For those of us fortunate enough to be literate, the whole idea of Literacy in schools can seem bewilderingly over complicated. Something that comes to us as naturally as breathing can hardly require all the fuss and bother devoted to it, surely? Reading and writing can appear so straightforward that there must be something wrong with those who struggle.
But, if we’re able to resist the temptation to label those with poor literacy as somehow deficient and thus attribute biological or social causes for their shortcomings, we might have more of a chance of addressing some of the real issues. One of the most fascinating of these is the effect of affect. How we feel about a thing determines in large part how good we will be at that thing.
Hugo Kerr makes the point in his wonderful book, The Cognitive Psychology of Teaching Literacy that,
There is a great deal of evidence scattered throughout the literature (but left there disregarded) that the effect of affect on the learning and performance of literacy is a great deal more important than we have recognised (e.g. Andreassen et al 2006). Anxiety is frequently and clearly recognised (e.g. Everatt & Brannan 1996). It is everywhere noted that failing to acquire literacy is associated with searing anxiety all round. This anxiety is routinely portrayed as the result of failure, but no evidence is produced to back this assertion. We always describe anxiety as the cart, but it could just as easily be the horse. Anxiety could just as easily be a primary cause of failure rather than its result. It could, at least beyond the very initial stages of literacy failure, be prior to, rather than consequent upon, this failure. This is an unresolved, but absolutely fundamental issue.
When at school I decided early on that I was bad a maths. I found it hard to manipulate numbers and this made me feel stupid. When given a maths problem to solve I would become anxious and the more anxious I became, the harder it was to concentrate on the numbers. I got to the point where it felt like I was having a panic attack.
Unsurprisingly, I decided that it would feel far more comfortable not to try. And so I gave up. I spent the remaining years of maths lessons doodling, staring out of the window and generally avoiding doing any work. It was easier to give up and resigning myself to being rubbish at maths than it was to deal with the crippling anxiety of making an effort and failing. Teachers shrugged and shunted me down the sets until I found myself largely untroubled and left to my own devices in the bottom set. My teachers’ expectations of me were as low as those I had for myself. Equally unsurprisingly, I got a D grade in my GCSE maths exam.
I didn’t care. I left school blithely convinced that I was bad at maths, and who needs to know any of that stuff anyway?
Some years later I decided I wanted to be an English teacher. No problem: I had a decent English degree and Oxford University were happy to accept me on to their PGCE. Except for the fact that I needed a C grade in GCSE maths. I railed against the injustice of this and howled “Why?” at the moon before buckling down and enrolling in an evening class.
This was the single most difficult thing I have ever done. I wept bitter tears of frustration at the improbabilities of probability and almost tore out my hair at grid references. I just didn’t get it. Who was I kidding? There was no way I could ever pass the damn thing, I might as well give up. In my desperation, I even considering paying someone ginger (and good at maths, obvs) to sit the exam for me.
But something in me persevered. I got hold of some past papers and did one of them every day in the month before the exam. If I started to bug out I would just skip the question and focus on the ones I could do. And, as I got used to processes of solving equations and translating shapes, my anxiety began to fade and I started to recognise that I could do it. On the day of the first exam I experienced a moment of pure joy as I realised that I knew the answer to every single question on the paper! I hadn’t had to miss out any of them. The second paper didn’t go quite as perfectly but I was still pretty sure I’d done well.
When, a few months later, I went to collect my results I actually managed to feel disappointed that I had only got a B! (This was back in the days when there was an intermediate tier for maths GCSE and a B was the highest grade it was possible to get.) I can’t tell you how proud I felt: this was the first time in my life that I had accomplished something that I hadn’t found easy. It was, I realised soon after beginning my PGCE course, great preparation for the rigours of teaching.
Anyway, that lengthy and self-indulgent anecdote does have a point. There’s lots to infer about the importance of mindset, and it certainly taught me that I could achieve most things if I was prepared to put in effort despite the discomfort of failing. But more than that, it has allowed me to empathise with those students who ‘can’t do’ English. Despite the fact that reading and writing has always come so easily to me, I know what it’s like to feel stupid and to believe that I can never get better.
Those who struggle with their literacy feel the same anxiety about their deficiencies as I did about mine. And my story is both a cautionary tale and a cause for hope. Kerr’s description of the affect of anxiety chimes so absolutely with my own experience: emotions affect performance. They affect the enjoyment of learning, and they also affect the work we are able to produce. Obviously, this can also be a huge benefit; I have always got a huge kick out of studying language. The fact that I so actively enjoy reading and writing means that my performance of these skills is also joyful. I have always been motivated to read independently and, as Robert MacFarlane has said, “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”. But the problem is, as Keith Stanovich points out in the Chanel 4 programme, The Dyslexia Myth, “An avid reader may read in two days what a struggling reader might read in a year.”
Success breeds success, and our confidence and enthusiasm will be bolstered, further stoking our expectation that we can succeed again in the future. When we struggle, we don’t consider ourselves to be failures. Instead we’ll put this down to the complexity of a text. More more difficult a task the keener we’ll be to attempt it and our motivation is intrinsic.
Sadly, this is not the case for many students. It’s all too easy to write off ‘kids like these’ as thick and having no hope of achieving anything. The pressure on students to be literate is enormous and failure is usually attributed to something inherent in a child. This kind of labelling and negative language is toxic. Kerr says:
When such pressure is put on a mind, it will react in educationally important ways, of course. It will endeavour to protect itself and may evince some strange behaviours in the attempt. Many of these behaviours may be considered to be ‘symptoms’ of a deficit or abnormality. Some will be felt to be evidence of personal inadequacy (typically „laziness‟) or even of wickedness. We should be on our guard and must earnestly remember that „common things are common‟. Emotional trauma is common. Failure at literacy is a very particular, and emotionally charged, trauma. It is peculiarly painful for everyone concerned but it is especially intimately, fundamentally and personally damaging for the tiny victim of it.
This leads inexorably the same learned helplessness (Kerr suggests that dyslexia might be a manifestation of this) I used to feel when encountering numbers. Interestingly, this ‘mathematics anxiety’ is well-known, and has been knocking about in academic literature since the 70s. But ‘literacy anxiety’ has not had the same kind of coverage.
The solutions are as simple to identify as they are difficult to implement:
- If a student is struggling with literacy assume that this is a combination of anxiety and learned helplessness rather than a deficiency
- Have high expectations of all students
- Give students a taste of success at reading and writing. This involves making tasks hard enough not to be easy but not too hard that they won’t be able to manage to complete without minimal support
- Make the implicit explicit: teach students the reading and writing strategies others take for granted.
This is all a lot easier said than done, but with an unswerving belief in the power of growth mindsets, deliberate practice and the power of positive language it is possible to alter the affect our students are experiencing on a daily basis.