The Prerequisites for Successful Teaching and Learning of Literacy

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  • The Prerequisites for Successful Teaching andLearning of Literacy

    Greg Brooks

    IntroductionThis article has grown out of a paper I wrote for the High Level Group stating myframework for generating ideas for policy recommendations and for working outwhere they fit into an overall strategy for the measures which will be necessary ifour vision for the future of literacy in our continent is to be realised. The firstsentence of our vision statement is:

    All citizens of Europe shall be literate, so as to achieve their aspirations asindividuals, family members, workers and citizens.

    (European Commission, 2012, p. 3)

    For this vision to be achieved, a set of prerequisites must all be in place. In whatfollows, I take each prerequisite in turn and state what seems to me to be a few ofits principal implications. The categories cannot be neatly separated forexample, preschool provision is both social and educational, but, broadlyspeaking, they move from the psycho-motor, through the cognitive, to the affective.To avoid constant repetition of European Commission (2012), where I refer toour report I simply give the page number.

    Physiological PrerequisitesNormal brain functionAdequate intelligence

    Literacy for all must include good provision for those who have learning diffi-culties and disabilities, including the use of assistive technologies.

    Very few people have either such poor brain function or such low intelligence thatthey cannot acquire functional literacy (p. 30), so all should be considered teachableand taught. In the worlds first randomised controlled trial intended to improve theword recognition of children with Downs syndrome (Burgoyne et al., 2012), theintervention group made significantly better progress than the control group.

    A strong implication we point out (p. 30; Dehaene, 2009, p. 235ff.) is thatdyslexia is not an incurable condition and that virtually all struggling readers canbe helped.There need be no differentiation between interventions for dyslexics andthose for other poor readers these categories are not clear-cut and overlap(Rose, 2009; Singleton, 2009), and programmes for either group can help theother. But adopting this principle will require a change of mindset, such thatdyslexia is not conceived as a distinct problem and/or one requiring medicalapproaches (pp. 4546).

    It would also seem logical for literacy interventions to be based on literacy andnot, for example, on medication (e.g. giving children travel sickness pills, asadvocated some years ago by one researcher in the US) or on movementprogrammes. For some (admittedly limited) information on the failure of one


    European Journal of Education, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2013DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12049

    2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • movement programme see Brooks (2009, pp. 1213 & p. 34), but for one suchprogramme that does seem to have benefited reading see McPhillips et al. (2000).

    Normal or corrected-to-normal vision and hearing (or adaptations for the visually- orhearing-impaired)

    Every child should be tested for hearing and eyesight at the right age(s) for diagnosisand treatment to be most effective (p.90) unfortunately this is not the case every-where. Hearing loss bad enough to cause communication difficulties and speechdelay may affect only small numbers of children, but otitis media with effusion(commonly known as glue ear) affects many more and, if not treated early enough,causes reading and spelling difficulties because of imprecise hearing of phonemes.

    Similarly, visual impairment bad enough to count as partial blindness mayaffect only small numbers of children, but undiagnosed short-sightedness (myopia)can leave more children floundering in the classroom. Some children and adultssuffer a condition now known as visual stress (previously called Meares-Irlensyndrome and earlier still, though erroneously, scotopic sensitivity syndrome).For this condition but not for dyslexia or poor reading more generally, tintedlenses or coloured overlays can help (Wilkins, 2002).

    Social PrerequisitesA supportive family

    Learning at mothers knee (as it used to be called) has for centuries been the mosthumane introduction to reading (p. 57) and, until the introduction of formalcompulsory schooling, the most usual; Clanchy (1984) documents part of thehistory of this from medieval paintings of the Virgin and Child.

