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). 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).
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.
Reading Readiness Intervention at a Birmingham school
Peel Street Primary School has existed since 1874 and moved to its present building in 1973. There are 430 children on roll aged 3-ll years, some of whom are accommodated in mobile classrooms the main building now being too small to house rising numbers. The 60 place Nursery is in a separate building adjacent to the main school. In 2009 43% of children were eligible for free school meals and 142 were named on the Special Needs Register. 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. In spite of the lively ambience however, the attainment of pupils in terms of reading scores and other standardised measures was low. The Key Stage I SATs results for 2008 are detailed below and suggest a long 'tail' at the lower end of the spectrum. In Year 6,49% of pupils achieved a standardised score of less than 90 n 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 essential skills required to access the curriculum at secondary level. 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 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 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.
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", 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 arrangements for teaching, recording and assessing the National Curriculum bore little resemblance to the original.
Apart from the physical and mental pressure on teachers was the issue of their absence from the classroom. The implementation of the National Curriculum necessitated a 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 consequently in the amount of time allocated to it.
"I feel I'm failing the children in my class. I used to spend much more time reading with them, individually and in groups, but now there just isn't the time. The curriculum is too crowded for Key Stage One children, too much to fit in, and their reading and writing is suffering as a consequence".( Experienced KS I teacher, Peel St. )
Teachers in the Peel Street School confessed to a lack of confidence in their ability to teach reading. During INSET sessions they commented on the lack of training received in college and explained that their current methodology was based on a combination of how they learned to read themselves and how they had seen others teaching while on teaching practice for example. They perceived a need for some in-depth professional development but found it difficult to make the time to attend relevant 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 insufficient numbers of books at the appropriate level for beginning readers; this made it difficult for them to consolidate their skills and apply them over a range of texts. The narrow range of books at Peel Street school, which consisted mainly of a 'reading scheme', also contributed to the children's lack of ability to cope with different kinds of books. Staff commented that a pupils could be progressing very nicely through the graded scheme books, reading fluently and accurately but would be unable to read a library book of similar reading level.Peel Street, with its multi-ethnic intake had then abandoned this rather dated reading scheme because of its inappropriateness and opted instead for a 'real reading' approach. Some of the more established teachers had been resistant to this change and felt threatened by the new approach and the extra work it seemed to demand. They felt that the lack of parental support was a serious obstacle to the success of this approach and, at the start of the project, there were insufficient books of a suitably easy level to give struggling readers the support and confidence they needed. The LEA reading screening for the years 2004-2008 showed low attainment for a high proportion of children at Peel Street (50% of pupils scored a Reading Quotient (RQ) of 85 or below on the NFER Group ReadingTest).
For Peel Street, the introduction of the Reading Recovery programme (as part of a range of strategies employed to improve standards of reading ) provided opportunities not only to make effective provision for a group of six-year olds who were not making adequate progress with their reading, but also to re-examine the policies and practice for teaching reading throughout the school. The government's decision to allocate millions of pounds to a reading intervention designed to be used only with Year I and Year 2 children did have some positive effect. However, a reading screening at the local St John's High school showed that 75% of Year 7 pupils demonstrated below-average reading performance: 27% scored RQ s of less than 85 . The prospect of this situation improving in the future as a result of the successful implementation of the Reading Recovery Programme in primary schools,proved to be of little comfort.
It was considered that three times per week might be an average minimum time which a parent from a more advantaged background could spend on storytime with their children. The stories were taped, rather than read by the member of nursery staff, in order that in the time available, a more intensive and controlled measure of story exposure could be undertaken on an auditory basis. The Intervention consisted of exposure to a succession of taped children's stories, three times per week, for a period of three months. A senior member of the nursery staff undertook the Intervention, which took place after lunch, when many of the younger children took a rest.The study does give tentative claim to the fact that for disadvantaged pre-school population, a structured, auditory interaction based upon taped story sessions with an adult, can lead to reading readiness benefits namely in the area of auditory attention skills for disadvantaged boys.
Each subject, in the experimental groups, for each sex, was given five minutes taped-story exposure three times per week. The subject was taken individually from their particular nursery room into the same room in which Pre-Intervention measures were undertaken.The senior nursery member of staff was a very familiar person in the
child's everyday life and, as such, was viewed as a 'mother substitute' for the purposes of the investigation. The child was seated adjacent to the member of staff with the tape-recorder placed on the table in front of the child. The following instructions were given to the child:
"(NAME) I would like you to listen carefully to this story.
When it is finished I want to ask you some questions to
find out if you were listening carefully. The story is
called . . ........
The aim of the Intervention was to encourage the development of listening skills (particularly with regard to disadvantaged boys) as part of the pre-school reservoir of activities, reinforced via leisure activities. On the basis of the literature findings, it would appear that disadvantaged boys are handicapped with regard to verbal and auditory skills and that often, their pre-school play and leisure activities exacerbate such weaknesses. Boys would tend to prefer activity centred around large muscle movement pursuits and as such, the amount of verbal stimulation derived, via the parents, in terms of storytime, appears to be minimised. In an attempt to compensate for such absence of verbal and auditory stimulation an Intervention Programme aimed at improving listening skills and requisite attention span was envisaged. It was hypothesised that such a Programme would improve auditory skills in the experimental boys' group (with little or no difference noted with regard to the girls' experimental group). It was further hypothesised that the control groups would show little difference with regard to Pre- and Post-Intervention perceptual profiles and attention span indices and ratings. A follow-up study of the experimental and control groups after one term and one year in school would seek to prove the efficiency of the Intervention Programme. After the fashion of a parent-child story session, there was no formal record of the children's responses with regard to the questions asked by the nursery nurse. The investigator's aim was to provide a pleasurable interchange between the nursery nurse and child, but, with the child required to engage his/her attention in order to answer the questions.
In this way it was hoped:
a) Story time could be associated with a pleasurable, individual
period of attention.
b) The child's listening skills, with regard to the auditory
presentation of material would be improved
c)The child would acquire the habit of reducing its activity level at story time as recall of material was required.
With regard to a) each child was given an individual period of attention which was presented as informally and pleasurably as was permitted. The sessions were treated as 'fun' and not in any, way as a direct teaching situation. For many children in the sample population, the opportunity for individual attention exposure was a
reward situation and many children in the sample population were
demanding of adult attention. For the experimental groups, it was hypothesised that a short period of three months with regular sessions of auditory input (at the expense, in the case of the boys, of normal play activities) would improve auditory listening skills. Additionally, the knowledge that the children were required to recall information from their story, it was hypothesised, would reduce activity level and increase attention
for individuals. Although children were not scored on the Intervention exposure, children were given much praise when they answered correctly. If the child answered incorrectly the nursery nurse would inform the child of his/her mistake and encourage the child in a second attempt with additional help and cues. It was not thought appropriate for these nurse-child sessions to be a rigorous chronicle of the child's attention recall (this would be the case in the Post-Intervention scores), rather, the sessions were to be viewed as a pleasurable pre-school leisure activity in which the habit of 'listening' on a reduced activity basis was incidentally learned