About 21,500 bright eyed, excitedly nervous five year olds head off each year for their first day at Auckland schools. Healthy, confident ones with support from home and with strong oral language skills and a few pre-literacy skills will do well.
But for many, starting school is hard. Some don’t have the language skills they need because there wasn’t much talking or much reading at home. Others may be new to learning English. Children whose parents have low literacy are much more likely to struggle to learn to read – and it’s learning to read easily and early that is a key to education success later.
With this on-going intergenerational literacy challenge in mind, I embarked on my month-long Winston Churchill Fellowship. I visited towns where early learning, schools, community groups, employers and local councils are coming together to raise literacy levels. I was lucky enough to visit nine different organisations and programmes in eight towns and cities.
Three key themes stood out for me
- Improving reading is being positioned as an important way out of poverty: Across England and the USA, improving children’s literacy by the time they start high school is being seen as an economic imperative as well as important for wellbeing throughout life.
Save the Children UK has just launched Read On. Get On in England, a national campaign to improve the number of eleven year olds reading well. New research on How Reading can help children out of poverty investigated the likely trajectory of children who don’t read well when starting high school shows the future is bleak and the economic cost high for working class white boys and poor Anglo-Caribbean boys with low reading ability
- Raising literacy takes more than schools: all the initiatives I saw included some focus on improving teacher quality and education leadership, some of which was government funded. In towns like Leicester, Baltimore and Austin, communities were playing a big role in getting children to school ready to learn and keeping them there.
In Leicester there was a major focus on building reading for pleasure and supported city-wide reading and story-telling festivals. They also had ‘Pens Down’ days where the focus was on oral language and talking.
Many programmes sought to get an intentional focus on literacy into after school & holiday programme. Others put on fun summer reading clinics. There were many variations of in-school reading support from volunteers. Leicester was also about to experiment with a targeted programme for 300 low literacy boys over the summer when they moved to high school, linking them with high-school mentors, providing summer enrichment and family visits as well as providing specific specialised reading help. Most cities were encouraging family-facing social services to promote the importance of early oral language and literacy-rich environments in families and in community settings.
- Health is a major driver for improving literacy: people need literacy to receive and understand public health messages, people need literacy. And they need oral language and literacy to manage personal and family health issues and be active and consumers of health services. The public health net was cast wide across some of these cities and programmes.
The Grade Level Reading Campaign is backing Growing Healthy Readers – linking pre-natal care to get normal birthweight babies, asthma management, warm houses and pre-school screening.
Austin was supporting community public health messages about asthma and keeping sick children away from school – while also publicising data on the link between regular attendance and achievement.
In Baltimore, public health specialists were at the table with educators, bringing antenatal and early parenting programmes into early learning centres, where the mobile library also called in.
Taking a different approach, Middlesbrough was about to trial providing books and messages about talking, storytelling and reading to the parents of premature babies, to promote family bonding
Action in Auckland
I came back more convinced than ever of the need to join up across Auckland if we are serious about making a difference to literacy across generations. What do we need to do?
- Grow a broader understanding of the importance of literacy across the lifespan- so more people get that reading matters
- Get family and health services and early learning to share expertise and promote common messages to families
- Promote and scale some of the great community learning initiatives we already have here
- Strengthen the pathways between programmes
- Connect up adult literacy, English language and intergenerational family learning programmes to create more coherent pathways for our families.
My thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship for providing me with this opportunity. Applications are now open for Fellowships in 2016.