Tackling a reading crisis in Welsh schools

Geraldine Barry says ‘not invented here’ is the attitude of many Welsh schools when confronted with new literacy ideas

I am an experienced literacy teacher having trained and worked in London from 1987 and in Wales since 2000 and taught in many schools and further and higher education. However, I left mainstream teaching over three years ago disillusioned by the lack of care given to children in terms of their learning and the lack of understanding of the impact that poor teaching of literacy can have on learners.

My final teaching post in England was at a school that received an award from the Department for Education for improving literacy standards, much of which attributed to my work, recognised as excellent by OFSTED, as a Year 6 teacher. Despite my record of school improvement and success in raising standards I have not managed to secure work in Wales as a primary classroom teacher let alone as a senior manager within a school with opportunities to apply my expertise.

So I now work as a freelance specialist literacy tutor and for a third sector organisation, to improve standards of literacy in learners who have been let down by the school system. I have also come to the conclusion that most of the learners I now work with have not been taught phonics properly. I am also called upon to address literacy problems of learners in schools that have received excellent Estyn inspection grades.

I therefore welcome the Welsh Government’s National Literacy Programme, which at its heart states that “all learners should be taught well”. However, my experience of teaching in schools in Wales is sobering. One anecdote in particular may give Education Minister Leighton Andrews a flavour of what he is up against. In one school I identified shortcomings in the English/literacy scheme which, for writing composition (viewed by the school as a separate area of literacy) involved filling in pages of a workbook once a week.

So I created a new scheme that gave the children an experience of writing (introducing them to and then practising writing composition through modelling and which included sentence construction whilst at the same time embedding spelling and handwriting skills). Once my pupils were engaged in writing as a process, my books were pulled in by a member of senior management and I was told that because they didn’t ‘look the same’ as the other books in the school, I should stop this immediately as an inspection was imminent. Interestingly, when Estyn identified writing composition as an area of weakness, my re-written scheme of work was produced by senior management as evidence for capacity to improve. The rewritten scheme of work was never seen again after the departure of Estyn.

Further study is an excellent way to develop literacy teaching skills so the Masters in Educational Practice is most welcome. However, my experience of postgraduate education in Wales has demonstrated a focus which is too heavily based on theory and not enough on understanding the structure and mechanics of the English language and how we can apply this knowledge in a classroom context. Without this knowledge, structured teaching of phonics and other reading skills is not rigorous enough.

Generally, teachers are efficient users of the English language but not necessarily good teachers of phonics. Ask any reader how they learned and they usually look a little uncertain and mention names of reading schemes or talk vaguely about ‘sounding out’. I believe the “excellent teachers who can deliver phonics” Leighton Andrews is seeking will be hard to find. For example, how do you explain to a group of readers how to read the word ‘music’ if this word is not known to them? How would you explain it? What would the learner need to know before you could ask them to read the word? That vowels can sometimes be long and sometimes be short? What makes them long? What makes them short? Why is that letter s in the middle not making the (s) sound but rather a (z) and why is that vowel i at the end short? For a seemingly simple word it is all rather complicated. I have come across qualified teachers with post graduate qualifications from Welsh universities who are unsure how to deal with the deficit in phonic skill exhibited by learners of all ages.

The call for improvement in literacy teaching by teachers in post is welcome and I agree that a systematic approach should be used to develop their skills. This is a major shift in approach since I first came to Wales. My ‘training’ consisted of being told that the LEA literacy scheme was “the same as the National Literacy Strategy in England”. It clearly was not and I was asked not to integrate the successful elements of it into my teaching (see above).

The National Literacy Programme guidance states that many existing teachers “need up skilling” by identifying “outstanding teachers of literacy” who will model best practice and support PLCs. However, as an experienced, successful teacher of literacy with proven ability in delivering school improvement I would like to know:

  • How will outstanding teachers be identified? How will their excellence be measured? A closer look at the timeline shows that guidance has been sent out to LEAs and plans from consortia of schools should be ready imminently. It will be interesting to see whether the recruitment net for ‘outstanding’ teachers will extend outside existing LEA teachers.
  • When will more schools and LEAs recognise excellence in literacy teaching in a form not standard to Wales (that is, not someone who has ‘done their time’ for years in the same school)? Not enough schools welcome applications from prospective teachers who have a wide variety of experiences in a number of schools and within other sectors. A teacher who has moved around, refreshed their career, taken risks in their own learning and has tried out new approaches is precisely the teacher I want teaching my children. After all, in improving literacy one size does not fit all.
  • How are schools and LEAs going to identify those teachers who need particular help in ‘upskilling’? My experience as a freelance specialist teacher in Wales suggests that this is going to be difficult. There is a limited awareness in schools of the skills needed to be a good literacy teacher. In my various roles I have heard many comments including: “It’s not my job”, “The primary teachers are getting it wrong”, “Why should we have to teach this sort of thing?” ”I’m here to teach my subject”; and my two favourites: “I will teach this way because I have taught this way for 20 years”, and “I teach this way because it was the way I was taught and it worked for me”.

Another main activity outlined in the National Literacy Strategy is assessment which is a subject after my own heart. I want to know where my learners are, what strengths they have (so I can build on them and use them to support problem areas) and where the deficits in learning are. It is only then that I can get going with devising and delivering a ‘toolkit’ which they can take back to their mainstream classrooms and gain access to what is being taught. This approach also raises self-esteem and confidence, something which learners with difficulties in literacy lack.

I couldn’t do my job as a literacy teacher without assessment so I was pleased to read about the National Reading Tests. I am however concerned about the additional, non-statutory diagnostic test materials. These sound like a great idea. However, as someone with extensive training in diagnostic testing I know the pitfalls of assessment. If teachers assess, they need proper training to deliver assessments correctly and if they undertake diagnostic assessments, what are they going to do with the results?

The National Literacy Strategy states that the Welsh Government will “provide guidance to advise on appropriate intervention programmes and on their successful implementation.” I wait with interest to find out which programmes are recommended, who will deliver them and what training will be offered so that the assessment process does not end with testing. It is also important that intervention schemes are delivered with care, attention to detail and imagination. Many of our learners who are failing in literacy need to be taught the same skills many times, in many different ways in order to build up their ‘toolbox’ of skills which they can begin to apply in different contexts, making learning more accessible.

There are clearly good teachers in Wales and there is capacity within Welsh education to improve the level of literacy in our learners. However, as someone who came to Wales to offer what my colleagues in London spoke about as “my special brand of teaching”, the opportunity to contribute has been denied to me. A lack of opportunity and failure to recognise expertise has meant that since arriving in Wales I have had to seek work outside the mainstream education system, keep my skills up to date and pay for my own professional development (in particular specialist post graduate training in literacy, dyslexia and special educational needs, accredited by York University) to ensure that I can meet the needs of my learners.

I look forward to seeing how the implementation of the National Literacy Programme progresses in Wales. For me a measure of its success will be a reduction in the number of referrals I receive from parents whose children fail to achieve the standards of which they are capable.

Geraldine Barry is a qualified specialist literacy teacher with experience in schools, and further and higher education in London and Wales. This article appears in the current Summer 2012 issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda. Geraldine can be contacted at [email protected]

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