Illiteracy: Ignoring the root of the problem

This post is a response to the article: ‘My pledge to end the shocking blight of illiteracy‘, written by Michael Gove, published in the London Evening Standard on Friday 10th June 2011.

For Michael Gove to recognise that there is a problem with literacy in the UK is pleasing yet also inane, in that anyone working in education could have told you the same thing. What is less pleasing but equally meaningless is his proposal to solve this “blight of illiteracy”, by testing students as young as six years old. In his words, this will “give every parent the reassurance of knowing their child will have a reading check – a literacy MoT – at the age of six.” I’m not sure what reassurance this will offer exactly? It is more likely to cause greater stress for both the parent and (more importantly) the child. What’s more it will create more form filling and data analysis for teachers, surely not the best use of their time. Without a well thought out program to tackle why young children are not reading and writing well, another test is simply pointless.

Equally worrying was the suggestion that extra funding would be provided to support the poorest students, should they be found to be under performing. While I’m not about to dispute the notion that children from poorer backgrounds are likely to struggle with reading and writing, I am not of the belief that they are the only young people who at school struggle with literacy. Many students who come from more affluent backgrounds have difficulties with reading and writing. The fact is that there are a significant number of factors that can impact on a young persons development as a reader and writer. Money is not the sole cause of illiteracy and it is not the sole answer to solving it either.

Gove and the government are (in my opinion) ignoring key issues and not getting to the root of the problem. The fact is that improving teacher training (also proposed in the article) is not a bad idea; there is always room for improvement. However, if this plan is based on a belief that teachers are not doing their jobs properly, that the current crop of teachers do not have the skills to help improve the literacy of children across the UK, then I believe this is highly misguided. I know and work alongside many excellent teachers across a wide range of departments, who are more than equipped to tackle this “blight of illiteracy”, but who have little time to address it effectively in what is an over-crowded curriculum. It is also the case that many talented teachers have fallen into the trap of teaching to the test. Exam boards have given less prevalence to the basics in order to boost results. The quality of a students spelling, punctuation and grammar counts for very little in the current AQA GCSE English curriculum and even less in English Literature. Arguably, at the present time, education is not focussed on tackling the fundamentals or addressing individual student needs – how could it be when schools are forced to be so target driven?

I’m not naive enough to believe that all teachers are perfect and must acknowledge that some teachers are not well equipped to tackle illiteracy when they can’t spell or demarcate a sentence correctly themselves? However, I do wonder why this is. Are we now seeing (in UK graduates) the by-product of ‘teach the test’ culture, created by target driven education? Are graduates accepted on to teacher training courses and awarded NQT status because so many teachers leave the profession after a few short years? Should the Government not be considering how to attract top graduates into teaching? Surely, if teachers were paid better standards would go up. It irks me to have said that. I, for one, am not in this for the money, but I don’t believe it’s that misguided to believe that a student graduating with a first in Biology is more likely to consider Medical School than a PGCE to teach Secondary school kids Science. The future career prospects (particularly financially) are far more appealing.

More tests; more money; improved teacher training – none of these ideas actually begin to address the root of the problem. The fact is that the road to becoming literate begins at home. Parents have to take a lead in reading to their children, encouraging and helping them learn to read and write. The proposal in the article that bothered me more than any other was the idea that the Government (meaning the tax payer) would provide “additional funding to make sure every disadvantaged two-year-old child has 15 hours of pre-school learning every week.” Once again money is seen as the answer and more significantly there is a continuation of what I feel has been an over-arching approach to education for the last 10-15 years. That approach (an ethos if you will) is that education is the sole responsibility of the state and therefore parents are absolved of their responsibility to educate their children.

Here are some proposals of my own that I believe would actually begin to tackle the real issues. Firstly, lets stop closing public libraries. In fact, lets make sure that every community (village, town, city) has a modern, well-resourced, space where people of all walks of life can come to read, research, and learn. The disparity between people’s experiences of what a library can be is huge. Just compare my local library in Gerrards Cross with the facilities available at the library in High Wycombe. High Wycombe library, like many city libraries, offers a hugely attractive space and wealth of resources to their communities. I believe that all communities should have such a resource at their finger tips.

Chalfont St Peter library, just a couple of miles down the road from me, is under threat of closure. The minute it closes, access to affordable resources for reading/learning have been cut off from the poorest people in the community. If these smaller, local libraries were better funded and resourced, the government would not need to throw money at poor families as suggested by Gove in the article. Would it not be economically (and environmentally) more sound to improve on the facilities that already exist? Perhaps the counter argument to the proposal above is that it leaves responsibility with the local community to go and use it. I firmly believe that if you make libraries relevant to the 21st Century, that if you fund them well and make them attractive spaces people will use them. It is lack of funding and level of neglect that ultimately decides the fate of many local libraries.

