Pass on the power of reading (Part One)

This is an abridged version of a keynote speech Matt gave at the Closing the Literacy Gap Conference in June 2017. This is part one of two…

Recently, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the Closing The Literacy Gap Conference, which was held at the Valley Parade football stadium in Bradford. It was a sort of homecoming for me…

Firstly, I am a Bradford City fan. For many years – before life got in the way – I held a season ticket in the Kop. So the conference venue has been home to many emotions for me over the years. Disillusionment. Disappointment. Despair.

Nevertheless, it was good to be back at the home of English football and particularly good to be in the warmth and comfort of the banqueting suite rather than out in the stands, beaten by wind and rain. And Notts County.

Secondly, I was born and brought up in that city. Bradford is my hometown so to be interviewed for the local newspaper and radio station was a particular thrill.

Thirdly, it was good to be asked to talk about books because, to my mind, there’s no more important topic and it’s a topic that’s close to my heart…

I was, as I say, born and brought up in Bradford, in the shadow of dark satanic mills and disappointment.

My family and I lived in a row of terraced houses which stuck out from the valley-side like needles on a hedgehog’s back. And life was just as spiky.

My childhood – though happy – was one of hand-me-downs and making-do.

And my first school – in the days before Ofsted and terms like ‘serious weaknesses’ and ‘special measures’ had become the de facto vocabulary of educational failure – was what we used to call ‘shit’.

When I wasn’t pretending to paint whilst surreptitiously sneaking a peak at a Page 3 model on the newsprint laid down to protect the tables, I was sat cross-legged on a threadbare carpet whilst our bearded, be-jumpered teacher strummed his guitar and sang sixties songs.

For those of you old enough to remember Trevor and Simon swinging their pants on Saturday morning kids’ TV, well, it was a lot like that.

As a result, I left first school and started middle school aged nine unable to construct a sentence.

It was only thanks to a determined and dedicated teacher who inspired my burgeoning love of books that I first caught up with and then overtook most of my peers.

But it could easily have been so different for me…

When I spoke at the Pupil Premium conference in Birmingham at the beginning of March, I explained that 1 in 4 children in the UK grows up in poverty. At the time of writing, just a few months later, that figure has already gone up to nearly 1 in 3. Nearly a third of young people now grow up in poverty in this country. This western, civilised, affluent nation.

The academic achievement gap between rich and poor is detectable from an early age – as early in fact as 22 months. And the gap continues to widen as children travel through the education system.

Children from the lowest income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education as the national average. And white working class pupils (particularly boys) are amongst the lowest performers. The link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial.

If you’re a high ability pupil from a low social class, you’re not going to do as well in school and in later life as a low ability pupil from a high social class. In other words, it is social class and wealth – not ability – that defines a pupil’s educational outcomes and their future life chances.

And my birth could just as easily have been my destiny but, aged nine, I was lucky enough to discover that I had a gift, a superpower: I loved reading books.

I still consider reading to be a superpower, a gift, truth be told. And what’s the best thing to do with a gift? It is, in the words of Hector from Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, to “Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”

And that’s what I do with my love of books. I pass it on. It’s why I spoke at the conference in Bradford – and waived my extortionate fee – in order to pass it on…

Oh, and for the free lunch.

One way in which I ‘pass it on’ at home is by reading bedtime stories to my daughter.

Reading my daughter’s daily bedtime story is an innocent act that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. Our bedtime story makes the world seem a better place, it is an oasis of calm and order in an otherwise cold, cruel world.

A book at bedtime is not just a literacy lesson, it’s a way of learning about the world around us, as well as a way of discovering new worlds and, with them, new hopes and dreams, and endless new possibilities. Reading bedtime stories allows us to live a thousand different lives in a thousand different times, not just the one we’re given.

In the moment immediately before my daughter and I descend into our book at bedtime, we stand perched on the edge of the pages, excited, eager to fall headlong into the text, to tumble down and disappear from the world for quarter of an hour, and enter a timeless land of limitless opportunities.

I remember this feeling from my own childhood, too, when as a middle school pupil playing catch-up I devoured books. And these memories are more than just vague recollections of plot and character. Memories of books take me back, sensorily, to a particular time and place. They evoke strong reminiscences of wonderment and discovery.

Aged nine, for example, I lost a wet Saturday afternoon to Enid Blyton. (I can still feel the thrill of it now.) I left a dull, grey northern town to inhabit a sun-streaked world of haunted castles, of exciting adventures and derring-do; of school children using all their ingenuity and bravado to combat dastardly villains before returning home for lashings of ginger beer.

After Blyton came Roald Dahl who gave me the keys to a magical factory wherein rivers flowed with chocolate and the wallpaper tasted of sherbet, then took me into space in a great glass elevator.

