[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J23, 1998-1, pp28,29]
[See other articles about NLS, and in Journals and Newsletters by Chris Jolly.]

Progress of the National Literacy Strategy.

Christopher Jolly reviews a recent paper from the NLS.

The Implementation of the National Literacy Strategy published August 1997 for the National Literacy Strategy by the Department for Education and Employment (London), 55pp.

1. Strategy document.

This 55 page document sets out the Government's strategy for raising literacy standards in England and Wales. It is the successor to documents published at a consultative conference in February 1997 which was attended by Chris Upward and myself.

The document is not the working document for schools but rather the strategy document, which is therefore of interest to anyone concerned about the course of literacy education.

The overall impression from the document is that the objective is excellent, but that the strategy is not focused or rigorous enough. It does not properly reflect the factors known to raise literacy standards, and hence, in itself, is unlikely to achieve the aims set out.

The strategy's target is that "By 2002 80% of 11-year-olds should reach the standard expected for their age in English (ie, Level 4) in the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum tests" (§2). Such a clear target is very useful.

2. Subjective assessment.

However when we look at what that expected standard is, the lack of rigour shows: "In responding to a range of texts, pupils show understanding of significant ideas, themes, events and characters, beginning to use inference and deduction" (page 43). Measurements against such a standard are likely to be non-comparative and subjective, and hence of less value than they could be.

The document states that the tests should give detailed information and be marked externally (§61). This suggests that they will be criterion-referenced tests (such as the SATs [Standard Assessment Tests]), rather than the simpler, and more comparative standardized tests which could be administered by teachers in much less time. It is claimed that external testing will "ensure greater public credibility" and that the tests "should be consistent over time".

However since the tests are likely to be subjective, rather than standardized, both public credibility and consistency may be difficult to achieve.

3. Structured teaching.

The most important proposal to come from the National Literacy Project is the Literacy Hour (§16). This is to be "a structured hour each day devoted to literacy for all pupils" (p7). This is an excellent concept, and a welcome reversal from the unstructured teaching that has been associated with 'cross-curricula' and 'topic based' teaching.

The document also gives an outline of how this hour is to be split up with 30 minutes given to whole class work, 20 minutes to group work, and 10 minutes to a whole class review (p51). This should be very helpful. In particular it should lead to a better balance with more whole class teaching.

Other positive signs are the encouragement for "high levels of teacher 'higher order' interaction with classes, high frequency of questioning (especially with challenge) and frequent provision of feedback", and for the "structured classroom, with a limited range of activities being pursued at any one time and a limited range of lesson goals in any session" (§12). These are the 'direct instruction' and 'whole class teaching' approaches that are known to raise standards.

4. Phonics fudged.

However, the biggest disappointment with the proposals in this document is the inability to translate fine words about phonics into sensible proposals. Indeed the document seems to shrink from phonics the closer it comes to practical implementation. There is reference to "opposing sides" which have "loyalty to phonics or real books", and it then goes on to say that "while this often shallow debate has raged, research and understanding of 'best practice' have moved on" (§11). We deserve better than this from a policy document. The debate is far from shallow, but is at the heart of raising standards. Research and best practice, not to mention cabinet ministers, continue to confirm the need for early systematic phonics.

What we needed from this document was positive guidance on the reading debate. We needed to know how phonics and storybooks should be integrated in the Literacy Hour, and in the teaching.

True, the document does call for children "to draw on ... phonic knowledge" and other skills, although this is simply for "reading for meaning" (§13). It also states that successful teaching should "teach all aspects of literacy explicitly, directly and intensively" (§13). However, it falls short of calling for specific teaching of phonic skills. For instance, there is no call for children to be taught all the letter sounds of English despite repeated research studies (eg, Bond & Dykstra 1967, Chall 1967, Tizard 1988) which show that the number of letters a child knows early on is the best indicator of their future reading ability.

This inability to see the need for teaching phonic skills continues throughout the document. In the proposals for dividing out the Literacy Hour the references are to "shared text work", "sentence work", "independent reading" and "guided reading" (p51). There is no reference to time being taken specifically to teach letter sounds, blending or phonological awareness.

Similarly, parents are urged "to spend 20 minutes or so each day either reading to children or hearing them read" (p9). Again no reference to parents being urged to teach their children the alphabet, despite the proliferation of suitable books in the shops and in most homes with young children. Indeed, it has been said that the reason middle class children do better in learning to read is because they have been given more of these skills at home.

