The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important
Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
In the world of the 2012 Ofsted framework very few schools are going to quibble with the prominence being given to the teaching of literacy but I’m far from concerned that we’re clear on precisely why teaching literacy is so important beyond the fact that Big Brother is watching you: running scared of Wilshaw is not enough.
I saw the fantastic Geoff Barton deliver a presentation called Don’t Call it Literacy at the Wellington Education Festival last year and his insightful thinking made a tremendous impression on me. Geoff very generously links to all his presentations on his website here. The first thing I did after witnessing this tour-de-force performance was read Daniel Rigney’s excellent book The Matthew Effect. His message is stark and having read it there’s no going back. As teachers we need to know that if we’re not explicitly addressing the needs of ‘have nots’, then the gap between the word-rich and word-poor will get ever wider.
Rigney tells us that, “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” Who can argue with that? Few people persevere with something they find difficult and uncomfortable. No one wants to feel stupid, and struggling to read is guaranteed to make you look thick. What happens is that “students who begin with high verbal aptitudes find themselves in verbally enriched social environments and have a double advantage.” If you’re literate you will gravitate towards literate friends. It comes as no surprise that “good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments”. And these friendships make a difference. The more we interact with the word rich, the deeper our own pool of words will be. Because, as Myhill and Fisher point out, “spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress”. So, if our spoken language isn’t up to snuff nothing else will be either.
Here’s the principle in action:
Poor literacy results in some shocking statistics:
- One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children, with the rest struggling to read to their children due to fatigue and busy lifestyles
- One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. This means their literacy is below the level expected of an eleven year old
- Seven million adults in England cannot locate the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Page
- 1-in-16 adults cannot identify a concert venue on a poster that contains the name of band, price, date, time and venue
- More than half of British motorists cannot interpret road signs properly.
If the problem starts with poor reading skills then so must the solution. Robert MacFarlane asserts that “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write” and conversely every hour spent avoiding reading causes the word-poor to get poorer. And this is only going to get worse. As the EU High Level Report on Literacy points out, “the digital world is centred around the written word”. Those who struggle to read and write are at a catastrophic disadvantage.
So whose fault is it?
Well, apportioning blame never really helps but it’s interesting to note that at age 7 children in the top quartile have 7100 words while children in the lowest quartile have less than 3000. At this age we could argue that the main influence is parents. But one study shows that at 16 1 in 12 children have a ‘working vocabulary of around 800 words. Whose fault is that? I can’t help but hear George Sampson’s call to arms ringing in my ears: “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English”. Whether you agree with this is now irrelevant as the principle’s been enshrined in the revised Teaching Standards.
We are responsible if not to blame. No one else can or will help the word-poor so it’s up to us. But are we up to the task?
Anecdotally, I hear that many teachers struggle with their own literacy and obviously, this will be a barrier in their roles as teachers of English. So, what to do? Well, obviously we have a duty as professionals to do something about our own literacy. And clearly schools have a duty to provide training which helps address this problem. Ofsted note in Removing barriers to Literacy that “…in the secondary schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects, as well as in English.” So this is about self-interest as much as anything else.
They also say:
[S]chools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects if standards of reading and writing are to be improved. Even with effective teaching in English lessons, progress will be limited if this good practice is not consolidated in the 26 out of 30 lessons each week in a secondary school that are typically lessons other than English or the 70% or so of lessons in primary schools that do not focus on English. This debate is, of course, long established and formed a central point of the Bullock report on English published in 1975. Previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended at best to have a short-term impact. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education recently reported that “schools should be developing cross-departmental strategies to develop literacy” and recommended that Ofsted should look “more closely at this”.
Moving English Forward (2012)
So, here are some cross departmental strategies for developing literacy
As Geoff Barton says, “the secret to literacy is making the implicit explicit”. As members of what he calls The Literacy Club, we implicitly understand how to read and write skilfully. The mistake often made by teachers is to assume that students share this implicit understanding. Some do but most don’t. Those that don’t need this process to be made explicit if they’re to have a chance of doing what we find easy.
