It takes a movement to conquer illiteracy.
It was a tough decision. Would I stay in my school, with my programme and my team, and enjoy seeing students succeed where they had previously failed? Or would I take the leap, strike out on my own to develop the programme and so enable many more children to leave school reading well?
When I did make the leap, it proved to be even harder than I expected. First of all it required building an organisation from scratch, which is no mean feat. Secondly, I quickly found that while many people sympathise with the cause of improving reading, few are willing to be its champions. I can say with some confidence that if it wasn’t for the support of allies and friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far. This post is about how important they are, and why they too are worthy of support.
We had our first breakthrough with Teach First: we applied for the 2015 Innovation Award and were one of the five winners. There are some things that we know we don’t know – and others that we don’t know we don’t know! The Teach First Innovation Unit gave us access to people who had the kind of expertise we lacked. It also put us in touch with people with the same determination to change outcomes for the most disadvantaged, across a range of organisations and industries. That sense of connection has been very important to keeping on going – knowing that there are other voices and other shoulders pushing that same (very big) wheel.
Teach First is dedicated to changing the outcomes for disadvantaged children. Their current campaign is ‘Challenge the Impossible’, with the aim that ‘no child’s dream should ever be written off because of their background.’ Illiteracy and poverty are inextricably linked, and so recently achieving partnership status with Teach First is a natural fit for us. If we can help them to deliver a knockout blow on low literacy outcomes for disadvantaged students, we will have taken a major step towards a more just society.
We’ve been involved with the researchED community since its early days, although we weren’t fast enough to get tickets for the first conference! Working with this loosely aligned community has been liberating precisely because of its spontaneity, its willingness to challenge and question, and its curiosity. Interacting on social media, at conferences and the occasional curry night has introduced us to people and ideas we might never have encountered – and to share from the well of our own experience with people who are open-minded and optimistic about what can be achieved in education.
One (there are six) of the aims of researchED is to raise the research literacy of educators, in order for them to possess the critical skills necessary to challenge and understand the quality of research they encounter. Another is to promote, where possible, research of any discipline that has been shown to have significant evidence of impact in education, and to challenge research that lacks integrity, or has been shown to be based on doubtful methodologies.
One of the greatest frustrations in my career has been the gap between educational research – especially around reading and language – and practice in schools. It’s absolutely the case that there has been some very poor practice around the teaching of reading – there is no other explanation for the high proportion of students still struggling to read at the end of their education. ResearchED’s agenda, to eliminate poor practice derived from pseudo-research (or none at all) is of enormous potential benefit to education.
We’ve been supporters of the The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) for some time and recently joined its advisory board. IFERI has support from some of the foremost reading researchers, and being part of this network is hugely informative. Bringing some of the best minds in the world on reading and literacy to bear on government policy and professional practice, IFERI has the potential to make a huge difference to how we deal with reading problems in education systems across the English-speaking world.
It’s also been hugely helpful to be able to connect with the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDOLL) network. Established through Macquarie University in Sydney, and with a membership of scientists, clinicians, teachers and parents, the network shares information and discusses issues linked to the investigation and treatment of developmental disorders of language and literacy through sound scientific methodology and evidence-based research.
And where would we be without #TeamReading? Like researchED, this is a loosely aligned group of practitioners, professionals, and academics. Although there is no formal organisation binding us together, the support and interaction through social media has been empowering both in exploring new knowledge and confronting destructive myths.
Sometimes I am asked, why set up a new organisation when you could just keep working within the existing system? Based on hard experience, I concluded it wasn’t possible to effect the kind of change we need to see while still under the control of the very system that needs changing. So here I am – but fortunately, so are a lot of other people. There is commitment, ability and determination. I do believe that, as we continue to work together, the job can be done.
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