Category Archives: Literacy



Minimum Reading speed  of 60 words a minute required in order to comprehend


A World Bank paper, just out (see link), says that  ‘The failure of education reforms to achieve the goal of quality is partly attributable to absence of  instruments and procedures that provide information to key consumers – namely teachers,  administrators, policy makers but especially students and their families – on students’ learning.’  Its no crime to state the blindingly obvious.

It then goes on to make an arresting  , if less well known, point that could be of real  interest and utility  to these ‘key consumers’ . Apparently experts know the speed of reading required for a child to make sense of what they are reading. The paper states ‘ Take a typical example: studies indicate that students should read a minimum of one word per  second, 60 words per minute on the average. If they do not read at this speed, they forget the content as they read, and by the end of the sentence they will not remember what they read at the beginning. So comprehension will not actually occur (Abadzi 2006, 2008).

The paper makes the valid point that the results might  be rather different if a student’s reading skills were monitored against the corresponding standards.  And then the pace, content and methods of instruction could be adjusted accordingly. But how many parents and teachers actually know this rather important piece of information? Self-evidently  it could have a major impact on a child’s standard of reading and overall performance and learning progress.


What is the point in learning a language?

Moves to make languages compulsory at KS 2


There is an almost unique resistance among the British to learning a foreign language. Why? The perception is that  it is better to focus on literacy, numeracy  the sciences and ICT (where we still lag internationally) and get those right  because they have greater utility in the work place. And ,besides,  one can get by using English  pretty much anywhere in the world.  It’s the international language of business,  after all.. etc.

However there is growing evidence that we are losing out by being so poor at languages and its a growing concern to employers,

A 2005 report found UK firms had lower foreign language capabilities than those in 28 other EU countries, with only 34 per cent of firms saying they were competent in any foreign languages, compared to 65 per cent in France and 74 per cent in Germany.  A 2009 CBI survey found that lack of language skills was the skills gap employers were most concerned about.   According to the survey, most employers (65%) are looking for conversational ability, rather than fluency, to help break the ice with customers or suppliers and to assist wider cultural understanding In the global economy our young people find themselves competing for jobs and opportunities with peers from across the world, many of whom speak English and often one or more other major languages.  In short  better language skills are beneficial for the economy and are demanded by UK firms but  are in short supply. But there is also evidence that learning a language helps other cognitive skills.

A DFE impact assessment finds that research shows that foreign language teaching improves spoken language and literacy in English and that it has all-round cognitive benefits, resulting in pupils being more receptive to teaching in all subjects. There is also evidence around cognitive development that suggests that children are better able to learn languages, and particularly the sounds of different languages, when they are younger.  In the high-performing jurisdictions DFE have considered, compulsory foreign language teaching is consistently introduced within the equivalent of our primary  phase.

Indeed, England is out of step with other jurisdictions in not introducing compulsory languages earlier than at Key Stage 3. Most tend to introduce compulsory languages teaching towards the end of our Key Stage 2; for example, Finland and Hungary introduce it at age nine and Victoria (Australia) and Ontario at age 10. Some start at around the beginning of our Key Stage 2; for example France at age seven and South Korea at age eight. New Zealand and Singapore introduce languages teaching at age six, and the Netherlands at age four or five.  In addition, head teachers have said that learning a foreign language plays an important part in community coherence.

The  DFE assessment states ‘The teaching of languages also has social benefits: it has a part to play in community coherence and a better understanding of different communities within our own society. It leads to an appreciation of cultural diversity and identity and thus to greater tolerance’. Given that schools with higher proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, with English as an additional language, and those with lower results in statutory assessment at Key Stage 2 are the least likely to be teaching a foreign language at Key Stage 2, there is an important benefit in making the subject compulsory in terms of equality of opportunity.

In the existing National Curriculum teaching a modern foreign language is only statutory in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). A system of non-statutory incentives has met with some success in increasing the number of children in primary schools being taught a foreign language, but problems remain. However primary language teaching is not yet sustainable in many schools, due in large part to the non-statutory status of the subject. This means that we are not capitalising on the benefits that could be gained from making the subject compulsory at this key stage.  The Expert Panel advising the National Curriculum Review has set out their recommendation that language teaching should be introduced in the National Curriculum earlier than currently, based on international evidence of when other countries introduce language teaching, advice  from key stakeholders and responses to the National Curriculum review Call for Evidence.


