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.

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