The idea that education acts as a Matthew Effect that disproportionately benefits those who start with most is an uncomfortable but well-understood phenomenon. Everything we do in schools either widens the advantage gap between the most privileged and least privileged students, or narrows it. This is, I think, a real dichotomy: anything that, on balance, appears net neutral is in fact acting to keep the gap a yawning chasm of inequity. This allows us to look at any potential intervention or policy and ask whether it’s likely to widen or narrow the gap.

Take, for instance, Renaissance Learning’s ubiquitous quizzing software, Accelerated Reader. Is it likely to widen or narrow the gap? What AR does is encourage those students who can already read to read a bit more. This is a Good Thing: we all want students to read more. But, one of the biggest impediments to social justice is Good Things. In this case, schools shell out anywhere between £4,000 – £6,000 per year on software that has no plausible mechanism for helping the significant minority of children in schools who cannot read well enough to access an academic curriculum. The children who benefit are those who are already ahead. Although this is great for those with most, everyone else falls further behind. From my perspective, we should only invest money on interventions that benefit those with most when those with least gain as much if not more. Rather than settling for Good Things, we must be alert for Better Things.

Other interventions are clearly and unambiguously gap-narrowing. If schools allocate resources to specifically target and intervene with the estimated 20% of students who cannot read fluently, then only the least advantaged benefit. This is just as these students, through no fault of their own, were unable to master phoneme-grapheme correspondences when it was most convenient for them to do so. The most advantaged 80% are fine: the ability to read fluently provides intellectual velcro to which the stuff of school sticks easily. Those who cannot read fluently enter their classrooms with the equivalent of intellectual teflon: nothing sticks. Clearly this is a Better Thing but it can, perhaps, be criticised for not benefitting all students.

But what if, we reallocated some of that £4,000-£6,000 per year on books and training to support a daily read-aloud programme? Selecting a reading curriculum of those books we decide all our students have an entitlement to, whether or not they are able to read them independently, benefits all students, but it disproportionately benefits those who start with least. By choosing to give all students access to those books we consider most valuable, most likely to help them pull up ‘a seat at the table’ and take part in conversations from which they might otherwise be excluded, we are acting in everyone’s best interests.

Determining the criteria for select texts for your reading curriculum probably deserves a separate post, but for now, the following questions might help us arrive at better decisions:

  • What texts should every student be entitled to experience before they leave school?
  • How likely are students to have already experienced these texts independently or in some other form?
  • To what extent will texts introduce students to ideas, contexts and vocabulary which will be unfamiliar?
  • Should the chosen texts represent a genuine diversity of voices (including older, less popular voices)?
  • Are the texts appropriate to the age groups they are intended for?
  • Do texts explore topics or language that will need to carefully contextualised?  How will you go about this?
  • Does there need to be a balance of fiction and non-fiction?
  • Have texts been chosen for enjoyment or betterment? Do they represent easy or ‘serious’ reading?

I’m not suggesting there are universally correct answers to these questions, just that they might help provide some clarity on our intentions.

Once we’ve chosen our reading curriculum, we can maximise the impact of our choices by allocating resources to reading these texts aloud, ensuring the most marginalised have the greatest possibility to appreciate and make meaning from the great gift they are being given. This sort of decision edges from Better to Best. The most advantaged are likely to be fine however schools choose to allocate resources, but the for least advantaged to thrive, decisions must be explicitly aimed a narrowing rather than widening the gulf of disadvantage.

Other related posts that might be useful:

Reading for betterment

Why we need to read aloud

Do we teach children to love reading? Part 1 and Part 2