Jamaicas improvement in teaching numeracy and literacy

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A recent article on the progress of programmes embarked on under Specific Objective 4 (SO4), a joint initiative of the Ministry of Education and Youth and USAID began on this positive note: "Jamaica has made [significant] strides in improving numeracy and literacy". This is probably the only positive note in this highly detailed and organized venture which goes further to highlight a number of gloomy statistical realities: that nearly one third of all students in grade seven read below a grade five level; that despite the high enrollment in primary and lower secondary schools, attendance rates are poor, with only about 70% of enrolled children attending the primary and all age schools (grades 7 to 9) regularly; that children "dropping out" of school or whose daily attendance is poor are generally from the lowest income group; that over half of the country's grade 6 students fail to achieve "near mastery" on grade 6 compulsory language and math tests (<http://www.usaid.gov/jm/bilateral_program.htm#education>).

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This comes against the background that in our modern times the ability to read has become an essential societal requirement. Reading well has both economic and intrinsic benefits since "...adults who are better-than-average readers are also higher-than-average earners or are more likely to have high-paying jobs" (Chall & Stahl, 2005). A higher level of literacy is needed in business and industry, in the armed forces, and even in everyday life. For example, in order to acquire a driver's license, proof of reading capability is required because of the many reading tasks associated with road safety. The increasingly technical nature of society has brought tremendous demands for literacy that must be met or they will definitely impair a person's capacity to function. That is why getting children to read from an early age should be a priority item in Jamaica.

Literacy is a crucial element in societal development. The recent focus on early childhood education by the Jamaican government is a step in the right direction since research has shown that "with early and direct attention given to the reading program ... greater improvements will occur" (Chall & Stahl, 2005). Former Prime Minister P. J. Patterson made this point very clear in a speech presented in Parliament entitled The State of Education - Part 2:

Our future as a nation depends not only on the quantity of the education we provide and the money that we vote, but also on the quality [of our education system] and whether we turn out students with the knowledge base and the social attitudes that make them capable of contributing to the growth of our society, and students with the individual self-worth necessary for us all as human beings. (Friday, November 7, 2003)

Literacy is also crucial to societal stability and can be seen as preventative medicine for some of the ills that plague our nation. In a USAID report published in December 2005, Jamaica's Minister of National Security, Peter Phillips, expressed deep sadness that "…many petty criminals are young unemployed men". Citing a study showing that 75 percent of perpetrators of violent crime are in the fifteen to twenty nine age group, the minister emphasized the importance of education and employment in the war against crime (<http://usaid.gov/press/frontiers>). Claire Spence, USAID education officer supports this view, remarking that the statistics showing that boys underachieve at all levels of the education system is problematic especially with Jamaica's homicide rate being the third highest in the world in 2003. She is quoted as saying that "…the Jamaican education system must help address the problem of youth violence and develop socially and emotionally well-adjusted children" (<http://www.usaid.gov/locations>).

That is why local nongovernmental organizations are playing an active role in the fight against illiteracy. An editorial entitled Reading Spectacular recently highlighted the efforts of three prominent organizations to improve declining reading levels at two schools in a war-ravaged, inner-city community. The result, one year later, is reported to be "nothing short of spectacular" with dramatic improvements at all levels of reading (Gleaner, May 4, 2002). International agencies such as USAID also support the promotion of education at all levels, targeting primarily inner cities throughout eastern Jamaica. The agency is cognizant of the many factors that impact on the learning process, and have specially designed programmes to assist. It also provides resources to fund programmes and policies embarked on by government and other non-government organizations who are engaged in improving the educational and social lot of children in Jamaica. One such organization, Peoples' Action for Community Transformation (PACT), receives grants from USAID which it distributes to twelve feeder organization which deliver a package of services, including literacy and numeracy programs, remedial education, pre-vocational skills training, reproductive health information, and personal and family development skills to "at-risk" youth between the ages of 10 and 14 (<http://www.usaid.gov/locations.html>).