    As Carpentieri et al.s (2011) report for the European Commission shows,family literacy programmes provide substantial benefit for childrens emerging andearly literacy development. There is also some, though less, evidence that suchprogrammes boost parents ability to help their childrens language and earlyliteracy development (Brooks et al., 2008), and some telling evidence of benefitslasting beyond the end of the programmes, e.g. up to 21/2-3 years afterwards inBritain (Brooks et al., 1996, 1997); long-term research on the Turkish EarlyEnrichment Project (Kagtbasi et al., 2005), which followed a group of youngpeople from age 46, when their mothers participated (or not), to age 26, found thatmore of those whose mothers had participated had graduated from university thanin the comparison group.The evidence on whether such programmes boost parentsown literacy skills is limited and inconclusive. However, where the same tests wereused and gains can therefore be directly compared, in both Britain and the US thegains made by parents in family literacy programmes are similar, overall, to thosemade by learners in general adult literacy programmes (Brooks & Hannon, 2013).

    Everywhere, the great majority of the parents in family literacy programmes ismothers. However, research on the Raising Early Achievement in Literacy pro-gramme in Sheffield, England, has shown that there can be extensive involvementof fathers at home that is easily overlooked (Morgan et al., 2009). InTurkey, wheremixed classes would not be culturally acceptable, the Mother-Child EducationFoundation also runs classes for fathers. These are well-attended, but not nearlyas numerous as programmes for mothers. However, an evaluation involvingabout 400 participating fathers (Koak, 2004) suggested they had become less

    558 European Journal of Education, Part I

    2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • traditional and authoritarian in their attitudes and more open in communicatingwith their children.

    Several researchers insights on how parents reading to children contributes tothe childrens greater progress in literacy learning were summed up by Purcell-Gates (Purcell-Gates & Waterman, 2000, p. 215) as follows:

    Children who experience years of listening to written stories implicitly learnthe linguistic differences between oral discourse and written storybook dis-course, particularly the literate vocabulary, complex grammatical construc-tions and . . . decontextualised nature of written language. Children with theBig Picture of literacy functions (knowledge that print means linguisticallyand that it serves many purposes in peoples lives) take more intentionallyand successfully from instruction.

    The evidence on benefits for childrens development and for parents ability toassist them implies that family literacy programmes need to be encouraged morewidely. However, some children, in some places many children, arrive at schoolwithout having had the benefit of parental preparation. I discuss the implicationsof this below, under educational prerequisites.

    A supportive community

    There are, of course, many levels and aspects to this, local, national and interna-tional. Perhaps the most important implications are that local initiatives need to getall relevant stakeholders on board and that Literacy for all means not only nodiscrimination against linguistic and ethnic minorities (e.g. Roma), but positivediscrimination in their favour to help reverse the effects of the sorts of prejudicereported by the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest (

    When local people are told that they can help with literacy needs and will besupported to do so, and that their efforts are recognised, the response can be superb.During 2011, the London Evening Standard newspaper and theVolunteer ReadingHelp charity (now known as Beanstalk) mounted a Get London Reading cam-paign to recruit volunteer helpers and raise money to train them; the High LevelGroups chairperson, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, provided well-publicised endorsement (as she did of several initiatives across the continent). Over1 million was raised, and, across England, in the school year 2011/12 over 2,100volunteers helped 6,400 children in over 1,100 schools ( A sample of children on whom their schools reportedin November 2012 had been enabled to make normal progress in reading during theyear, whereas in the previous year they had on average made none.

    Where communities are supportive, the support may be reciprocated. Forexample, parents who had participated in family literacy programmes in Britainwere later judged by their childrens teachers to be twice as likely as other parentsto be involved with the school (Brooks et al., 1997).

    Linguistic PrerequisitesAdequate command of at least one spoken language (or Sign), in particular a broadvocabulary

    Children who have speech, language and communication needs must be givenearly and effective support (pp. 6061) from speech and language therapists where

    Greg Brooks 559

    2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • necessary, since speech is the primary mode of communication even the mostliterate and text-addicted people communicate more orally than in writing. Thus,oracy (speaking and listening) skills are important and valuable in their own right,as well as being, of course, the indispensable foundation of literacy.

