Literacy curricula tend to be imposed on schools and teachers by national or local government agencies. Consideration is sometimes given to the views of the teachers who have to implement such national policies but rarely to the views of the most crucial participants – the learners themselves. Finding out the perceptions about literacy and its teaching held by students can be an important element of effective instruction. In this paper we report briefly upon one attempt to do this.
Nationally imposed curricula for literacy are now a significant feature in the educational landscape in many countries. These national approaches have received strong criticism, especially because of their ‘one size fits all’ model. Criticism internationally has generally focused on the point that such approaches undervalue the contribution that skilful, creative teachers can make to effective literacy instruction.
But these nationally imposed curricula for literacy also make it difficult for literacy teachers to take account of the perceptions of the students they teach. Learner perceptions of literacy and its teaching can radically affect the outcomes of literacy instruction and teachers of literacy need to take some steps to understand these in their own instructional contexts.
The 1970s and 80s saw a number of significant investigations into learners’ perceptions of literacy, perhaps best exemplified by the investigations of Downing (e.g. 1986) into what he termed ‘cognitive clarity’, by which he meant the understandings that learners need to develop about the functions and features of written language. What emerged from studies like these was a picture of general confusion, among younger students at least, about the purposes and mechanisms of literacy. Students were not clear about why they were learning to read and why they were being asked to carry out the activities they were.
out two studies of our own in the early 90s which added to this picture.
Medwell (1991) investigated the perceptions of reading held by elementary school students and the way these related to what these readers were trying to do when they read. She found that the poorer the readers, the more likely they were to be using only graphophonic cues in reading and the more likely they were to be confused about what reading was and how you did it. Poorer readers appeared to have a very narrow concept of reading and a very limited range of strategies for approaching it. Good readers generally had a much more balanced view of reading and were more meaning-focused in their attempts to read.
Wray (1993) investigated students’ perceptions of writing by collecting written comments from 475 children, aged between 7 and 11 years. The results showed an overwhelming preoccupation with the secretarial aspects of writing. This seemed like powerful evidence that, somehow or other, these children had gained the impression that what really mattered in the writing they did in their classrooms were the technical aspects.
The research mentioned above was set in a context of burgeoning interest in metalinguistic awareness. The basic principle here was the assumption that if learners’ metalinguistic awareness could be enhanced, this would lead to an increase in their literacy competence. Evidence about the success of this is mixed. Yet its very expression puts it at odds with current ways of thinking about learning and development. Metalinguistic awareness was conceived as something learners had, that is it was a part of their individual psyche. Currently such individualistic notions of cognition are out of fashion and a more socially constructed view is generally accepted.
In terms of curriculum, one of the effects of this shift of interest from the individual to the social has been a realisation that the experiences provided for learners in classrooms are not the crucial factor in what these learners take away from their schooling. Of more significance is the curriculum that learners construct in their heads – a construction inherently social in nature. To put this simply, a curriculum cannot just be delivered to learners with predictable effects.
As an example of this, take the case of the teaching activity known internationally as ‘shared reading’, involving a teacher sharing the reading of a text with a whole class. The rationale for this activity is that the teacher can model for learners how to read and make sense of a text. In the research study we will describe later, two 8 year old students had this to say when asked, ‘How do you feel about reading together with the whole class?’
Student 1: ‘We don’t read together as a class. Miss just reads to us from the big book’.
Student 2: ‘I like reading with the whole class … because it helps me when we come to a word I don’t know’.
Here are two students who have had exactly the same curriculum delivered to them, sitting together in the same room in front of the same teacher. Yet they have each constructed radically different curricula from this experience. Such illustrations suggest that in trying to understand literacy teaching in classrooms, a crucial step to take is to gain some insight into what the learners are making of the experiences they are offered.
