Reading between the class lines

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Literacy is like water - a universal need. But what does a demand for literacy actually mean?

Recently the London Evening Standard devoted many pages to alerting its readers to high levels of "illiteracy" in order to start a campaign. It turns out that this was not much more than trying to win more volunteers for an already existing scheme to send volunteers into schools to hear children read - in other words, Big Society charity stuff rather than universal provision.

My suggestion was that schools should be given the powers to issue a library ticket to every child entering statutory education plus a map of how to get to the nearest public library. Along with Alan Gibbons's demand that it should be statutory for every school to have a library, this got buried in the centre pages and dismissed by one of the Standard's journalists as "boring".

You can see here, in microcosm, the kinds of rifts that start to appear between people apparently asking for the same thing: universal literacy. One approach is to tell the story of the present as a narrative of decline in which children today are permanently plugged into electronic devices, while teachers and parents don't care.

In fact, there is no evidence that literacy levels have got worse. Education statistics are difficult to verify because over time everything changes: both the "cohort" (that is, the kinds of children going through education) along with the schools, means of selection and testing.

All this is methodologically defective, but are we all talking about the same "literacy"?

The new literacy tests for six year olds are going to include words that don't exist like, say, "meb" or "bim".

That's because literacy here is being interpreted as being able to "sound out", ie to make appropriate sounds when prompted by certain combinations of letters on the page. Clearly, what most of us understand by "reading" is much more than this.

And it is exactly here that the battle-lines are shaping up: on the one side, people who say that all teachers must teach literacy through teaching entirely and solely by means of "sounding out" letters and letter-combinations.

On the other, people who say that the acquisition of literacy comes through a variety of means (sounding out, learning whole words, guessing from contexts, enjoying stories, poems and comics and so on) and what's needed varies over time for one individual, varies between individuals and, for most children, has to involve the meanings of writing and the contexts for the word being read.

Tory and Labour are united in their rush to implement the sounding-out method: an initial literacy based on meaninglessness.

But surely, once these children have mastered this, they are then encouraged to take part in a rich diet of story, poetry and non-fiction? No. What has happened in education is a refusal by government to make any commitment to this "rich" approach.

Whether you look at schools' own self-assessment forms or Ofsted checklists on how to gauge a school's performance and the nature of what is tested in tests, you will find no mention of a need for every child to read books or whole texts of any kind apart from the meagre fare of reading scheme booklets.

We know from many studies (for example, by Mariah Evans at the University of Nevada) that children surrounded by books at home will find school comparatively easy. It's no mystery: vast amounts of schooling require pupils to browse, scan, select, extract, compare and contrast different texts.

A child at home surrounded with books, comics, poems and magazines will inevitably do this as they sort and order them. That single process requires a child to use specific aspects of a text in order to create categories. In other words they move from concrete particulars to an abstract notion which links those particulars.

This is the kind of literacy that enables people to move effortlessly into higher thinking. It is highly significant that in the present period no politician is prepared to make a commitment to making it possible for every child to have access to many texts. This is precisely how class discrimination takes place.

For historical reasons, it is much less likely that working class parents (who themselves did not have good supplies of books in their home as they were growing up) will have homes full of books now. Meanwhile, access to free books is being curtailed through library closures (public and school) and the closing down of the Schools Library Service.

So, if schools are being forced to spend hours coaching children to read "meb" and "bim" then it's clear that pushing this kind of "literacy" becomes a means by which working class children are discriminated against and it's why the fight for "rich" reading against the phonics-only approach is about class.