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The National Literacy Strategy: not prescriptive enough?

Wendy Jolliffe
Centre for Educational Studies, University of Hull, email:

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004


This paper examines the background to the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy, thereby explaining the rationale behind its inception. From a critical analysis of what makes effective teaching and learning of literacy; it presents qualitative research carried out in the form of a comparative study of the National Literacy Strategy and Success for All. This small scale study of four schools supports the hypothesis that the underpinning pedagogy needs to be explicitly understood for an initiative to be effective. In the case of Success for All, teachers are made explicitly aware of the key importance of cooperative learning as the vehicle for learning. In the case of the National Literacy Strategy, however, other than some knowledge of the need for ‘interactive’ teaching, no explicit understanding of the learning theory that underpins it, is apparent. In other words, it may be said, the National Literacy Strategy is not ‘prescriptive’ enough.


The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) has been held up by authorities on international change to be the largest and most ambitious educational project witnessed since the 1960s (Fullan, 2000). At the conference for its launch, in 1997, David Blunkett (then the opposition spokesperson for Education) announced that if his party came to power, 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in England would reach the expected level (Level 4) in reading by 2002 (later changed to Level 4 in English). Professor Bob Slavin (the originator of Success for All) responded that it reminded him of President Kennedy’s 1962 target of getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Only, said Professor Slavin, the NLS target was more difficult (Beard, 2002). Such a large-scale reform has been the subject of fierce debate and much research. This paper begins with a critical review of this research and then compares the NLS to another major strategy, Success for All (SFA), adapted in the U.K. to primarily teach literacy.


The debate over the effective teaching of literacy has raged long and vehemently. The author, as a newly appointed Literacy Co-ordinator in a primary school prior to the introduction of the NLS, recalls being given the ‘poisoned chalice’ of conducting in-service training with the staff on the effective teaching of reading. In an attempt to highlight the need to teach a range of reading strategies, a fierce argument broke out over the virtues of teaching reading through the ‘whole language approach’, using ‘real’ books, versus the value of teaching the sub-skills such as phonics. The two positions seemed totally polarised and have been described as the ‘reading wars’ (Goodman, 1998).

What was the overall situation regarding the teaching of literacy prior to 1998 (the date of the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy)? Research shows that standards in literacy among English primary school children had remained largely stable from 1948-1996. National Curriculum tests in 1995 and 1996 highlighted the concern and indicated that only 48% and 57% respectively of 11 year-olds were reading at the level expected for their age group (i.e. National Curriculum Level 4) (Brooks, 1998). As Beard (2000) shows, evidence from inspection, surveys and research, all suggest that, in the years prior to the NLS, early reading in English primary schools was largely taught by individualised methods, which consisted principally of the teacher listening to the child read (e.g. Cato et al, 1992). Indeed, Beard (2000: 246) notes ‘direct teaching of literacy skills was surprisingly rare’. One can, therefore, conclude that until the introduction of the NLS in 1998, when schools were required to specifically teach a range of literacy skills, the teaching of reading in England was very variable.

Research into the teaching of literacy

During the 1990s, a wealth of research was produced on the effective teaching of literacy, for example Adams’ seminal work (1990) indicating the clear need for explicit teaching of phonics within the context of a meaningful interaction with texts. Other key findings from Bryant (1993) and Goswami (1995) highlighted the need for developing phonological awareness. The work carried out by Clay (1979) through Reading Recovery emphasised the need to make explicit how print works, how to link reading and writing effectively, and to ensure swift intervention when children begin to exhibit a lack of effective progress. Holdaway’s work (1979) on using shared texts to enable teachers to recreate the experience of a bedtime story with a child and parent, began to be replicated to effect, and further work by the Australian genre theorists (Littlefair, 1991), made clear the need to not only introduce a range of genres to children, but also to make the features of each explicit, to enable a clearer understanding. All these formed the background to the National Literacy Strategy.

Recent published research identifies certain key factors in successful literacy teaching, and helps illuminate some pertinent issues in evaluating the National Literacy Strategy.