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These agencies provide much needed support to educators and educational organizations that are relentless in their attempts to eradicate illiteracy from these shores. The strategies employed are designed to serve the needs of Jamaican children. Seminars and workshops are organized frequently to improve the quality of teaching and to gain useful feedback. Teacher quality is measured through an index made up of generally accepted standards for determining teacher performance; content knowledge of students; environment for student learning and teaching for student learning. The Ministry of Education uses an interactive and collaborative approach with the Joint Board of Teacher Education (JBTE) to reform the primary teacher training program to fulfill the vision for the primary school teacher with respect to the requirements of the revised national primary school curriculum. Community members, teachers and principals are continually being trained in the use of the new primary school curriculum. This is encouraging since various studies have shown the importance of good teaching and of effective school leadership in promoting reading achievement. Students seem to learn to read better, for example, if the school principal is a strong leader with high expectations about reading achievement. The amount of direct instruction in reading and the amount of time students spend in reading-related activities is also an important factor (Chall & Stahl, 2005).

It is also comforting to know that at the highest levels of government, policies are being legislated in an attempt to address concerns about the present levels of learning among children of school age. The white paper on educational reform, The Way Forward, contains in essence a proactive long-term approach to the current educational situation. In the short term the Government of Jamaica in conjunction with USAID is implementing activities to improve the numeracy and literacy skills of the youth through formal, school based interventions as well as activities through the non-formal sector. These on-going activities include the New Horizons for Primary Schools Project (NHP:1997-2004); the Uplifting Adolescents Project (UAP2: 2000-2004); and Improving Educational Quality II/Jamaica Activity (IEQII:2000-2002). The New Horizon Project is assisting the Ministry of Education and Youth in increasing the literacy and numeracy levels of students in seventy two project schools throughout Jamaica. It is also aimed at improving attendance levels in these schools. To this end, breakfast programs are being implemented in eight schools with the aim of finding alternative funding sources to make these programmes self-sufficient in the long term (<http://www.usaid.gov/jm/bilateral _program.htm#education>).

All of these policies, initiatives, and activities are geared towards literacy, the main purpose of which is comprehension, or extracting meaning from what is read. Literal comprehension involves remembering written information. Inferential comprehension is much more complex and requires a reader to piece together information and go beyond what is written to make it meaningful. Joseph Witt argues that both literal and inferential comprehension require good attention skills, memory ability, and some prior knowledge of a topic (Witt, et al, 222).

In his book, Creating Literacy Instruction for all Children, Thomas G. Gunning claims that "Comprehension is a constructive, interactive process involving three factors - the reader, the text and the context in which the text is read". He goes on further to state the importance of the effective interaction of these three factors on the rate of comprehension improvement. Readers vary in exposure, strategies, attitudes and habits. Texts vary in genre, theme, style, difficulty and appeal. The context in which a text is read also varies in terms of time, location and circumstance (199). Another definition of comprehension involves building a connection between the known and the unknown. One existing theory is that knowledge is packaged into units known as schemata. A schema is the "organized knowledge that one has about people, places and events" (Rumelhart 1984). Because comprehension is dependent on what we know, one way to foster comprehension is to increase exposure to new situations. Schema theory describes how familiar situations and events are understood. Comprehension can also be perceived as the construction of a mental or situation model. A situation model is a theory that views comprehension as "a process of building and maintaining a model of situations and events described in the text" (McNamara, Miller, & Bransford, 491). Situation model describes how new situations and events are understood. A situation model permits you to take at least three steps to improve comprehension: build background, select material on the appropriate level, and teach strategies, such as generating questions as they read, that will help them make connections. Studies on the nature of comprehension have revealed a group of skills that are essential to the acquisition of a 'proper' understanding of selected texts (Shanker& Ekwall, 154 -155)]. These skills include the ability to develop mental images, recognize main ideas, recognize important details, follow directions, predict outcomes, recognize the author's organization, and do critical reading.

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That is why the assessment of reading comprehension is a demanding, ongoing process. In schools, students who are not mastering reading skills may be referred to either a remedial-reading or a learning-disabilities specialist, both of whom employ a similar procedure. Referred students are given a series of diagnostic tests to determine how their strengths can be enhanced and their weaknesses overcome. A program based on the evaluation is developed for the student and followed by both the specialist and the classroom teacher. At the end of the term, the student will be retested to assess any progress and to update the program.

