Monday, 23 July 2012

The downside of Teach First

Once again our university campus is full to the brim of bright young things attending the Summer Institute of Teach First. Most people will know that this is a programme which recruits well qualified, recent graduates to teach in a range of deprived schools for a couple of years before most of them go on to more lucrative careers outside of education. It is currently flavour of the month with Government, not least because the bulk of the training of these "teachers" takes place in the schools who employ them, with only a 6 week lead in period in universities. (Don't be fooled into thinking that this is a cheaper way to train high quality teachers - in a previous blog entry, I reviewed the figures which suggest that the Teach First route is actually more than twice as expensive per teacher as the normal PGCE route.) The figures suggest that only around 40% of those initially trained via Teach First actually remain teaching in schools beyond the two year initial period they are committed to. Yet this route is lauded by government as THE way of recruiting high calibre graduates into the profession (the more obvious solution to this problem - paying teachers higher salaries - is, for some reason, not considered to be as effective!)

It is within this context that I came across the contribution below from an American elementary school student who has clearly experienced the US equivalent of Teach First, Teach for America. This item appeared in the American satirical web site, The Onion -,28803/

Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?

By Brandon Mendez, James Miller Elementary School Student
You've got to be kidding me. How does this keep happening? I realize that as a fourth-grader I probably don't have the best handle on the financial situation of my school district, but dealing with a new fresh-faced college graduate who doesn't know what he or she is doing year after year is growing just a little bit tiresome. Seriously, can we get an actual teacher in here sometime in the next decade, please? That would be terrific.
Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twentysomething English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don't think it's too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn't desperately trying to prove to herself that she's a good person.
I'm not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I'm an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won't get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.
How about a person who can actually teach me math for a change? Boy, wouldn't that be a novel concept!
I fully understand that our nation is currently facing an extreme shortage of teachers and that we all have to make do with what we can get. But does that really mean we have to be stuck with some privileged college grad who completed a five-week training program and now wants to document every single moment of her life-changing year on a Tumblr?
For crying out loud, we're not adopted puppies you can show off to your friends.
Look, we all get it. Underprivileged children occasionally say some really sad things that open your eyes and make you feel as though you've grown as a person, but this is my actual education we're talking about here. Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States. I can't afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone's inspirational narrative.
But hey, how much can I really know, anyway? I haven't had an actual teacher in three years.


Of course, I think we all realise that this piece was not actually written by Brandon himself!
If he could reason things out so well, there would clearly be little wrong with the educational experience he had had! Yet the key point remains here. Teach for America, and Teach First, can simply be seen as worthy ways of enriching the CVs of bright young things straight from university, AT THE EXPENSE of the children from deprived schools who actually need the best teachers teaching them, not a succession of raw recruits. Teach First is not the answer to the teacher supply problem - it actually exacerbates it, by siphoning off valuable funds and personnel which could otherwise be used to make a real difference to kids in our challenging schools.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Something rotten in the state of England

Developments underway in the UK with regard to literacy teaching have,unfortunately, not exactly improved in recent months. The latest ‘wizard wheeze’ from our government, underway as I am writing this, is that all 6 year olds in the country are being tested on what is termed a “phonic skills check”. This test involves the children being asked to read aloud 40 different words, all phonically regular, to check whether they can apply the phonic “rules” they have been taught during their first year in school. There is a risk, of course, that children might actually know some of these words, and might, therefore, not actually need to use phonic skills to decode them. So, to check against this, the test includes 20 non-words, that is, combinations of letters which can be decoded using phonics but which do not actually mean anything (combinations such as ‘strom’ and ‘zog’). This superb piece of daftness is being heavily sold as useful to teachers in diagnosing children’s reading difficulties, and teachers are required to report children’s performance on the text to parents. The test has been given a fairly high pass mark, so, if the results of the pilot version carried out last year are repeated, about half the children taking it will ‘fail’, and their parents will be told that.