  1. Effective teachers have coherent belief systems about literacy which are generally consistent with the way they teach (Wray, Medwell, Poulson and Fox, 2002). Wray, Medwell et al, state:

  2. ‘The clear implication of this finding is that to raise expertise levels in all teachers of literacy, some professional development opportunities at least need to be channelled to those teachers not already identified as expert.’ (2002:130)

  3. Further support is needed in order to develop genuinely interactive teaching skills (the recommended model by the NLS). Moyles et al (2003) found that:

  4. ‘for the most part, whole-class interactive teaching remains a one-way teacher-dominated activity.’ (2003:xiii)

  5. The most recent Ofsted report on the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies (2003) reiterates this point:

  6. In too many lessons, teacher’s talk dominates and there are too few opportunities for pupils to talk and collaborate to enhance their learning.’ (Ofsted, 2003:3).

  7. Understanding of the pedagogical theory is crucial to effective teaching, but as Fisher (2002) notes during the introductory training to the NLS there was only a five minute short explanation which looked at the rationale.

  8. Harrison (2002) specifies the five underlying elements of the teaching sequence of the literacy hour, which interestingly, is nowhere made explicit in the training, as follows:

    (i) Identification of prior knowledge

    (ii) Teacher demonstration of process

    (iii) Shared exploration through activity

    (iv) Scaffolded pupil application of new learning

    (v) Consolidation through discussion of activity

  9. An explicit understanding of the links between theory and practice is needed (Bailey, 2002). Bailey’s research centres on the effective teaching of writing, and describes a ‘fragile link’ (2002: 23) between research and practice. The implementation of the National Literacy Strategy has, she suggests, led to an ‘anxious literalism’ (2002:26) which has in turn meant a discrete teaching of language skills and concepts and a diminution of written composition.

Focus questions for research

The foregoing resumé of research into the effective teaching of literacy has shown that the following are pre-requisites:

1. An effective programme of professional development;
2. Teaching should be genuinely interactive;
3. A deep-rooted understanding by teachers of the pedagogical process;
4. Clear links made between theory and practice.

These therefore formed key elements in my research in reviewing the effectiveness of two major literacy strategies.

Review of research into the National Literacy Strategy

It is important first to briefly describe the background to the introduction of the NLS. Before accession to power in 1997, the Labour party had set up a literacy taskforce which was charged with developing a strategy for substantially raising standards of literacy in primary schools over a five to-ten-year period. The preliminary report cited international data, as well as local data, as being influential in the development of ‘best practices’. They also referred to New Zealand research and practices. Indeed a taskforce had been set up in New Zealand with very similar goals, but there the similarities end, as the New Zealand taskforce drew upon a much larger range of experience and research expertise. The latter report recommended increasing teachers’ and school based responses to developing best practice. The whole thrust was for the development of teachers’ skills and knowledge so that they could implement best practice in the teaching of literacy with a stress on strong professional leadership. These recommendations form a stark contrast to the U.K. taskforce’s preference for a ‘framework’ to structure and sequence pedagogic activities and to specify the content that was to be taught during the ‘literacy hour’.

To summarise, Soler (2000:15) stated in her analysis of the two reports:

‘A comparison of the development and content of the English ‘Literacy Taskforce Preliminary Report’ and the New Zealand ‘Report of the Literacy Taskforce’ highlights the way in which differing wider political contexts, membership and governmental ‘vision’, can influence the analysis and recommendations derived from a similar research base.’

Critical responses to the NLS from educational research

From the introduction of the NLS to the present day a range of criticisms have been voiced. In relation to the focus questions in this research, they are briefly as follows:

  1. Ineffective whole class teaching

  1. Meeting the needs of Special Educational Needs Pupils

  1. Neglect of learning theory

  1. Speaking and Listening not specifically included

The neglect of Speaking and Listening has been a key criticism by teachers. Collins and Marshall study (2001, p 12) cites substantial classroom-based research on the importance of exploratory talk for learning. Corden (2000) argues that considering an extensive body of research which demonstrates the relationship between talk, academic empowerment and achievement (Johnson et al 1981; Slavin 1983, Webb and Cullian 1983; Wells and Chang 1988; Sharan and Shaulov 1989; Wells et al 1990); it is a ‘shameful neglect’ (2000:17) that ‘having emphasised the centrality of talk, the DfEE chose to exclude speaking and listening from the NLSF.’ (NLSF - National Literacy Strategy Framework for Teaching) (2000:17). This has been addressed with the production of new guidance on incorporating speaking and listening within the NLS Framework. It will, however, require extensive professional development in order for teachers to see this as integral and not merely an ‘add on’.