An essential tool in the arsenal of the remedial teacher is the informal reading inventory. Joseph Witt suggests that an informal reading inventory can be utilized to identify students' skill level by observing reading performance on material of increasing difficulty. He cites their most important advantage over other methods of assessment to be the fact that they can reveal several levels of reading skill: independent, instructional and frustration. The independent level is the highest level of difficulty of a reading material that a child can cope with independently and still maintain a nearly perfect reading performance. The frustration level is reflective of the other extreme, or the level at which the material becomes so difficult that a child cannot adequately cope because the word recognition and comprehensibility demands are too high. The instructional level lies between the two extremes (240-241). In addition, informal reading checklists are helpful in the identification of problems relating to reading performance. Teachers can often diagnose that students are having comprehension problems by observing their written work, their ability to answer questions, and their participation in discussions about material that was read. The Cloze procedure, for example, is sometimes used to determine how well a student comprehends, as well as how his level of comprehension matches the level of the material he is reading. This technique involves altering a passage by deleting words according to a rule, such as every fifth word or every other noun. A subject is then asked to supply the missing words. Another method commonly used in Jamaica is simply to have students read from their basal readers or from other material at their grade level. After reading, the students are asked questions that test their ability to remember facts, make inferences, get main ideas, and understand the vocabulary. When using this method, Shanker& Ekwall suggests that it is safe to consider the students to be comprehending on a level equivalent to that at which the material is written if the students can answer at least 75% of the questions correctly (155-156).

There are various comprehension strategies available to the creative Jamaican teacher but for them to be highly effective, detailed preparations must be done to see that they meet the individual needs of the students. The book, Locating and Correcting Reading Difficulties, written by James L. Shanker and Eldon E. Ekwell (144-146), has a virtual storeroom of effective strategies from which any serious teacher can borrow to improve the comprehension skills of their students. Four of them are outlined below. They are semantic mapping, the KWL procedure, modeling strategies for paragraph meaning, and the four square strategy.

Semantic mapping can be fun as well as creating challenge to students. It can be used to increase their vocabulary as well as understanding and remembering the main idea and supporting details in a paragraph or longer text. Semantic mapping has been encouraged for three primary reasons. They are development of critical thinking, increased reasoning ability, and improvement of memory. Teaching procedures involve selecting a key word or idea from the reading material, brainstorming to come up with as many ideas as possible that are related to the key word or concepts, and recording each idea on a chart or board. The children will then categorize the words and ideas given. These categories will then be recorded in graphic form. Pupils will read each selection and add new words and ideas where necessary. Changes may be made to previous categories.

The KWL technique includes three logical cognitive steps: what I know (K), what I want to know (W), and what I have learnt (L). This process helps pupils to commence comprehending a text from the known to the unknown. The prior knowledge that the children bring to the text is the background information necessary to set the purpose and goals of reading.

Modeling Strategies for Paragraph Meaning is one of the best ways to teach children to monitor their thought process while reading. This technique can be used with individuals, small groups, or the entire class. The code system must be tailored to suit the grade level of the children. Legible interesting passages with attractive illustrations should be chosen that will grasp the children's interest. A table with the symbols used should be made accessible to each child. A smiley face can be used for example to show that the passage is easy and can be read without problems.

The four square strategy is designed to help students use their prior knowledge to

increase their vocabulary. All the important words in a reading selection can be analyzed one by one. The process involves the following steps:

selecting an important word from a passage to be read

folding paper in quarters and write word in square one

writing an example of the word in square two

writing a non-example in square three

writing a definition of the word (what they understand the word to mean) in square four

The methods explained previously are valuable components in the process described by Gunning as reciprocal teaching. "Reciprocal teaching is a form of cooperative learning in which students learn to use four key reading strategies in order to achieve improved comprehension: predicting, questioning, summarizing, and clarifying" (238). In reciprocal teaching, teacher and students predict what information a section of text presents based on what was read in a previous section. Predicting makes them active readers and gives them a purpose for reading. During and after reading a selection, students will be required to seek out information to formulate meaningful questions. Failure to achieve this may be a sign that they have failed to understand the significant points in the passage and so must reread or take other corrective measures. For the purpose of clarification, students should identify unfamiliar words, expressions, or concepts and seek explanations (from the teacher or alternate sources such as the dictionary). Summarizing involves retelling the selection by highlighting the main points. Retelling helps students to review and integrate the information and is an important monitoring tool. Inability to paraphrase is a sign that comprehension is poor. Summarizing also becomes a sort of springboard for making predictions about the next sections of a given piece.