Current approaches to the teaching of
literacy in many countries might best be described as ‘managerialist’. They are
largely determined by the requirements placed upon teachers from above, either
from national/federal governments or from more local bodies. Participants in
the teaching of literacy (schools, teachers, learners) are generally assumed to
be more alike than different, with the effect that their individual differences
and perceptions are downplayed in policy and pedagogy. Although teachers are
required to implement teaching approaches, national strategies such as the
National Literacy Strategy in the
These national approaches have received
strong criticism from a variety of sources. Yet such critique has generally
focused on the point that managerialist approaches undervalue the contribution
that creative teachers can make to effective literacy instruction. In the
“The insistence upon a particular approach to reading … is dangerous because it deskills teachers, ignores decades of craft knowledge and places undue reliance upon formulas and templates.” (http://nochildleft.com/2003/jan03.html#15)
A line of critique noticeably missing, however, has been a consideration that teaching approaches can only work well when they fit with the learners for whom they are designed. Modern theories about pedagogy suggest that curriculum cannot be imposed upon learners but is actively constructed by them. If this is the case, then the perceptions of the major participants in learning, the learners, are of crucial importance in understanding the nature of the experienced curriculum in classrooms.
Perceptions of the literacy hour
The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was established as a national initiative in 1997 with the aim of raising literacy standards in English primary schools. The political impulse to target standards arose from research findings which showed that Britain was generally out-performed in international comparisons of literacy standards and that a distinctive feature of British performance was the existence of a long “tail” of underachievement greater than in other countries (Beard, 1998).
The NLS provided a framework which set out termly teaching objectives. Teachers were recommended a prescribed pattern of teaching (the literacy hour). For the first time British teachers were told not only what to teach, but how to teach it.
There has, naturally, been considerable debate about the NLS and the research that underpins it. In his review of this research, Beard (1998) recognised that ultimately success would depend on the knowledge and skills of teachers and the co-operation of parents and students. Teachers, researchers and others have all commented on aspects of the strategy, but the views of one group, the students themselves, have been under-represented.
The time seemed ripe, therefore, for a detailed inquiry into what students thought about the literacy hour. Our aim was to explore these perceptions among a sample of 297 students aged from 7 to 11, made up of boys and girls of various abilities, using a mixture of survey and case study methods to gather evidence.
Data was gathered in the following ways:
· A questionnaire survey of 11 complete classes containing 297 boys and girls of a range of abilities.
· Interviews with three students from each class (33 in total). Students were selected randomly but stratified according to gender (at least one boy and girl from each class), and ability (in each class one student considered above average, average and below average was selected).
· Each of these interviewed students (33 in total) was then observed during one literacy hour.
We do not have space here for a full account of the results of this project, but will confine ourselves to a review of the key issues.
Do students enjoy the literacy hour?
Research by Smith and Whiteley (2000) found that teachers believe that students generally enjoy the literacy hour. Our research confirms that teachers are correct in this but not in the case of every student. 61.8% of students completing the questionnaire said they enjoyed the literacy hour and 72% of students interviewed responded favourably when asked what they thought of it. This leaves a substantial minority (30 – 40%) who do not enjoy the literacy hour.
Some parts of the literacy hour appeared more popular than others. From the questionnaire 82.4% of students enjoyed Shared Reading and Writing as a class and 65.1% were happy with the amount of time spent on this activity. However, although students claimed to enjoy this part of the lesson, their behaviour told a different story. Evidence from the observations showed that only 61% of students appeared to be enthusiastic during this activity. Levels of enthusiasm were higher during other parts of the hour.
This leads us to question why a higher percentage of students claimed to enjoy shared activity than actually appeared to be enthused by it. We could speculate that one of the reasons this part of the lesson is popular is that the work is undertaken together, reading or writing as a class. This inevitably removes the pressure upon the individual to perform and may allow some students to sit back and allow others to do the work, thus appearing uninterested.
When the evidence from the interview and the questionnaire was analysed in terms of gender, there was little difference between the views expressed by boys and girls. This result is perhaps surprising in the light of current anxieties about the underachievement of boys in literacy.
However, amongst the less able students there did seem to be a relationship between gender and the likelihood of appearing to be enthusiastic. More below average girls (50%) than boys (28%) were judged to be enthusiastic.