A study published in the International Journal of Bilingualism found that schoolchildren who are fluent in a foreign language are better at problem-solving and creative thinking than their classmates. The author Fraser Lauchlan, an honorary lecturer at the University of Strathclyde school of psychological sciences and health, said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them. “Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem-solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils. “We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention — the ability to identify and focus on information that is important, while filtering out what is not — which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”


Note 2

The latest A level  results  revealed a continuing fall in the numbers of pupils taking modern languages – with French, Spanish and German in decline.



There is an on-going battle over the prominence of synthetic phonics in teaching reading

And the new phonics screening test


Professor Dominic Wyse has co-authored The Early Literacy Handbook with primary head teacher Christine Parker. It makes a significant contribution to the on-going debate on phonics.

The Government, and in particular Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister are keen advocates of synthetic phonics. This Handbook claims to put forward a practical alternative to the government’s emphasis on synthetic phonics, underpinned by research evidence.

There are two main types of phonics – analytic and synthetic. In analytic phonics, children are taught whole words and later analyse their constituent parts, such as c-at or str-eet. In synthetic phonics, the key is to teach them sounds of letters and letter combinations first, then combine those to form words: c-a-t or s-t-r-ee-t.

Schools differ in their approaches .There is evidence that teachers  use both synthetic and analytic phonics  but  alongside several other approaches to reading, and the debate is, in a certain sense at least,  an academic one.

Synthetic phonics, claim its advocates, is the most efficient way of delivering the “alphabetic principle” to children, that’s to say, the abstract principle by which children learn that letters correspond to sounds and sounds correspond to letters. They learn this abstract principle through the specifics of “getting” (a) the examples where these correspondences are regular (“cat”, “chop”, “sit” and the like) and (b) from learning by heart “tricky words” – often the commonest in English – which are not regular, like “is” and “was”. By the end of year 1, children should have got hold of this “alphabetic principle” and to prove it, they will all sit down and do a “phonics screening test”.  Wyse and Parker argue that children learn the mechanics of language best within the context of classroom talk and high quality children’s books.  “Contextualised teaching begins with whole texts that engage children’s interest and motivation,” they write. “The most important features of texts, such as the way narrative connects with children’s sense of wonder and with their everyday lives, is emphasised first and foremost. Work on the sentences, words, letters and phonemes then follows naturally because these linguistic building blocks are made naturally meaningful when children experience them in the context of whole texts.  Teaching about letters and phonemes is an important component in learning to read, but there are serious risks if it is magnified above all others, especially as the focus of high stakes national testing.”  The book sets out to guide teachers in finding creative ways to develop their pupils’ enthusiasm for and engagement with reading and writing.  While it describes teaching techniques and strategies which bring together research and practice, the book emphasises that teachers should “avoid the idea of ‘recipes’” and release their own creativity.

Each chapter opens with an account of theory and research that relates to topics such as “multilingualism” or “grammar and punctuation”. This is then exemplified and expanded by guidance and insights into the practice of teaching.   The book encourages teachers to use technical terms such as “phonemes” (individual sounds) and shows ways to teach letters and sounds using rhymes and songs. Spelling patterns can be reinforced through games such as a treasure hunt for words ending in “ing”.  Writing on the IOE London blog Wyse, professor of early childhood and primary education at the Institute of Education, London, says the Government’s draft programmes of study for English should be completely rewritten: “Pleasure, love and an emphasis on meaning all appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar,” he warns.

Critics of the phonics method, such as children’s author Michael Rosen, are rarely against the use  phonics per se . They see, instead, Phonics as one tool, from a set of tools, that can  help  children  to learn to read.   Rosen argues that Phonics is only, and always only, part of the system by which we make correspondences between sounds and letters (or combinations of letters). We also do this through recognising whole words (as with what the synthetic phonics materials call ‘tricky words’ and the like. We also do it through such processes as prediction, part recognition by phonic methods (eg initial letter or letters), part by sense and meaning and so on. Many words in English cannot be entirely decoded using synthetic phonic methods. One example: the two meanings and sounds of ‘wound’. Producing both correct sounds will not of itself produce the right word. This can only be arrived at through context and meaning.  Rosen also objects to the screening test saying that it is an expensive waste of time, labels very young children failures and goes against the grain of government policy which is to end top down prescription in education, and to give autonomy to schools to make these kind of decisions themselves.