The ability to comprehend owes a lot to the development of word recognition. Word recognition usually refers to the skills a reader uses to determine how to pronounce unfamiliar words with or without the aid of word analysis. The three most recognized word analysis skills are phonics, structural analysis, and context clues. Word recognition involves two major goals: to ensure that the identification of symbols is accompanied by meanings, and to develop flexibility in applying word processing techniques. Guy L. Bond in the book Reading Difficulties: Their Diagnosis and Correction (203-207), gives the following valuable suggestions which should prove helpful in strengthening the remedial teaching of children with all types of word recognition problems:

Material used must be at the reader's instructional level

Content of the material must be meaningful to the child

Be sure the child knows the meanings of the words he is trying to identify

Teach unknown words visually before attempting to sound them

Teach the child to notice similarities and differences between words

Adjust instruction to the individual

Discuss with the child the objective of the remedial process and let him aid in formulating instructional decisions

Word recognition is further enhanced by the use of oral reading techniques which are beneficial even to students with severe difficulties. The Neurological Impress Method, for example, involves reading directly into the ear of each student. For this method it is best to start with material that is at an easy instructional or independent reading level. The difficulty level of the material should gradually be increased along with the rate of reading, as the students reading improve. The suggested time for using this method is five to fifteen minutes, two to four times per day. In Echo or Imitative Reading, the teacher reads first and the students repeat what was read by the teacher. Material can be read in either phrases or sentences, and finger gliding is used in this method also. In Repeated Reading, students are given selections of fifty to two hundred words. Students are instructed to practice word selections after which reading rates and number of errors is recorded on a chart. This process is repeated until accuracy and reading speed improve. Precision Reading emphasizes accuracy first and then speed. While the students read, the teacher records the students' accuracy, sentence by sentence, on the precision reading form. Note is made of the number of correct sentences so that on completion a fraction, correct sentences out of the total given, is derived. This should be done daily. Dyad Reading is simply an adaptation of the Neurological Impress method so that it can be used in the classroom by pairs of students. Two pupils share one book and sit close to each other while reading. The lead reader sets the pace of oral reading and glides at the words while reading. The assisted reader reads along orally.

Group Assisted Reading is a modification of the Dyad Reading Method so that it can be used with groups of struggling readers in the classroom. The material to be read must be seen by all students who are participating. The teacher assumes the role of the lead reader and should read orally at a slightly slow pace and in a fluent expressive manner.

These and other numerous tried-and-tested strategies are being employed in the Jamaican education system so that the desire to read is engraved on the heart of every child. Deficiencies in the core concepts of literacy, word recognition, oral reading and comprehension are being attacked on every front, in a united effort to eliminate this national and social menace. The good news is that mastery of reading can be a reality to young Jamaicans as long as they are capable of learning. It is also clear that there has been a proliferation in the availability of opportunities and resources catering to the non-reader. That is why the Ministry of Education and Youth is insisting, in The White Paper - "The Way Forward," that "Every child can learn - every child must". It is imperative therefore that we recognize the value of literacy before it is too late.

Work Cited

Bilateral Programme. USAID. (Strategic Objective 4) "Increasing Literacy and Numeracy among selected Jamaican Youth". <http://www.usaid.gov/jm/bilateral_ program.htm#education>

Bond, Guy L, et al. Reading Difficulties: Their Diagnosis and Correction. (2nd Ed) Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1994.

Chall, Jeanne S., and Stahl, Steven. "Reading." Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD].

Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.

Gunning, Thomas G. Creating Literacy Instruction for all Children. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

McNamara, T. P., Miller, D.L., & Bransford, J.D. Mental Models and Reading Comprehension. New York: Longman 1991.

Patterson, P.J. "The State of Education - Part 2." Sitting of Parliament, Kingston, 7 Nov. 2003.

Phillips, Peter. "Aid to Schools Helps Children Read, Develop". USAID home page. Dec. 2005 < http://www.usaid.gov/press/frontlines/fl_dec05/ issionspotlight.htm>

"Reading Spectacular." Editorial. The Daily Gleaner. 14 May 2002:

Rumelhart, D. Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition. Newark: International Reading Association, 1984.

Shanker, James L., and Eldon E. Ekwall. Locating and Correcting Reading Difficulties. (7th Ed). New Jersey: Merrill, 1998.

Spence, Claire. "Aid to Schools Helps Children Read, Develop". USAID home page. Dec.2005 <http://www.usaid.gov/press/frontlines/fl_dec05/missionspotlight.htm>

Witt, Joseph C, et al. Assessment of Children: Fundamental Methods and Practices. Dubuque: WCB Brown & Benchmark, 1994.