One of the startling realities in our understanding of literacy learning, identified long ago by Noam Chomsky, is that, in this regard, we are not all blank slates at birth. A percentage of us are born with a predisposition to recognise the patterns in writing. A similar number are born with almost an absence in this area, and most fall in between. It is, as with all things, a continuum. Non evidence based philosophies on surrounding children with reading experiences were pervasive in our relatively recent modern educational settings for a generation and more once we moved away from more rigid teaching methods and, these approaches were championed by many respected writers, academics and educationalists, since it addressed the important motivational and modelling experiences that are critical in all human learning and was revolutionary in its impact on those with a predisposition for literacy learning who had often, in the past, been uninspired by overly rigid teaching processes.
The unintended consequence of this radical and inspiring change in approach was that those with more limited predispositions for literacy were not as well catered for, thus the era of many stories of children reaching high school before difficulties were identified and the large number of children whose literacy was impeded. Poor grammar and spelling in earlier generations had been through lack of educational opportunities but in more recent times it became about short falls in teaching methods, or more, the lack of applicability of widespread approaches to the needs of the majority. Society makes such mistakes and it is pointless to try to change the past or criticise those who made huge contributions to an important part of the educational equation. I’m not trying to engage in a slanging match,just trying to paint a picture of why so many were lost to the joy of reading in relatively recent history.
Another issue that muddied the communication waters was that surrounding children with verbal language, even long before expressive language develops, is the absolutely optimal approach for verbal language learning so, indeed, it seemed likely that written language might also follow that path and there are clear benefits in surrounding children with books, reading models, and reading experiences. It is such an important part of the mix. But direct teaching in literacy is critical for the vast majority and helpful also for those with strong literature predispositions, unless it is done in a way that bores them.
Much of what I’ve said may also apply to mathematical learning as this is also a language and we see similar patterns of predisposition. It is not an area in which I have any expertise, though, and others more knowledgeable would need to share their thoughts on this. Similarly with another type of language, music, and, though enjoying this greatly, I am really out of my depth here as with other language types I may not have mentioned.
The point I am making, though, is that the nature – nurture debate may never be entirely resolved. Both our complex biological makeup and the experiences we have interact in ways that are difficult to unpack. But we can never point exclusively to one or the other. As with life outcomes, children from the same family can turn into very different adults, even though they share so much genetic material. Of course this opens another huge area of discussion around birth order, gender preferences, the types of choices children make, favoured children and too many other issues to mention here.
But, I want to stress that literacy difficulties were never primarily about “bad” or “lazy” teaching. My experience of teachers is that the vast majority are highly motivated and focussed but when the ‘truth of the times’ is seen as being largely about motivation, and yet the evidence is that there is a need for ‘direct instruction’, in careful combination with this, mistakes can be made. And this is the reason that, as societies, we must follow the evidence rather than philosophies that are appealing but unsound. This has particular relevance to how we deal with a pandemic. Part of what makes this so difficult is that there is an evidence base on how to respond to this, but political and socio-economic forces can blur the edges and much of what we learn will be from the wisdom of hindsight. I would not like to be a leader in these difficult times.