Elizabeth Limbrick

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 8:30-10:30 Room II

Speaker: Elizabeth Limbrick (New Zealand)


Closing the literacy gaps: what is the role of literature ?

Theme Reading of the Underprivileged Children

Dr Libby Limbrick, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland

Paper presented to the International Board of Books for Young People Congress

Macau. Sept 20th – 24th 2006

Literacy achievement has been a preoccupation of education systems and governments around the world in recent years. This is not surprising in the global, technological world of the twenty-first century when rapid communication is pivotal to economic and social success. International comparisons have been instrumental in national celebrations, and brow beating, as country’s rankings have risen or fallen, comparatively, across the decades. These international comparisons have become the indicators for many countries of the success, or not, of their educational systems, and have been the drivers of national initiatives such as the National Literacy Hour (UK), No Child Left Behind and Reading First in the USA, and Literacy for All in Australia. Likewise,in New Zealand a National Literacy Initiative, based on the recommendations of a national Literacy Task Force comprised of a teachers, literacy educators and administrators, was established.

Historically, as a regular participant in international comparisons New Zealand, has had an enviable reputation. From 1970, the year of the first international comparisons, New Zealand children have been identified as amongst the best readers in the world. Although in 2000 no longer scoring the highest means in the world as we did in 1970, we still are identified in the top 20% . There are more children with the highest scores in international comparison than in any other participating country. Representative of this consistent high literacy achievement New Zealand 11 and 12 year olds still hold the crown in the international Kids Lit Quiz competing against teams from Britain, China, South Africa. The fact that this unique literature ‘sporting ‘event originated in New Zealand is probably indicative of the hugely effective environment and literacy educational programmes that ensure that many children not only become effective reader, but excitedly engage in reading for pleasure as well as for educational outcomes. New Zealand has a lot to be proud of in its tradition of using ‘real texts’ and good literature as part of children’s reading experiences from preschool and early reading experiences to the middle and upper years of primary education .

Notwithstanding general patterns of high achievement, New Zealand has a major challenge. Comparative statistics furnished by the PISA and PIRL international over the last decade suggest that New Zealand has also one of the biggest gaps between the high achievers and those who struggle to be literate. Other local assessment data remind us of this disparity (NEMP 2000, 2004). As in many countries, most of the children who comprise this ‘tail’ of achievement are from low socio economic areas. They are more likely to be children who are underprivileged or for whom the language of home is different from the language of school and whose cultural expectations and experiences of literacy are different from those of middle class homes (McNaughton, 2002). We are not alone in this. However we accept that we have major challenge in overcoming the vast gap between those who master the complex task of learning to read and write successfully, and those for whom engagement with text is pointless, purposeless and painful.

One response to reported disparity in achievement internationally has been implementation of a range of interventions: commercial and systemic. Some have promised ‘silver bullets’ to solve all problems; others have been thoughtfully conceived and are pedagogically sound. New Zealand has been no different. Many schools have put in place what have appeared to be sound programmes to boost the early reading skills of children. Many of these are programmes aimed at improving word level skills, especially decoding letters to sounds.

Now six years on from the last international comparisons, as a result of various national professional development initiatives as well as local initiatives, it appears that shifts are occurring. Students in ‘the tail’ are beginning to demonstrate greater achievement. This is largely because teachers are becoming more aware of the pivotal role their knowledge and practice can play in supporting children to become successfully engaged in reading, writing , and oral and visual language texts despite other mitigating factors ( Phillips, et al .2002), Timperley et al 2003). Recent research in New Zealand suggests that we are making a difference particularly in reading accuracy. Unfortunately there are not the commensurate gains in comprehension. (NEMP, 2000, 2004; Lai et al , 2004). It appears that the children who comprise ‘the tail of achievement’ are becoming better readers of words and better decoders of texts ( Lei et al 2004), but they are not engaging with and responding meaningfully and critically to texts.

