Change One Thing: ‘Pupils should learn to read so that they can read to learn’

In a new regular column, key players in education choose one thing they would change to make a big difference

If I could change one thing I would ensure that all our citizens have excellent literacy and numeracy skills. Both are essential to survive and thrive in society today. Without them, lives can be blighted, horizons limited. Without them, they can be lost in a world of unknown words and numbers.

A highly literate and numerate population is better equipped to deal with the growing complexities of a diverse and technologically-driven society where individual and public choices have to be made.

I’m not advocating a return to the mechanistic approach to teaching and learning of a bygone age, nor taking a rote learning view of reading and writing. But I’ve always believed that pupils should learn to read so that they can read to learn.

I also believe that familiarity with financial and digital literacy has taken on much greater importance in the lives of individuals.


I well remember the shock engendered by an OECD report published in the 1990s which showed that that one in four Irish working age adults, aged 16-65, were at or below level one on a five-point literacy scale.

This means, for instance, that many people struggle to determine the right amount of medicine to take based on the instructions printed on the bottle.

All sorts of reasons were offered for the startling statistic, including the late entry of Ireland to universal free post primary education.

Adult literacy which had been neglected for decades suddenly took on a new urgency and the state invested long overdue money into this area.

We thought we were avoiding the next generation slipping into the same pattern when the first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report was published by the OECD in 2000.

It pegged Irish pupils high up in international literacy and numeracy rankings. We should have noted the warning signs in subsequent reports in 2003 and 2006 but instead a sense of complacency set in. This was rudely shattered by a follow up report in 2009 which revealed a dramatic fall in Irish performance. Again, all sorts of explanations were offered including doubts about the methodology of the survey, test weariness etc. But it was a real wake-up call.

In July 2011, I launched the new National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy. It has been enthusiastically implemented by teachers whom, I’m happy to report, are still drawn from the brightest and best of our school leavers.

The quality of entrants to teacher education, at both primary and post primary, is still second to none and is the envy of many developed countries. This fact is sometimes lost in discourse about our public services. Granted we need changes in teacher education, and this issue is being addressed.

But the excellence of our teachers is not in doubt and is central to good educational outcomes.

The national strategy contains 41 actions and almost 180 sub-actions, designed to help ensure that every child who leaves school has the literacy and numeracy skills they will need for the rest of their lives.

The strategy includes targets to halve the number of 15 year-olds performing at or below level one in literacy and numeracy tests by 2020, and to increase the numbers at both primary and post-primary levels performing at the highest levels on such tests by at least five percentage points.

Next month we will receive an updated picture, as a result of new OECD research carried out with the support of the CSO. The CSO interviewed 5,000 people aged 16-65 in their homes, assessing their literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills.

Regardless of the results, it is clear that we need to do more to ensure that every adult in Ireland has the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for learning, and for living.

But it’s not just about meeting targets. The strategy also outlines how we need to foster an enjoyment of reading among children and young people, and create greater awareness of, and more positive attitudes towards, mathematics among the public.

The strategy is not prompted by a concern about so-called "falling standards" but by the accelerating literacy and numeracy demands of modern democracies.

Ruairí Quinn TD is Minister for Education and Skills