There are so many problems with the whole concept of what is being done here, that the issue has dominated teacher forums, Twitter, websites, and more recently, the print and TV media. Here are just a few of the problems:
  1. The test is being discussed quite openly by the government and its loony fringe supporters as a “reading” test, when it quite clearly is nothing of the sort. It is a test of decoding using phonic skills only. “Reading” always involves using more than just phonic skills and has the aim of getting meaning – hard to do from nonsense words.
  2. Teachers are supplying hundreds of examples of children taking the test who can already read. Children in the UK begin school when they are 4 usually, so all children taking this test will have been in school at least one whole year already. A fair proportion of these children can already read and, almost to a child, they will have been taught that the whole point of reading is to get meaning from print. Yet suddenly, they are asked to forget that notion and decode the symbols only. As one distressed teacher said, “My best reader responded to the word ‘strom’ by saying ‘storm’. Normally I would have praised her for this, but on this ridiculous test, I had to mark her response wrong.” It is an interesting irony that a government which puts so much store in children making progress in reading should be asking many of them to go backwards in their use of reading skills!
  3. The performance of each child on this test has, by law, to be reported to the child’s parents. In the pilot version of the test carried out last year, over half the children taking it were deemed to have failed. So, if this result is repeated, then our schools are going to be in the position of telling half of our 6 year old children, children at one of the most crucial periods of their journeys towards becoming readers, that they have failed, including many who already thought they were doing well in reading. Well, I am sure that this will help their self-images as readers! After all, nothing succeeds like failure!

There are some rather more sinister aspects to this situation. The principal adviser to the government on these matters, and the person whose brainchild, so we are told, this test was, has featured in a government sponsored promotional video clip about the test, claiming that teachers have nothing at all to fear from the test, as long as they have been teaching reading the right way (by which she means through systematic synthetic phonics – phonics first, fast and only, as the current mantra has it). The same person has recently been awarded an Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s birthday honours list and was a key (and vociferous) member of the Advisory Group set up to develop the new National Curriculum for schools in England. What you need to know also, though, is that this woman has produced a very successful reading (decoding) scheme to teach children to read ‘the right way’. Naturally the first thing that will happen after the current phonics test is over is that schools up and down the country will be spending their money buying materials to help them focus on things to prevent their young readers failing, i.e. phonics teaching materials. Guess whose materials they are going to buy? The government has even offered to split the cost of these materials with schools. There are many people who smell the whiff of corruption about this!

What is for sure is that this whole episode is doing no good at all to the reputation for educational excellence that the UK still enjoys or, more importantly, to the prospects of our schools creating generations of happy, successful readers.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Teach First: the teacher education con trick

I am deviating in this blog entry from my normal focus on language and literacy, simply because the issue I am reporting today is one which makes me angry. I should say, at the very outset, that the views expressed in this blog entry are my own personal views and do not in any way reflect the views of my University or my department.

As a major UK University, with a very significant presence in the teacher education field, we were only too pleased to become involved in the Teach First initiative. The idea of a programme to attract bright graduates into teaching was, of course, very tempting. However, our experience with Teach First, and the evidence which is now building up about it, suggest that we were very wrong in our initial assessment of the programme and its potential. My thoughts about Teach First have been crystallised by the publication of the Education Select Committee’s report into attracting, training and retaining the best teachers, and I am indebted to Jonathan Savage for drawing out from that report the rather alarming (Jonathan calls them "shocking") true costs involved in training teachers through various pathways of initial teacher education. The TDA evidence about this is buried away in Volume 2 of the Select Committee report (the volume that hardly anybody will read). Page 216 of this volume contains the following table showing the funding provided for each teacher trainee on each of the major routes:

So Teach First is a more expensive pathway than the PGCE by about £7k per trainee (I know that Teach First insist of referring to 'participants' rather than trainees, but these are still young people training to become teachers). But, according to the footnotes, Teach First also receive an extra £3,834 per trainee to fund the costs of their Leadership Development programme (and have to raise an additional £4,166 form charity donations). This makes the cost of a Teach First trainee £10,973 more expensive to public funds than a normal PGCE trainee.

Of course, it could be argued that this funding bonus is justified if it does mean that Teach First makes a significant difference to the overall quality of the teaching workforce. Unfortunately, the figures from later in the Select Committe report demonstrate that in the fourth year after completing their training, 73% of PGCE-trained secondary teachers were definitely in a teaching post in the maintained sector, as opposed to 42% of Teach First trained secondary teachers.

