Dear Ms Constance
I wrote to you in March 2015, although I realise that you probably don’t actually get to read every email you receive, given the demands of your job. I also wrote to my MSP Alasdair Allan back in January 2015 regarding my concerns about the attainment gap and the teaching of reading in Scotland, and the fact that so few of our teachers have had explicit training in reading pedagogy. The responses to my letters can be read here and here.
I believe that until teachers in Scotland are trained in ‘how to teach reading’ – which, shockingly, they are not – that no matter how hard we work and no matter how many wonderful initiatives we continue to implement, that without success in these basic skills – the attainment gap will remain.
I write with truly the best of intentions. I am a huge supporter of Curriculum for Excellence and believe that Scotland is doing so many ground-breaking things in terms of education. I know that over the last 5 years – indeed more – our teachers have never worked harder. However, I remain worried that people do not realise the extent of the problem. My on-going concerns are:
*Scottish schools are using a ‘mixed methods’ approach (multi-cueing strategies, guessing and sight words) which is not, according to international research, the most effective way to teach reading (spelling and writing)
*We focus too much on ‘local’ solutions or ‘circumstances’. All schools and teachers have a responsibility to teach all of our children to read, write and spell confidently in English, in order to access the world of literature and learning. This context is common to all schools in Scotland (and indeed any English speaking country) regardless of local needs and circumstances
*Teachers are still not being taught how to teach reading during their teacher training. Teachers lack the pedagogical subject knowledge required to teach children how to read or to evaluate commercial reading programmes or schemes
*Scotland is resource-led with regards to the teaching of reading – but we should be research-led.
There is now ample, secure and compelling evidence available, which shows if children are taught to read, write and spell using a systematic synthetic phonics approach (as opposed to the current ‘mixed methods’ approach) that the attainment gap and the gender gap can be closed. Given our situation, this is information which would be ethically irresponsible for us to ignore.
What also concerns me is that we don’t actually appear to believe that it is possible to teach every child in Scotland how to read. In Raising Attainment for All for example – the first ‘stretch aim’ is:
‘To ensure that 85% of children have successfully experienced and achieved Second Level Literacy, in preparation for Secondary School by 2016.’
Acceptance of the stretch aim above means that you also accept that 15% of children will fail to achieve a level of literacy required to access, and participate fully in, their Secondary School education.
I do not understand how this can be Raising Attainment for All when it clearly ignores the 15% – the children who are effectively living in the gap.
Weak reading lies at the heart of both the educational apartheid between the advantaged and disadvantaged and stalled social mobility.
The inability to read properly is the single greatest handicap to progress both in school and adult life.
Ready to Read?
Anastasia de Waal and Nicholas Cowen
It is deeply worrying that, in a country such as Scotland, where our teaching graduates are (and rightly so) held in the highest regard around the world, that we now lack pedagogical subject knowledge in comparison to teachers in England and elsewhere.
It is highly ironic that countries around the world have changed their policy and their practice following ground breaking research from Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire – but that here in Scotland we do not appear to have learned the lessons from our own research.
The greatest tragedy however, is that every moment we continue to ‘sit on the fence’ when it comes to phonics and the teaching of reading, we are leaving children’s success at school, and beyond, to chance.
*This letter is an abbreviated version of the six page original that was sent in January and in March. You can download the original here.