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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 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.

“Too poor to learn? That’s too bad, for many children”

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 June 2013

Sue Burroughs-Lange
“Too many of England’s poorest children continue to be let down by the education system” .*
(OFSTED June 2013.)
OFSTED is rightly focusing attention on schools’ ability to support the learning of all pupils and narrow the attainment gap between pupils of different backgrounds. Foremost amongst the difficulties associated with poverty is a slow start into literacy, leading to an ongoing and increasing lag in becoming literate and in accessing the learning curriculum.
If a child’s literacy difficulties are not addressed early on, then the challenge of raising achievement appears insurmountable. My colleague Amanda Ince and myself have just published an edited book that looks at the evidence and policy around early literacy intervention and the possibilities, if adequately supported, of long-term benefit for society (in terms of alleviating social and financial costs later on) and quality of life for those ‘let down’ individuals. (Reading Recovery and Every Child a Reader: History, policy and practice. London:IOE Press, 2013).
In wishing to highlight the needs of the more isolated and small groups of children in poverty to be found in more affluent areas, Sir Michael Wilshaw drew attention to the recent improvements in achievement in schools with associated high levels of poverty – in Inner London, Birmingham, greater Manchester, Liverpool, and Leicester. Interestingly, these areas were among the first to introduce the early literacy intervention Reading Recovery, which, initially with the support of the then Conservative government, was rolled out across their most needy schools. Then, with leadership support and the literacy expertise of their Reading Recovery teacher, many children across the primary years were helped to raise their literacy levels through the national scheme ‘Every Child a Reader’. Classroom practice was improved and interventions were matched in intensity and focus to the diagnosed needs of targeted groups across schools. The impact of having all children reading at age-appropriate levels was to raise achievement levels across the curriculum.
Sir Michael says that inspections will be tougher in the future on schools that are letting down their poor children. This will take the form of re-inspection. He also suggests sub-regional challenges to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children. A less punitive and more constructive suggestion is that teachers on funded schemes be directed to under-performing schools in less fashionable or more remote or challenging places. Our book provides insights and critique of what works in effectively turning around expectations and practice to bring about positive change in achievement, even in the most challenging contexts.
The current government introduced the, slowly increasing, pupil premium as an aid to enhancing the learning of children in poverty. However, its laissez-faire approach to directing the use of funding at school and district level means for many schools that insufficient funds are available to support the salary of those early literacy specialists that research has shown to have a proven track record in bringing about a sustained increase in achievement levels for the hardest to reach in particular. Sir Michael described the circumstances of many of these children as ‘labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching’. ‘Indifferent teaching’ benefits no child’s education; it is even more damaging for children whose progress is already delayed. Longitudinal data show that teachers know how to stop this, if adequate funding can be directed to achieving this goal.

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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 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.

The primary English curriculum: command of language or language of command?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 25 July 2012

Dominic Wyse
Primary children should develop a “love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment”, according to the Government’s proposed new English curriculum. I couldn’t agree more. An early introduction to the wonderful range of children’s books will enrich their lives forever. Children who love to read and relish a wide range of texts are more likely to succeed at school and enjoy their time there. As the Programme of Study says: “for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum.”
But is the proposals’ encouraging use of the words love and enjoyment mere rhetoric or does it signify a rich seam weaving its way naturally throughout the Programme of Study? Unfortunately not the latter, because at every turn pleasure, love, and meaning appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar.
This over-emphasis on mechanics fails to reflect advances in research and scholarship over the last 25 years. For example, we know that phonics teaching is an important part of helping children learn to read. But we also know that too much phonics of the wrong kind can have a negative effect by narrowing the curriculum and by risking a lack of attention to other important parts of learning to read. The decontextualised phonics programme set out in the Programme of Study is not the only effective way to teach phonics. Research has shown that learning about the alphabetic code is effective when set in the context of whole texts (such as stories, poems, and songs: Peterborough headteacher Christine Parker and I have shown ways to do this in our new handbook).
Grammar, too, is better learned in context, so that it supports children’s use of language — for example teaching children to craft their use of language in relation to the intended audience for their writing — rather than through learning terms such as “subordinate clause”. Have we not learned anything from 10 years of explicit grammar teaching in the National Literacy Strategy, and its failure significantly to improve primary pupils’ writing?
Importantly, any new curriculum needs to take account of the real world that 21st century children are living in and recognise the value that children’s languages, dialects and vernacular bring to the classroom. Multi-vernacularism is the daily reality for all pupils and teachers in England. In urban and rural settings pupils speak, hear, and engage with accents, dialects and multiple languages.
Linguistic misunderstanding is also seen in the absence of talk in the draft Programme of Study. Following the hard fought battles to have talk as an explicit part of the national curriculum the limp exhortations for pupils to “discuss what they are learning and to develop their wider skills in spoken language” is simply not enough. Careful re-drafting of the curriculum for language will require clear understanding of the difference between talk as part of pedagogy (e.g. dialogic teaching), and elements of pupils’ talk that can be enhanced through direct teaching.
I would argue that this Programme of Study needs a complete rewrite, guided by the following principles:

  • It should be informed by a coherent interdisciplinary research perspective. Part of this requires a foundation in the daily reality of the many types of English (and other languages) children use.
  • Developing pupils’ motivation for learning should be an explicit element throughout. Opportunities for pupils to choose texts to read and write is a vital part of this.
  • Expressing meaning and interpreting meaning should be the driving forces of the Programme of Study. This means that comprehension and composition should come first and foremost in any relevant sections.
  • The teaching of mechanics such as phonics and spelling should be closely related to comprehension and composition, not excessively decontextualised.
  • The “subject” should be titled Language, not English, as it is in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to recognise its breadth. It should also be part of a single developmental integrated curriculum from the early years through to the end of schooling.

For more on multi-vernacularism and other issues raised see Wyse, D. (Ed.) (2011). Literacy Teaching and Education: SAGE Library of Educational Thought and Practice. London: Sage.