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The Voice

The Grade 4 Literacy Test: Beyond the headlines
published: Sunday | October 24, 2004

Beverly Bryan, Contributor


ONCE AGAIN a set of examination results has focused minds on the stubbornly low levels of literacy achievement in Jamaican schools. The assessment under consideration is the Grade 4 Literacy Test. This national assessment was introduced as a way of identifying the children most at risk after four years of primary schooling i.e. those who needed specific attention to their literacy needs before progressing to grade five. This yearly exercise consists of word recognition, comprehension and writing tasks. Assessed performance then leads to the children's division into three categories: Not at Risk/Uncertain/At Risk.

The results each year have been treated with much dismay with the headline of October 12 setting the tone for 2004: 'Disturbing trend'. To help in our understanding of the situation, the table below gives an indication of the results over the last five years.

To my mind, these statistics do not indicate a "disturbing trend": we need to be alarmed but not alarmist. The results are not good where less than 60 per cent of students are deemed ready for grade five, but it is not a downward trend. It is perhaps improving too slowly considering the seriousness of the situation and the critical importance of literacy. Still worrying is that group which is considered 'At Risk' ­ a residual number, often boys, that was seen as progressing through the system and exiting by grade nine as dropouts. However, it is heartening to see that that group has decreased from 32 per cent to 13.5 per cent.


Why are we so slow? And our results remain so mediocre? The answers are legion. I will answer by highlighting some of the issues that are now agreed to be the most important to the early acquisition of literacy. In exploring this problem, I will refer to research carried out by myself and colleagues at the University of the West Indies.


The first and most fundamental problem that is now being recognised is the difficulty of acquiring literacy in a language that is not the mother tongue ­ English rather than Creole. Meta Bogle, in literacy studies, a colleague, now retired, always referred to that difficulty as moving from language-by-ear (Creole) to language-by-eye (English). The children use one language at home and in their community and arrive in school hearing some very different sounds. This aural clash has to be recognised and compensated for in the early childhood programme. The late Dennis Craig wrote on many occasions of the importance of a two-track structured programme that allowed children to use their home language to continue higher level thinking in a familiar code, while at the same having parallel periods of exposure to, and practice in, English.

The attention to sounds is a critical part of the early reading programme. The knowledge that spoken words are composed of a sequence of sounds, and that the knowledge of these sounds can be represented by letters is now seen as a major precursor to literacy. Imagine knowing the word 'go' but being unable even to guess that 'get' begins with the same sound. The ability to recognise sounds and then to segment and blend them is known as phonological awareness. Hazel Simmons-MacDonald at UWI, Barbados has just completed some important research in this area and although carried out in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) countries of Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent, the findings have full relevance to the Jamaican situation, as they revealed that most of the school population had only a rudimentary level of phonological awareness.


Another critical part of the curriculum that is problematic is the attention to emergent literacy i.e. the beginnings of literacy before school. Literacy is more than barking at print, or practising a skill- it is meaning making and communication. The child who sees the squiggles PUSH on a door and pulls and pulls without success in getting in the supermarket is learning that PUSH is conveying a particular meaning that not even force can change. When children make that leap and realise that the letters STAND FOR something else i.e. they are symbolic: that is the breakthrough. Some children never make it and leave school at grade nine without the basic key to literacy.

This brings us back to emergent literacy. If literacy is about communication, it begins before school in the oral interactions of home and daily living: in talk with children, in storytelling in whatever language, in taking meaning from signs on the street, on labels, notices etc. Parents and communities, therefore, have a major part to play in starting the child off on the road to literacy. It is more than filling the backpack at the beginning of the year.


This lack of a positive start, a sense that reading is meaningful might explain the dire results on the comprehension section of the grade four test. Comprehension is a critical part of reading. It refers to that process where a reader interacts with and takes meaning from the text. It is not one activity but a series of strategies i.e. thinking processes and tactics that we learn to apply in new situations. Activating prior knowledge is a strategy, as is generating questions. Others include inferencing, summarising and identifying important information.

Again, these are not just classroom activities; they continue out of school. If I say to a 10-year-old "what's that you watching on TV?" "Show" is not a good enough answer, but if he is forced to probe, to predict, drawing inferences based on prior knowledge of other "show", then he is using comprehension strategies.


I have already mentioned prior knowledge, and expanding that develops reading and comprehension. In a literature-for-literacy or Book Flood programme children are given not just a glut of new experiences but also an immersion into the language of literacy to which they have had limited access. Colleagues in the School of Education, Don Wilson, Jodi Grant and Jossett Smikle carried out an intervention in three Kingston schools to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.

The children had access to books of all kinds which were read to them EVERY DAY and used for projects. So the story 'The Hungry Caterpillar' could be read with a book on 'Bugs', as part of a project on insects. The results of the intervention were more motivated teachers and children improving their word recognition and comprehension scores. Why not more of this in other schools? The success of this approach requires at least 30 book titles at a minimum for each class ­ 30 titles of different books separate and apart from the class readers! Remediation or classroom-based assessment?