So there we have it. The public purse (our money as taxpayers) is paying almost £11,000 extra each to train teachers, over a half of whom will not actually be teaching four years after their training. I am sorry. This is a misuse of public funds bordering on the scandalous.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Text complexity and primary classrooms

In my recent blog entries I have outlined the recent developments in the US concerning the concept of text complexity, and discussed some of the implications of these developments, principally for secondary schools and teachers. To reiterate, the argument, as put forward in ACT (2006), has been, firstly, that the key thing which differentiates between students likely to be successful in their later, college or work careers are their abilities to successfully read and respond to harder, more complex texts. Secondly, research seems to suggest that, while the reading demands of college/University study, of workforce training, and generally of being a good citizen have held steady or risen over the previous fifty years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school has moved the other way, that is, become less demanding.

The response to these findings in the US has been to include in the new Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts and Literacy (CCSS, 2010) framework a very demanding provision. This is that the levels of text complexity expected of school students need to be raised progressively, in order to ensure that school-leavers are as close as possible to being able to handle successfully the texts they will encounter at college/University. This demand has received strong support from some of the most high profile American researchers in the field, such as Adams (2010-11), Shanahan (2011) and Hiebert (2011-12). I discussed in a previous blog entry the major implication for secondary schools, that is, that some real attention needs to be placed on the deliberate teaching of reading at secondary level, if secondary school students are to cope with the complexity of the texts from which they learn in all subjects.

An interesting, almost tangential, outcome of the CCSS (2010) focus on text complexity has been the application of the same logic to the texts used in primary schools. The CCS Standards apply from Grade 1 onwards (Year 2 in the UK system), and the reading standard for Grade 1 states that students should: “With prompting and support, read prose and poetry (and informational texts) of appropriate complexity for grade 1” (p.11). For Grade 5 (Year 6 UK) this standard demands that students should:  “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, (and informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts) at the high at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently” (p.12). Elsewhere in the document, examples of appropriately complex texts are given for each grade.

However, as Hiebert (2011-12) has been at pains to point out, the research literature does not support a claim that texts used at the primary level in the US have become less complex. Hiebert accepts the argument that high school texts “have been ‘dumbed down’ over the past 50 years” (p. 26), but she goes on to argue this ‘dumbing down’ does not apply to primary level texts over the same period. Although she accepts that such a simplification of texts produced for young American readers may have occurred during the period from 1956-1962 (as evidenced by Chall, 1967), she cites evidence from her own work (Hiebert, 2005) where she contrasts the simplified text that young readers were likely to encounter in their reading material before the 1980s, with the texts provided for this group since then. A move from texts designed around the repetition of high frequency words towards the more authentic, literature-based material of the ‘predictable texts’ era of the 1990s was certain to result in greater levels of text complexity in reading materials. Such an increasing complexity in texts for young readers has also been shown by researchers such as Foorman et al (2004).

Such a situation was, until fairly recently, also true for the reading texts familiar to children in the UK. As Levy (2009) has made clear, the teaching of reading in the United Kingdom has seen long debate between the proponents of reading schemes, which tend to feature controlled and graded text, and advocates of the use of more authentic books (in the sense that they were written primarily to entertain and/or inform, rather than deliberately to teaching reading.) Levy’s research suggests that exclusive use of reading scheme books can limit children’s perceptions of themselves as readers, a phenomenon also commented upon by Ofsted (2004), who found that for some children, the scheme was a real limitation in terms of the range of reading they undertook.
“Most schools used books from a range of structured reading schemes as a central resource. Higher attaining pupils described how they had read these quickly and were then able to choose freely from books that particularly appealed to them. In contrast, those who struggled were usually reading books from a tightly structured scheme and stayed with the scheme for longer. In many schools, pupils saw this as something to be worked through until they became a 'free reader'. One low-attaining pupil commented: 'You go up a colour if you're good and down a colour if you're doing rubbish.'” (p.12).

