas of the

curriculum to be covered, that the teaching of reading suffered in terms of status

and consequentlyin the amount of time allocatedt o it.

"Ifeel I'm failing the children in my class. I used to spend

much more time reading with them, individually and in groups, but now therejust

isn't the time. The curriculum is too crowdedfor Key Stage One children, too

much tofit in, and their reading and itriting is suffering as a consequence".

( Experienced KS I teacher, Peel St. )

Teachersi n the project schools confessedt o a lack of

confidence in their ability to teach reading. During INSET sessions they

commentedo n the lack of training receivedi n college and explainedt hat their

currentm ethodologyw as basedo n a combinationo f how they learnedt o read

themselveasn dh ow they had seeno therst eachingw, hile on teachingp racticef or

example.T heyp erceiveda needf or somei n-depthp rofessionadl evelopmenbt ut

found it difficult to make the time to attend relevent courses when there was so

much going on in terms of the National Curriculum and other areas of school

development.

There was also an issue in the primary schools of

insufficientn umberso f books at the appropriatele vel for beginningr eaders;t his

madei t difficult for themt o consolidateth eir skiUsa nda pplyt hemo ver a rangeo f

texts. The narrowr angeo f booksa t Oak Tree school,w hich consistedm ainlyo f a

'reading scheme', also contributed to the children's lack of ability to cope with

differentk indso f books. Staff commentedth at a pupil could be progressingv ery

nicelyt hrought he gradeds chemeb ooks,r eadingf luentlya nda ccuratelyb ut would

beu nableto reada libraryb ook of similarr eadingle vel.

As describedin Chapter1, all three schools serve areas with a high incidence of social disadvantageand teachersencounter many challengesin encouraging'the reading habit'. Peel Street, with its multi-ethnic intake had abandoneda rather dated reading schemebecauseof its inappropriateness and

optedinsteadfor a 'real reading' approach. Someof the more established teachers had been resistantto this changeand felt threatenedby the new approach and the extra work it seemedto demand.They felt that the lack of parental support was a seriousobstacleto the success of this approachand, at the start of the project, therewere insufficient books of a suitably easylevel to give struggling readers the support and confidencethey needed.The LEA reading screening for the years 1988-1992showedlow attainmentfor a high proportion of children at Peel Street (50% of pupils scored a Reading Quotient (RQ) of 85 or below on the NFER

GroupReadingTest).

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Oak Tree Primary school had updated its reading scheme to the modem Oxford Reading Tree, supplementingthis with a wide range of other schemeandnon-schemebooks.The LEA screeningfor this school showed 48% of pupils with a RQ of 85 or below.

For these two schools, the introduction of the Reading Recovery programme (as part of a range of strategies employed to improve standardsof reading ) provided opportunities not only to makeeffectiveprovision for a group of six-yearolds who were not making adequate progress with their reading, but also to re-examinethe policies and practice for teaching reading throughoutthe two schools.

The government'sdecisionto allocatemillions of poundsto

a readinginterventiondesignedto be usedonly with Year I and Year 2 children,

, provided little comfort to headteachersand staff in secondary schools where the

e difficulties experiencedby less able pupils are exacerbatedby curricular demands.

. A readingscreeningat St John's High school(September1992)showedthat 75%

% of Year 7 pupils demonstrated below-averagereadingperformance:27% scored

d

RQ s of lessthan 85 . The prospectof this situation improving in the future (five

e

or six yearshence)as a result of the successfulimplementationof the Reading

g

Recoveryprogrammein primary schools,provedto beof little comfort.