Recently the Ministry of Education released the results of the Grade 4 Reading Test that was administered early this year. The results are no different from those of 1999. Approximately 47 percent of the students were reading at or above the Grade 4 level, another 31 percent were just below that level, while 32 percent were reading at levels that would not suggest that they have not mastered the basic skills needed in order to learn to read.
Having listened to much of what has been said in the media, it appears that many of the persons giving instant commentary and making great statements about results of the Grade 4 Reading Test do not really know what they are talking about. This must be confusing to the general public. In the interest of clarity and an objective, I am going to add my two cents worth. Although I am no Reading Specialist I have been following closely the research done on reading levels in the Jamaican primary school system for the last 30 years.
It is important for the general public to understand that the Grade 4 level of reading has emerged as the international standard for functional literacy. Persons who are functionally literate are deemed to be reading at or above Grade 4. There are many definitions of functional literacy. The one I like best is the definition that says that a functional literate person is one who could read or write anything that they could say. A more popular definition is that the functionally literate person is able to read and understand the newspapers and can fill out the regular forms that a common requirement by Government and other agencies.
A standard measure of the effectiveness of primary education is the percentage of children at the Grade 6 level that is functionally literate. There is no education system in the world that has or currently achieves 100 percent functional literacy at Grade 6. An excellent primary school system would achieve 90 percent or better. There are very few education systems in the world that are currently achieving this level for all children at the end of their primary schooling. Jamaica’s rate of functional literacy of children at the end of primary schooling is in the low 70s. This has been so for at least the last decade. Countries like the United States and Britain achieve about 85 percent. When one considers the vast difference in the resources invested in primary education in these countries compared to Jamaica, the level of functional literacy achieved in the Jamaica system is nothing short of remarkable.
The results of the Grade 4 Reading Test for both 1999 and 2000 are entirely consistent with the pattern of 70 to 75 percent functional literacy at the end of Grade 6. That is, at the end of primary schooling, at Grade 6, somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of children in Jamaica are functionally illiterate.
Recently, Dr. Samuel Myers and I conducted some research to learn something more about these 25 to 30 percent of students that have not learned to read at the end of primary schooling. Our data revealed three factors that appear to be important.
- About two-thirds of the children that are functionally illiterate at age 12 missed out on the basic instructions in reading in Grades 1 and 2 mainly because of poor attendance during those years and grades. Up to the time that we did this study, there was no systematic programme to identify and remediate the reading problems of these students during the primary school cycle. Most of the remediation took place in Grades 7 to 9, where the vast majority of such students learned to read.
- Most of the students these students who had missed out on the basic instruction in Grades 1 and 2 were boys. When it is considered that students in Grades 1 and 2 are usually six to seven years old, then child-rearing practices as they relate to the bringing up of boys are related to the poor attendance of the boys.
- The other third of students who do not learn to read by the end of primary schooling appear to have disabilities that affect learning that has gone undetected. These students need specially trained teachers, small classes and a wealth or materials for their instruction. Such resources are missing in most primary schools.
The recent introduction of the Grade 4 Reading Test along with the system-wide policy to remediate those identified, as reading well below grade level, is a sound and needed development. What this means is that special attention will now be given to these students in the primary school and therefore earlier than was previously the case. Probably, within the next three to four years we could see some upward movement from the 70 odd percent functionally literacy rate at which the system has been stuck for a least the last 10 years. The extent and speed of this improvement will depend on the quality of the support given to the schools to implement the remedial reading programme.
In my view, substantial improvements in the Grade 4 Reading test will come about if schools and the Ministry address three key issues.
- First, implementing measures to improve attendance in Grades 1 and 2.
- Second, putting in place a programme directed at improving the reading levels of boys.
- Third, implementing a programme of early detection and early stimulation of children affected by disabilities that affect their learning. Such early detection and early stimulation interventions should best start at the early childhood level.
Those who expect to see sudden and dramatic improvement from one year to the next, just by the administration of a test each year, do not understand what are the factors related to the level of reading achievement at which the Jamaican system has been stuck for the last decade nor what is needed to lift the standards of literacy in the school system.