Solity & Vousden (2009) have argued that reading schemes do little to promote enjoyment and meaningful engagement with texts, as, like the children in Levy’s (2009) study, many children tend to view the scheme as merely “a vehicle to teach the mechanics of decoding skill” (p.375). But Ofsted (2004) observed that:
“Almost all pupils in the most effective schools had some freedom to choose their own books, graded at appropriate reading levels. Their choices were usually monitored by teachers who also suggested new books and authors as a means of broadening their reading. As a result, pupils of all abilities were widening their knowledge of genre and their reading interests, increasing their vocabulary and developing confidence. They seldom saw reading as a race towards becoming 'free readers'” (p.13).

This suggests that many schools, especially the more effective, had moved away from the use of tightly controlled texts in the teaching of reading towards providing a much broader, and more complex, range of texts for children.

However, the text situation in UK schools has begun to change significantly. The Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (the Rose Review) produced by the DfES in 2006 was most significant for its advocacy of an approach to the teaching of reading through synthetic phonics – an approach which is now virtually mandatory in primary schools in England. Tucked away in its pages, however, was a recommendation couched under the heading “The value of regular texts”, which read as follows:
“There is some force in the view that, as they learn to master the alphabetic code, children should be given reading material that is well within their reach in the form of 'decodable books', that is to say, early reading books specially designed to incorporate regular text, which children can decode using the phonic skills they have secured” (p.27, para. 82).

Although this statement was accompanied by a ‘disclaimer’ that such decodable texts should not be the only texts that young children are given to read, this was somewhat undercut by the report’s obvious backing of “fidelity to the programme” (p. 21, para. 55), which states that, “It can be unwise to ‘pick and mix' too many elements from several different programmes because this often breaks up important sequences of work and disrupts planned progression”. The emphasis in primary schools in England since the Rose Review, with its main recommendations now enshrined in government policy, has been on persuading schools to adopt and follow government approved phonics programmes, which include the purchase by schools of approved schemes. The range of these schemes can be seen in the online catalogue (Pro5, 2011), and almost all include sets of decodable readers. The optimism of some of the offerings in this catalogue is quite breath-taking. One, for example, claims the following:
“With 89 fiction books and 44 non-fiction … readers, there are plenty of exciting books to choose from. Fun, varied and packed with humour, each book is 100% decodable so your children will be able to read them independently after learning just eight phonemes.”
One would expect publishers such as these to be able to employ the very best children’s authors to write their books, but an author who can compose 133 “fun, varied” books, using just eight phonemes, must be a marvel indeed!

Of course, hope must remain that English primary schools are not relying solely upon these decodable texts to form the entire reading diet of their young learners. Nevertheless the inevitable trend here towards text simplification is rather concerning, when from the US, from experts such as Marilyn Jager Adams, and Elfrieda Hiebert (both of whom are on record as being strong advocates of an approach to initial reading based on the teaching of phonics), is coming a pressure to ensure that the texts we use with learners in school, for a range of purposes, are rich and complex, because only by being such can they help prepare these children for the complex texts they encounter in the world outside the school walls. Are we at risk in the UK of throwing the rich text baby out with the non-decodable text bath water? Only time will tell. 


ACT, Inc. (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Iowa City, IA: ACT.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010).  Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.  Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association

Adams, M.J. (2010-11). Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts. American Educator, 34 (4), pp 3-11

Shanahan, T. (2011). Shanahan on literacy – blog entries. June – August, 2011.

Hiebert, E. (2010-11). Getting the Size of the First Step Right. Reading Today, December 2011/January 2012, pp 26-27.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Hiebert, E. (2005). State reform policies and the task textbooks pose for first-grade readers. Elementary School Journal, 105, pp. 245-266.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Davidson, K. C., Harm, M. W., & Griffin, J. (2004). Variability in text features in six grade 1 basal reading programs. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8 (2), pp. 167-197.

Levy, R. (2009). Children's perceptions of reading and the use of reading scheme texts. Cambridge Journal of Education,39 (3), pp.361-377

Ofsted. (2004). Reading for purpose and pleasure, an evaluation of the reading in primary schools. London: Ofsted.

Solity, J.E., & Vousden, J.I. (2009). Real books vs reading schemes: A new perspective from instructional psychology. Educational Psychology 29, pp. 469-511

Rose, J. (2006). An independent review of the teaching of early reading. London: Department for Education and Skills.

