This is literacy

There were all sorts of things that wound me up about the government’s response to yesterday’s kids’ strike, but by the end of the day the number one accusation I was reeling about was that the tens of thousands of parents and teachers who supported the strike did so because they do not have high enough expectations of children’s literacy.

There are many things I may have fallen short of as a teacher and a parent, but having high expectations most definitely isn’t one of them. It is just that, like many others, I seriously doubt the validity of the narrow interpretation of literacy that success in the SATs exams hinges upon – and fear for our children’s sanity when they are expected to be able to absorb and regurgitate complex grammar knowledge that stumps everyone from masters graduates to the very Schools minister who champions this rigorous approach to assessment.

I am not convinced, actually, that Nick Gibb knows much about the content of the tests he reveres. In press statements yesterday he talked about the importance of basic comprehension and the use of capital letters. It made the people opposing the tests look pretty stupid – and fuelled the hundred of trolls who engulfed social media to pour scorn on the intentions of parents who pulled their children out of school. The fact is, though, that we’re not just talking about learning basic literacy here: we’re talking about learning (by rote) huge swathes of linguistic terminology. There are many people who have written about this more expertly than I have – I especially like Michael Rosen’s blog for no nonsense critique of literacy in schools. What I want to highlight here though is not only that what primary school children are being expected to learn (and be summatively tested on) is excessive and in many case irrelevant, it is on the most basic level the opposite of what literacy really is.

The simplest definition of literacy is being able to read and write. As an English teacher, and then a parent, and now a writer, these are both skills that I believe of course to be essential: being a confident reader and writer opens a door to a whole other world of learning and communication. But is being able to confidently label fronted adverbials and subordinating conjunctions really a central part of literacy, or even any part of it, for ten year old children? I think not.

Nicky Morgan says that the new tough regime of SATs exams will help increase the numbers of young people achieving the top grades at GCSE, but if it extinguishes the curiosity that drives the desire to learn then there’s no way it will do that. She insists that the knowledge that the SATs examines will, once children have mastered it, allow them to be more creative. But in saying this she is completely ignoring the much-researched developmental window before the age of seven which has inspired play-based curricula worldwide – and leads to many successful education systems holding off from any formal education for children before that age.

The government accuses us of dumbing down, but I would argue that what they are doing is dumbing down our children: producing a factory line of automatons who have missed out on the opportunity to fully develop their own personalities or a sense of who they are as members of our society.

My concept of literacy is considerably more ambitious. My desire to truly understand how children become confident readers and writers has been rekindled by watching my three year old son learn and grow, and that is what is at the root of my fear of what the SATs, and the pedagogy that is seeping out from them, is doing to our children.

My son is a reader. He tells me the story of pictures in the books we share, interpreting the images themselves and augmenting that with his imagination and his memory of the words being read aloud. He seeks out letters in the world around us – not yet being able to differentiate between more than a handful, but knowing that letters make words and that words label things and concepts. I am confident that, as we continue to make books and stories an integral part of our lives, he will make the transition to reading independently. He will begin to use the multitude of cues available to us as readers to make his own sense of the written word – and he will want to, because he already knows what treasures there are to be found within the pages of his books.

As an aside, I have to admit I really don’t understand the government’s obsession with synthetic phonics when it comes to teaching children to read. Some degree of phonics, sure. But to strip back the process of reading to solely decoding? To insult children’s intelligence by making them read ‘nonsense’ words just for the sake of catching them out? That doesn’t make sense to me . But I guess it’s easier to test than a system that recognises the real nuances that underpin the process of becoming a confident reader.

My son is also a writer. Don’t get me wrong – he can’t actually form letters yet. In fact he shows very little interest in concentrating on the fine motor skills that will eventually lead to him writing down the thoughts that are in his head. But what thoughts he has! He picks up new vocabulary like a sponge, knows exactly how to use words to achieve particular effects, mirrors the complex sentences he hears and reshuffles them for himself to suit his purpose. He tells stories to his teddies and his trains, comes up with brilliant if unlikely explanations for particular juxtapositions of objects in his play, and is developing a very strong line in persuasive reasoning. When he is ready to put pen to paper I have no doubt that these skills and knowledge will underpin his actual writing, but he already demonstrates the aptitude that I admire in any writer who has mastered their craft.

I know my son is not unique. He is doing exactly what every three year old instinctively does – experimenting with language and relating it to the world around him. But I worry about what will happen if he is asked to put all of those thoughts and ideas into nice tidy boxes for the sake of standardised assessment.

I worry for him, and I worry for all of our children.

This worry has not come about because my expectations are low. I have the highest expectation of young people, one that will empower them and motivate them whilst they are at school and throughout their lives: I expect them to want to learn. If they want to learn, if they want to achieve, if they are inspired, they will use that as a drive to overcome whatever obstacles are in their way – including those basic reading and writing skills. Hell, one day they might even be driven by the desire to be able to confidently identify those subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials. But if they aren’t? I think they’ll be ok.

I am not sure though that our kids will be ok if this government is allowed to plough on unchecked with its imposition of an increasingly restrictive straightjacket on literacy and learning. And it is our responsibility to stand up for them.

May 3rd 2016 was a momentous day, and it was incredible to see the impact that parents can have on the dialogue surrounding education in this country. We cannot stop now though: parents and teachers need to draw strength from this groundswell of passion and purpose. There is still so much work to be done.

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