The campaign sounds great. A consortium of organizations and individuals have got together to address the problem of poor reading: the tail in the distribution of reading ability that seems to stubbornly remain, despite efforts to reduce it. Poor readers are particularly likely to come from deprived backgrounds, and their disadvantage will be perpetuated, as they are at high risk of leaving school with few qualifications and dismal employment prospects. I was pleased to see that the campaign has recognized weak language skills in young children as an important predictor of later reading difficulties. The research evidence has been there for years (Kamhi & Catts, 2011), but it has taken ages to percolate into practice, and few teachers have any training in language development.
But! You knew there was a 'but' coming. It concerns the way the campaign has used evidence. They've mostly based what they say on the massive Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and the impression is they have exaggerated the negative in order to create a sense of urgency.
I took a look at the Read On Get On report. The language is emotive and all about blame: "The UK has a sorry history of educational inequality. For many children, this country provides enormous and rich opportunities. At the top end of our education system we rival the best in the world. But it has long been recognised that we let down too many children who are allowed to fall behind. Many of them are condemned to restricted horizons and limited opportunities." I was particularly interested in the international comparisons, with claims such as "The UK is one of the most unfair countries in the developed world."
So how were such conclusions reached? Read On, Get On commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to compare levels of reading attainment in the UK with that of other developed countries, with a focus on children approaching the last year of primary schooling.
Given the negative tone of "letting down children", it was interesting to read that "In terms of its overall average performance, NFER’s research found England to be one of the best performing countries." I put that in bold because, somehow, it didn't make it into the Guardian, so is easy to miss. It is in any case dismissed by the NFER report in a sentence: "As a wealthy country with a good education system, that is to be expected."
The evidence of the parlous state of UK education came from consideration of the range of scores from best (95th percentile) to worst (5th percentile) for children in England. Now this is where I think it gets a bit dishonest. Suppose there were a massive improvement in scores for a subset of children, such that the mean and highest scores went up, but with the lowest scoring still doing poorly; presumably, the shrill voices would get even shriller, because the range would extend even further. This seems a tad unfair: yes, it makes sense to stress that the average attainment doesn't capture important things, and that a high average is not a cause for congratulation if it is associated with a long straggly tail of poor achievers. But if we want to focus on poor achievers, let's look at the proportion of children scoring at a low level, and not at some notional 'gap' between best and worst, which is then translated into 'years' to make it sound even more dramatic.
The question is how does England compare with other countries if we just look at the absolute level of the low score corresponding to the 5th percentile. Answer: not brilliant – 16th out of the 24 countries featured in the subset considered by the NFER survey. But, rather surprisingly, we find that the NFER survey excluded New Zealand and Australia, both of whom did worse than England.
So do we notice anything about that? Well, in all three countries, children are learning English, a language widely recognized as creating difficulty for young readers because of the lack of consistent mapping between letters (orthography) and sounds (phonology). In fact, when looking for sources for this blogpost, I happened upon a report from an earlier tranche of PIRLS data, which examined this very topic, by assigning an 'orthographic complexity' score to different languages. The authors found a correlation of .6 between the range of scores (5th to 95th percentile again, this time for 2003 data) and a measure of complexity of the orthography. I applied their orthography rating scale to the 2011 PIRLS data and found that, once again the range of reading scores was significantly related to orthography (r = .72), with the highest ranges for those countries where English was spoken – see Figure below. (NB it would be very interesting to extend this to include additional countries: I was limited to the languages with an orthographic rating from the earlier report).
|PIRLS 2011 data: range of reading attainment vs. orthographic complexity|
I'm not saying that the tail of the distribution is unimportant. Yes, of course, we need to do our best to ensure that all children are competent readers, as we know that poor literacy is a major handicap to a person's prospects for employment, education and prosperity. But let's stop beating ourselves over the head about this. Research indicates that the reasons for children's literacy problems are complex and will be influenced by the writing system they have to learn (Ziegler & Goswami, 2005) and constitutional factors (Asbury & Plomin, 2013), as well as by the home and school environment: we still have only a poor grasp of how these different factors interact. Until we gain a better understanding, we should of course put in our best efforts to help those children who are struggling. The enthusiasm and good intentions of those behind Read On, Get On are to be welcomed, but their spin on the PIRLS data is unhelpful in implying that only social factors are important.
Asbury K, and Plomin R. 2013. G is for genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.
Kamhi AG, and Catts HW. 2011. Language and Reading Disabilities (3rd Edition): Allyn & Bacon.
Ziegler JC, & Goswami U (2005). Reading acquisition, developmental dyslexia, and skilled reading across languages: a psycholinguistic grain size theory. Psychological bulletin, 131 (1), 3-29 PMID: 15631549