The results of the interviews showed that the majority of students said they enjoyed the literacy hour and that ability or gender did not appear to be a determining factor. However, observations suggested that many lower ability students and, in particular, lower ability boys did not appear to be interested or enthusiastic about it.
More able students
Hanke (2000) and Hancock and Mansfield (2002) expressed concern that more
able students would become bored by the repetitive structure of the literacy
28% of students who were interviewed
did express negative views about the literacy hour and boredom was mentioned
regularly, although students who used this word were spread evenly across the
Observations showed that throughout the literacy hour more able students in general, and particularly more able girls, were most likely to be on task, enthusiastic and participating. This research has not found any evidence to suggest that the more able are bored during the literacy hour.
The observations showed that above average ability girls were most likely to be participating in all parts of the literacy hour. Students of below average ability were least likely to participate.
Several researchers have expressed concern over the suitability of the literacy hour for students of different abilities. Although this research has not found boredom among more able students to be an issue, a significant proportion of students appeared not to be participating in some parts of the lesson. Closer inspection shows that these students were more likely to be the less able members of the class.
What type of texts did students prefer?
The questionnaire showed
for reading story was the most popular text type, chosen by 50.1% of all
students. The choice of text was important. 42.9% of boys and 31.5% of girls
agreed that the choice of text affected their level of enjoyment. If they did
not like the text they were less likely to enjoy the lesson.
Research (e.g. Moss 1999) has frequently suggested that boys prefer non-fiction texts. However, in this research we found that, for shared reading, story was the most popular text type amongst boys, chosen by 54.3% of the boys. Poetry was most popular amongst girls, chosen by 50%, closely followed by story at 45.9%. Only 12.2% of students chose information texts as their preferred text type. This made non-fiction the least popular text type overall.
As study of a shared text is commonly followed in the literacy hour by a writing activity involving a similar genre, we were interested to find out if this pattern was reflected in students’ writing choices. Students were asked if they had a favourite type of writing. More boys (33%) chose story as their favourite type of writing than any other genre. More girls chose poetry as their favourite type of writing, closely followed by story. Non-fiction was the least popular type of writing amongst both genders.
The results of our research into student perceptions of the literacy hour suggest that, on a number of issues, teachers may have misconceptions about the effects of this approach on their students.
Teachers appear to be confident that their students enjoy the experience of the literacy hour. Our data, however, suggests that this is not true for anything between 30 to 40% of students. Although over 80% of students appeared to be enjoying activities like shared reading, the reasons for their enjoyment may not be what teachers suppose. Many fewer students exhibited enthusiasm during the lessons observed and it could be that the reason some of them said they enjoyed shared reading was simply that it made few demands upon them.
Teachers would probably guess that the students who would enjoy their literacy work least would be the less able and the boys, and in this our data supports them. Low ability students, in particular boys, did seem to be enjoying their experiences much less than other students. Of course, it was mainly for the benefit of such lower ability students that the literacy hour was instituted in the first place. While lack of enjoyment does not necessarily equate to lack of academic progress, there is likely to be some relationship.
One of the principal aims of the literacy hour approach was that literacy teaching should be well-paced and interactive (DfEE, 1998), the point being to maximise student participation rates in every lesson. Evidence is beginning to emerge to question whether this has been achieved (Hardman, Smith & Wall, 2003) and our data seems to confirm this doubt. Significant numbers of our students were not participating in an active way in literacy lessons, and did not wish to, and this was particularly the case with below-average learners.
It has become almost common-place to attribute one of the causes for the under-achievement of boys in literacy to the types of texts they are asked to read and write in school. Boys prefer non-fiction, so the argument goes, and schools tend to privilege fiction, thus alienating young male students. Our data does not support this assertion. In both reading and writing, non-fiction was the least popular text type, even amongst boys.
It is our contention that these are important findings which ought to have an influence upon the ways teachers teach literacy. Yet we return to our main point: that such insights cannot be gained unless we all, teachers and researchers, start taking much more account of the views about literacy teaching held by those we teach. Student perceptions matter, and we need to take much more seriously the business of finding out what they are.
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