It appears that while the skills of reading are being nurtured and developed, engagement with and response to the concepts, ideas and richness of language still evades many students. One could ask does it matter. As long as the reader is able to decode the written words and relate the print to the oral language they understand, isn’t that enough. Why do we need to concern ourselves with more? This of course is a rhetorical question. Undoubtedly the purpose of reading is comprehension but it is more than that. To be literate in the complex globally integrated and technologically driven world of the twenty first century the process of being literate is complex and ever changing.

Alan Luke and Peter Freebody (1990, 1999) over a decade ago postulated that to be a literate person one needed to engage in four crucial practices. A literate person has to be able to break the code of texts, derive meaning from texts, be aware of the purpose of using texts and to critically analyse texts. They argued that all these practices are essential for effective engagement with text and that none are sufficient by themselves.

We are beginning to help our struggling readers and writers become effective code breakers but not to engage successfully in the other three practices. Is it that in endeavouring to help them catch up we have been reinforcing unwittingly the “Matthew Effect” (Stanovich, 1986) which asserts that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Is there such a concern with basic skills that we at risk of overlooking the richest resource at our disposal?

Marie Clay has suggested that low achievement can be the result of learning to be learning disabled. Teachers may be exacerbating some children’s difficulties through un-motivating skill and drill approaches using simplified, austere and regulated texts which do not inspire and encourage reluctant readers to engage willingly in reading. Clay (1982) was able furthermore to demonstrate that by the end of the first year at school the young reader making good progress had read approximately 20,000 words whereas the reader making slow progress had read a 5,000. Children who are low achieving need more not less opportunities to experience the richness of language, story and illustrations that good literature affords.

High quality children’s literature, appropriately used is arguably one of the best resources for ensuring that all children become skilled and eager readers. Children’s literature has the potential to nurture the essential practices advocated by Luke and Freebody, and to ensure also the development of the key components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, advocated by the Reading First, the programme legislated by No Child Left Behind in the United States.

I will briefly outline how books, not just any old graded reader, can be instrumental in meeting the frameworks outlined by both NCLB and by Luke and Freebody, if we are to ensure that the students in our underachievement tail become not just able to read the words but to become fully literate.

Learning to break the code ( phonemic awareness and phonics).

The repetitive, rhythmic and rhyming elements of well written picture books allow the sensitive teacher to help the young reader hear the sounds in words and, through sharing a text intimately, begin to develop essential grapho-phonic relationships. Although not ‘systematic’ in the manner demanded in the legislation for Reading First, such an approach can be used systematically and purposefully, when implemented by a teacher knowledgeable about literacy learning, the learners and a range of texts. This is not to say that explicit and focused teaching about phonics is not necessary for many children.

Learning to make meaning from a text (vocabulary and comprehension).

A text well chosen to be of interest, relevant , and culturally and linguistically appropriate for a young reader can be a way of hooking children into reading ensuring that that essential ‘reading mileage’ is in place . More than twenty five years ago, Frank Smith coined the phrase “We learn to read by reading”. Although today we know that is simplistic, it is still undeniable true that deep engagement with texts that grip the mind the soul and the heart are generally what leads a good skilled reader into becoming a passionate and voracious reader.

Being a text participant, in Luke and Freebody’s terms, means to have rich base of language knowledge and experience on which to draw and on which to build new understanding in texts. Vocabulary knowledge, that is knowing a wide range of words, is gained through listening to and being immersed in the ‘rare’ language of story and poetry. Vocabulary in books, even in simple early childhood picture books, is richer and more complex than oral language, the restricted language of some graded readers and certainly the language of television . Compare, for example, the wonderful language of Margaret Mahy’s picture books with that of a children’s television cartoon.

“Down on the sand gulls perambulate, pondering

Keeping one eye on whatever comes wondering

Off goes the dog, keen to catch every quill of them

Up go the gulls, every feather and bill of them “ (Dashing Dog 2002,)

Indeed, there is ample research evidence to demonstrate that children learn new vocabulary through being read to, and through exploring the ideas and words in a shared text (e.g. Cunningham, 2005; Elley, 1989; Senechal, et al., 1996)

“In fact it has been argued that reading aloud to children is the most important activity for developing the knowledge that is necessary to succeed in reading ( Baker et al 1997)”

Cunningham, 2005 p53

However, reading to should never be a passive activity. Powerful learning can come about through listening to literature for a purpose, sharing responses to characters, events and the language used by the author, and thinking critically about what they have heard.

