No evidence from small trial that subject knowledge aids literacy

This press release has come from Durham University Curriculum Centre Word and World Reading.  An Education Endowment Foundation research project evaluated by Durham School of Education, part of the Assessment, Evaluation and Effectiveness research group. The independent evaluators included Professor Stephen Gorard, Nadia Siddiqui and Beng Huat See. 

Aiming to give young people knowledge of their history, culture and environment is a good idea. But a new study suggests that this has no short-term benefit for their literacy results. Perhaps in order to succeed, teachers who impart knowledge need to be more knowledgeable themselves.

There is a long-held belief that reading comprehension requires factual knowledge (Hirsch, 1987). But in England, early reading is usually taught as a separate process from subject content. Which view is correct? In her book ‘Seven myths about education,’ Daisy Christodoulou challenges the ideas that we can always look up information and that teaching knowledge is some kind of indoctrination. She is supported in her demand for more ‘facts’ by many, including the Schools Minister (Gibb 2014) who has called for an ‘initial grounding in subject knowledge’.

Familiarity with the context or topic of a piece of writing has been shown to be clearly related to prowess in reading. Is this because facts help, or because general education and reading ability are correlated? The debate was addressed by a new study conducted by Durham University, which evaluated a programme of teaching fundamental facts about history, geography, science and so on to primary school children in years 3 and 4. Word and World Reading (WWR) was developed by The Curriculum Centre – a charitable organisation, part of Future Academies, whose core mission to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the 21st century.

After one year, the intervention had been generally well-received, and was largely introduced as intended by its developers and trainers, who included Daisy Christodoulou. Some teachers felt that the programme had a positive impact on pupil learning, including improved vocabulary and writing skills. It cost around £50 per pupil for training and resources. However, none of this showed up in greater gains in literacy for the intervention groups. 1,337 pupils in 17 schools had been randomised to receive the intervention in either the first or second year. The non-intervention group actually did slightly better in terms of Progress in Maths.

In some lessons teachers’ subject knowledge did not appear to be sufficient to support an in-depth discussion with pupils about the topics within the programme curriculum. This suggests that additional training or support materials would be beneficial. The programme appeared to be less successful for Year 3 students or low-attaining students. It is also likely that the intervention would need longer to make a difference.

Gibb, N, (2014) The importance of teaching. Speech given at ResearchEd conference in London., accessed February 2015.

Hirsch, E. (1987) Cultural literacy: what every American needs to know, New York: Vintage

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