‘A book at bedtime should be as much part of the daily routine as brushing a child’s teeth’, according to Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who has called upon parents to spend 10 minutes a day reading to their children as part of a bid to improve literacy levels. But will bedtime stories do the trick? Joanna Oldham explains the research data into the impact of bedtime reading.
Lie down on your sleepy side and I’ll tell you a story about literacy. Once upon a time (over twenty years ago), a seminal piece of research indicated that bedtime reading helped to develop children’s literacy. The parents heard this and read their children stories at bedtime and they all lived literately ever after.
If only literacy were this simple. Unfortunately, it is not. Not only is the research itself complex, but the relationship between research and policy and practice means that messages being filtered through to parents do not necessarily take the research into account.
Literacy is complex
Literacy is a means of enfranchisement for the individual and many parents are understandably keen to support their child’s literacy. Parents do not live in a vacuum: they are likely to be aware of the failure of the National Literacy Strategy to reach literacy targets in primary schools; they are likely to be aware of literacy as a focus for educational and political debate. And for them, the personal is political since what could be more personal that your own child? But where can parents turn for information about how to support their children?
Whilst academia is an unlikely port of call for most parents, it is academic research that has provided the most robust evidence about the acquisition of literacy. Several disciplines including Sociology, Cultural Studies, Social Anthropology and Linguistics combined to develop this research. But what is the evidence? If bedtime reading were more widely adopted, would fewer children be illiterate? Would the Government’s targets for literacy finally be met?
Not necessarily. The research attests that particular examples of parental support, including bedtime reading, are associated with high levels of literacy and, in turn, educational success. But it also shows that literacy is complex and is not determined by any particular action or set of actions. The inference for parents is that what they can do to improve their children’s literacy is both everything and nothing. Let me explain. A meta analysis of educational research data en masse indicates that the closest correlate between educational success and any other factor is home background. The research argues that the child’s home, by being what it is, is already contributing to the child’s future educational success or failure and thus home background contributes to the child’s future educational success or failure. That being the case, it is difficult to isolate specific actions which parents can take in order to boost levels of literacy.
Both reading and writing consist of vast ranges of practices. Rather than being a neutral technology, literacy is a complex social practice. The concept of ‘social practice’ includes significant phenomena such as use of language and cultural habits which in turn stem from ways of seeing and understanding the world. Literacy then is not something which can be easily disentangled from constructs such as identity, views and habits. This anthropologically based research arguably represents the most cogent understanding of reading and writing available but it doesn’t easily lend itself to the sort of programme of pedagogical practice favoured by government. That is not, however, in itself a reason to disregard the findings.
Government policy stances on literacy frequently relate to a common discourse characterised by an assumption that 1) there are some basics to reading and these ‘basics’ relate to phonics and 2) straying from these basics has caused a drop in reading standards and thus a return to teaching ‘the basics’ will cause a rise in standards. Over simplistic. Certainly it is not always easy to take research into account – psychology tells us that one factor connected with the educational success of the individual is whether a child is a first born child but this data does not offer particularly useful ideas for either policy, schools or parents. Literacy research shows overwhelming trends in the data (for example about correlations with socio economic status) but these trends in themselves do not lead to simple remedies. However, the fact that literacy is much more complex and difficult than policy would like it to be is not an argument for pretending that literacy will be delivered by the latest policy initiative.
Literacy policy change
Labour and the Conservatives are currently quarrelling about phonics but this public debate is so distorted (and perhaps deliberately so for the purpose of political advantage) as to make it unhelpful. The resulting debate fails to acknowledge that the skills which all of the different approaches to phonics teach, whilst they are an essential part of reading, on their own do not equip a child with any understanding of what is being read. The evidence from academic research is clear that there is no one method for teaching reading which will be successful for every child.
While literacy teaching may shift as a result of synthetic phonics being regarded as a panacea in the policy debate, policy alone does not account for teachers’ practice. We might want a coherent philosophy to underpin teachers’ practice, but this is not the case. Failure at the level of policy need not automatically result in the current impasse concerning literacy levels but when it is combined with limited confidence and diminished expertise in the teaching profession, the consequences are dire.
The plethora of literacy policy change in the last ten years (including this year with more on the horizon) has undermined teachers’ confidence without necessarily increasing competence. Teachers’ lack of confidence perhaps explains their willingness to follow procedural and mechanistic literacy formulae and drill such as the National Literacy Strategy. Perhaps it also explains their compliance in abandoning one method in favour of the next. Multiple and varying reviews, policies, guidance, strategies and initiatives have confused rather than clarified.
Schools view literacy as neutral. When curricula and teachers share a narrow, fixed and hierarchical view of reading and writing it militates against some learners. Only some reading and writing practices are cited by the curriculum. Yet, what constitutes literacy (and how it is learned) can vary so much across the domains of home and school that children can fail to attain literacy even when there is significant parental support in the home. Treating literacy as a deficit which can be remedied by specific skills teaching (the approach most commonly adopted by schools) has severe limitations. Why do schools do this?
Perhaps teachers’ willingness to be dictated to can be explained by the lack of a cogent understanding about literacy. Relevant research which gets to the heart of why teachers have not met literacy targets comes from study of the relationship between reading (and writing for that matter) in the home community on the one hand and reading (and writing) in school. Such research is not on the teacher training curriculum. The trainers who train teachers do not necessarily have expertise in literacy themselves. Though trainers have themselves been teachers, teacher training operates for the most part in a version of the Victorian monitorial system whereby the trainers receive training on the latest (government approved) initiatives and drill which they then in turn give to their students. These students are then apprenticed to practising teachers who were trained in the same way. Whilst the pressure on teacher training institutions to improve in this context sounds good, there has been one deplorable, inadvertent consequence in some institutions where staff without PhDs or specific subject expertise supervise the PhDs of other staff who go on to gain higher degrees without having studied their topic under the tutelage of a specific expert. Many primary school teachers qualify in such a climate.
Schools are increasingly involving parents in teaching literacy through prescribed home reading schedules on the assumption that literacy is about time, drill and practice. Since the National Literacy Hour allowed approximately four minutes per child of individual attention per week, such a response can be understood as pragmatic if nothing else and many parents have been willing to assist.
Increasingly, all parents, willing or not, are becoming enveloped in a culture of expectation stemming from primary schools that a child’s literacy be accepted as a responsibility jointly held by home and school. It is schools, however, not parents, which claim expertise in teaching. Whether such claims are legitimate is indicated by the failure to meet targets. Schools which appear to be successful are often measures of its children’s socio cultural make up, not value added scores. While Government targets with respect to literacy have never been met nationally, in some schools the national targets have been exceeded.
The ‘home background’ factor
What comfort is there here for parents? The ‘home background’ factor, the factor which has the most influence on an individual’s literacy and educational success, is likely to include the decision parents make about the school to which they send their child. Of course the limited extent to which parents have control over school destination for their children is notorious and so it is generally only those parents who are most determined who succeed in choosing schools. It is probably not by chance that these are the same parents most likely to be already reading to their children at home, ie they come from the socio cultural economic group which is partly defined by its interest in education and concern for literacy.
However, we all have a vested interest in the literacy of the nation’s children – our society presupposes literacy in its population and regards the literacy of the nation as a tool for economic competitiveness within globalised markets. Various agencies have specific vested interests in literacy: the government which has staked its reputation on literacy; and of course, schools and teachers. But are these agencies succeeding? Schools appear to have little impact on social mobility. The policy implications of such a situation are complex but social justice provides the imperative for acknowledging rather than disregarding the complexity.
Dr Joanna Oldham is an academic expert on literacy.