Ministers, though,  point to poor progress in young   pupils reading over a sustained period, which is unacceptable,  with too many pupils not  reaching the required standard  and who are then  ill- prepared for the transition to  secondary school . They cite  research that shows impressive results  from synthetic phonics teaching. ( eg The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching  on Reading and Spelling Attainment-A Seven Year Longitudinal Study-  Rhona Johnston   and Joyce Watson-2005)

The Early Literacy Handbook by Dominic Wyse and Christine Parker. Published by Practical Preschool Books, a division of MA Education Ltd. ISBN 978-1-907241-26-0.



Joe Nutt tells me ‘Anyone interested in this issue should start with Mariah Evans huge research project, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” published in the “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility” about two years ago to get an idea of just how important the family’s (not the school’s) role in literacy development is.’


The Rooted in Reading Programme- Improves reading levels, skills and enjoyment


A report out  last week, published by CfBT Education Trust, looks at the impact of the  Rooted in Reading programme . ‘Rooted in reading’ is a reading promotion project offering both  primary and secondary school  pupils a suite of 12  reading ‘passports’ to encourage reading for pleasure. The passports encourage the reading of a variety of text types and aim to expand the reader’s literary and non-literary experience. They cover the whole range of reading levels from  pre-school children sharing their first books with parents and carers, through to high-achieving sixth-form students.

The report finds that complementary incentives can help children to develop a healthy appetite for reading by rewarding their success. The ‘Rooted in reading’ programme passports improve students’ reading levels, stamina and enjoyment of reading, and contribute to the improvement of their reading skills.

After reading a book, children complete an entry that takes the form of a short review in their passport. The student’s teacher, school or public librarian can then stamp their passport with the project’s tree logo to endorse their reading.

This study explored the impact of the specific reading promotion project (namely ‘Rooted in reading’) based  on survey responses from a sample of 46 schools in Lincolnshire (16 primary, 28 secondary and one special)  and Derbyshire (one secondary) which made use of the passports. The sample surveyed for this research  report included only users or facilitators of the ‘Rooted in reading’ project.

The DCSF publication: Getting Back on Track – Pupils who make slow progress in English, Mathematics and Science in Key Stage 3 highlighted several areas that schools  need to address in order to engage and extend their students as readers. These include:  providing opportunities to discuss students’ reading habits, self-identification of students’reading abilities and capabilities, referrals to texts that will stimulate and extend reading  ability, recommendations for wider reading, opportunities to read for enjoyment in a  supportive environment, awareness that all types of reading count – not just fiction, and  guidance on making independent decisions in relation to reading material.

With this knowledge, the initial passport was created during 2008, the National Year of Reading, with the aim of increasing students’ reading of a variety of text types, including fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, plays and poetry. After the creation and use of this initial passport, it soon became apparent that this one design could not meet the needs of all  primary and secondary school students, so new passports were designed. To date, over  200,000 reading passports, in 12 different designs aimed at distinct target groups, have  been requested and distributed to primary, secondary and special schools in Lincolnshire  and Rutland.

Key Findings

Schools using ‘Rooted in reading’ saw increases in attainment

In primary schools that made extensive use of reading passports, the percentage of students gaining Level 4 or higher in the Key Stage 2 reading SATs rose by 4.4 percentage points between 2007 and 2009.

‘Rooted in reading’ has increased the amount of reading children do

Both teachers and students reported that the passports have increased the amount of  reading that students do, and also, importantly, students’ enjoyment of reading; 75 per  cent of students surveyed reported that the passports have had a positive or strongly positive impact on their enjoyment of reading.

The wider impact of ‘Rooted in reading’

As well as the positive impact on the quality and quantity of students’ reading, the  research revealed a wider impact within the school community. Altogether, 68 per cent of  teachers reported a positive or strongly positive impact on teaching in their school, and  87 per cent noticed the same results in relation to the use of reading resources within the  ,school. In addition, just under half of the teachers (46 per cent) felt that the passports have had a positive or strongly positive impact on students’ use of public libraries


The future of ‘Rooted in reading’

Analysis of survey responses suggests that the factors most likely to make the passports successful are:

• Involvement of other teachers and the headteacher (for example by talking about ‘Rooted in reading’ in assemblies, taking an interest in the passports, asking about progress)

• Involvement of the public library

• Extrinsic rewards (stamping, certificates etc), although these work better in some  settings than in others. Generally the impact seemed to lessen as the children involved  got older; younger readers particularly liked the stamping element and obtaining the  certificates and badges.