    Although professionals in the speech, language and communication fieldmostly have specialised training, they need access to up-to-date information.In 2013, the Communication Trust, based in London, established a proto-type database of interventions ( Some of the interventions focus on encouraging parents to talkmore, and more helpfully, with their children. Children whose parents talk andread to them constantly develop their speech and vocabulary faster and morefluently (p. 58), especially if their parents not only expand their utterances into fullgrammatical form, but extend them by, for instance, pointing out something thechild has not referred to or by asking why something has happened or what mighthappen next. Detemple (1995) in the US visited 54 families when the child was31/2, 41/2 and 51/2 years old and studied both the quality of the mothers talk whilereading to the children and the childrens literacy attainment in kindergarten (age5). She found that non-immediate talk by the mothers, for example explanations,inferences, predictions, etc., was much rarer than immediate talk such as label-ling, counting and paraphrasing; but that the mothers use of non-immediate talkwhen the children were 31/2 was associated with higher literacy scores in kinder-garten, and that the percentage of immediate talk at all three ages was negativelyassociated with literacy scores.

    Sufficient access to printed material in a language(s) which they speak natively or havelearnt

    The excellent principle that all children have the right to be educated in theirmother tongue is partly based on research evidence that children from linguisticminorities who learn to read first in their mother tongue make better progress inthe national language when they transfer to it than if they are taught in thenational language from the start (Benson, 2004). However, this principle maywell conflict with practicality: for example, over 300 languages other than Englishare spoken by schoolchildren in London (von Ahn et al., 2010), so that there isno prospect whatever of the education authorities in that city attempting toprovide mother-tongue education. And in some cases such provision might leadto racial segregation.

    Implications in this area are therefore that mother-tongue education should beprovided where practicable, minority language communities should be encouragedand supported in maintaining their linguistic identity and developing their writtentraditions, and a wide and high-quality offer of attractive books in all languagesshould be encouraged. In Iceland, for example, every year in the run-up toChristmas dozens of new books are produced, discussed avidly in the media, andbought as presents.

    More practical in many circumstances is the principle that every child shouldenter school speaking the language of the school (pp. 2425), whether or not it istheir home or mother tongue. For this to happen, especially for those whose homeor mother tongue is not the language of the school, effective preschool provision isthe principal precondition. And much of the argument here about young childrenalso applies directly to newly arrived migrants, both older children and adults, who

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  • need to acquire the language of their new country speedily, and need the supportto do so.

    Educational PrerequisitesSufficient exposure to opportunities to learn to read and write, which should include beingread to copiously and will include access to good public and school libraries

    There is strong evidence that attending good preschool provision prepares childrenwell for starting school. In Malta, the 1999 survey of the literacy attainment in bothMaltese and English of virtually all seven-year-old pupils in the country (N = 5,500)showed that, with other factors controlled, those who had attended two years ofkindergarten had higher average scores than those who had attended one year ornone (Mifsud et al., 2000). In England, the Effective Provision of PreschoolEducation project in London showed that the 250 children in the sample who hadnot attended any form of preschool had lower average attainment on school entry atage 5 than the 2,500 who had; and, further, that within the latter group, those whohad been in high-quality provision (nursery, kindergarten) had higher averageattainment than those who had been with childminders (p. 58). A review commis-sioned by the European Commission (Bennett et al., 2012, p. 7) concluded thathigh quality ECEC [Early Childhood Education and Care] programmes havelong-lasting effects on childrens cognitive development. These services enhanceholistic development and cognitive abilities that facilitate further acquisition ofdomain-specific skills related to language, general knowledge and mathematics.

    Thus, there is a strong case for universal preschool provision and for thatprovision to occur in the two years before school entry. In several countries acrossthe continent this provision is free, and in some cases compulsory in the yearbefore school entry. These features should be aspirations for all countries inEurope.

    In the UK, in addition to quite widespread family literacy progr...


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