Pro5 (2011). The importance of phonics: a catalogue of systematic synthetic phonics products and training. Leicester: Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The implications of text complexity (1)

In my previous blog entry I outlined the recent developments in the US concerning the concept of text complexity. Just to reiterate, the argument, as put forward in ACT (2006), has been, firstly, that the key thing which differentiates between students likely to be successful in their later, college or work, careers are their abilities to successfully read and respond to harder, more complex texts. Secondly, research seems to suggest that, while the reading demands of college/University study, of workforce training, and generally of being a good citizen have held steady or risen over the previous fifty years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school has moved the other way, that is, become less demanding.

The evidence underpinning these claims derives from the US, but there are reasons for thinking the situation might equally apply in the UK, although, it must be stressed, we lack the research evidence to support this as yet.

If the claims are true, then a number of implications follow. In this entry, I want to explore one of these which has relevance for the curriculum and pedagogy experienced by secondary school students in UK schools.

This implication concerns the blindingly obvious thought that we really can no longer afford to give such little attention to the teaching and development of reading in secondary schools. Within the last 40 years (the span of my own career in education) we have experienced at least two high level ‘pushes’ to develop reading for learning across the curriculum. In the years following the publication of the Bullock Report (DES, 1975), “language across the curriculum” became a salient feature in the lives of secondary school teachers. This led to a plethora of training conferences for teachers and the publication of numerous, positively-toned books on the subject – Michael Marland’s “Language across the Curriculum” (1977), and the edited collection “Reading: Implementing the Bullock Report” produced by Hunter-Grundin & Grundin (1978) being just two notable examples. However, as early as 1978, Minovi (1978) felt compelled to write: “What, then, have been the effects of the Bullock Report in secondary schools? Some are tangible, others are difficult to identify. Headmasters and many other teachers have been at least reminded that language is the means by which we learn, and some have learned it for the first time. ... Many English departments have been made to write down their aims and objectives, if not actually to think about and discuss them. By and large, I am forced to conclude that the effect of Bullock has so far been negligible” (p. 171). Much promise, but little achievement would have to be the verdict on the effect of the Bullock Report’s recommendation.

By the mid-1990s, attention began to be given once more to the reading abilities of students at, and after, secondary school. A variety of sources of evidence emerged that literacy remained a problem for many adults in the UK. A report on adult literacy (DfEE, 1999) claimed that an estimated ‘seven million adults in England cannot locate the page reference for plumbers in Yellow Pages’. Statistics produced by Ekinsmyth & Bynner (1994) and ALBSU (1995) broadly agreed that between one sixth and one eight of adults in Britain had literacy problems. To this evidence could be added the comments of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate recorded in their ‘Review of Secondary Education 1993-97’ (DfEE, 1998). HMI found that nationwide:

‘standards of reading are good in six out of ten schools (but) they remain unsatisfactory in around one in seven.

HMI specifically identified that ‘many pupils have weak skills in using non-fiction’ and that:

‘departments fail to provide tasks which challenge pupils as readers or offer reading experiences which enrich and extend the subject beyond the confines of the text book. Furthermore pupils are not taught how to make effective use of information from books, or the CD-ROM.’

The evidence seemed clear that secondary schools needed to give greater consideration to supporting the literacy development of their students. Consequently, it was not long before the National Literacy Strategy launched in England in 1997 was extended into secondary schools. Official support documents (e.g. DfEE, 2001) and our own work (Lewis & Wray, 2000) had a strong impact when they were published.

Times change, however, and it is fair to say that the emphasis in the UK today in the teaching of reading is very much back once again on initial skills, and, given the forcefulness of the arguments surrounding how beginning reading should be taught, it is perhaps not surprising that attention to secondary school reading has waned once more. Yet this does not mean that the need to extend literacy skills has gone away. On the contrary, I would argue that it may be precisely an over-emphasis on initial skills which might create some of the literacy problems that teachers later have to deal with. We know that, for many youngsters, the problems they have with reading are related more to their engagement with it (or lack of) than to their potential to learn the requisite skills (Baker et al, 2000). One thing which is potentially extremely engaging for young people (particularly the boys, whose literacy achievement always seems to lag behind that of the girls) is using their reading to engage with a whole series of interesting facts and ideas – in other words the use of literacy to encounter, react to and record “the stuff of the world”, as Arthur Eddington termed it. Extending reading is essential, therefore, partly because it is a crucial way (and maybe for some the only way) of giving young people an insight into what reading is good for. It is also, of course, functionally essential, since the reading and writing that most of us do every day tends to be done in order to get something done. Reading our newspapers, our information manuals, our market reports, our computer screens and writing our notes, our letters of application, our complaints, our reports – all of these are vital to our working lives and they all require a lot more than simply a knowledge of phonic cues to accomplish.  

