“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
Six months ago everything changed. Covid-19 crashed into our consciousness and schools were closed for all but a few pupils.
Ever since, school teachers and leaders have been forced to tackle new challenges. These new problems, practices and habits, have become part of the weekly work of teachers in schools. Of course, new solutions, practices and habits will be found too.
Along with these changes, many age-old challenges reassert themselves too.
Indeed, partial school closures have likely made well-known literacy challenges more acute than before. Whilst we cannot judge the exact impact lockdown has had on our pupils, few of us anticipate being away from the classroom has closed the ‘vocabulary gap’, or led to more, and better, reading and writing for the majority of pupils.
Given disadvantaged pupils are less likely to own a book than their advantaged peers, how can we expect their reading development flourished during lockdown? Given reading on screen is less optimum than traditional reading, how can we expect pupils reading got better for those who already struggling with the basics?
This is no doom mongering – these issues preceded our Covid-19 era – and they will last far longer than the virus and its constraints on our society. When a quarter of pupils sitting their GCSE exams have a reading age of 12 or below, we can judge the impact of reading at a distance from classroom instruction. Whether pupils are in class or not, this is an enduring challenge.
Geoff Barton, author of ‘Don’t Call it Literacy!’ described the ‘word gap’ as a function of circumstances beyond the parameters of the classroom:
“In reality the word gap will depend upon your circumstances rather than your choices – your home, your family, the richness of language and relationships, the presence of books and conversations, the habits you form as you grow up. These are things largely beyond our control.”
Attention over the past months attended pupils’ struggling to access laptops or Wifi. Of course, these depressing limitations were mere proxies for a wider span of poverty and systematic disadvantages that lead pupils to be ‘word poor’ in the classroom.
Though these social factors are indeed largely beyond our control, we can make a meaningful difference in our classrooms.
Mitigating the Literacy ‘Matthew Effect’
One of the long-standing points of guidance from evidence on implementing change indicates that success requires a focus on a small number of priorities that are amenable to change.
This advice feels rather limp in the face of so many new challenges. Do we just ignore spelling issues to focus on vocabulary instruction? Do we leave reading to right itself, so that we can focus our CPD on the teaching of writing?
The difficult and counterintuitive answer to these questions will likely be ‘yes‘: we should aim to narrow our focus, if we are to enact change that is successful and sustained for our pupils.
First, let’s look at a short list of common challenges faced by our ‘literacy poor’ pupils:
- Slow, dysfluent reading in the classroom (with a fiction book in English, or a textbook in science)
- Persistent background knowledge gaps when reading extended school texts (sometimes labelled as ‘cultural currency’)
- Misspellings of commonly occurring vocabulary (e.g. homophones like ‘course’ and ‘coarse’, or ‘profit’ and ‘prophet’)
- Weak writing organisation (extended writing isn’t coherent or clearly developed)
- Persistently awkward sentence structures (a weak grasp of syntax)
- Few reading habits established outside of the classroom.
In this short list, we see many interacting issues that appear commonly in every classroom. Many pupils suffer these problems all at once – leaving teachers struggling for workable solutions.
Teachers need time, tools and professional development to tackle these complex literacy issues. As such, school leaders have to narrow our professional development scope and prioritise. In effect, we have to select a school/phase/department priority that hits multiple moving targets at once.
You can address the aforementioned challenges by first prioritising reading for whole school literacy for the year ahead. Tackling one issue helps another.
For example, improving reading fluency removes a significant barrier for pupils, so that they have more mental bandwidth to process new background knowledge and unfamiliar vocabulary. Better reading the words then allows a few more milliseconds to process the spelling of the self-same new vocabulary item.
All of these issues aren’t all magically solved by better quality reading instruction. And yet, we make a small dent in those challenges and we can subsequently line up vocabulary instruction, or writing, as our next target and whole-school focus.
It is the careful sequencing of literacy priorities that make the yawning disadvantage gap manageable. For each school then, questions will attend where to start: vocabulary, reading, structured talk, or writing.
Covid-19 has probably worsened the literacy ‘Matthew Effect’ for our disadvantaged pupils in particular. And yet, new habits and solutions will be formed. A renewed focus on entrenched literacy issues is within our sights and it can make a meaningful difference.
Despite many things being taken away from our pupils in the last six months, there is much we can give back in abundance in every classroom.