We know now that comprehension of text is dependent on a depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge and that for many children these do not develop intuitively; they need to be taught ( Duke & Pearson, 2002). What better context for teaching the strategies of making comparisons (eg of characters); finding cause and effect (e.g. through problem resolution), summarising and retelling ( eg through sharing favourite stories). What better context for critical analysis of texts: for example, exploring relationships between characters and analyzing values and motives; relating characters, world and the experiences text to the children’s own world and experiences; exploring the language and visuals (the pictures and layout) that an author has used to position the reader and to convey emotions and values. These are all important strategies in deepening the ability to fully comprehend complex texts.

Hence the potential and power of high quality children’s literature when at the heart of the instructional reading programme. Not only for fluent readers but for those just starting on their journey to becoming literate; not only for those who seem intuitively to orientate to reading and books, but also , maybe I should say especially, for those who, in terms of the “ Matthew Effect” , seem to be getting poorer.

How can we achieve this? How can we ensure that our struggling readers, those who consistently make up the tail of achievement, have opportunities to engage in rich texts and not just the mechanistic skill and drill evident in a number of intervention programmes?

In New Zealand we have the potential to achieve this. Most schools have comprehensive school and classroom libraries. Furthermore we are fortunate to have publishers who are committed to producing instructional readers, certainly graded for difficulty but with language that is engaging and about topics that relate to children’s lives. There is also a programme “Books in Homes”, supported by community groups, which gives books to underprivileged children, who do not own many, or any, books, to take home.

However, the provision of good quality texts, while a good start, is not sufficient. Knowledgeable teachers are critical: teachers who are readers themselves, know deeply a wide range of books, know their children, know about literacy teaching and learning and work with parents and communities to build on literature from the homes and communities to achieve a “meeting of minds’( McNaughton, 2002). In the education of teachers in New Zealand we are trying to address this now with a framework for effective practice (Ministry of Education, 2003) . A indispensable component of this is engaging learners with texts, including quality children’s literature. Such an outcome is not possible if teachers themselves are not readers who model engagement with and response to literature.

.At the University of Auckland we not only require all students to read children’s literature, as lecturers we model reading in class ourselves.




Figure 1 The dimensions of effective practice (Ministry of Education, 2003, p 12)

Finally Storylines, which coordinates the New Zealand IBBY section, is instrumental in ensuring children in many parts of New Zealand have access to high quality children’s literature. Storylines has an annual Festival which reaches about 30,000 children nationally. The Festival incorporates Free Family Days in the two largest cities in New Zealand at which children are put in touch with writers and illustrators. Children and their families, from a wide range of communities, participate in a range of book related activities with writers and illustrators. Story Tours take writers and illustrators into schools in many parts of Auckland. Teachers, librarians and parents are inspired to expand their knowledge of good literature through seminars presented by panels of writers, illustrators, critics, academics and book publishers. In addition, throughout the year Storylines distributes lists of recommended books to keep children, teachers and parents throughout the country in touch with current and well loved books. New authors are encouraged, and established authors and illustrators celebrated through awards further highlighting the powerful place of literature for all children in New Zealand.

In conclusion we must be mindful that there is a potential for children who appear to be at risk of not achieving in literacy, frequently those who are ‘under privileged, to be ‘doubly disadvantaged’. We need to ensure that the texts they learn to read with, and become fluent readers of, are rich and rewarding, not simplistic, low level, de-contextualised and demoralising. As Stahl (2005) said,

“To deny children such richness of language because they might have difficulties recognizing words would be to do them a terrible injustice. As I said earlier, children’s books are “where the words are.” Reading aloud may be the only way for some children to experience those words”, (Stahl , 2005 p 100)

Good literature at the heart of the an effective literacy programme, in the hands of well informed and passionate teachers can ensure ‘disadvantaged children’ are not ‘at risk’ and neither is their literacy learning environment risky for them ( McNaughton ,2002)



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