Upstart: the best start in literacy for all children

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Picture Raul Lieberwirth

On 19th September, literacy consultant Anne Glennie tweeted a link to a blog : ‘Why Upstart is a non-starter’. Her reason for objecting to our campaign is her belief that lack of attention to phonics teaching for the under-sevens will widen the attainment gap. As Upstart’s main literacy specialist, I was anxious to explain why we believe exactly the opposite. But I was just about to leave for a week’s family holiday so all I could do was tweet back a couple of points. Big mistake: Upstart’s twitter account was suddenly flooded with furious complaints from phonics enthusiasts, none of which was possible to answer in 140 characters.
So my reply to Anne Glennie has had to wait till my return. Apologies to readers that – since the subject is a complex and contentious one – this is a far longer blog than I’d usually post on the Upstart website. Apologies also to Ms Glennie for beginning by answering a tweeted question from Debbie Hepplewaite of England’s Reading Reform Foundation: ‘What do you mean by “formal”?’ The definitions of formal and informal education are critical to Upstart’s case, but I promise to cover the arguments around literacy and phonics when they’re out of the way.

‘Formal’ versus ‘informal’ education

We all know that children are learning from the moment they’re born (indeed, probably before they’re born) and their adults carers are constantly teaching them. In the early stages most of this teaching is unconscious – carers simply act as role-models for babies and toddlers, for communication, language and other aspects of behaviour.
As time goes on, adult teaching becomes more consciously intentional: e.g. potty training and teaching children to dress themselves. Carers may also introduce children to various skills they value, such as swimming, cooking, gardening, reading or counting. I’d describe this type of ‘care-based’ teaching and learning ‘informal’ because it’s personally-tailored to the child concerned, doesn’t follow a prescribed curriculum, and usually happens on an ad hoc basis.
Internationally, preschool systems of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) have also been based on this sort of informal teaching/learning, along with the provision of opportunities for children to pursue their own self-directed learning through active, creative, social play. The emphasis during ECEC is on children’s all-round development, which is a highly complex biological process: aspects of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development are intricately interrelated.
With appropriate adult support, most children can be expected to acquire the skills and capacities on which more ‘formal’ learning is based by the age of six or seven, but biology is a messy business and child development isn’t a simple linear progression – children develop particular capacities in different ways and at different rates. This is why 66% of countries around the world chose six as the age when children start school and 22% chose seven. The UK and other English-speaking nations are very unusual in expecting children to start school at five, or even four, well before they’re likely to have developed a range of self-regulation skills.
There are many ways in which schools are designed for ‘formal’ as opposed to ‘informal’ teaching and learning:
children are organised into classes, almost always based on age rather than stage of development
there’s an agreed curriculum in which (although it may also cover PE, arts and social/emotional education) the main emphasis is on academic progress, beginning with the three Rs
there’s a daily/weekly timetable for these teaching/learning activities
the adult-in-charge is defined, and trained, as a ‘teacher’ (rather than a carer)
children’s progress is usually judged against age-related ‘benchmarks’ or ‘targets’.

After 150 years of state-funded education, adults now take it for granted that schools operate as described above, meaning that – as soon as children start school – parents, politicians and the general public expect them to start making progress in specific aspects of the three Rs. In the UK, this means there is very early switch in terms of adult expectations and educational ethos. It’s the timing of that switch that Upstart is challenging.

Too Much Too Soon … and the significance of nurture, nature and play

By referring to school as ‘formal education’, we aren’t suggesting that young children in UK primary schools spend all their time sitting at desks, doing sums and spelling. Good primary teaching is usually pretty playful and early years teachers are often extremely ingenious in turning skills-based learning into ‘fun’ teacher-directed activities. Our criticism isn’t of teachers, but of the school starting age – and the expectations it generates, in terms of children’s learning of specific literacy and numeracy skills.

There is no reason (other than an economically-motivated decision by Victorian politicians) for ‘formal’ education to begin before the age of six. The international evidence (see Evidence section on our website) shows there is nothing to gain in terms of long-term academic performance, but much to lose in terms of social and emotional problems that can be triggered by a too-early start on formal learning.

There is now also a growing body of evidence about the importance of nurture and play in the first six or seven years of children’s lives, and the need for young children to spend time playing outdoors, preferably in natural surroundings. This is one of the key reasons for Upstart’s existence because, over recent decades, active outdoor play has seriously declined and its loss has coincided with alarming increases in physical and mental health problems in children and adolescents, as well as a growing number of ‘developmental disorders’ such as ADHD.

The children who are most affected by this change are those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The barriers to outdoor play – such as danger from traffic and the breakdown of local communities – are particularly pressing in the poorest areas of the country. But the decline of active, social, self-directed play during children’s most formative years affects all social classes, which is why Upstart believes the Scottish government should take immediate action to reintroduce it through a play-based kindergarten stage for the under-sevens. Our reasons are clearly outlined on our website, including the video made for our launch in May this year.

The foundations of literacy

Upstart’s arguments are therefore concerned with ‘big picture thinking’ about ECEC for the under-sevens and our interest is ensuring the best possible preparation for life in general, not just for school. However, this doesn’t mean that we under-estimate the importance of the three Rs, or the current debate about the attainment gap. Proficiency in literacy and numeracy is vital for all children’s long-term personal and economic well-being.

