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Views: True literacy is more than just words

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Learning words in a way that allows children to manipulate them with precision requires multiple exposure

Whose responsibility is it to teach literacy?

This is a very complex debate.

Literacy is fundamental to both individual success and the continued growth of the wider society.

Consequently, discussions occur across society from policy level to staff rooms to homes.

Often the debate reflects personal views stemming from our own experiences of learning to read and write.

As personal values, there is the potential for quite heated debate.

The recent social media commentary on respective responsibilities is an example.

However, the binary nature of the argument has the potential to put off finding a solution to a genuinely larger problem of high-level literacy in children, which is not just about knowing words.

Defining high-level literacy

Fifty thousand to 60,000 - that is the number of words that some researchers say will help our children navigate university and beyond.

Dividing that total by number of school years and by week means children need to be actively learning 100 words a week.

It would be challenging for English teachers to cover this as there are also other important things for our children to be learning at school.

If children spend 25 minutes a day reading on 200 days in a year, they are likely to cover one million words in a year at an average reading rate.

Of those words, 15,000 to 30,000 will be new.

This sounds great.

However, learning the words in a way that will allow children to manipulate them with precision and nuance requires multiple exposure.

Scarborough's Reading Rope model shows skills that are working concurrently to help us read effectively.

Along with basic decoding of sounds, background knowledge of the topic is entwined with vocabulary depth, sentence structures, verbal reasoning to recognise metaphors, and knowledge of the literacy style.

All of these require explicit instruction. Within those skills, students will have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Responding to these in full would again crowd out an already packed curriculum.

Teachers and children would be under even more pressure.

So, can the literacy gap be bridged more effectively at home? Like the mechanics of reading, home life is just as complex.

Time is one obvious factor.

Juggling work, a household, and potentially other children, means that finding time to support literacy in the form of reading is challenging.

Varying levels of education can mean that many parents lack the confidence to engage with the academic side of their child's development.

This often results in a fear of doing something wrong and disadvantaging their child. Culture is important - perceptions of parental roles and the home-school relationship are specific to context.

Asking who should play the dominant role in developing literacy, even if it was a valid question, would vary from country to country.

So, if teachers cannot completely support literacy, and parents also find it challenging to support, is there a solution?

Be unified in achieving literacy in children

The binary debate of whose responsibility it is to teach literacy is a distraction.

The important thing is to be unified in the vital importance of literacy for everyone.

Next is to understand what high-level literacy means in real terms and being aware of the barriers to it.

While these are certainly complex, breaking them down into simpler components makes it easier to see how best to help develop literacy.

Only then can we effectively agree on who is best placed to do it.

Some of the resulting debates are likely to be about the shape of intervention reading programmes and teachers from subjects other than English playing a more active role.

The writer is head of primary courses at the British Council Singapore. The British Council is the UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.