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Reading Recovery: deprived 11-year-olds don't have to face a bleak future

Blog Editor, IOE Digital7 July 2014

Julia Douëtil

The latest paper from the Education Endowment Foundation highlights the 25% of 11-year-olds in poverty each year who fail to reach national curriculum level 4, and the devastating impact that is likely to have on each of those children’s future. What if we could reduce that 25% failure rate to, say 7% – in other words, recover three out of four of those potential failures?
The good news is we can.
In 2012 we traced more than 1200 children who, at the age of six, had been identified as being in the very lowest attaining 20% of the age cohort and who had received Reading Recovery to enable them to catch up with their peers. Those children had just completed Key Stage 2 National Assessments and three out of four of them had achieved national curriculum level 4 in reading, and two out of three in writing (page 32).
In the EEF report, Professor Steve Higgins and his Durham University colleagues demonstrate the gap in attainment for children in poverty, and we see the same at entry to Reading Recovery: children entitled to free school meals are typically twice as likely to be among the lowest attaining identified for the programme at age six. At age 11, the gap between those in poverty and their peers attaining National Curriculum Level 4 had reduced to just 7%. At National Curriculum Level 3 the gap was just over 1% as 19 out of 20 of the previously lowest attaining children, those most likely to fail to reach level 3, reached level 3 or above.
The EEF report shows a grudging respect for one-to-one support over group teaching, but the evidence for intensive, high quality early intervention is compelling.
I would go further. If support offered to the lowest attaining six-year-olds is not enabling them to make four or five times the normal rate of progress, to catch up and stay caught up with their peers, we are not trying hard enough.
 

Literacy: the ultimate investment in the future

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 September 2013

Julia Douetil

‘Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future …. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy.’    

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General

UNESCO has designated September 8 as International Literacy Day. Created in 1945 to mobilise for education as a human right, build intercultural understanding and pursue scientific cooperation, here is what UNESCO has to say about literacy:

‘Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.
‘Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).
‘A good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to send their children to school; literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities; and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development.’ 

It is a timely reminder, as we start our new school year and thousands of young children embark on the journey of adventure that is learning to read and write, that literacy is so much more than decoding, comprehending, spelling, grammar and composition. Literacy is about thinking and learning in ways that change the way a person understands and engages with the world. It is about ideas, inspiration, emotion and discovery. It is about taking responding and wondering, challenging and being challenged. And as such, it is essential that every child in our schools is given whatever help it takes for them to be successful. Our government has rightly placed literacy, and success in literacy for those children most at risk of failing, at the top of the agenda for our schools.
Learning to be literate is too important to allow it to become a confusing battleground of ideologies, as adults fight to establish their preferred method as the only way to teach children to read. As Dorothy Morrison, of Ohio State University, put it:

The key is to be concerned more with the child than with the program…. No program should be included or thrown out at the expense of another. The key is to monitor the progress of each child to see what works and to be flexible enough to switch quickly if one approach is not working.’

For more than 20 years schools in England have ensured that all their children would be successful readers and writers by age six through Reading Recovery.  Reading Recovery teachers start from the individual child, identifying precisely what they know and how they think about and engage with reading and writing, and design a programme specifically for that child. The evidence is now compelling that these children continue to achieve at good and average levels of literacy to at least age 11, and most likely well beyond into senior school.
Yet there are still those who balk at the cost of providing a child with a highly qualified teacher, for a short intervention of one-to-one lessons, as an alternative to allowing them to fail.
Now that we know almost all children can catch up with their peers within six months, and go through their school life as good readers and writers, if we say that the intervention to achieve this is too expensive, we are saying that some children are only entitled to a low budget education which does not include literacy. Who would want that for their child?

Is the new SPaG test for 11 year olds the best way to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 May 2013