3 x reading strategies (skimming, scanning and independent research)
3 x writing strategies (long & short sentences, varied sentence starts, varied connectives)
3 x spelling strategies (what words look like, sound like and other connections e.g. mnemonics)
It’s easy to get confused about the difference between skimming and scanning: skimming is about quickly getting an overview of what a text is about whilst scanning is about retrieving specific information. Expert readers do these things unthinkingly. Poor readers just see acres of text and give up. We need to make it clear to students what we’re doing when we read. We need to explain that the first sentence of a paragraph is often a topic sentence which summarises what the rest of the paragraph will be about. We need to explain that some words are more important and contain meaning while some words can be safely ignored. Try showing students a page of text for 5 seconds. Ask them if they knew what it was about. Ask them how they knew. This is excellent practice for being able to decipher pages of text.
Expert readers implicitly understand how exam questions relate to passages of text. The answer to the first question will be near the beginning and the answers to later questions will be located logically throughout the text. Many students don’t know this and given a list of questions have literally no idea how to find the information they need. It seems obvious to members of the Literacy Club that the key points in a text will either be in the first or last paragraph – we need to explain this to to the word-poor students we teach.
Independent learning is great, right? Well, no. Often it’s not. In the worst cases independent research is simply FOFO (fuck off and find out) and results in students make all manner of terrible mistakes from plagiarism to basic lack of understanding of my the internet should be used. If you give a students a homework task to ‘research the life of Martin Luther King’ what are they going to do? Obviously they’ll type it straight into Google. The unwary may well end up clicking on a link like this:
What they pop in the homework will not be what you were expecting and it won’t really be their fault. Students benefit from knowing that they should look at least 3 sources to get a range of opinion. They should also be taught about how to develop a thesis to narrow the focus of their research and make their task more manageable.
Long and short sentences
English teachers waste a lot of valuable time banging on about compound and complex sentences. These things are worth knowing but across the curriculum, students will benefit from the clear and simple expectation that their writing should contain a mix of long and short sentences. That is all.
Varied sentence starts
Too much of the writing students produce can be mind numbingly tedious. This is not a good thing. Try banning the use of articles (a, the) to start sentences. Encourage them to begin some sentences with words that end in -ly (adverbs) -ing (present participles) and -ed (past participles). That way we will get stuff like, “Hungrily, I wolfed my dinner”, “Laughing, I walked over to my friends” and “Shocked, she notice her phone was missing.”
Moreover, connectives are dead easy to teach and consequently they make you look clever when you use them in your writing. It sticks in the craw to call them connects cos as an English teach I prefer the elegance of discourse markers but this is a simpler name for students (and staff.) Simply point them out in a text and ask students what job they’re doing. They get them to connect their own sentences and paragraphs using a prompt sheet like the one below:
Hey presto! thinking becomes more structured and writing becomes more coherent. For some more ideas on improving writing, take a look at my Slow Writing post below.
I have a theory that people who are ‘good at spelling’ are simply implicitly aware of various spelling tricks. I cannot correctly spell receive with recalling ‘i before e except after c’ and need to sound out Feb-ru-ary to have a chance of getting it right. But these processes are invisible to students: they just see the awesome spelling machine I have trained myself to be.
I really like these three symbols for prompting students how to approach spelling:
Next time someone asks you how to spell a word instead of simply giving them the answer and making them dependent on you for answers help them work out a strategy for remembering how to spell it in the future. One of my favourites is my strategy for the word ‘rhythm’. I could never remember this and always had to look it up before writing it on the board (English teachers use this more than you might imagine) until a student point out that Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move. Genius.
These strategies are not a panacea and are just a beginning. They will however give all teachers some simple too use teaching techniques which students will then have reinforced in all their lessons. It’s the start of a what for many will be a long and uncomfortable journey, but as Einstein said to Socrates, ‘A journey begins with a single step.’
Geoff Barton’s essential presentation Don’t Call it Literacy