Books held a special place for me because they were both my escape and my education…

Books were my escape because, despite my humble circumstances, they afforded me infinite opportunities. They were the ladder of social mobility and enabled me to slip the chains of poverty, to cut the shackles of my birth and make good. I didn’t need money or privilege to see the world or indeed explore the wider universe; books were my means of transport. Books could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

Books were my education because my love of reading fed my love of learning. I was schooled at a time when grammar wasn’t explicitly taught and so learnt to spell, punctuate and understand English grammar solely through reading well-written books. Books were, in the words of the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a “bridge from misery to hope”.

Yes, books were my escape and my education, and reading my children a bedtime story is the best means I have of passing it on; it is the best inheritance I can bequeath them.

Well, that and the house.

And what an inheritance it is…

Through listening to bedtime stories, our children are exposed to a rich and wide vocabulary which helps them build their word power.

Reading is also the gift that keeps on giving…

A report by the OECD in 2011 claimed that children whose parents frequently read with them in their first year of school continued to show benefits when they were as old as fifteen. Indeed, on average, teenagers whose parents had helped with reading at the beginning of school were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of fifteen. The report said that parents did not have to be particularly well-educated themselves for this impact to be achieved. What was important was that parents read books frequently with their children – such as several times a week – and that they talked about what they were reading together.

But not all children are lucky enough to have a someone at home who’s willing and able to do this and it is these children who deserve our urgent attention.

Our superpower is not yet universal.

And we need to do more to pass it on…

According to the National Literacy Trust’s State of a Nation report, around 16% of England’s adult population – that’s 5.2 million adults – are “functionally illiterate”. In other words, they wouldn’t pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.

The 2012 PISA report found that 17% of England’s 15 year olds had not achieved the minimum level of proficiency in literacy and that the gap between our highest and lowest performers was significantly above average.

According to the OECD’s International Survey of Adult Skills, the UK is the only OECD country where young adults do not have better literacy skills than those nearing retirement.

But why?

Why are levels of literacy so poor? Why isn’t our superpower yet universal?

One reason is that is vocabulary is critical to success in reading as well as academic achievement more generally. The size of a pupil’s vocabulary in their early years of schooling (the number and variety of words that the young person knows) is a significant predictor of reading comprehension in later schooling and in life.

Most children are experienced speakers of the language when they begin school but reading the language requires more complex, abstract vocabulary than that used in everyday conversation.

Children who have had stories read to them during the first years of their lives are exposed to a much broader and richer vocabulary than those contained in everyday conversations and, as such, arrive at school better prepared for reading. For this reason, we all need to understand the importance of vocabulary and support its development so that children who are not exposed to books before they start school are helped to catch up.

Our understanding of a word grows with repeated exposure to it.

Dale & O’Rourke say that learning vocabulary takes place on a continuum, ranging from never having seen or heard a word before to having a deep knowledge of that word and its different meanings, as well as the ability to use that word confidently and accurately in both speaking and writing.

Acquiring vocabulary is incremental because words differ in many ways:

– they differ according to syntax – knowing what part of speech a particular word is can assist reading;

– they differ according to the size of their ‘family’ – knowing one of a family of words will help the reader determine a number of others;

– some words are polysemous which means they can have multiple meanings (e.g. the word ‘scale’ means to climb, a feature of a fish, a plant disease, a measuring instrument, the ratio of distance on a map to that on the ground, and so on.

Pupils who know multiple meanings of words are more prepared to read widely and across multiple contexts.

In short, vocabulary is complex but also vital to developing reading comprehension.

If a pupil knows the meaning of the word happy, and knows the single letter-sounds that make that word, then the word can be easily decoded and understood when read in a text. The words happier and happiness are also more likely to be read and understood. With only a few exposures, these words will be familiar enough to be recognised on sight and so a pupil’s reading vocabulary grows.

Young people who develop reading skills early in their lives by reading frequently add to their vocabularies exponentially over time. This is sometimes called ‘The Matthew Effect’ after the line in the Bible (Matthew 13:12), “The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer”. In the context of literacy, the Matthew Effect is that ‘the word rich get richer while the word poor get poorer’.

In his book, also called The Matthew Effect, Daniel Rigney explains: “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.

“Pupils who begin with high verbal aptitudes find themselves in verbally enriched social environments and have a double advantage. Good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments.”

Furthermore, E D Hirsch, in his book The Schools We Need, says that “The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”.

Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words). The word poor can not catch up with the word rich because to do so they’d need to be able to learn more words more quickly than the word rich. A pupil who does not know the meaning of the word happy will struggle over that and related words (e.g. happiness, happier, happiest, unhappy) in connected text, even if she can decode them, because transforming letters into words is useless if those words do not have a meaning.

If a pupil continues to experience frustration when reading because she is word poor, then she is likely to give up, denying herself of the opportunity to build vocabulary, fluency and world knowledge.

Young people who do not acquire these skills easily will become increasingly disadvantaged over time. Vocabulary helps to build comprehension and is therefore a key tool for reading. Young people who lack vocabulary and prior knowledge (context) will have difficulty understanding the books they encounter in school, especially as those books become more difficult.

So what can we do to help the word poor become richer? Find out in Part Two.

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