Even if the stories in the media based on the National Standards data are wildly astray, even if the National Standards themselves might be flawed, even if a-whole-host-of-other-reasons- and-excuses, there is still good cause for concern about the lag in the results between writing skills and reading skills and the growing gap between girls and boys.
For a child that can speak, reading should come easily. Once the penny drops that those marked on the page are representation of something he or she already knows – words – then progress should follow. Once a child realises that those stories are about him or her and the world they live in then it quickly follows that the developing reader seeks the company of others through print and in worlds beyond their own.
So how does this process, mastered by so many, go astray? One answer has to be over issues of quantity. Some children read more than others, are read to more than others, receive books as presents more than others, snuggle up to Mum or Dad in an evening for a warm read more than others. They put in the hours and are greatly advantaged. Even though this all happens out of the reach of a teacher or a school, they come to the classroom task fitter and better prepared.
Then there are the considerations of relevance of material and so on. Reading is an inside out process in which children get meaning from print by bringing meaning to it. If the increasing diversity of students is not matched by diversity in the materials being used there will be an impact on progress. But schools are on to this.
So why the lag in the writing results? Well, it is obvious that you learn to read by reading but a little less obvious that you learn to write, no, not by writing but by reading. If reading development slows, writing development slows even more.
Comments following the stories in the press were initially on the impact of texting on language development and especially reading and writing. This was, I would suggest, well off the mark. Text language is a sophisticated use of language and requires sound reading skills to “de-code” the truncated forms of words. Even in reading conventional texts, readers get more clues from the skyline of the consonants than they do from the shape of the vowels. If texting impacts negatively on language development then it should impact much more widely and clearly across the whole cohort and yet it seems not to do so.
Now, what is this with the boys? This data makes sense only in relation to historical trends for there has always been a gap between boys and girls that flattens out over time. Boys start a little more slowly but do catch up. Has this gap increased? It is hard to tell from just one instrument.
So what would be the challenge posed by these media stories? Well, instead of indignation the education community could respond by taking a good look at the picture and assessing a little more closely any messages that are in it. I would guess that there is a concern about reading and writing – who cares about how large it is in national terms, the impact is at the level of each and every child for there has not been delivered to a school ready to learn these things (with the exception of the rare occasions when a child who cannot progress into uses of the printed word). The access to early childhood education could be a factor but one which primary schools have to deal with.
I wonder whether enough time is spent on teaching actual handwriting. The self-discovery of a version of printing seems to me to leave too many with a slow and laborious means of writing. On the other side of that question is the matter of using technological devices apart from a keyboard, can the touch screen be used effectively for writing without the skills of using a keyboard effectively – touching the letters one by one in the style of a hen eating grain does not constitute the skills of the touch-typist.
There is all that talk after Gladwell about 10,000 hours being important to really reach the highest level of proficiency in a skill. New Zealand students spend about 8,000 hours at school between the ages of 5 and 14 so clearly what happens outside of school is critical. Harnessing the community in the battle for proficient readers and writers will be critical. But first there has to be a clear emphasis on those areas.
Perhaps the curriculum now needs to be clearer in its expectations in these areas. Immediately I hear a great shout that this would be exactly what had been pointed out as the key danger of national standards – they would influence the curriculum. Well, if the curriculum is currently not producing readers and writers that would be a jolly good thing!
Finally, it is not enough simply to have only proficient readers and writers. As Vygotsky put it – “ideas are not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.” If we want our community to be nourished by elegant ideas then we need to have a supply of elegant readers and writers, those who use the language for good purposes and in ways that can inspire, challenge, clarify, argue, defend, express emotions, paint pictures, guide others and wallow in delight, mischief, light heartedness and powerful use of powerful words.
Reading and writing are much more than merely behaviours on a list is some educational statement, they are about the quality of our lives.