How Far is ‘Too Far’?

How Far is ‘Too Far’?

In my role as Literacy Leader, I find myself constantly reflecting on what we are doing well as a school and what we could be doing better with regard to supporting student literacy. Embedded within this review process is a persistent thought that works its way into my conscience time and time again, leading me to question what reading or writing support students are getting at home.

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Working in a great secondary school based in Greater London, rightly proud of its own active engagement with the local community, it welcomes students from quite a diverse catchment area. This results in the intake of a wide range of students who have vastly different backgrounds. This includes those who come from homes where literacy is rated as fundamental, being the foundation on which all other learning can take place, to those families who consider literacy as almost irrelevant, so long as their child is happy to step into the family business. In these cases (which thankfully are few but nevertheless real) being able to read and write is considered merely a ‘bonus’. Not an easy partnership to nurture when your aim is to equip every student with the same essential ‘toolkit’ to get through life beyond their compulsory education years.

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Standing with most other educationalists in the teaching profession, I presume, I’m of the strong opinion that a positive home-school relationship with regular and valuable communication is the best approach to scaffolding student learning. For this reason, when I see articles like the two listed below, I question whether we are going far enough with sharing our expertise with students and their parents/carers. Take a look…

1. http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=alicia_molina

2. http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2014/07/24/Reading-should-be-a-family-affair-But-parents-can-t-help-their-children-learn-to-read-if-they-can-t-read-well-themselves/stories/201407240156

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With my reading-instruction-radar firmly switched to ‘ON’, it seems to me that we are missing a step in the learning process, particularly for those students from homes where reading might not come naturally to their parents, either.

Geoff Barton, in his great book ‘Don’t Call it Literacy!’ (Routledge: 2013) outlines some of the key points taken from a survey carried out by the National Literacy Trust in 2010, named Literacy: State of the Nation, A picture of literacy in the UK today. Barton writes:

  • ‘Parents are the most important reading role models for their children and young people’
  • ‘One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children’

That’s 80% of parents who don’t, then…

  • ‘Recent research has shown that the likelihood of fathers reading to their children is linked to their socio-economic background.’

21% of dads in £40-50k income homes read with their children compared to 11% in £10-15k income homes.

Various different research studies have looked into the positive and negative effects of adult support within education and, in all those that I have come across, results seem to suggest that TAs who have had the necessary, thorough training around how to deliver particular programmes to students are ones where impact is most effective. Just one of these examples can be found here: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Default.aspx?tabid=2438

With this in mind (i.e. the knowledge that training is essential in order for adults to have a positive impact on student learning), is it time for schools who have, for example, established reading programmes and interventions in place, to now take a step further and look to supporting parents as well? If research suggests that academic success is determined partially through the level of parental involvement in their own child’s studies, do we need to start thinking creatively about how to support the parents as well as the students? Perhaps that initially means just targetting families where illiteracy or, at least, a very low level of literacy is present, or delivering a series of workshops within different departments across the school to create greater discussion opportunities that focus on how parents can support their child’s learning best? 

Another superb book highlighting the importance of literacy within schools has been written by David Didau called ‘The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit explicit’ (Independent Thinking Press:2014). In a section of the book on ‘Building a Reading Culture’, Didau lists the recommendations given by the Department for Education on reading. The very first point in the list advises,

  • ‘Engage parents by inviting them to become members of the school library, or by inviting them to workshops on how to support their child’s reading.’ 

This is useful advice and, while I’m confident we do this as a school to a point by engaging and training up some of our invaluable volunteer parents in how to teach reading to our weaker readers across the school, I don’t know if we are going far enough. For our weakest readers, in particular those ones who come from homes where parents are unable to support due to a lack of reading ability themselves, do we need to target the root of the problem here first?

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Unquestionably, our biggest priority is to put our students first. This is our call of duty, our responsibility as facilitators of learning. I just wonder if we now need to start thinking outside the box with these home-school related issues a little more in order to best support our students and, as a result, advancing ever closer towards our goal for a more holistic approach to learning.

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