‘Rooted in reading passports: Are they an effective way of promoting reading?’ Research report, Steve Willshaw-CfBT Education Trust- April 2012

Note-In September 2002, CfBT began a ten-year partnership with Lincolnshire County Council. The main aim was to support the school improvement agenda in Lincolnshire schools.

The contract has been expanded to include the management of  a number of services for  the County Council, and has now been extended to 2017. The Lincolnshire School Improvement Service (LSIS) has overall responsibility for the governance, leadership, learning and workforce development in schools and settings. This includes the monitoring, support and challenge provided to these establishments to raise the standards and improve the well-being of children and young people in  Lincolnshire.

CFBT Education Trust Report



Engagement with the Arts helps  the attainment and civic engagement  of  the most disadvantaged pupils

Are the Arts being crowded out?


Rocco Landesman, the Chairman National Endowment for the Arts (US), says that over the past four decades, budget pressures and  an increasing focus on just reading and maths have  crowded the arts out of too many school days. What’s  lost?  Landesman claims -The chance for a child to express himself. The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet  succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun,of discovery.  But, adds Landesman , James Catterall and the  fellow authors of a new report on Arts and Achievement,  have shown  that something else is lost, too- potential.

Students who have arts-rich experiences in school  in fact  do better  across-the-board academically, and they also  become more active and engaged citizens, voting,  volunteering, and generally participating at higher  rates than their peers.

The reports key finding is that ‘Socially and economically disadvantaged  children and teenagers who have high levels of  arts engagement or arts learning show more  positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their  low-arts-engaged peers.’ They earn better grades and demonstrate higher rates of college enrolment and attainment.

At-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experiences show achievement  levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the  levels shown by the general population studied

Young adults who had intensive arts experiences in high school are also  more likely to show civic-minded behaviour than young adults who did not. They take an interest in current affairs, as evidenced by comparatively high levels of volunteering, voting, and engagement with local or school politics.  In many cases, this difference appears in both low-  and high-SES groups

Most of the positive relationships between arts involvement and academic outcomes apply only to at-risk populations (low-SES). But positive relationships between arts and civic engagement   are noted in high-SES groups as well.

The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from  Four Longitudinal Studies; James S. Catterall,   University of California Los Angeles   with   Susan A. Dumais,   Louisiana State University   and   Gillian Hampden-Thompson,   University of York, U.K.

April 2012



Sure Start ‘has failed to boost children’s literacy’, new report from CEM  suggests


Few doubt the importance of early interventions in education . Sure Start  which has received billions of pounds of investment over the years  since 1999  and whose funding  is being largely protected by the Coalition government, is the main means by which disadvantaged children receive targeted support. On 30 September 2010, 3,634 Sure Start Children’s Centres were open in England, providing access to services to over three million children under five and their families. Sure Start Children’s Centres are multi-purpose centres bringing together childcare, early education, health, employment and support services, for pre-school children and families. A principal goal of Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) has been to enhance the life chances of young children and their families by improving services in areas of high deprivation. SSLPs were set up between 1999 and 2003 and were experimental, in the sense of trying out different ways of working with deprived communities, where provision had been poor for years. In November 2002 the Inter-departmental Childcare Review promoted the concept of Children’s Centres, following the early lessons from Sure Start, to provide integrated care and education, family support, health services and childminder support. Moves toward the Children Centre model were initiated in 2003 and confirmed in December 2004 in the ten year childcare strategy (HM Treasury, 2004) and from around 2005 SSLPs were generally functioning as Children’s Centres. From April 2006, they came under the control of Local Authorities There are  persuasive arguments about the value of preschool in levelling the playing field for disadvantaged students,  although there have been long standing doubts over some  Sure Start partnerships  cost-effectiveness and there have been difficulties in evaluating programmes which are delivered differently in different areas . A DCSF evaluation report in 2008 conceded that there is  a large degree of variation among Local Authorities and areas within Local Authorities in the way the new Children’s Centres are implemented. And noted too that  this   “poses challenges to evaluating their impact, as each programme is unique”. A National Audit Office report in 2006  found that “ they and local authorities had as yet collected only limited data to assess cost-effectiveness” and “we found that few centres or local authorities knew what centre activities cost or were allocating funds according to an assessment of need or demand for services”. Indeed  early reports on the first phase of  initiative indicated that the main beneficiaries were not disadvantaged children but more privileged ones’  An evaluation report  found  “ the most disadvantaged 3-year old children and their families (i.e., teen parents, lone parents, workless households) were doing less well in SSLP areas, while somewhat more advantaged children and families benefited (i.e., non-teen parents, dual parent families, working households)”