It seems that there is still a need to improve the reading of all secondary school students. This implies a need to strengthen the teaching of reading in secondary school subjects by incorporating complex reading materials into the subject content, and, crucially, by providing secondary school teachers of these subjects with guidance and support to teach the reading and use of more complex texts. The evidence from the US is that reading is simply not taught much, if at all, during the secondary school years, not even in English courses (e.g. Ericson, 2001). There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and teaching practice have not done enough to foster the independent reading of complex texts which is so crucial for later college and University work, as well as for most adult careers, particularly in the case of information texts.

In the United Kingdom, a recent report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education (2011) raises concerns about the status and teaching of literacy at secondary school level. It has this to say:
“Literacy is not just a primary school issue. There needs to be a focus by the Department for Education on post-primary school literacy issues. Head teachers should be responsible for the literacy levels of their students.  Schools should be developing cross-departmental strategies to improve literacy, rather than working in departmental silos. ... More prominence needs to be given to the transition between primary and secondary school to avoid what David Wray calls ‘the retreat from print’ that occurs at that time.” (4).

The report goes on to say that, in their survey, secondary school teachers identified 57% of their pupils as having weak or very weak literacy skills, but only 6% of these teachers wanted a change in the extent to which literacy was incorporated into subject lessons. This suggests that it has been problematic for secondary schools to focus upon literacy as a distinct issue. Secondary school teachers are simply not used or equipped to teach skills in their subjects.  As the report says:
“Curriculum pressures often mean that the day is divided into 40-minute units to teach individual subjects; the result is that teachers cannot focus long enough on problem areas to deal with them.” (8).  

If we want our students not just to encounter but to achieve mastery over the increasingly complex texts they will encounter as they move through their lives, one first, crucial step surely has to be that we need a deliberate policy and strategy for introducing them to progressively more complex texts. Retreating from print can no longer be a tenable option. We also need actually to focus on teaching them to make sense of these texts. And that teaching has to happen not just in English lessons, but in Chemistry, in Maths, in History etc., etc. We have given token acknowledgement to this for far too long. We actually have now to do something about it, and the new emphasis coming from the US on the importance of complex texts could be just the impetus that is needed.


ACT, Inc. (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Iowa City, IA: ACT.

Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (1995) Older and younger: the basic skills of different age groups. London: Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit

All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education (2011) Report of the Inquiry into Overcoming the Barriers to Literacy London: APPG for Education (

Baker, J., Dreher, M. & Guthrie, J. (2000) Engaging Young Readers New York: Guilford

Department for Education and Employment (1998) Review of Secondary Education 1993-97 London: Department for Education and Employment.

Department for Education and Employment (1999) Radical change needed to boost basic skills. A briefing paper on the report ‘A Fresh Start - Improving Literacy and Numeracy’: Skills and Enterprise briefing, Issue 5/99. London: Department for Education and Employment

Department for Education and Employment (2001) Literacy Across the Curriculum. London: Department for Education and Employment.

Department of Education and Science (1975) A Language for Life (The Bullock Report). London: HMSO

Ekinsmyth. C, & Bynner. J (1994) The Basic Skills of Young Adults, London: ALBSU

Ericson, B. (2001). “Reading in high school English classes: An overview”. In Ericson, B. (Ed.), Teaching reading in high school English classes.  Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 1–22.

