How to improve literacy rates: a simple plan

The government is considering a simple plan. To improve literacy you mandate regular high-stakes multiple-choice national testing in our schools. This keeps teachers on their toes and students focused on what matters most.

I’ve just come out of a classroom where literacy rates seemed to have improved quite unexpectedly and dramatically. For eight weeks, a group of 90 postgraduate students, all of them training to be teachers in secondary classrooms, have been doing a course called ‘Literacy across the secondary curriculum’. At the end of the course, the students were asked to respond to the statement ‘My own literacy skills have improved.’ 18% strongly agreed, 39% agreed, 28% were neutral, 13% disagreed and 3% strongly disagreed.

It’s hardly hard-data research, but something of significance appears to have happened. Here are 90 students who have each had at least 15 years of institutional learning, and nearly 60% of them think their literacy skills have improved over eight weeks.

What did we do?

Did we make sure the students focussed on their reading and writing by giving them a test? No.

Did the university tell me that my job was dependent on whether or not literacy rates amongst the students improved? No.

Instead we did what I think much good education has done in the past: we wrestled with an unsettling series of questions, and we tried to get our heads around a challenging body of knowledge. We read a great deal (a textbook and, between us, over 300 shorter texts); we wrote a great deal (each student reported on two significant pieces of original research and most made substantial written contributions to over a dozen online discussions); and we talked a lot in our weekly tutorials. Because the content was, for most of the students, relevant and disturbing, it stimulating a great deal of thinking. A number of the students found themselves mulling over issues as they cooked their dinner or walked the dog or stood in the shower.

The government has a simple plan. Unfortunately it is missing the point about how people learn to read and write.

If we want our young to become better readers and writers, we need to make sure that they do lots of reading and writing. The government’s plan will reinforce current pressures to narrow the curriculum. There won’t be time for wide reading and creative writing. Worse, there will be less and less time for talk, which is where so much fruitful engagement starts, and less time for meandering and mulling. Test scores might go up, but real literacy will be a casualty.

***

In a future blog post I’ll write more about our ‘Literacy across the secondary curriculum’ course. It’s been highly stimulating and intense.

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5 Responses to How to improve literacy rates: a simple plan

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How to improve literacy rates: a simple plan « Birds fly, fish swim -- Topsy.com

  2. Augustin says:

    Simple plan? I’d have probably chosen another word to characterize it.

    As you said towards the end of the posting, this carrot-and-stick tactic will probably lead to higher score marks and lower interest in literacy. (Ain’t there enough evidence to suggest this?)

    What I don’t understand is this: Why is the government engaging in this game? What are their motivations?

    I doubt that the people drawing the plan fail to understand the connection between test marks, natural interests (curiosity, other innate motivations) and long-lasting outcomes. But if they do, then why bother to put up this show?

  3. tsheko says:

    My blood pressure rises when I think about what the government is doing. It’s bad enough we teach to the test already, but to increase testing is equal to redirecting students from learning/tinkering/thinking/discussing to focusing on jumping through hoops. I can’t understand the thinking behind this. People who make these decisions should do a degree so that they gain an understanding of what it means to learn, what stands in the way, and what makes it happen.

    Thankyou for the post, Steve.

  4. I’m just catching up on blogs, Steve, but your post struck a chord with me, so better a late comment than a never one. (A never comment?)

    I am bitterly opposed to attempts to legislate literacy, and try not to upset myself by talking about it too much. I thought you might find this article interesting: _The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Teachers’ Writing Instruction_

    While this focuses on writing, I think there are implications for reading as well.

    If you can’t get ahold of the actual study, I probably can– just let me know.

    Here’s the abstract:
    “The study uses Foucault’s framework of governmentality to understand the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on teachers’ writing instruction and attitudes toward writing in high- and low-income schools. Using interviews and observations of 18 teachers, the study identified four themes: emphasis on testing, curricular effects, awareness of lower-achieving students, and concerns for English language learners. While teachers shared concerns in those areas, there were differences in how teachers from high- and low-income schools experienced the impact of NCLB on their writing instruction. The study suggests that NCLB has affected teacher morale as well as the nature and amount of writing instruction, but that school contexts figure into teachers’ instruction. The example of one teacher from a low-income school demonstrates the potential for teachers to resist the coercive aspects of NCLB through their writing instruction. (Contains 2 tables and 1 note.)”

    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ808684&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ808684

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