Our Biggest Problem

The biggest problem in our schools is the low level of education reached by about 30% of children – worse than in other rich countries.  Many of them (but far from all) are from poorer homes.  These children are behind by the age of 4 and few catch up.  In England, the latest data shows that 62 per cent of disadvantaged pupils reach the expected standard of reading when they leave primary school, compared with 73 per cent of pupils nationally.

This is why we need to look at methods which can help them at an early stage.

Why are some children behind at the age of 5?  Some are weak intellectually for genetic reasons, some come from homes where parents do not speak to them much, some come from homes where they don’t speak English.

Last week I went to a good lecture given by Professor Charles Hume from Oxford University, an experimental psychologist.  He spoke about two studies which tested approaches to raising the ability of young children to speak.  If they can speak, they quickly learn to read.

Both studies had a particular approach.  A group of children were chosen, they were all tested to measure their ability to speak, they were then randomly divided into two, one set receiving no intervention, the other receiving an intervention.  They were then tested again to see if the intervention had made any difference.  As you know, this is called a randomised control trial.

Study 1 (the Nuffield Early Language Intervention Programme) covered small groups of disadvantaged children aged 3-4 and the intervention lasted 30 weeks.  Teaching Assistants were carefully trained to deliver a scripted programme – teaching them words, getting them to describe pictures, listening to stories and answering questions about them, teaching letter sounds.  This produced a huge improvement compared to the control group who did not receive the course.

Study 2 was the parent-delivered early language enrichment programme (Burgoyne, K et al) Parent and Children Together (PACT), working with pre-school disadvantaged children in Blackpool, Lambeth and Bexley.  Half the parents were trained to have daily 20-minute times with their children over 30 weeks.  The half receiving the intervention learnt new words, did listening comprehensions and were generally encouraged to talk.  Here again the improvement of those children receiving this course was far greater than the control group who did not.

A recent, third study, published by the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) describes how nearly 100 schools in the north of England took part in a trial of Reciprocal

Reading, a programme developed by the education non-profit Fischer Family Trust Literacy, designed to improve the reading skills of older primary pupils.

The programme was intervention in small groups of approximately six pupils in Years 5 and 6, who teachers had identified as struggling with their reading. This lasted for at least 30 minutes per week over a 12-week period.

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, led by Dr Liam O’Hare, found that the small groups made an additional two months’ progress in both reading and reading comprehension compared with children who had not had this targeted support.

Reciprocal Reading involves teaching strategies such as questioning, clarifying, summarising and predicting to improve pupils’ reading comprehension.

What these studies all show is that children who are behind their peers can improve – but that it takes resources of time and money and a well-planned series of interventions backed by training for both the parents and teachers.  There is a strong argument for increasing funding in nursery and primary schools.

Professor Barnaby Lenon, Dean of  Education

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