Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Class Size and the Teaching of Reading

There is a common misperception in Jamaica that the high pupil teacher ratio is the main reason why some children don’t learn to read. I too was of that opinion until I read the results of the Grade 4 Literacy Test published in The Daily Gleaner, in 2010, when I was surprised to see that the average ratio for Region 4 (St. James, Hanover and Westmoreland) was 31:1. A closer inspection of the data revealed that the ratio in St. James varied from a high of 37:1 in urban schools to a low of 13:1 in deep rural areas. The latter would seem to be ideal. Which teacher would not want a class of 13? Each child would be able to get individual attention and excellent performance should be expected.

However, this was not the case. In that particular school, out of an enrollment of 7 children in Grade 4, only 4 sat the test and none achieved mastery. The total enrolment of the school was 40, indicating that there were 3 teachers, each teaching 3 grade levels, as this was an All Age school.

In another All-Age school, with a ratio of 15:1 the total enrolment was 45, indicating 3 teachers for grades 1-9. In that school, 11 children were enrolled in grade 4, but only 6 sat the literacy test, and only one achieved mastery.

At the other end of the scale was a school in the heart of an urban area, with a total enrollment of 1,720 and a ratio of 37:1. This school has a 6-stream entry, with about 48 children per class, for which 36 teachers would be required. With the stated ratio of 37:1, the school could employ 46 teachers. Why not a 7-stream entry? Because there is no space—all the classrooms are occupied. 268 of the 277 students enrolled in grade 4, sat the literacy test and 62% of them achieved mastery in 2010 (down from 86% in 2009), meaning that more than 100 children had not achieved mastery.

In contrast to these, there are schools in which 100% of the students in grade 4 sat the literacy test and achieved mastery. These schools are not limited to either urban or rural areas, they vary in size and in pupil: teacher ratio. Perhaps we should focus on these schools and follow their best practices.

My own opinion is that the system is capable of performing much better even with existing limited resources. The teaching of reading should be the priority. For children who have problems with reading at the end of grade 1, the emphasis in grade 2 should be on basic literacy and numeracy skills, until they are sufficiently competent to embark on the grade 2 curriculum.

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