There are considerable differences between the life experiences that ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ four- and five-year-olds are likely to bring to school. In terms of literacy, the informal learning provided in an ‘advantaged’ family home is more likely to involve sharing picture books and singing nursery rhymes from not long after birth, opportunities for drawing and learning about the alphabet, and plenty of interesting excursions and experiences to talk about with mum and dad.

These activities develop children’s auditory discrimination, physical and visual skills, various types of memory, linguistic competence and confidence, awareness about the conventions of written language and a gradually widening spoken vocabulary. Literacy doesn’t come naturally to human beings, as spoken language does, so children’s predisposition to acquire literacy skills depends on these underpinning competences, which are nurtured through enjoyable interactions with adults (for example, see this excellent piece about the significance of rhyme).

If the educational playing field is to be a level one, children from less advantaged families also need plenty of these informal learning activities to lay sound foundations for later literacy acquisition. They’re therefore an important element in ECEC, where – just as in a caring family home – they can be integrated into the daily routine, as an element of ‘nurture’, rather than ‘education’. Unfortunately, at present, most Scottish children are entitled to only one or two years of part-time ECEC before proceeding to school, which doesn’t give much time for a nurture-based approach to literacy. (Or, indeed, the other aspects of developmentally-appropriate ECEC outlined above.)

Once formal education begins, it’s inevitably affected by the specific demands of the curriculum, rather than the more generalised outcomes of nurture. Parents and politicians expect schools to teach specific knowledge and skills, which in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence are outlined in age-related benchmarks, beginning with the Early Level (end of P1). So, as soon as children start school, there’s an inevitable tendency to cut to the chase in terms of literacy skills, rather than to continue with a ‘big picture’ approach, rooted in nurture and play.

Huckt on fonix

Currently, the most obvious illustration of this change of approach relates to the explicit teaching of phonics. This is the symbolic system by which the sounds are represented by letters and groups of letters on the printed page. As Anne Glennie points out in her blog:
‘English … has a deep orthography, which gives rise to various complexities:
not least of which is the fact that we have 44+ phonemes (sounds) in English
and only 26 letters of the alphabet to represent them with. This, coupled with
direct borrowing from other languages, means that we have a huge number of
spelling alternatives’.

She then argues that: ‘it takes at least three years of teaching, learning and practice to master the basics of reading, writing and spelling’ and that the answer is not to start later but to ‘ensure that our practice “fills the gaps” for our disadvantaged children’.

These arguments have informed political understanding about literacy teaching across the English-speaking world for almost two decades, so that preoccupation with ‘filling in the gaps’ has focused increasingly on phonics teaching, rather than the provision of activities that promote all-round healthy development.

The over-focus on skills-based learning has led to growing anxiety among ‘advantaged’ parents that their children should start reading and writing as early as possible, contributing to the steady ‘schoolification’ of early years practice and thus further erosion of informal, care-based teaching and opportunities for self-directed play. It has also led to dismissal of research evidence about the importance of ‘big picture’ approaches to child development and widespread ignorance about the principles underpinning ECEC.

As a literacy specialist, I’m very keen on phonics teaching and have written a number of phonics courses (one of which was specifically recommended by the English government) and acted as a consultant on several others, including BBC literacy programmes between c 1998 and 2008. However, I’ve always accepted that phonics is merely one among many contributory elements in successful literacy acquisition. And I’ve never come across any evidence that formal teaching about the notoriously complex ‘deep orthography’ of the English language needs to begin before the age of six or seven.

Given that sound foundations are laid for literacy learning during ECEC, by this age the vast majority of children will be able to internalise the rules with reasonable ease – many phonic rules have more relevance to learning to write than to read, and the physical process of writing is also easier for children after the age of six. Before then, many children (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) are likely to struggle, leading to growing disaffection with literacy and, possibly, school-based learning in general (see also the two previous blogs on this website: Literacy, Learning and Luck and Kirsty, the Holyrood Baby).

Research shows that, while children can be trained in phonic decoding at an early age, by the time they reach double figures there’s no difference in reading competence between those who start formal learning at five and those who start at seven (although there is a difference in their attitudes to reading). However, as pointed out earlier, the repercussions of social and emotional issues connected with an early start last throughout their lives.

My conclusion is that, certainly for the under-sixes (and probably the under-sevens), the ‘informal teaching’ described in previous sections is more likely to lead to long-term interest in and commitment to literacy learning – the sort of commitment children need if they’re to put in the practice required for ‘automaticity’ in reading and writing.

From what I’ve heard of Anne Glennie’s work, she too cares greatly about developing children’s interest in – and indeed love of – language and literacy. I’m pretty sure we’d agree on most points about the best ways to teach reading and writing. The single difference is when ‘formal teaching’ of specific skills should begin.

There’s a great deal more information about the Upstart case on our website, including a section devoted to FAQs. The arguments are given in more detail in my book, Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need and I’m happy to discuss the issue of literacy learning with anyone who’s interested. However, the more specific an area of discussion about child development and learning becomes, the more impossible it is to operate in sound-bites, so please contact me via info@upstart.scot, rather than tweeting!

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland

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