One other critical area relates to something also mentioned by the minister of education in a Gleaner article of October 12. It is true that we have very few specialists involved in remediation but developing literacy is not just the business of a remediation specialist. Teaching literacy requires attention to diagnosis, planning and instruction. Classroom-based assessment should, therefore, be part of the armoury of every teacher: being able to listen to children read and analyse what problems they are having with sounds, comprehension strategies, and written response etc.

The information gleaned from the assessment needs to be available in portfolios for parents to see, discuss and add their own contributions. So for example, if the grade one test reveals that a child is having a problem with certain sounds, the records should have that information and also, more importantly, when s/he overcame the problem ­ a record of milestones too in a year of literacy growth. If records are not kept of ongoing assessment, it is not inconceivable that s/he will emerge as one of the 'illiterates' of grade nine.


All the foregoing were curriculum issues but at the same time they underscore the importance of a high level of teacher competence; a willingness of the administration to be proactive; and the necessity of a wider community commitment that includes the partnership of parents. Considering teacher competence, the level of expertise is perhaps more than we have envisioned for teachers in grades one-three. From the curriculum issues discussed above, it is clear that we need teachers of the greatest expertise: with a flexible mindset equipped with a range of different strategies; language ­ aware enough to cope with children's varying linguistic demands; and a belief in the children's innate ability.

More and more the concept of specific teacher expertise is being investigated in best practice research. What are the unique qualities of a good grade one teacher? Although we are now saying that national resources are being diverted to the early years, there is a quantum leap that also requires a cultural shift where the best teachers including teachers with degrees in primary education, literacy studies, etc. go and teach in those grades.


So far the discussion has centred largely on the curriculum and the input from the teacher, recognising also the role of community stakeholders. Equally important in its ability to transform the agenda and culture is the administration of the school. In the first instance this power resides in the principal. In researching best literacy practices in schools I found that in achieving successful schools the central factor was the role of principal as leader dictating the administrative culture with strong systems and structures.

These good principals encouraged a corporate image and collaborative vision, with regular team meetings and common planning times. They also involved the community (parents, businesses and business persons as parents): in feeding programmes, building projects, reading with children in the school, homework centres, reading labs etc. Alternatively, or even as well as the above, the principal might use a literacy co-ordinator as the one solely responsible for literacy development in the school: to interpret test results, devise a literacy plan for the school, and to train and support classroom teachers. A recommendation for a literacy co-ordinator in each school or cluster of small schools was made to the Ministry of Education and included in their National Literacy Plan in 1999.

Imagine the difference if there were one senior person working with teachers, who could be held accountable in each school for improving standards. International and regional attempts to improve literacy now include the strategy of the Literacy Plan and the literacy co-ordinator. In saying this I am aware of some of the ministry's initiatives such as New Horizon project in struggling rural schools; of the Caribbean Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (CCETT) focusing on early literacy; and the Jamaica All-Age Schools Project (JASP) in the all-age schools. I know that even now a project is being implemented to develop materials for the younger grades. I do, however, believe that beyond projects, developing the capacity for local intervention is something that will make the difference. Our Ministry of Education has to be able to lead, inspire and motivate all stakeholders towards a similar level of national consciousness.

This includes more informed, regular discussion of the results of these annual assessments: a published report.


Finally, I have said so much about community involvement it must be clear that I believe our improvement of the grade four results requires the input of external stakeholders. The teachers I interviewed described the effect of community violence on early grade children, who became hyperactive, jumpy and fretful about older siblings. There is no easy solution here but it is a factor for serious consideration. Another such is the overcrowding and noise in these schools. I remember the shock and sharp intake of breath when I showed a video clip I had made, of some inner city and rural classrooms, to some non-teachers. Many were shocked to experience the small, cramped classrooms divided by blackboards and surrounded by a blanket of noise. They are very different from prep schools! Public involvement means getting to know what conditions are like in those schools and committing to working with principals, in ways such as those indicated above, or even in other creative and individual ways such as the Readers Circle, where literate individuals go into schools and offer reading sessions to small groups of children.


There is also the input of University of the West Indies in which I work. I know of the School of Education's collaboration with the University of Oakland and the Ministry of Education to produce 12 master's level graduates to work in the teachers' colleges. There is also the collaboration with the CCETT programme across the region, including Jamaica. This summer the Department of Educational Studies began a joint degree in literacy studies with Moneague College as well as extended its Primary Education degree with Mico. At the same time the School of Education has introduced a Master's in Literacy Studies.

All of these initiatives are designed to increase drastically the cadre of literacy professionals available to the education system. The above was presented to give an insight into the range of issues that impact on literacy. It is a large project but our combined attention as parents, teachers and citizens will help to improve the results discussed at the beginning of this article.

Dr. Beverley Bryan is lecturer in language education in the Department of Educational Studies, UWI, Mona campus.

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