Recent comments from Nicola Sturgeon suggest that national testing might be about to return to Scotland. I do support our forward-thinking curriculum, but I also feel there are bits of it where we could do better. We cannot ignore the uncomfortable truth that, when it comes to literacy, we are in a worse place now than we were two years ago. Pointing the finger of blame at secondary teachers is not only entirely unfair, but it is missing the point. We are all teachers of literacy, but when children are unable to access the language and learning of their curriculum at secondary school, it is ludicrous to expect subject specialists to have the time – or knowledge – required to teach children how to read, write and spell properly.
‘Learning to read’ should be sorted out early on in primary; enabling children to go forward as confident readers who can then ‘read to learn’. We talk so much about the attainment gap, but fail to realise that it is manifested in low literacy levels. We need to ensure that all of our learners, but especially the most disadvantaged, are equipped with the necessary literacy skills to achieve success at primary school and beyond. Until we tackle the persistent underachievement in reading in primary school, the gap will not go away. It will grow, becoming a black hole at secondary level that swallows our least able learners as they try to compete in the uneven playing fields of our classrooms.
Is testing the answer? I’d argue that it would certainly help. I am not advocating a return to the 5-14 style of assessment, nor am I suggesting that we should implement high-stakes testing, such as the SATs, that cause such stress in England. However, I do believe that we could adopt their Phonics Screening Check, which is a simple, light-touch assessment, administered by the class teacher in Primary 2. This identifies children who are at risk of literacy failure by assessing their knowledge of the essential letter/sound correspondences, as well as the skill of being able to apply this knowledge through blending and reading words. Use of this test would also provide us with data and a benchmark to see how we are doing in those crucial early stages. Since the introduction of the screening check in England, the number of children passing it has been rising steadily. Last year 74% of Year 1(P2) pupils met the expected standard of phonic decoding, compared with 69% in 2013 and 58% in 2012. I like to think that if we introduced the same test here in Scotland, our children’s scores would compare favourably. However, given the recent SSLN results, I’m not brave enough to make a bet.
Anne Glennie is a literacy consultant and a founding member of IFERI (International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction)
As published in TES Scotland, Friday 12th June 2015, No.2423