Therefore, I offer a second proposal. Instead of absolving parents of their responsibility in helping their children to learn to read and write. Why not provide them with the means to do so? For those poorer families in the community, why not give a portion of their welfare to them in the form of vouchers that can only be used in local libraries to borrow books or to buy books from retailers? This would raise the profile of reading across the nation and say to parents you have a responsibility to your children to not only ensure that they are fed, clothed and well looked after; you also have a responsibility to kick-start their education. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many parents who are raising their children in difficult circumstances, realise this is part of their role. However, for those parents in difficult financial circumstances, lets help them to be able to do it.

A question needs to be asked of publishers and retailers also. Why can Romeo and Juliet be bought for a pound but The Hungry Caterpillar will set you back four or five? Surely, children’s books need to be priced so that they can be afforded by poorer families as well as those with excess income. How this could be achieved, I’m not sure but it seems that books like many other commodities are increasingly over priced and as such become accessible to those who can afford them and inaccessible to those who can’t. This is where libraries have bridged the gap but as I have said before, if libraries close, then a valuable resource is lost. Perhaps then, the Government need to provide incentives to publishers and retailers to lower the cost of books, particularly children’s books to encourage reading.

I know that some of you will be thinking that iPads and Kindle’s provide a potential solution to getting young people reading. But I am unconvinced at this stage, mainly because I refuse to buy-in to the over hyped ‘Digital Natives‘ idea coined by Marc Prensky. Prensky and the many people who buy into his ideas ignore the fact that there is a significant digital divide in UK. The divide is there because of money. In my own classes, only a very small percentage of students have iPads, Smart Phones or Kindles. The majority of them (and I work in quite an affluent area) simply do not have them. If they read, they read from regular old paper books. Until, eBook Readers and Smart Phones are so cheep that they are ubiquitous then it remains that we need to find ways to make good, old, paper books affordable for everyone.

What I am driving at is this: Illiteracy is a societal problem not an solely an education one. Gove is ignoring the root of the problem and can only see a state mandated school-based solution. We need to think more broadly and we need to move the responsibility of ‘literacy’ beyond the four walls of the classroom.

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James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

3 thoughts on “Illiteracy: Ignoring the root of the problem”

  1. A wonderful post, breath of fresh air! I only hope someone at the DfE listens!

    To answer your point on children’s books pricing… there are very real cost reasons why books are the price they are. This may change in the future – publishing is a very fast moving world and with traditional means of book buying declining in favour of outlets such as Amazon, you never know what’s around the corner.

    Now to the bit where it may look like a plug but isn’t intended to! There are ways that children can get hold of high quality books in cheaper ways. The Book Club from Scholastic has massively discounted books, some as low as a pound. The commission earned by schools is largely spent on more high quality children’s books. In numbers: in the 21 years Book Fairs has been going, they have given over 21 million children’s books to schools.

    In summary, one of the most important is recognising that reading and developing a love of reading has to begin at home. You can have all the libraries, and as many cheap books as you can handle but if reading is not valued at home you are fighting a losing battle.

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris. I love the book club, my school has been taking advantage of that for a while now and worth sharing with others.

      Reading being valued is massively important. So often as a teacher, you can tell if reading is valued at home or not, and unsurprisingly where that is the case the child shares the same negative attitude. Disheartening to say the least.

      Something I have been thinking about today, since I published the post, is that eBooks could actually be detrimental to improving this situation as well. The one thing that you can’t do, presently, is give the books you have bought on your Kindle away. I have often given books I’ve finished reading away to my students – usually to those students who need a bit of encouragement. As a Kindle reader myself, I no longer have physical books, that I have finished, to do this. 

      Should I return to buying/reading physical books?

  2. Great post James. And an excellent final point in your comment response: you can’t share books on kindle. 

    But while I whole-heartedly agree with you general points about illiteracy being a social problem, kindles and other e-readers may have a part to play in helping people read. My wife is dyslexic. I bought her a kindle for Christmas and since then she has read over 30 books on it. Last year she read one book. Kindle has changed her life. 

    Her experience seems to be repeated with other dyslexics and reluctant readers. I don’t know why but kindle seems to enable dyslexics to read (and it isn’t the text-to-speech function). 

    I understand your point about the digital divide but if we can nibble away at illiteracy in this area it is at least a start.

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