“Literacy stands at heart of the 2030 Agenda. It is a foundation for human rights, gender equality, and sustainable societies. It is essential to all our efforts to end extreme poverty and promote well-being for all people.” Ban Ki-Moon, 2016
Great things are expected of literacy: if more people become literate they will learn more, be healthier and participate more productively in civic life. Governance will improve, economies will grow, nations will be better off. Through the Sustainable Developments Goals the UN seeks to ‘measure what matters’. Clearly, literacy skills matter. However, how you measure them also matters.
The importance of meaning
If literacy is going to produce all of the benefits we are hoping for, it is not sufficient for children to only learn how to make the correct noises indicated by written symbols. Children need to learn to extract meaning from text and convey meaning through writing. A recent review commissioned by DFID and led by academics from the University of Oxford and The Promise Foundation looks at current practice in literacy assessment and emphasises the importance of meaning in foundational literacy and language acquisition.
The development of literacy skills is complicated for a number of reasons, not least because these skills don’t progress in a linear sequence (see, for example, a blog post and a paper questioning linear stage views of learning). Instead, literacy skills both influence and are influenced by each other: understanding the meaning of text and knowing the sounds associated with different letter combinations are mutually reinforcing.
Giving centre stage to meaning, however, has far-reaching implications for the assessment of foundational literacy and language skills. It informs decisions about what should be assessed, how these skills should be assessed and how assessment results should then be reported.
Finding the right assessment
Both reading words correctly and understanding the words read should be central to what is assessed. Together, these skills assess reading with meaning. Assessments of all literacy skills should be designed in a way that reflects the drive towards reading with meaning.
When designing assessments there are options where assessors can choose to point towards reading with meaning or away from it. For example, reading accuracy is often tested using lists of words or non-words. Assessors record the number of words/non-words that are read accurately within a given time period. I would argue that words should be used instead of non-words, primarily because using non-words may send a message to teachers and pupils that extracting meaning from the words is not important.
Similarly, reading fluency tests are very popular, but assessors tend to focus only on accuracy and speed. In the field of applied linguistics, fluency refers to ‘prosody’ as well as accuracy and speed. What is prosody? It’s the intonation, stress, tone and rhythm, which mirrors the reader’s understanding of what they are reading. You cannot read with expression if you do not understand what you have read. Including prosody in fluency tests therefore reflects the importance of reading with meaning.
How should results be reported?
There seems to be a tendency for data to be analysed at the level of individual items whereas drawing data together from different assessments is essential to provide a broader picture of literacy skills, helping avoid simplistic conclusions that ignore the interplay between different skills.
For example, in one cited case, an assessment identified that “students are not able to identify one third of letters”. The implication for teachers and policy makers was that they should “help children learn all of their letters, especially the letters children most struggled with: Q, W, Y, J, I, L and G”. This seems to assume that children must master all letters before they are able to start decoding words. It denies the interdependent relationship between different literacy skills (like decoding, phonological awareness, comprehension etc.). Instead, results should be reported in a way that is sensitive to the end goal of reading with understanding rather than being focussed on item by item performance.
At the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, Ban Ki-Moon described them as “a to-do list for people and planet”. Item 4.6 on that to-do list reads:
“By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”.
The way we measure literacy skills will, in part, determine what benefits are felt once the world has ‘ticked off’ this task. We might find that we have only enabled the newly ‘literate’ to respond to text with the right noises. Rather, we must ensure that they can extract meaning from text and convey meaning through text. Life-long learning, development and active citizenship ride on the distinction.