Teachers’ literacy matters, not least to them

From next year, Australian student teachers will have to pass a literacy and numeracy test before they will be allowed to graduate, click here for details.

This proposal to raise the bar doesn’t seem to be accompanied by a proposal to provide existing students with extra help to clear it.

This grates a bit on my sense of procedural fairness. Many students enrolled long before this extra hurdle was devised, and invested considerable time and resources, perhaps for nothing, as some won’t be able to juggle their course work, extra work on literacy, and paying-the-rent work, or afford to pay for extra tuition. Yet the literacy and numeracy skills they have – now considered personal deficits – were learnt in our schools.

Many teachers tell me that they feel insecure about their own spelling, and thus lack confidence in teaching it. Nobody I know (including teachers) is persuaded by academics who argue that you don’t have to be able to spell to teach spelling, any more than we think music teachers don’t need to be good at music, swimming teachers don’t need to know how to swim, or one should take driving lessons from an unskilled driver.

An interesting recent study gives some idea of what’s going on in teacher education. It’s called The Literacy Skills of Secondary Teaching Undergraduates: Results of Diagnostic Testing and Discussion of Findings.

Teachers' spelling does matterIt reports on the spelling, grammatical and punctuation/sentence construction skills of 203 third and fourth year secondary teaching undergraduates attending two different campuses of an Australian university.

There were 65 third-year students and 68 fourth-year students from one campus and 70 third-year students from another campus. They were studying a range of majors and no attempt was made to differentiate them by gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, language background or other demographic markers.

The report says that many of these students “expressed anxiety about their literacy skills, and attributed their low levels of confidence to a perceived neglect of literacy in their own schooling” (p117). Most welcomed the focus on literacy and literacy support offered as part of their professional preparation.

These students sound just like some of the student teachers and recent graduates I know. They recognise that they could improve their spelling, but say they have never been taught it in a way that made much sense. They are very interested in making sense of our complex system.

The students in the research were asked to do three tests:

1. Spelling:

A called spelling test of twenty items, with words taken from course reading materials, dictionary lists of commonly misspelt words and the UK teacher literacy sample tests. Here are some examples:

argument                                          amateur

beginning                                          conscience

coronary                                            exaggerate

definite                                              hypocrisy

maintenance                                     miscellaneous

principal/principle                           parallel

resistant                                            rhythm

sentence                                            supersede

Here is a simple frequency plot of the test scores, showing how many words the students got right:

Student teachers' spelling skillsNone of the students spelt all the words correctly.  One student got zero.

65% of students got fewer than half the words right, and 95% got fewer than 15 right. The Mean (averaged) score was 8.25 out of 20.

2. Vocabulary and word building

Students were presented with ten words and asked to give definitions for them, and then identify word elements and indicate anything they knew about the derivation of the word, e.g. the “bi” in “bicycle” means “two”, the “thermo” in “thermometer” means “heat”. The words were chosen from core education course materials and textbooks. Example words are:

agrarian                                              cognition

candid                                                 draconian

hyperbole                                           heterogeneous

orthodox                                             homogeneous

peninsula                                            pedagogy

malign                                                  profession

sanguine                                              variance

No student was able to define all ten words, and 14 students couldn’t define any of them.

The Mean (averaged) score for the definitions was 3.07 out of 10, as 76% of students scored below 5 out of 10.

Students’ answers indicated that they had a “effectively no knowledge of common word derivations, roots and affixes” (p122).

3. Punctuation, Sentence Construction and Grammar

Students were asked to make up sentences on any topic demonstrating the correct use of a single comma, a comma par to indicate subordinate content, a semicolon and a colon. Then they were asked to write complete sentences on any topic, one beginning with “The”, one beginning with “Although”, one beginning with “If” and one beginning with “because”.

One point was awarded for each correct answer, giving a score out of eight. The Mean score on this test across the three groups was 4.62. Sigh.

Let’s not pretend this doesn’t matter

One of the paper’s conclusions is that “some graduating teachers have literacy skills below the ability level of the students they will be hired to teach”. Which I imagine would be a big, embarrassing problem for them when teaching adolescents.

Denying that some teachers have not been equipped with the literacy skills they need to teach confidently and well does a great disservice to them, as well as their students.

Adding hurdles at the end of university, or adjusting admission requirements, could easily exclude people who from a personality point of view would make great teachers. If only their literacy teachers had been better equipped, and our education system had more highly valued work on language structure, as well as meaning.

We need intervention much earlier in all students’ academic careers (not just future teachers), particularly in the first four years of schooling, when the fundamentals of literacy are meant to be learnt, so that everyone (including future teachers) can put in good, solid foundations.

It’s hard to build your vocabulary, comprehension and fluency when you can’t read words very well, and it’s hard to write interesting, intelligible text when you’re not sure how to spell the words you want to use or where to put the punctuation. Once these skills are practised till they are fast and automatic, cognitive horsepower is freed up for other aspects of the task.

I feel pretty sorry for the current batch of student teachers, and hope universities can be persuaded not just to raise the literacy and numeracy bar, but also to provide at least existing students with the help they need to clear it with ease.

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