Hunter-Grundin, E. & Grundin, H. (1978) (Eds) Reading: Implementing the Bullock Report. London: Ward Lock

Lewis, M. & Wray, D. (2000) Literacy in the Secondary School London: David Fulton

Marland, M. (1977) Language across the Curriculum. London: Heinemann

Minovi, R. (1978) “A blaze of obscurity: ‘Bullock’ in the comprehensive school”, in David, F. & Parker, R. (Eds) Teaching for Literacy: Reflections on the Bullock Report. London: Ward Lock, pp 158-172.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Readability revisited? The implications of text complexity

The concept of readability has had a variable history, moving from a position where it was considered as a very important topic for those responsible for producing texts and matching those texts to the abilities and needs of learners, to receiving very little attention indeed in the education literature. Dahlia Janan and I have tried to chart the shifting interest in this topic, and to advance an explanation for the receding interest in readability (Janan, Wray & Pope, 2010). This has paralleled changes in the ways the process of reading has been viewed theoretically, from a process of getting meaning from a text to one of creating meaning through interaction with a text. This paradigm shift in views of reading has appeared to make established views of readability, generally conceived as focusing on the perceived difficulties within texts, less adequate as a means of exploring the matching of text to reader.

There is a sense that we may be at a point now, however, where the paradigm is changing once more. Some important work has been coming from the US over the past two to three years which makes it clear that a closer look at the text dimension of the reader-text interface is somewhat overdue. The issue has been redefined as one of text complexity, and there are some significant implications within it for the teaching and development of reading at all phases of learning.

Let’s look firstly at some of the background to these developments.

In 2006 an important report was published by ACT (formerly known as American College Testing) which reported on the testing of American high school students for their readiness to embark on study at college and University level. The rather surprising outcome of this report was that what differentiated the success of the students tested was not what are usually referred to as comprehension skills – looking for the main idea, making inferences, drawing conclusions from evidence, etc. The difference, rather, lay in the abilities of the students to successfully read and respond to harder, more complex texts. Those students who could read complex texts were more likely to be ready for college entry. Those who could not read complex texts were less likely to be ready for college. Performance on complex texts was the clearest differentiator in reading between these groups of students.

One of the reasons for the surprise with which this finding was greeted in the US was the fact that for decades a virtual industry had grown up in US high schools focused on the teaching of ‘content area reading’, in other words the teaching of students to use a range of strategies to comprehend the texts they encountered within their subject lessons. A similar concern and focus on reading strategies was evidence in the secondary literacy strategy launched in the UK in the early 2000s (e.g. DfEE, 2001), which drew heavily upon our own development work (e.g. Wray & Lewis, 1997). The message of the ACT (2006) report was not that this work on developing reading strategies was redundant – but, rather, it was actually a minor part of what really engendered student success across the curriculum. This, it was argued, was exposure to a range of increasingly challenging texts across the curriculum.

There was a further dimension to the argument put forward in the ACT report. This was reviewed in the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts document (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, Appendix A) and drew heavily upon a research review carried out by Marilyn Jager Adams (2010-11). This revealed the clear and alarming picture that that while the reading demands of college/University study, of workforce training, and generally of being a good citizen had held steady or risen over the previous fifty years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school had moved the other way, that is, they had become less demanding.

There are, of course, some caveats to put forward here. Firstly, it is possible to question the evidence and difficulty levels of texts. As Dahlia Janan has shown (Janan, 2011), assessing the difficulty levels of texts, without reference to the readers who interact with them, is fraught with problems. It is also the case that the evidence available relates only to the situation in the US. We have very little comparable evidence about the situation in the UK as yet. The nearest we can get to this is the claim, in the DfEE Literacy across the Curriculum document (2001) that “Modern textbook pages contain a plethora of presentational devices: flow charts, drawings, colour coding, bullet points, bold type, explanation, labels, symbols and questions. The written text is condensed and difficult to follow without diagrams. The emphasis on the visual is typical of many modern school textbooks.” (p. 50). This suggests that one of the features of ‘modern textbook pages’ has indeed been a simplification in terms of text complexity.

One can intuitively recognise that there might be some truth and wider applicability in the problems identified here. In the key UK document (DFEE, 2001), Literacy across the Curriculum, there is constant reference to the need for teachers to scaffold and support secondary students as they interact with texts in their subjects. This is good, of course, but nowhere in that document does it suggest that one of the tasks of the subject teacher is to deliberately introduce their students to more and more complex texts with the aim, ultimately, of enabling them to cope unproblematically with the transition to college / university/ workplace texts. This is exactly what the Common Core State Standards Initiative in the US has proposed.

