kitchen table math, the sequel: So Crazy It Just Might Work...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

So Crazy It Just Might Work...

Norm Geras picks up on the story of a Scottish town that, in ten years, has managed to almost entirely eliminate childhood illiteracy:

When the project was launched, West Dunbartonshire had one of the poorest literacy rates in the UK, with 28% of children leaving primary school at 12 functionally illiterate - that is, with a reading age of less than nine years and six months. Last year, that figure had dropped to 6% and, by the end of this year, it is expected to be 0%. In all, 60,000 children have been assessed, and evaluations show that children now entering primary 3 have an average reading age almost six months higher than previous groups. In 1997, 5% of primary school children had "very high" scores on word reading; today the figure is 45%.

How did they do it? The answer is even more shocking than the results:

Synthetic phonics, where children learn to sound out the single and combined sounds of letters, has been at the core of the scheme
but it has not been the only factor. A 10-strand intervention was set up, featuring a team of specially trained teachers, focused assessment, extra time for reading in the curriculum, home support for parents and carers, and the fostering of a "literacy environment" in the community
[emphasis added]

Let's see - a scientifically-based reading curriculum, frequent assessments, extra time for reading, and support for parents... It's just too bad that there is no bipartisan effort to implement those ideas here in the US.

Naturally, educators are offering their complete support for such an effective program.

Postscript: as a lifelong learner, I'm always glad to learn a new word.


Anonymous said...

Out of 60,000 quite of few of them are going to have serious mental disabilities that prevent learning how to read altogether. If you include every last child, and I mean ALL of them it's impossible for them all to be literate. You can't even have all children walking and talking by that age if you include the entire population of children. The question is what were the criterion for determining who should be included and excluded. I am often skeptical of claims of 100% literacy for this reason alone.

In principle with "normal" children it is possible. Though perhaps what happens is when the child doesn't live up to the standards they are considered "special ed" and not inlcuded in the statistics. Of course that would NEVER happen here in the US.

Catherine Johnson said...

Amazing find.

I wonder if I can find the article the other day reporting that the Scots are far head of the UK on college preparation.


Catherine Johnson said...

Did you see this??

Children need to learn just 100 words and 61 phonic skills to read the English language - not the 150 and 108 respectively suggested by the national literacy strategy, researchers from Warwick University said today.,,1663971,00.html

Catherine Johnson said...

Now that I've dived into the precision teaching stuff - all of which accords with the research on expertise, I believe - I'm even more aghast at our schools.

Basically, we're doing everything wrong.

Just about.

Catherine Johnson said...

EVERYTHING has to be built up from parts.

Wholes come from parts; wholes can't be taught as wholes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Do you remember back when Carolyn was saying that math, for her, is a "seamless whole"?

Well, she was right; that's what the expertise research shows. Experts have "super-chunking"; everything they know seems to be connected to - and to activate, somehow - everything else they know.

That comes from learning all the parts to fluency.

Catherine Johnson said...

Fascinating commentary on Wimbledon this weekend. John McEnroe was talking about why the U.S. isn't doing well these days.

He said that Europe and Russia are doing a brilliant job "teaching the fundamentals."

Ed wonderes whether we have an analog to constructivism in tennis instruction....

Catherine Johnson said...

I love this:

Government backs controversial method

Catherine Johnson said...

more edu-treachery:

(from eduwonk)

Independent George said...

Myrtle - that's a great point; I'd love to see their raw numbers.

I assumed that the 60k was the total number over the 10-year period; 6,000 per year (or 1,000 students per grade level per year) sounds about right for a decently-sized school district (and astoundingly convenient for statistical analysis). Perhaps I'm being naive, but it seems extremely unlikely that they could get away with reclassifying more than 5% of the low performers as special ed without anyone noticing. Even in that scenario, they would have reduced the illiteracy rate from 28% to 5% in ten years; that's still pretty amazing.

Indeed, it is possible that the converse might even hold true in this situation - students previously diagnosed as special ed might have been mainstreamed once they learned to read (I believe this is exactly what happened to kids in DI programs during Follow-Through). This latter point seems more likely given that one of the key elements of the program was to use the assessments to identify the lowest performers, and "bloot them with help" until they improved.

A bigger worry might be a change in the assessment - that the increased literacy is an artifact of easier tests (which, of course, could NEVER happen in America). If so, though, then you would expect to see similar improvements in scores across the entire country during that time period (assuming they used a common assessment throughout the UK).

Anonymous said...

You get what you teach. Our public schools don't teach details. As a result, they'll get generalists, leaders, managers, big thinkers. But few detail people.

We'll continue to recruit engineers and scientists from other countries, and continue to raise marketers in good old America.

It's frustrating for our kids who are naturally detail-oriented. We have to supplement their education heavily.

And our natural generalists could use some supplementation too. Everybody needs balance.

Anonymous said...

No, we don't have a common assesment across the UK. Scotland is a separate country and uses different assements from England an Wales. English national assesments are useless, they are criterion referenced and tell you very little. They have been criticised by some UK academics and by the National Audit Office.

However, I would expect that the Dunbarton results are based on standardised tests, which are more reliable.

The English Department of Education has recommended that exactly the same method of teaching reading, 'synthetic phonics' is used in English schools. Unfortunately they are also deeply involved with Reading Recovery, which perpetrates good old constructivist Whole Language methods. Ironic, isn't it?

Jim said...

Digging a little deeper you can see that they use 'Jolly Phonics' as their program

The research abstracts can be found at:

Has anyone heard about Jolly Phonics? They have some stuff listed at Amazon.

Catherine Johnson said...


Jolly Phonics


Catherine Johnson said...

I'm busy trying to roust the ATC folks from their slumber.

I need a copy of QUICK WRITING SKILLS!


Anonymous said...


Jolly Phonics is one of the longest established and best synthetic phonics programmes in the UK.