Julia Douëtil
Grammar, punctuation and spelling matter! Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we are perceived in speech and writing. Actor Alexander Armstrong complained recently of unreasonable prejudice against people with posh accents and he is right, we shouldn’t judge people by the way they sound. But we do. And if Mr Armstrong thinks he suffers prejudice, it is nothing compared to the negative assumptions made about a person whose speech is peppered with poor grammar or whose writing is littered with spelling mistakes. Children who do not learn to present themselves well in speech and writing will be severely disadvantaged when applying for university or for jobs.
As I write I am acutely conscious that representatives of Pedants Are We will scan this piece for any hint of an error in grammar, punctuation or spelling that will enable them to dismiss my entire argument as the work of an ignoramus. So I can understand the imperative to ensure that our children become skilled in the use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But is the new SPaG test the best way to achieve that?
My ears pricked up this week listening to the wonderful Michael Morpurgo talking about his early delight in the stories read to him by his mother. He then described falling among teachers who “turned stories into trials”. “Everything became a test, whether it was punctuation, spelling, handwriting or learning a poem, and you either succeeded or you failed.” The joy and magic of stories vanished, to be replaced by fear. “Words and stories became a threat and I turned my back on them.”
The model SPaG test presented a checklist of all our favourite pitfalls in written English. It is designed to catch children out, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which it disadvantages children learning English as a second language and those with a robust regional dialect. Practice SPaG tests, even a SPaG boot camp, have spread like a virus. Schools have spent weeks preparing their children for this high stakes assessment. Where is the joy, the magic, in that?
Research exploring the most effective teachers of English* found that those who taught the rules of grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context achieved the best results for children. Understanding how this language structure or that punctuation helped the writer to advance their ideas was more effective than teaching rules in isolation. Isn’t that the point, that knowing the rules is only half the job? It’s knowing how to use them (and when to break them) that really matters.
Both grammar and spelling change, perhaps more rapidly than we may imagine. What is beyond the pale today may be mainstream tomorrow and vice versa. The split infinitive, once considered the hallmark of a poor education, is now widely accepted; no doubt influenced by the determination of Star Trek to boldly go where none had gone before. The influence of the internet has made American spelling close to ubiquitous. I wonder if assessment in extended text, writing for a purpose, would be a more effective means of enabling children to demonstrate their ability to use grammar, punctuation and spelling in ways which are accurate, dynamic and in tune with modern usage?
* Wray D.; Medwell J.; Fox R.; Poulson L., (2000), The Teaching Practices of Effective Teachers of Literacy, Educational Review, Vol 52, No 1, 1, pp. 75-84(10)
Julia Douëtil is Head of the European Centre for Reading Recovery at the Institute of Education.

Catch up is great, but it's even better to catch them early

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 October 2012

Julia Douetil
News of the additional catch up premium, for children failing to reach national curriculum level 4 in reading and maths at age 11, gets two cheers and a plea. Literacy is so central to education, culture and work that any help for those who struggle with reading or writing must be welcomed, whatever their age or phase in education.
Poor literacy has a devastating personal impact and in an age of austerity it is a drain on resources that we cannot afford. Harsh though it sounds, children and young people with literacy difficulties will be less likely to contribute to the national purse, through taxes and wealth creation, and more likely to drain it through benefits and crime.  
So it’s a hearty cheer to the acknowledgement tacit in this announcement that complex literacy problems cost more to resolve than can be reasonably funded from the normal school budget. If these children’s problems were easy and cheap to solve, they would have been sorted out long before they reached the start of Key Stage 3. 
Add to that a resounding hoorah for recognition that, whilst there is considerable overlap between financial disadvantage and potential literacy difficulties, they are not the same.  Children who are entitled to free school meals are twice as likely to be among the lowest attaining in literacy – though just 19% of the general population, they make up 47% of the lowest attaining children identified as needing Reading Recovery. But half of the lowest attaining children desperately in need of intensive literacy support are ineligible for the Pupil Premium as it stands. 
So all credit to the Coalition Government for this very positive move, but we need it extended to Key Stage 1 as a matter of urgency. The evidence is compelling that intervening early to nip literacy difficulties in the bud is by far the most efficient and effective solution. Following Reading Recovery at age six, the lowest attaining children not only catch up with their peers within 20 weeks, but continue to progress at an average rate at least to the end of Key Stage 2. Our recent monitoring identified 374 children who had completed Reading Recovery at age six, and had now reached end of KS2 Assessments at age 11.  These had been the lowest attaining in their class, those predicted to fail to reach level 3 at the end of Key Stage 2. In reading 95% achieved level 3 or above, and 78% achieved level 4 or above, comfortably within the average for their age. In writing 98% achieved level 3 or above and 68% achieved level 4 or above. 
The statistic of 30,000 children per year failing to reach Level 3, a basic level of literacy, at age 11 has been stubbornly resistant to change, until now. We have an effective remedy to this blight on young lives. By extending their catch up premium to Key Stage 1 as a matter of urgency, the Coalition Government could make it happen.