It now transpires, according to a report from a  team from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (Cem), at Durham University, that Children’s early language has improved little despite Sure Start,  one of whose aims is  boosting pre-school educational achievement.  The experts studying the development of 117,000 children starting primary school in England over eight years said their findings showed that early years programmes needed to be reviewed to check whether they were reaching those most in need, particularly pupils from poor backgrounds. ( its worrying that the same point was being made back in 2006)

Basic levels of development in early reading and vocabulary remained largely unchanged between 2001 and 2008. They looked at how children starting at the same 472 state primary schools each year scored in measures called Pips (performance indicators in primary schools), discriminating between different sounds and solving simple problems.

Dr Christine Merrell, who led the research, published by the Oxford Review of Education, said :

“Given the resources put into early years initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there has been no improvement.”

“Our findings reinforce the concern that the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them. If we really want to improve life for the more vulnerable and poorer sections of society, we need to target assistance much more effectively.”

The coalition has called for Sure Start schemes  to refocus their efforts on the poorest children, with middle-class parents likely to be charged for an increasing number of services.

Merrell said ‘Initiatives seem to have failed across the board. We need a widespread, reliable assessment programme.’ Small-scale research studies have found that early years interventions make a difference and lessons needed to be learned about how to apply this when a programme like Sure Start is rolled out on a wider scale, she said. Dr Merrell  though also pointed out that earlier small-scale studies of Sure Start local programmes had shown gains. ‘We need to really evaluate programmes right from the start to make sure they are working, and be prepared to change the intervention if it is not going well, and tweak it. We need to have constant monitoring to check we’re reaching the right children,’ she said. This is not rocket science. One has to wonder why after all these years and billions of pounds of investment it is not happening now in a way that satisfies the experts, given the evaluation problems were flagged up as we have seen  many years ago.  We still don’t know it seems which Centres are cost-effective and which aren’t.

Chief Executive of the charity 4Children, Anne Longfield however remains convinced about the effectiveness of Sure Start.She said in response to the report:

“These findings go against the grain of a mountain of new research which shows the enormous benefit of Sure Start for children and their parents. “Criticisms highlighted in this study are already being addressed and should not cast doubt over the excellent work happening across the country to ensure that Sure Start makes the biggest difference to those who need it most.



New think tank report champions  synthetic phonics but not more centrally driven interventions


A  Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet out this week, commissioned by London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson , ‘ So Why Can’t They Read?, insists that traditional, structured methods such as synthetic phonics – in which children learn to “decode” words by combining individual letters and sounds – are the most effective, and attacks teachers for refusing to adopt them, despite government attempts to encourage their use. According to the report over a third of all children who leave London’s state primary schools at the age of 11 still have difficulties with reading (even though they have passed national tests) and about 5% can hardly read at all. About 20% of pupils leave secondary schools without being able to read or write with confidence. Nick Gibb, the schools Minister has been an  almost evangelical  supporter of the teaching of synthetic phonics in schools. Although the Literacy Strategy due to end at the beginning of next year   incorporates elements of phonics teaching Gibb believes that it doesn’t focus sufficiently on synthetic phonics.   The reports author  Miriam Gross says child illiteracy is made worse because many teachers have a weak grasp of spelling and syntax, and argues that the problem cannot be blamed on the large number of immigrant pupils in city schools.

“There is in fact a great deal of evidence … to show that it is white working-class children who have the most intractable reading difficulties,” she writes. “Unlike most immigrant parents, who are very keen on their children receiving a good education even if they themselves speak very little English, white working-class parents often seem to be indifferent to their children’s education.” Gross, said schools were not repeating phonics “over and over again” but allowing a child-led approach to hold sway. She also suggests that Primary school teachers are breeding illiteracy among children by letting them speak “street” in the classroom. In  other European states, ‘slang is not allowed in the classroom’ Misplaced fear of interfering with self-expression has led to a damaging failure to correct pupils who communicate in an argot mixing linguistic influences from Cockney to Indian,  Boris Johnson writing in the Daily Telegraph on 19 July says  Miriam ‘takes aim at some familiar targets of conservative wrath: child-centred learning, by which children are invited to “discover” the meaning of the printed page before them, rather than being taught; the hostility to academic selection that has bedevilled the teaching establishment; the lack of discipline in some schools; the time wasted in considering the “emotional well-being” of the child, rather than good old instruction in reading and writing.’  He endorses the synthetic phonics method. And rejects the view, espoused by some educationalist, who argue that phonics is  too dogmatic, too authoritarian and too demoralising for children who couldn’t spell out every word in their heads. They hold the  view that ‘Perhaps they should be encouraged just to recognise the words – and so was born the system of “whole word recognition”, intended partly to bolster those who found phonics a strain.’ An approach which, according to Johnson ,explains ‘why literacy has declined in the past 50 years, they claim, and that is why we face a skills shortage caused very largely by the inability of one million working Londoners to read and write.’

