Literacy and the Achievement Gap

By McDonald, Geraldine | Curriculum Matters, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Literacy and the Achievement Gap


McDonald, Geraldine, Curriculum Matters


Abstract

This paper challenges the belief that methods of teaching reading are the answer to raising age cohort standards of achievement, and that literacy, in the form of reading and writing, is based on spoken language. It is argued that documents, advising how to raise standards of literacy, have overlooked the way in which education systems work, and their relationship to large-scale testing, and have not considered methods which use real-life writing to establish literacy in young school children. The concept of a configuration of sites is presented as a way of understanding literacy in both its social and individual aspects, and for diverse population groups.

Introduction

This article is organised into three sections. In the first, I examine current beliefs about what literacy is, its relationship to reading and the so-called gap of achievement, and its supposed basis in spoken language. The second section adopts a broader definition of literacy: one arising from society's possession of a written script, the consequences of this for social institutions, and the claims for its effects on the constitution of minds. Developmental evidence is presented to show that children in literate societies take an early interest in the activity of writing. The third section draws conclusions from the broader definition of literacy, by illustrating the various social sites which incorporate written scripts. Individuals have access to differing configurations of these sites for literacy. The article concludes with brief reference to the "new literacy" and the use of writing to teach literacy in the early years.

Current beliefs about literacy

Literacy defined as reading

   Definitions, of course, are only relevant to the interests they are
   constructed to serve and it would be fruitless to enter a
   definitional argument as to what 'literacy' really is.

      (Street, 1984, p. 51)

English in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1994) broadens the scope of literacy, from the traditional reading and writing, by adding visual literacy. However, in New Zealand, literacy is generally restricted to reading. This is hardly new, and, as noted by Vygotsky (1997, p. 131), "the mechanics of reading is put forward so much that it shades written language". There are many reading experts in New Zealand, but early writing lacks its advocates (however, see Hood, 2003).

One reason for the widespread emphasis on reading can be found in the history of schooling, and the origins of instruction in order to read the Bible, allied with a fear that writing would lead to political pamphleteering and deliver power into the hands of dissidents. Teaching today is likely to concentrate on areas of the curriculum that are assessed internationally, and there is greater difficulty in large-scale testing of writing than in testing for reading. For example, a report from the US on the reading of children aged 4-7 years, from 1998 to 2000, noted that:

   It is not feasible to include a sampling of children's writings
   given the practical constraints associated with the cost of scoring
   their samples.

      (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003, para. 5)

Can methods of teaching reading close the achievement gap?

The Government's goal, announced in October 1998, was that "by 2005, every child turning nine will be able to read, write and do maths for success". The Literacy Taskforce and the Literacy Experts Group were established to advise on the achievement of this aim. The main focus of both groups' reports was on how to teach reading, leaving discussion of methods of teaching writing to Dancing with the Pen (Ministry of Education, 1992). The report of the Literacy Experts Group (Ministry of Education, 1999) concentrates on methods, particularly those associated with phonics and with reading for meaning.

International studies measure the performance of age or grade cohorts. …

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