Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Literacy in Scottish schools – Carole Ford

There are many opinions on the purposes of school education but there can be little doubt that acquiring the ability to read is at the top of the list.  There is no need to rehearse the arguments on either an individual or a societal basis.  It is therefore very surprising that the declining literacy standards in Scottish schools have excited so little genuine concern, any form of concerted action to identify the reasons for this, or the strategies to address it.

Indeed, on a personal level, I have for many years been astonished at the educational establishment’s acceptance that large numbers of school children leave primary school with a functional literacy level which pretty much precludes success in secondary education or beyond, deprives so many individuals of the lifelong social, creative and cultural benefits of full literacy, and inhibits full participation in the economic life of the country.  At the extreme end, the prison population is disproportionately handicapped by extremely low literacy levels. 

What are we talking about here?  Very few people are illiterate.  The vast majority can deal with the literary transactional requirements of everyday life.  But many read in such a halting manner that extracting meaning from text is very difficult, hence the educational difficulties, and there is no pleasure in the process.  Just one of the reasons some children are uninterested in reading is that it is a chore for them.  Even for fluent readers, a flawed approach  to the initial teaching of reading may undermine any desire to read for pleasure.  Early difficulty influences attitudes for life.

As an analogy, in theory many of us could read a book in a foreign language but the effort involved, doubling back when sentences are convoluted or looking up unknown vocabulary, sends us looking for the translation.  I have listened to so many young people reading aloud in a stop/start manner, stumbling over fairly commonplace words, stopping at the end of every line rather than reading the punctuation.  All meaning is lost in such a process and it is certainly not pleasurable.

I am not talking specifically about the least able pupils, or dyslexic children, or those with learning difficulties; I am talking about pupils across all ranges of ability.  They technically know how to read, but they are slow, ill practiced and often use guesswork rather than decoding.  For example, every word which begins ‘th’ may be misread: they will guess them or they or this or these.  Reading the first couple of letters and then guessing the rest, known as ‘Look and say’ in the current pedagogy of reading, is a disastrous, quick fix technique with lasting consequences for high level literacy skills.  Those who finally achieve fluency may be forever weary of the process of achieving it.  By the way, if you think that looking and saying is why you can read so quickly, think again.  What you are doing is decoding the words so quickly, from long practice, that you are unaware you are doing it.

Why is Scotland falling behind other countries?  I contend it is because we are ignoring both the science behind learning to read and the long term, international evidence of what works.

Educational research is fraught with difficulties.  It is not possible to conduct double blind trials, as in medicine.  There are so many factors which affect outcomes; you cannot learn something one way and then relearn it another, and compare. The reason that so many successful pilot programmes fail when they are rolled out to all schools is that the conditions of the pilot programme, regardless of the subject of the study, have as much, or more, influence on the outcomes than the actual method under review.  Everyone involved feels a bit special to be chosen to try something new.  Everyone knows the results will be carefully scrutinised.  Every necessary resource will be provided with researchers on hand to smooth the path.  And this is before you even think about the differing nature of pupils and quality of teacher.  Pilot conditions are never replicated in schools; rarely are the outcomes.

However, learning to read is much more amenable to research as, by definition, all the subjects of the research are starting from the same position: they cannot read.  It is possible to isolate the different processes involved in reading and ascertain which prior skills result in better, or worse, reading outcomes.  Many, many studies have been conducted across the globe and a consensus on what constitutes reading, and what skills are prerequisites for learning to read successfully is emerging.

Essentially, reading is decoding – recognising a particular sound, learning the symbol which represents it and decoding a set of such symbols to form the sound of a word.  What research has shown is that children must recognise the sound before they can be taught to associate it with a symbol.  If a young child cannot identify the odd one out in this list of words – cat, bat, fat, mat, pan, sat – then they are not recognising the distinct sound of a ‘t’ at the end of a word.  If they do not ‘hear’ that ban, bat, bin, bar, bad has an odd member in ‘bin’, they are not distinguishing the sound ‘i’ from ‘a’.  Research has shown that children who know many nursery rhymes learn to read more successively than children who do not.  There is of course a confounding factor in this, associated with economic disadvantage, but the repetitive nature of nursery rhymes helps to build sound recognition.  Without sound recognition, symbols remain a bit of a mystery, and decoding words becomes a guessing game.  With practice people get better at decoding; not so much with guessing.  As an aside, sound recognition is the basis of phonic approaches to reading.

The analogy with learning a foreign language is illustrative.  When you hear a language of which you have no knowledge, you cannot distinguish individual words.  It is simply a continuous sound.  If you know something of a language, you start to distinguish individual words.  Once you are fluent, you hear all language as a series of words, not a sound stream.  If young children are being taught to read before they can distinguish individual sounds then we are condemning many of them to relative failure.

The international evidence supports the science.  Most countries start formal schooling a year later than in Scotland, some two years later.  The intervening time is spent on activities which improve pupil skills which will make formal learning much easier.  But crucially, children simply have more time to develop the stronger sound recognition which is critical to success.  The greater difficulty that boys experience with reading is probably strongly associated with their relatively slower development in early childhood.  They are less likely to have developed the same level of sound recognition as girls.

If Scottish schools waited until more children could discern sounds more clearly, many fewer would struggle to learn to read.  Learning to associate a symbol with a sound would make more sense to them.  Our early years teachers need to understand the science behind reading and spend at least the first year of school simply building the necessary skills.  Every child deserves the opportunity to get off to a strong start in education; waiting until they are ready is the very least we could do.

But the question still remains, why have Scottish standards dropped relative to other countries?  It is not the early start to formal education, damaging though it is to many children, because we have always had that.  The difference is the change in methodology in teaching reading, the dreaded ‘Look and say’, and in pedagogy generally.  Active learning, yet to be properly defined, is the mantra of Curriculum for Excellence.  While teachers and schools have used a variety of approaches to implement something they consider to be active learning, one thing common to all has been a reduction in the use of printed materials.  In all stages of school education, there is far less exposure to text than previously.  Where text is used, it is often surrounded by pictures, bright colours, arrows and clouds, anything other than simply paragraphs of words.  Pupils in school simply read far less than previous generations.  Like every skill, from playing the piano to knitting, high level skill requires lots of practice.  The comparative lack of reading practice affects fluency, spelling skill, vocabulary and sentence construction, and the acquisition of knowledge.  If we want children to be more literate, they need to read more, and we need to make it easier for them to do so; start later and improve our teaching methods.

Finally, one of the barriers to delaying the formal teaching of reading is the strange but pervasive myth that learning something earlier is both beneficial to a child and an indicator of ability.  Not so.  Education is not a race and the early bird is no more likely to catch the worm than the tortoise who is laying a very sure foundation for future learning.  The Finns start reading at age seven; they are outperforming Scottish children by the age of nine.

Carole Ford is a member of the Commission for School Reform.  She is the former Head Teacher of Kilmarnock Academy, chair of the Scottish Secondary Mathematics Group and co-author of a number of maths textbooks.  She works as an associate tutor in teacher education.