The English Experiment: An Hour a Day Keeps Illiteracy at Bay

By Machin, Stephen; McNally, Sandra | Education Next, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The English Experiment: An Hour a Day Keeps Illiteracy at Bay


Machin, Stephen, McNally, Sandra, Education Next


In developed countries like the United States and Britain, the continuing challenge for educators is to sort through the choices of an all-you-can-eat school system and teach the basic skills. Despite so-called universal education, an alarming number of people still fail to reach even basic levels of literacy. According to Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the Basic Skills Agency, one in five adults in Britain is functionally illiterate. The International Adult Literacy Survey shows that Britain is only slightly behind the United States, where 21-24 percent of adults have the lowest level of literacy skills. The problems in the United States and Britain are notably worse than in other developed countries.

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How to ensure that future generations of adults do not suffer from such problems is, of course, education's $64,000 question (though the price tag is considerably higher these days) and there have been as many proposals for increasing literacy as there are illiterates. Some of the more prominent initiatives--like the Reading First component of No Child Left Behind and the "Success for All--Reading First" program begun at Johns Hopkins in the late 1970s--involve the implementation of a highly structured classroom framework that spells out what should be taught, how it should be taught, and for how long.

The "literacy hour" was introduced in a select group of primary schools in September, 1996, as part of England's National Literacy Project (NLP). It provides us with a unique opportunity to study the impact of such highly structured programs on learning. Aimed at children from 5 to 11 years of age, the literacy hour spurned the passive (or quiet) approach to reading used in many classrooms in the United States and Britain and brought a great deal of precision to the task of instruction, mainly with a tightly organized and strictly managed program.

Do such formal and structured reading programs work? Will they improve reading abilities, and will they do so at a reasonable cost? That is what we asked of the literacy hour. To answer the question, we took advantage of the fact that children in 400 schools were in the program for up to two years before it was rolled out in all of England's primary schools, in the fall of 1998. And we were also able to explore the program's impact on gender gaps in pupil achievement, an important issue since in England, as in other countries, girls have traditionally outperformed boys in literacy-related activities.

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In fact, we found that exposure to the literacy hour significantly improved students' reading and English achievement, with bigger gains for boys than for girls. Moreover, the program proved to be a highly cost-effective means of improving reading scores, especially when compared with the common alternatives, like class size reductions and raising teachers' salaries.

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A Change of Technique, Not Time

The National Literacy Project, of which the literacy hour was a key component, was meant to beef up the National Curriculum, a detailed course of studies that had been introduced in England and Wales in 1988. The curriculum had specific benchmarks at each grade level, recommended minimum teaching times for core subjects, and a full complement of tests. All school-children in England aged 7, 11, and 14 (known as Key Stages 1, 2, and 3) were tested in core subjects, including English. There was a final examination in a range of subjects at age 16, at the end of compulsory schooling. There are various components of the test in English at Key Stages 1-3, including a test for reading, writing, and spelling.

At the selected schools the literacy hour was first introduced to staff by the headmaster and chair of governors, then at a training week for designated key teachers and program coordinators. There was also one in-school professional development day devoted to NLP issues. …

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