What’s currently happening about children’s literacy in the US?

As part of my ongoing interest in the teaching of literacy to children (yes, the old ‘reading wars’ and the debate about phonics and whole language teaching is still going on, at least for some of us) I am trying to find out more about current policy in the US. Where does Obama stand? Are there any federal policies? No child left behind awaits reauthorization, as far as I understand. Federal funding for the Reading First programme seems to have ended. But do some states carry on with it?  And is phonics, (or synthetic phonics) still the preferred approach?

If anybody knows something about current US policy or can point me towards any sources of information, I would be very grateful. And if you’d like to know more about my work and my interest in policy, please ask.

Uta Papen


Join the “Crowd Sourced” Research of Media coverage of the OECD International Survey of Adult Skills

The results of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) will be released on October 8th in all the countries that took part in the survey.
There is likely to be a large amount of media attention to these findings and it would be interesting to collect examples of media coverage that could be compared across countries. These examples might include local as well as national media reports in newspapers, broadcast and social media. They could be news or opinion items, such as editorials.
You are invited to post any examples of media coverage you come across to this blog. Simply go to  https://literacieslog.wordpress.com/ and  add a comment in reply to this post. If you know of other people who might like to join in, please circulate this message to them.
The questions are: How are the PIAAC results being reported and where? For example, which results are focused on: literacy, numeracy and/or problem solving – and which differences in results are highlighted: gender, age, regional, etc.?
  • What kinds of issues are being raised in the media in response to the results?
 Details of the media coverage to share:
As well as your own comments on these questions, please give:
  • the source, date and time and geographical location for each media item you post
  • links to newspaper articles or broadcast programmes
The postings from different countries will be collated at the end of the calendar year 2013 by the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre and an analysis will be carried out by a team led by Mary Hamilton (Lancaster University), Keiko Yasukawa (University of Technology, Sydney) and Jeff Evans (Middlesex University). This analysis will be posted onto the LRC blog site and details circulated to all participating centres, blogs and lists.
We look forward to hearing from you!

Propaganda – British Library exhibition

At the weekend I visited the British Library’s exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. It was quite pricey at £9 per adult (some concessions available) and I certainly had some mixed reactions. So writing a blog post seems a very appealing way of thinking out some issues.

At the very beginning various definitions and quotations about the meaning of propaganda were displayed, such as Chomsky’s “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” The definitions varied, which seemed a perfectly appropriate way to set out a thought-provoking introduction, although I was a little troubled by an audio-visual presentation. This seemed to me to be given higher status than the rest.  Peter Johnston [sorry, this should have been David Welch – see comment below] declares to camera: “Propaganda itself is an ethically neutral idea ….”  Very likely cutting off the quotation here is unfair to him.  In a blog post of 20th August he continues by writing “… it is the content that varies.”  I felt uncomfortable at the time as it does not seem to me to be the same thing to say that propaganda can be used for a range of purposes, as to claim it is “ethically neutral.”  I’ll come back to this unease and how it developed, but in the meantime I realised many exhibits were designed to stimulate the viewer and/or listener to make up their own mind as to what might be the propaganda element or effect.

At points the interpretation seemed wilfully underplayed.  A display of material from newsreels was captioned “Films from Russia 1910-1927, courtesy of Pathé “ and that was it!  Was there ever so much tumult in one country as in that period?  Did the visitor deserve to be informed something about that, if they didn’t already know?  Were we perhaps supposed to know all about it and focus on the role of Pathé?  It was clear that this under-interpretation was entirely deliberate.  For example I used headphones to hear the soundtrack of some footage of the “Gulf War”, unmediated and unexplained.  Another newsreel about the independence of Tanganyika, again Pathé, if I remember rightly, looked now extraordinarily patronising, to put it mildly. Although I was not surprised about that, I might have found some informative comment useful.  I suppose omitting interpretation is one tactic to get the audience thinking…. But is it curating at its best?

The ubiquity of propaganda was one theme that came over quite effectively, with examples of monuments, public health campaigns and a great deal of Alastair Campbell.

I returned to my earlier unease about relativism later in the exhibition, when I came to a panel that included material about Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Nursultan Nazarbayev. I would have headed this panel, “Dictators”. Instead it was headed, “myth makers.” Part of the captioning to one of its exhibits read, “The Nazis played on the desires and fears of the German people to gain power, after which they made skilful use of propaganda to sustain popular support.”  Another caption included “…false histories may retrospectively attribute noble motivations to dubious actions and remove controversial figures from history.”  While recognising that I cannot present these extract fairly without mentioning the exhibits themselves, nor the whole context, perhaps you can understand nevertheless that I was really troubled.  “Dubious actions”??  At this point I was truly disturbed. It seemed to me just possible that a young person might visit the exhibition and have no idea of the scale of genocide presided over by some of these dictators in the twentieth century.   “Myth-makers” – a very dangerous and foolish phrase to use anywhere near some material which ought, in my opinion, have been contextualised through reference to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s massacres.  I am glad to say that to an extent my growing sense of concern, if not outrage, was assuaged by what came immediately next: a constant audio-visual showing Martin Winstone of the Holocaust Educational Trust.  This writer was interesting about the role of propaganda in Nazi Germany, its dire effects, and the pre-existing amount of anti-semitism that made its further propagation possible.  This was the beginning of a very good section on “enemies” including those “within”.

Overall, I would like to make it clear that I am convinced that the exhibition is extremely concerned with misuses of propaganda; I am not accusing them of being “ethically neutral”.  Indeed the exhibition should stimulate political and ethical thinking, including about some of the worst, as well as the best, events of recent centuries in particular.  I am not quite sure if the underplaying of interpretation, in order to be thought-provoking, is working as well as it might, in some sections of the exhibition.

I imagine everybody would find something in this very wide-ranging exhibition that they particularly liked.  I suspect what they might find most interesting might be what connects closely to their own interests; this is perhaps why there is a lot about the 2012 London Olympics.  I particularly liked 1958 Czech matchboxes and a 2013 Twitter installation called Chorus, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.  It was produced by Field [In the first version of this post I credited it to Brunel University’s by @chorus_team to explain the comments below.  Thanks to them and Ian Cooke for the helpful corrections]

If anyone else goes to the exhibition, I’d be really grateful if they would comment and let us know how their reactions compare with mine.

Julia Gillen

Racism in US Children’s Books

I recently came across this blog post by Sharon Chang about the tiny number of children’s books published in the US that feature characters of any other ethnicity than “white”. Chang points to a number of societal problems and impacts on literacy practices that may arise from this situation – not just for the minorities that are invisible in most children’s books, but for “white” families as well. But is the situation just as bleak in other countries, including the UK? There are certainly media reports suggesting this, and some UK professionals who point to positive examples of diversity in publishing from the US, while lamenting the UK situation. Comments and examples welcome!

Johnny Unger