But, significantly  what Gross does not recommend ,and it is something that Gibb has been leaning towards, is centrally driven intervention. She suggests, instead,  an annual contest among primary schools to prove that phonics produces more literate children than whole-word recognition, in which pupils memorise words by looking at their shapes and sizes alongside pictures. “The teaching methods of the successful schools – as well as the conduct and enthusiasm of children – would be analysed, so that teachers and parents alike can see which approach works best … It could be sponsored by one of the large corporations which have been so vehement in complaining about the poor skills of school leavers.”  Significantly,  Johnson  concedes that  he has met London children  on Reading Recovery programmes who are obviously benefiting hugely from a mixture of phonics and word recognition and  forms up behind the idea of  a competition.  What many experts seem not to understand  is how the jargon used in this debate just doesn’t help bring the debate to a wider audience. The word ‘synthetic’ and the word ‘phonics’ are both off-putting. They make what is in fact a  simple and straightforward way of learning to read  sound very complicated, when it really  isn’t.’t%20they%20read.pdf



More time in the garden?


Sir Michael Rake, chairman of BT, is the latest high-ranking industrialist to lament the fact that so many school-leavers lack fundamental literacy and numeracy skills that were once taken for granted by employers. Of 26,000 young people who applied to his company’s apprenticeship scheme this year, no fewer than 6,000 were ruled out because they couldn’t spell, or read and write properly. But maybe more  time in the garden might help?  Researchers at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) surveyed 1,300 school teachers and studied 10 schools in depth to examine the impact of school gardening on pupils.The  Reports  findings show that teachers who use gardening as part of learning report that it helps to improve children’s readiness to learn, and encourages them to become more active in solving problems. It also helps to boost children’s literacy and numeracy skills.

The report says: “Fundamental to the success of school gardens in stimulating a love of learning was their ability to translate sometimes dry academic subjects into practical, real world experiences. “Children were encouraged to get their hands dirty – in every sense. Teachers involved in the research said the result was a more active, inquisitive approach to learning.”  It adds: “The changeable nature of gardening projects – where anything from the weather to plant disease can affect the outcome – forced children to become more flexible and better able to think on their feet and solve problems.”  The researchers found that exposing small children to insects, such as worms, helped them to overcome their fears, while waiting for crops to grow teaches children patience.  In 2007, the RHS campaign for School Gardening was launched to encourage schools to create gardens. There are currently 12,000 schools signed up to the Campaign, benefiting 2.5million pupils. Gillian Pugh, chair of the National Children’s Bureau and the Cambridge Primacy Review believes that gardening not only provides opportunities for increasing scientific knowledge and understanding:  ‘It also improves literacy skills, numeracy and oracy, but as well as pupils’ confidence, resilience and self-esteem. The RHS believes that these skills can be learnt when gardening is used as a teaching, and not just an extra-curricular activity.



Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


More than 500,000 students a year choose to learn English in Britain. That figure accounts for almost 43% of all students who choose to travel abroad to learn English. It is estimated that they contribute more than £1.5 billion to the UK economy every year. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students-second only to the United States.

However the last Government, in response to abuse of the system and the myriad of bogus colleges signing up,tightened up the system The difficulty has been and to some extent remains , in identifying those bogus students who have no intention of studying in the UK, but simply seek a route of entry.

Such so-called students have no qualms about deceiving bona fide education providers to obtain an offer of a place on a course that will go some way to securing their entry to the UK. English language courses have proven to be particularly susceptible to abuse by non-bona fide students. Between April and November 2009, UK Border Agency data show that almost a third of English language schools licensed under tier 4 voluntarily notified UKBA of more than 1,100 students who had failed to enrol or who had dropped out of their course of study. The tier 4 student visa can be very attractive to economic migrants because of the generous entitlements that such visas provide to those who wish to study here. The ability to work part-time during term time and full-time during vacations, and to bring family members to the UK, are two important privileges that help the UK to compete with other countries and attract the brightest and the best to study here.

