Professor Debra Myhill.

Exeter professor contributes to national literacy debate

An academic from the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education has contributed to a national debate on how we can improve literacy among school children. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has issued a national challenge to drive up stalled standards of literacy and English.

Professor Debra Myhill joined a group of outstanding teachers and literacy experts for the event in London on 15 March, where Sir Michael recognised the improvements that have been made, but said national progress on literacy has stalled and the country is being overtaken by other leading nations.

The Ofsted report shows that there are major concerns about standards in writing and the teaching of writing.  Research from the literacy team at Exeter has shown how children’s writing can be improved by creative and playful teaching of grammar and by encouraging them to think about how they plan and draft their writing. Professor Myhill shared her research findings with Sir Michael and leading education figures at the event.

Sir Michael said that one in five children do not achieve the expected literacy levels by the end of primary school – 100,000 pupils last year alone – rising to one in three pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. One in seven adults, as many as five million people, lack basic literacy skills.

The problem is evidenced by an Ofsted report launched today, ‘Moving English Forward’ which has found that while in many schools English teaching is effective and pupils make good progress, standards in English are not high enough and, since 2008, there has been no overall improvement in primary pupils’ learning. 

Professor Debra Myhill of the Graduate School of Education has established a global reputation for her leading research on teaching English in schools. She said: “Ensuring that our children and young people are confident writers is deeply important:  we use writing to dream and imagine, we use writing to communicate the grand ideas of our generation, and we use writing to conduct our commercial and economic transactions. Learning to write is about learning to be powerful.”                  

Speaking at Thomas Jones School, Ladbroke Grove, Sir Michael said: “There can be no more important subject than English. It is at the heart of our culture and literacy skills are crucial to pupils’ learning for all subjects. Yet too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on. In most cases, if they can’t read securely at seven they struggle to catch up as they progress through their school careers. As a result, too many young adults lack the functional skills to make their way in the modern world. We are no longer a leading country in terms of our literacy performance: others are doing better.

Ofsted announced that it will prioritise for inspection schools with the lowest achievement levels in literacy. Ofsted outlined steps it will take to give even greater emphasis on literacy, such as reinforcing its present inspection practice of hearing children read and sharpening its focus on phonics in routine inspections of all initial teacher education provision. Ofsted will publish a detailed survey of what works best in secondary schools to improve literacy across the curriculum.

Date: 16 March 2012