Whilst the above criticisms highlight key areas of concern, the NLS has also been subjected to review by Ofsted and their report in 2002 reviewed progress to date. This showed that some of the key issues highlighted in their report in 2000 were still outstanding. These related to issues of: a lack of improvement in phonics teaching, specifically with regard to children in years 3 and 4; persistent weakness in the delivery of guided reading; a lack of clarity in relation to day-to-day assessment and that speaking and listening was rarely planned in detail. Perhaps most revealing was the lack of deep-rooted understanding of the rationale behind the strategy, particularly by headteachers, leading to issues of weak leadership.

The Toronto University evaluation of the NLS consists of a series of three Government-commissioned annual reports. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education describes itself as a ‘critical friend’, leaving the report open to possible criticism regarding the level of independence. The final report commissioned by the DfES has shown that ‘much has been accomplished’ (2003:3), but that this ‘will require sustained professional learning experiences over many years if improvements in teaching practice are to be lasting.’ They conclude that on balance and ‘cautiously’ it has been value for money, but further challenges remain:

  • More in-service development due to a persistent lack of pedagogical understanding which will inhibit further development

  • Efforts by Government to minimise increased teacher workload

  • A narrowing of the curriculum due to test preparation

  • A need for more out of school influences to impact, e.g. the co-operation and work with parents.

  • Review of research into Success for All

    My research proceeded to review the background and research into Success for All as an alternative literacy strategy. Success for all (SFA) is a large scale school improvement strategy devised by Robert Slavin in the USA. It is derived from research carried out into cooperative learning and has then been developed into a scheme for the teaching of literacy (although this has been extended into Maths and Social Studies in the US).

    Cooperative learning (CL) is one of the most widely researched areas in recent educational history. In the last 100 years, over 550 experimental and 100 correlational studies have been conducted with different ages, subject areas and settings (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Results of these have shown three main categories of advantages; achievement, inter-personal relationships and psychological health and social competence.

    However, closer examination reveals that in spite of its growth, there is a real concern about the quality of cooperative methods being used. Research has shown (e.g. Davidson, 1985; Slavin, 1995) the importance of group goals as well as individual accountability for group work, and yet in many studies these have been shown to be absent. In other words, CL may be widespread, but to what extent it is effective and follows the core principles, is debatable. It is also interesting to note that there is limited research into how to implement CL (Bennett, 1994).

    In 1986 the John Hopkins University, led by Robert Slavin, began to experiment with the idea of a cooperative ‘elementary’ school, i.e. rather than cooperative learning taking place on a teacher by teacher basis, the introduction of a whole school programme. This showed positive results (Slavin, 1996) and grew to projects in over 1500 schools by 2000 in 48 states in the US, together with schools in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Israel and England using it. The approach to CL used is Student Teams Achievement Division (STAD) which rewards teams for the sums of its members’ efforts. This method has been criticized for introducing an element of competition and extrinsic reward (Johnson and Johnson, 1989 and Brown and Thomson, 2000).

    Research has overwhelmingly found Success for All to have positive outcomes in terms of pupils’ achievement. Such results have been summarised using a method called multi-site replicated experiment (Slavin 1996a: 92-99). Critics have attacked Success for All because of lack of third party evaluations (Pogrow, 2000). In response, Slavin has published a considerable amount of research on the web site and compiled an extensive list of independent researchers involved. The large amount of evidence on cooperative learning as well as on the effects of Success for All, would all seem to support Slavin’s claim that "Success for All is one of the greatest success stories of educational research and reform" (1999:1).

    To summarise, the key elements of the SFA programme are:

    1. The philosophical basis called ‘talent development’, i.e. that all children have talents capable to being developed to meet high standards.

    2. Research into effective learning.

    3. Cooperative learning.

    4. Early intervention to prevent failure.

    5. A reading programme based on research into effective practices for beginning reading.

    6. An intensive professional development programme, and the involvement of parents.

    7. Replicability through high levels of implementation.

    Success for All also includes a ‘Getting Along Together’ programme to enable teachers to teach the skills of co-operating. The effectiveness of this, however, is a largely un-researched area.

    Key differences: NLS and SFA

    My review of existing research elicited seven key differences between NLS and SFA. These are as follows:

    1. A learning theory which is specified and incorporated. In SFA, learning through the social construction of knowledge by cooperative learning is integral. For the NLS, this consists of interactive teaching and whilst there is a statement of desirability, how this to be incorporated is not explicit.

