Literacy Matters

I loved this article published in TES magazine and online last week by Sarah Simons entitled A Closed Book.

In it Sarah talks about being well read as in having a library full of classics. It got me thinking, as I’ve thought and blogged about before, that maybe it is time to go back to the way they taught English ‘in my day’ – Oh gosh can’t believe I say that more and more.

When we had CSE’s and GCE O’Levels it worked like this – CSE students studied English which we would now call literacy, they had to do some spoken communication assessment and written work which was more about understanding things which are written down and being able to write things down themselves. Students left with CSE’s in English (unless they were dyslexic which nobody had discovered at my school back then). This certificate evidenced that they were literate, they could read, write, regurgitate and comprehend information from a variety of sources including books, magazines, newspaper articles and letters.

The higher level GCE O’Level students studied English and English Literature as two separate qualifications. English required no spoken communication but required a higher level of literacy, higher levels of grammar, better use of descriptive language an ability to precis or summarise factual information and an ability to understand what they had read. The literature qualification called for them to be able to read whole books (yes in our day we read the whole thing not a shortened version and we didn’t get ‘easy’ translated Shakespeare either, we had the olde English versions or nothing), understand and discuss poems, understand symbolism, imagery, plot and character development. Most of my O’Level English class I am still in touch with and most of them have a high level of literacy to date and all have a deep love of literature, especially the classics and fond memories of classes. We had an awesome teacher and we had the capacity to be stretched in that way, maybe that impacted on us.

The CSE students didn’t. Maybe if we’d researched our class we’d have found that the O’level kids had more access to literature at home, had parents who loved to read (certainly true in my case), had parents who enjoyed listening to them read and that was the reason they enjoyed and excelled at literature. Literature undoubtedly demonstrated perfect English which was then backing up what had been taught in the English Language class. Language took priority with 4 lessons a week and Literature had only 2 but we got through some content in 2 years.

It worked. If standards of literacy have declined since the changes, then it worked. Why did we change it? It wasn’t perfect and maybe that’s why but then as I’ve already mentioned we didn’t have dyslexia diagnosis back then, kids who were going hungry or being abused didn’t have the support they have now, how many of those kids who struggled at CSE level were dyslexic, un-diagnosed, unsupported academically through unidentified need or socially and bound to fail? So many of the peripheral obstacles to learning have since been addressed which may have skewed the stats back in the 80’s when the changes were made. Maybe it’s time for a revisit.

Instead what we have now is the GCSE, a watered down mix of the three, the CSE, English Language O’Level and English Literature O’Level and some kids fly with it and others struggle and it is a battle ground because so much hinges on it, along with Maths of course but then arguably being able to read and write and understand what you have read and written is of more importance in every day living than being able to perform algebraic functions (maths is another story).

I agree with what Sarah says in the article and believe our reading should be relevant. Some of us love to read novels, we find it easy to sustain long periods of reading, we retain what we’ve read, we find it easy to sink into a world created for us in the pages of a book. Other’s like Sarah herself said in a tweeted conversation have withdrawal symptoms if they can’t read The Guardian every day yet haven’t read any of the great classics and don’t have a huge literary repertoire to call on but she hasn’t needed one. She writes, she reads, she absorbs information, she comprehends it and regurgitates it, people read it, she’s published by one of the most respected teaching publications in the world. Would reading James Joyce’s Dubliners make that much of a difference to her life? Other than being able to quote it when a kind of literary snobbishness required it?

I know this is very simplified, I know as an avid reader of classics, trashy beach novels and other forms of media including shampoo bottles and as a writer myself that I have had my life enriched by what I’ve read BUT I don’t think everyone has to have that experience if that’s not what they want, if it doesn’t suit them or they don’t need it.

I feel sad that my kids never got to study some of our literary gems and so we read them together as a family to ensure they get that experience but the one size fits all approach is letting students at both ends down. It’s too preoccupied on the one hand with things that just don’t matter as much as learning to read, write and comprehend and not occupied enough on the other hand with stretching the minds of those who are more suited to leaping into a great literary work of art.

Sad but true, the typical profile of a barely literate student does not fit with one who would be encouraged and supported at home in the same way those at the top end might typically be supported with reading of the classics that they may miss out on at school. Lower achieving students are less likely to have support networks which sit and pick up at home where school left them behind with the basics and so we need to be making sure that their teaching and the qualification they are trying to achieve is relevant to them and the language skills they leave school with are relevant to what they will be doing next.

The standard of literacy that comes through to FE is frankly shocking at times, I am sure I was doing better than that at junior school, maybe we’re just asking too much of kids and in doing so failing them rather than helping them. Rather than expecting functional skills teachers to teach GCSE perhaps we should be looking at the functional skills model as the better option, as Sarah describes it is more relevant and flexible to learners. Sometimes we move the bar up when we want to improve standards when really it needs to be moved down to achieve the same desired outcomes.

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