Since the launch of the register of education and training providers, by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in January 2005, more than 300 bogus colleges have needed to be removed from that register. The introduction of tier 4, the student route of the points-based system, along with sponsor licensing, has gone some way in the Governments eyes  to addressing the problem of bogus colleges. Under the new system, students are tied to their sponsoring institution and must now seek the Governments permission   to change institution.  Prior to the introduction of the points-based system, it was estimated that up to 50,000 students could be using the student visa system as a way of staying in the United Kingdom illegally.

On 12 November 2009, only months after the system was put in place, the then Prime Minister ordered a review of it due to concerns about those coming in to study at below degree level. But there are growing concerns that the new requirements pursuant to the Review  are far  too onerous. Particularly the requirement for a basic standard of English. The minimum level of language study permitted under tier 4 is level B2 of the common European framework of reference for languages. That means that students must be at least proficient to level B1 before they can use tier 4 and enjoy the entitlements that the route confers. The definition of B1 competence, which is roughly the equivalent of about an A* GCSE, is that a student can “understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”

Heck, I am not sure I could pass this test.

And the paperwork that needs to be filled in by applicants  is also a huge challenge, even for the most literate. Its not hard to see why   some UK companies  providing English language support are concerned about a diminishing market, asking why come to England to study English if you are  already at this level .  Clearly a balance has to be struck between protecting the system against abuse and attracting  bona fide students to the UK.  But there are some doubts about whether or not we have got this right.  Of course students whose English language ability is not at the appropriate  level are still permitted to come to the UK to develop it, using the student visitor route, which allows a person to come to the UK for up to six months. But its not the same.  The  Government, though, does seem at least to be listening. Minister James Brokenshire  has said “the Minister for Immigration intends to undertake a thorough evaluation of the student system in the coming weeks and months, to  ensure that the measures currently in place strike the right balance between providing a user-friendly route for bona fide students and education providers and keeping out those who would seek to abuse the student system”, which may hold out some hope for beleaguered English language teaching institutions. But we shall have to see.



Early literacy interventions seen as crucial in US


A White Paper from the National Academy of Education in the United States says that America is facing a growing literacy crisis. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which periodically assesses what America’s students know in a variety of subject areas, shows that the nation’s fourth and eighth graders have made only modest gains over the past 15 years in their ability to understand what they read, especially when confronted with texts in science, history, and other school subjects.

The Federal Intervention programme – ‘No Child Left Behind Act’- much in the news lately as President Obama makes education reform a major priority for his administration, makes closing achievement gaps an explicit goal, as  poor and minority children remain far behind their more advantaged counterparts. Perhaps most alarming is the nation’s persistent failure to help the rapidly growing number of English language learners to  gain the capacity to read well enough to learn complex subject matter.

More than one in five U.S. students speaks a language other than English in the home. About 3 million of those students, or 5 percent of all students in the U.S., speak English poorly. Literacy of course is far more than just reading words. To be literate means to fully comprehend the meaning of the words and to be able to analyze, interpret, and critique the message. Literate readers are able to extract knowledge and concepts from a text and talk and write about what they have learned, providing explanations grounded in the text.

Both reading and writing depend crucially on students’ developing their oral language—the words they can use appropriately, the sentences they can construct, and their participation in the give and take of argumentation. A large body of research in literacy development shows that, although explicit instruction in phonics and word identification is important, children also need to develop a rich vocabulary—which depends on opportunities to hear, read, and speak words, either at home or in school.

Research also confirms, according to National Academy of Education, that effective literacy instruction involves discussion that engages students, asks them to reflect, gives them opportunities to express their ideas, and allows them to ask questions. And the place to really make a difference and where interventions have the best returns, is in early years education. So the Academy believes that the   State and federal governments should increase investment in early education programs and make oral language development a primary focus of preschool. The United States should also make it a national priority to provide English language learners with targeted, conceptually rich language instruction starting in preschool and continuing until students are fully proficient in English.

The conclusion is that the federal government can make a valuable contribution in developing the language capacities of language minorities by investing in the development of curricula built around these methods and in providing professional development to teachers who will use them.