    2. A school-wide programme which requires full staff commitment and restructuring. SFA is a holistic school reform model requiring a minimum of 80% commitment by all staff and organisational restructuring, e.g. through the provision of a facilitator and pupils grouped by ability, not age. NLS is a curriculum based reform and requires no prior commitment by the majority of staff. The organisation of the school does not require any restructuring.

    3. Comprehensive materials and resources are provided. For SFA extensive materials are provided which incorporate cooperative learning and metacognitive techniques. For NLS, extensive materials are provided although these do not explicitly incorporate ‘interactive’ teaching, apart from some surface features.

    4. Commitment to ongoing professional development: for SFA there is extensive training particularly for Headteachers and senior managers. Ongoing training for all staff is provided by SFA staff, together with support from ‘expert’ literacy teachers, or Facilitators, in each school. For NLS a cascade model of professional development is used through centrally produced resources for literacy co-ordinators to deliver to school staff. There is ongoing training to co-ordinators and support from LEA literacy consultants.

    5. Inclusion of home-school links: SFA includes a family support team set up in each school to address issues that may impinge on learning, such as poor attendance. No explicit provision is made for this in NLS.

    6. Tutoring: An early intervention programme for children identified as falling behind is part of the SFA program, which consists of one-to-one tutoring support for the duration of need. For NLS additional support for those pupils who are falling slightly behind for specific year groups, is provided for set periods of time.

    7. The provision of a Facilitator. This in place in each school for SFA in the form of a teacher who monitors and co-ordinates the programme and is given 50% off timetable time to carry this out. With the NLS, the Literacy co-ordinators monitor the programme, but no non-contact time is specifically given.


    The foregoing all led me to conclude that in order to produce an effective literacy strategy, on the scale of the National Literacy Strategy, it requires firm foundations, i.e. teachers need to understand the underlying pedagogy: not just what to teach, but why they are doing it. My hypothesis was therefore that the National Literacy Strategy had a missing link – no explicit professional development on the underlying pedagogy, nor what constitutes the effective learning of literacy. In other words, ironically for many of its critics, it could be described as not ‘prescriptive’ enough. I sought therefore to put this hypothesis to the test through a comparison with Success for All.


    In order to collect information from schools on the quality of teaching and learning, which largely involved judgements by senior staff, I elected to use a qualitative research method of semi-structured interviews. These were carried out with two schools using NLS and two schools using Success for All (SFA), all in the same socially deprived inner city area of Hull within an Education Action Zone. My specific research questions related to the impact on teaching and learning from adopting either of these strategies. Questions therefore specifically related to teaching and learning and to management, in order to discover how such judgements have been made. The interviews were carried out with Headteachers and Literacy Co-ordinators from each school. From this a conceptual framework was devised which aimed to show a clear comparison of the impact on teaching and learning.


    1. NLS Schools

    Interviews were carried during the summer of 2002. The following significant comments were made by School B (using NLS):

    Amongst comments made by School C (using NLS) were the following:

    Out of nine key indicators within the conceptual framework used for analysis of the interviews both schools answered positively on only four.

    2. SFA Schools

    School A (using SFA) made the following contrasting comments:

  • Training had enhanced skills although there was an ongoing need particularly on the underlying ethos of cooperative learning

  • It ensured genuinely interactive whole class teaching

  • The provision of a facilitator with non-contact time to monitor and enable the provision, was crucial

  • It promotes the inclusion of all children in active learning, both less able and more able pupils

  • Learning was good with emphasis on oral work

  • It enabled good monitoring of pupils’ progress

  • School D (using SFA) commented that:

    Both schools answered positively on eight out of nine key indicators used from analysis of the interviews, with both showing some reservation about the danger of more able pupils becoming bored through the predictability of the programme.


    To return to my hypothesis that the National Literacy Strategy had a ‘missing link’, i.e a failure to incorporate effective teaching and learning and also a failure to make explicit its underlying pedagogy; to what extent had this research illuminated this issue? In a limited small scale review of four schools, it had shown some significant shortcomings.

    First, ineffective whole class teaching: the two NLS schools interviewed both commented on the passive nature of lessons with not all children involved. In contrast, the SFA schools referred to teaching being ‘genuinely interactive’ with all children ‘engaged in their learning through team work’.

