I had just finished reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, when my attention was drawn to Late Line 19/02/2014. set in Iceland in the early 1800’s, dark just like the Icelandic winter; it may not be apparent why the two events are linked but bear with me.
The Evangelical Lutheran church of Iceland, like all protestant churches of the time, made reading and interpreting the Bible paramount. Our patron, Mrs Underwood, related to me that the Finnish Ambassador claimed to her the high literacy rate in Finland is less to do with the schools there but more to do with the long tradition of having to be able to read the Bible before marriage. The protestant reformation in England had the same effect in Shakespearean England. This high incidence of literacy occurred before anything like our universal education systems were established.
The research constantly reminds us that differences between schools or teachers make very little difference to literacy outcomes, whereas what happens at home does. If children miss out on early language and symbols it makes the higher cognitive functions such as reading difficult. It is very hard to regain the ground lost. This is illustrated by this graph from New Scientist. The article talked about why oldies like me have trouble learning some things but not others.
We know that the proportion of children using the public library in Tasmania is low, and yet whether or not a child is a user of a library is a better indicator of literacy that any school factors. This is totally ignored by Lateline and many previous articles and programs on “Tasmania’s Literacy Problem”.
We can continue the high risk strategy of relying on classrooms to make the difference, or we can use a strategy known to work - increase reading for pleasure. If CBCA could raise the consciousness of parents to the importance of early children’s literature then education might be more efficacious and more children could enjoy themselves reading.
Anyone who is interested in literacy should become familiar with the seminal work by Betty Hart and Todd Riseley Summary of literatureShorter summary
An Australian perspective on “school readiness”
Another way is to compare identical twins with the same teacher compared to identical twins with different teachers. Summary at SMH and a fuller account Fuller account.
In New Zealand, several key investigations compared children who started formal literacy lessons at age 5 with those who started age 7. They showed that early formal learning doesn't improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who started aged 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension than those who had started later.
If you randomly allocate large numbers of students to “good” schools by lottery as happened in Chicago NBER Chicago, there is no evidence that the students who change do any better than those who do not.