For the government the advice is to "invest in resources, for example 'big books' and multiple copies of books for shared reading" (§40). Again, no reference to investing in phonics material, despite the existence of such material which is very effectively used in many schools.

This failure to incorporate phonic teaching is reminiscent of some of the earlier editions of the National Curriculum. It is unfortunate that the nine members of the Literacy Task Force probably included only one member, Professor Barber, who is intimately aware of the research findings on the early use of phonics, and this evidence has not been allowed to come through in the document.

The current edition of the National Curriculum, and of the National Curriculum for Teacher Training, are much more rigorous in this respect, and require such phonic teaching. In this sense the Literacy Task Force document represents a return to less effective teaching. In itself it is unlikely to lead to success in the objectives that have been set.

The document does state (§23) that schools can opt out of the National Literacy Project if "the school can demonstrate, through its literacy action plan and schemes of work and its performance in National Curriculum Key Stage tests, that the approach it has adopted is at least as effective". This option is therefore likely to be available to those schools which do include early systematic phonics (unless their literacy action plan is not approved as a result).

The achievement of the National Literacy Target will clearly depend on raising the literacy standard of the many children who now fail. It is therefore unfortunate that the section on Children with Special Needs (§77-80) gave no room for radical new initiatives, such as teaching reading with reformed orthographies. Such initiatives (eg, the Initial Teaching Alphabet) have succeeded in the past, and deserve to be considered here.

5. Importance of training and instruction.

Training is given a welcome emphasis in the document, though there must be some doubt about the actual training, given the nature of the strategy. There is a call for the "employment of some 200 or more local educational authority (LEA) consultants" to give literacy training and to support professional development in schools" (§40). Yet it is surprising the document did not call for this training to be carried out by the much larger numbers of LEA advisors and educational psychologists as a whole. There is a tight timescale for recruiting and training such a number of consultants since the programme starts in September 1998. The existing LEA advisors and psychologists may be a better route, and indeed they have already shown a keen interest in the proposals.

Within the proposals there is a risk of schools becoming immersed in a whole new level of bureau-cracy and meetings. There is a call for a "whole school strategy" (p8), "detailed and practical schemes of work", a "school literacy action plan", and the setting of "literacy targets" (§43), along with the prescriptions of the literacy hour. Some planning is obviously necessary but schools will be naturally weary of taking on a whole new raft of non-teaching-time obligations.

There is evidence within the document of insufficient understanding that all children start unable to read, and that success comes from being taught at school. There is reference to baseline assessments (§63) that will "enable schools to set individual targets for progress" and of the "learners' varied needs" (§12). It is also suggested that successful teaching "involves early identification of what pupils already know about language" (§13). In fact research shows that the child's background is relatively unimportant, be they middle class or 'disadvantaged', or speaking English as a foreign language or as their first language. If they have structured systematic instruction, including early explicit phonics, they are all more likely to achieve.

Keeping a clear focus on instruction in school is important and there has to be some doubt as to whether this is fully realized. For instance OFSTED is asked to ensure that whole school strategies include "promoting literacy across the curriculum" ("66). This suggests a return to the much less effective cross-curricula teaching. The expected success of the Literacy Hour concept will come from its focus on the specific teaching of reading. To encourage clutter in the curriculum in this way is to undermine the concept.

There are other ways the good objectives of this document could be undermined by not focussing enough on instruction at school. There is a call, for instance, for government to find "cost effective means of getting advice to parents via the health visitor network and doctors' surgeries". As it happens, my wife is a GP, and the upheaval and pressures in her profession continue to be enormous. She already resents being expected to be an unpaid assessor for the Department of Social Security. Her profession would see as ridiculous the suggestion that this should be extended to giving unpaid, informed advice to parents on the teaching of reading. The correct route for giving reading advice to parents is through the school.

6. Strengths - and weaknesses.

Overall, the impression is of an important and visionary objective which runs the risk of failing through the shortcomings of this document. Some good will come from it, such as the Literacy Hour, and the good idea for a National Year of Reading starting in September 1998. But if the objective that has been set is to be reached it is unlikely to come from the plans in this document.

References.

Bond GL & Dykstra R (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. (1967) Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 5-142.

Chall JS (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tizard B, et al. (1988). Young Children at School in the Inner City. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p168.


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