    Second, the inclusion of all pupils: the NLS schools referred to ‘matching pupils needs’ as a ‘key weakness’. In contrast the SFA schools referred to the ‘inclusion of all pupils in active learning in literacy’ with issues of ability and gender being well addressed.

    Third, inclusion of learning theory: both the SFA schools made reference to the ‘underlying ethos’ of cooperative learning and ‘the philosophy behind it – cooperative learning’ and its impact on teaching and learning. In addition, both schools referred specifically to the increased amount and quality of oral work. Neither NLS schools made any such reference and indeed referred to ‘bits of paving stones’ as if they did not fully appreciate the ‘big picture’.

    Fourth, professional development: both the SFA schools indicated that the provision of an off-timetable facilitator to provide ongoing support, plus centralised training had been effective. With both NLS schools the quality of training relied on individual expertise of co-ordinators, who were not given as much time as the SFA facilitators to carry this out and with variable results.

    These four issues arising from this research echo the focus questions identified at the beginning of this paper, namely:

    1. An effective programme of professional development;
    2. Teaching should be genuinely interactive;
    3. A deep-rooted understanding by teachers of the pedagogical process;
    4. Clear links made between theory and practice.

    Whilst SFA would seem from this to be more effective, it is important to bear in mind the high cost of the scheme, requiring a teacher to be off-timetable for at least fifty per cent of the time. In addition, resources were considerably more extensive than those required for NLS. The schools studied here received funding from the Education Action Zone to implement the strategies, but for many other schools this would not be possible. Nevertheless, this needs to be set against the centralised costs of implementing the NLS, (£205.5 million in year 2000-2001 alone, OISET, 2003). Both schemes have therefore incurred considerable costs, with a large proportion of centralised costs in the case of the NLS.

    A summary of the findings from this study illustrate the contrasts between the strategies, firstly in terms of the teaching of literacy. For the NLS the structure of lessons has improved with a three-part format used consistently; more explicit whole class and group teaching of reading and the contribution of the coordinator through monitoring and feedback, has all helped to improve the quality of teaching. However, pupils remain largely too passive and there has been no explicit training on the underlying pedagogy and how to make lessons effectively interactive. For SFA there is more effective professional development through the use of an ‘expert’ facilitator to work alongside teachers to ensure that training is put into practice. Explicit training on cooperative learning as the underlying pedagogy is included which results in more interactive lessons. Improvements were particularly seen in the teaching of reading, specifically phonics and the ongoing monitoring by the facilitator enabled more consistently good quality teaching.

    In terms of the improvement in learning, here the contrast is most marked. SFA ensured a far greater degree of inclusion of all pupils by being grouped by ability and not age, and regularly regrouped as pupils progress. It enabled the needs of the more able pupils to be met and early identification and remediation of those pupils at risk of failure. Improvement shown through test results was slow, and most marked with the younger Key Stage 1 pupils with more improvement in reading than writing shown. For the NLS, the principal issue was not meeting the needs of all pupils consistently and intervention being mainly for those pupils who were just falling behind their peers. Improvements in test results again related to reading more than writing.

    Further research would be needed to verify these results. In particular such research would need to probe in greater depth the understanding of all staff of the underlying pedagogy. It would also need to verify the improvement in the quality of teaching through monitoring and Ofsted observations; provide an analysis of SATs results and teacher assessment over longer periods. In addition a longitudinal study of teachers’ styles and the effects of cooperative learning would be informative.

    To conclude, this research has presented some initial conclusions to show the greater effectiveness of Success for All for the teaching of literacy. To reiterate, the main differences centre around two main issues:

    1. Explicit understanding of the underlying pedagogy and how this impacts on learning through ongoing and effective professional development;

    2. The inclusion of all pupils in effective learning.

    These principal differences need to be addressed in order to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the NLS. This would necessitate firstly an intensive professional development programme to make explicit what is interactive teaching, and how to put it into practice, and secondly a review of methods of effective learning to ensure that all levels of ability are actively engaged in learning. The NLS, now renamed the Primary National Strategy, has begun to address some of these issues in 2004, in particular professional development in more effective learning methods. However, it is an onerous task and its success will require careful evaluation.

    The results from this small-scale study bear out the original hypothesis that an improvement in teaching and learning requires an explicit understanding of the underlying pedagogy, i.e. teachers need to know not only what to do, but why they do it.


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    This document was added to the Education-line database on 22 September 2004