There is more to say on these issues, and in future blog entries, I will try to open up a couple of implications from the text complexity analysis, as I have briefly outlined it.


Adams, M. J. (2010-11) Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts American Educator, Winter 2010-11, 3-11

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010) Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association

DfEE (2001) Literacy Across the Curriculum. London: DfEE.

Janan, D., Wray, D. & Pope, M. (2010) ‘Paradigms in Readability Research’, International Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 3 (17), pp. 19-29

Sunday, 4 March 2012

24 hours on Twitter

I have recently become an avid user of Twitter. I occasionally tweet, but more often spend a good half to one hour a day reading through the tweets in my timeline. Is this just a waste of time? I don't think so, and to demonstrate this, I just want to list the things I have found during one 24 hour period using Twitter.

Firstly, I read a reflection on the PISA results by an American commentator in their educational newspaper, Education Week. The commentator argues that, "To my way of thinking, the most important research question in the whole field of education is why some national, state and provincial education systems produce both more equity and higher student performance than others." He goes on to wonder why researchers have not really provided answers to this question. There's food for thought here, although I'm not sure I agree with the commentator's emphasis on national curricula as the positive force for good. I tend to see national curricula as limitations rather than as positives.

Next, in the same educational newspaper, a report of a study about to be published which found that first-graders who participated in Interactive Writing improved their independent writing, including such skills as organization, word choice, sentence fluency, spelling of high-frequency words, capitalization, punctuation, and handwriting. Interactive writing here means children "collaborating on producing a piece of writing for as little as about 10 minutes during the school day". This seems to me to be an excellent justification for a collaborative approach to writing in the primary years.

Then a report on The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality. This is music to my ears as a teacher educator. It claims that the research suggests "A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings". How much more justification do we need for a major re-investment in our teachers?

I found an article in the Review of Educational Research entitled: "What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study". This is significant because the trend in the literature on the effects of technology on learning has been fairly negative. One of the conclusions of this study, though, is that, "the average student in a classroom where technology is used will perform 12 percentile points higher than the  average student in the traditional setting that does not use technology  to enhance the learning process". Of course there are all kinds of caveats about this effect, but it'svery nice to get some positive findings about the impact of technology.

The Mobile World Congress is currently taking place in Barcelona. 60,000 attendees, hundreds of firms demonstrating their gadgets, as well as a full conference programme. The Read Write Web site gives a review of five important outcomes from this congress, where, surprisingly, the star of the show seems to be Android. Is Google really taking over the world? (well, I'm sticking with my iPhone and iPad!)

Back in Education Week, there is an interesting commentary on personalisation (sorry - personalization) in learning. This makes the point that successfully personalising learning is not just about finding the right technology and content for individual learners, but is also about the relationships between teachers and learners. What we've always said - to teach successfully, the first priority is to know your kids!

From Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society comes a report into the ways in which young users of age 18 and under search for information online, how they evaluate information, and how their related practices of content creation, levels of new literacies, general digital media usage, and social patterns affect these activities. This suggests that young people tend to jump at search results which immediately seem appropriate, rather than conduct more thorough, and evaluative searches. We need to think more about educating them in searching and information evaluation.

The Read Write Web site also has a review of the new Pew study of hyper-conected youth. Teens and young adults are hyper-immersed in technology. A total 95% of teens ages 12-17 are online, 76% use social networking sites and 77% have cell phones. Of the slightly older age group (18-29 year olds), 96% are Internet users, 84% use social networks and 97% have cell phones.Stakeholders have mixed views about whether this is positive or not. Approximately half believe that hyperconnectedness will have a positive impact, suggesting a stronger ability to multitask, cycle through personal- and work-related tasks and become more adept at finding answers to deep questions. But the other half believe that the brains of such millenials will not retain information. They think millenials will be focused on short social messages and content that will entertain. They will be incapable of deep engagement with people and knowledge. These Internet users will surf around, grabbing the first bit of information they find. They will take fiction as fact. Interestingly, young people tended to be positive but older people tended to be nagative. Another generation gap!

Well, that's just my own highlights. Another day on Twitter. Fascinating, isn't it?