For the ‘Tried and Tested’ section of our latest Learning and Development Bulletin I’ve chosen Stephen Lockyer’s idea of marking popular songs in a SPaG lesson. Stephen was surprised to find the high use of non-standard grammar and punctuation in popular songs and had worked it into a SPaG activity for his pupils, highlighting and correcting the mistakes. I think this is a brilliant idea and a really adaptable lesson for all levels of our pupils. Along with several other things I’ve come across recently it’s made me think more about the idea of ‘reading to survive’.
Reading for pleasure is a wonderful thing and I’m delighted that this is given prominence in the curriculum. But before pupils read for pleasure, they need to be able to read to survive. That’s not to say we should differentiate between types of reading; for most children this blends together and we never notice the seam, for others there is a gaping chasm.
When Daniel Willingham tweeted a link to an article about how the majority of popular music has a third grade reading level, I thought it was quite apt having just written about Stephen’s idea. It’s not an academic study, it analyses the numbers and it’s a bit of fun, it sounds nice and shocking but I was interested in what ‘grade three’ meant in terms of reading ability. Grade 3 is 8-9 years and looking at the Hodder Oral Reading Test pack we use in school, a reading age of 8-9 reaches words like ‘cyanide, chivalrous, candidate, opaque’ and sentences like ‘The rock star was an inveterate self-publicist and opportunist of irresistible charisma.’ and ‘The apparatus is equipped with an ingenious configuration of micro-filters’. I know this is a crude way of looking it and I don’t know if American 8-9 year olds are expected to read the same words as ours, but to be honest that seems OK for pop songs to me.
On a tangent here, but with the recent Eurovision Song Contest, I’ve been very enthusiastic about all sorts of songs in different languages. We have a French teacher at our school this term (French national, not here to teach French). He is amused at the level of conversation I’ve generated about Eurovision and said some interesting things about French songs. He said that French music is all about the words and the tune is secondary to the lyrics. He told us that when his English was good enough to actually understand the words to his favourite songs he was disappointed that the words were rubbish and there wasn’t more to them. It would be interesting to see where French songs are on the grade/level scale.
Anyway, all this got me thinking about where our day-to-day language sits. Does it matter that the majority of song lyrics are at a grade 3 level? Most of our conversations are probably at a level that an 8-9 year old could understand. We have specialist pockets of information for given situations or subjects and pupils learn these – first in a context specific way and then hopefully transferable to wider areas. Of course we want them to have a wide and flexible vocabulary. Of course we want them to do much more than survive. But surviving’s a good place to start.
I know we’re a special school but I also know that our pupils are the lucky ones that got a Statement. For every one of ours, they left behind another handful in mainstream. These are the ones who will be ‘failing’ their KS2 SATs. If the scenarios that Bill Watkin recently put forward play out then there’s a high possibility that by focusing on the magic level 4 they get left behind without us thinking about why level 4 was chosen. At a basic level we need them to be able to access the curriculum and pass exams. A simplistic view but that’s pretty much what we want. Everything else grows around this and the more we can give them the better.
Reaching level 4 means they can survive. They can read instructions, fill out an application form, understand their pay slip. They will get some GCSEs and other qualifications* and get into college or an apprenticeship. They might not be headed for the heights of university, they have their own heights. That’s the reality. Not for all of them by a long shot, but a good few. Still. We can only individualise for so long. We know that they’ll sit the same exams as everyone else, do the same BTEC courses, follow the same GCSE syllabus. We have to ensure they can read, write and handle numbers well enough to survive, but also to get a certificate that says so. All whilst making sure we don’t squeeze out other subjects.
It makes great headlines to say X% of songs/school pupils have the reading age of an 8/9 year old. Well, the expected levels for 8/9 year olds mean they’re pretty good at reading. They’re in a position to build their skills and develop their preferences for different texts. They can hold intelligent conversations and write normal, multi-million selling, song lyrics. Does it mean they’ve failed though if it takes them longer to get there? Are they less likely to achieve if we decide they’ve failed?
I’m not quite sure what my point is with all this as I’m bringing together several ideas that I’ve been thinking about. If the goal posts are shifted for GCSE content, of course the level required to be ‘secondary ready’ is going to shift as well. *Whether our ‘surviving’ students will continue to be able to succeed in this way, I don’t know. I’m not advocating a dumbing down of curriculum content or saying grade 3 or level 4 is good enough for a 16 year old. It’s clearly not good enough to only expect the minimum but what is good is having a realistic target for the minimum.
I don’t want anyone to read this and think for a second that I (and my school) don’t have high expectations for our pupils. We stretch them as far as we can and go out of our way to make sure they can access everything they should be able to. I just wonder if in the rush to be top of the tables the core reason of education for some of our pupils is pushed aside. At least according to the Hodder reading assessment, at an 8-9 year old reading level they should be able to read ‘ Vote for one candidate only’.