Literacy in Northern Ireland

  • 04 April, 2010

Sorry about my absence these past few weeks. I've missed writing here, but it couldn't be helped. We were off to work in Belfast, Northern Ireland for our friends at Barnardos (which is an amazing social service, educational charity/provider agency). And Cyndie and I have been fighting strep throats and bad colds ever since (I might be related to the folks who live in that part of the world, but my immunities are American).

  In any event, I am happy to be back to share what I have learned. On my first day in Belfast, I was asked to talk about improving literacy. I know a lot about that, but most of my knowledge is like my immunities: strictly American!). It is presumptuous to go to anyone else's country, no matter how connected ancestrally one might be, and to start spouting off about what they ought to do. Imagine how you'd feel if a distant cousin you'd never met showed up at your house to tell you how to manage your marriage or raise your kids?

  To avoid being that cousin, I read and listened carefully (despite jet lag). In many regards, looking at literacy in Northern Ireland is like looking in the mirror for an American. Their adult literacy data are derived from an instrument based on our own National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), and their NALS data are surprisingly similar to our own. Our adults read ever so slightly better than do the adults in Northern Ireland (the difference is probably not statistically significant).

  Then I compared the PISA data on school literacy. Those data showed a similar, but opposite pattern. That is, the kids in Northern Ireland are reading better than the kids in the U.S., but by such a small amount that there is no real difference. One thing that the Northern Irish are concerned about is the degree of heterogeneity in those results. Their kids differ greatly in outcomes; more than is typical of other European countries. It is enough of an issue there that their policy experts were surprised that the U.S. had even more heterogeneous results (slightly more, but, again, very similar).

  Of course, there are many other similarities. They are dealing with second language learners (e.g., Irish, Polish, Lithuanian) in bigger numbers than in the past, and they are particularly concerned about the literacy levels of their boys. Of course, we are both trying to teach literacy in our alphabetic English language, and we are doing so while trying to transition from an industrial national economy to an information-based global one (we are ahead of them there--thirty years of sectarian violence has slowed their modernization--I often felt like I was looking at the U.S. in about 1970).

  Given all of that, I felt pretty comfortable talking about how to improve literacy levels. And yet, there are important differences that need to be attended to as well; differences that we can learn something from.

  The Northern Irish education system seems more a prisoner of its sectarian history than is true of our system. Sectarianism and racism are similarly ugly problems, but our country reaches its own uneasy truce over race in the 1970s (the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and tons of social legislation and court-ordered desegregation were largely digested by 1980). On the other hand, the Good Friday Agreement is only 12-years-old; the cuts and abrasions have barely scabbed over.

  However, a process akin to desegregation is beginning in Northern Ireland, but they have a long way to go and they are unlikely to take this problem head on. Of course, they've got a lot to do given their five separate systems of education (Protestant boys; Protestant girls; Catholic boys; Catholic girls; Irish Language schools). It will be difficult to reach equal learning outcomes with a "separate but equal system," though combining things certainly won't ensure equality (look at Chicago). I suspect dealing with these separation problems is probably a generation away.

  Another striking difference, and one I am puzzling over, is the peculiar patterns of failure evident in their system. In the U.S., a heritage of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow segregation has left American blacks in the back of the bus when it comes to learning to read (fewer than 10% of black eighth-grade boys read at the proficient or advanced levels on NAEP). I assumed the put-upon Catholics were faring like U.S. blacks. Man, was I wrong.

  Protestant boys, whose employment was always assured in factories and shipyards, never worried much about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those frills just weren't economically necessary. The Catholics who were unlikely to land such lucrative positions had a history of literacy learning that allowed them into the lower tier clerkships and that satisfied certain ideological cravings. Now, the factory jobs are drying up (as in the U.S.), but the Protestant boys still have their eyes fixed on the lives their fathers and grandfathers lived. So they lag in literacy. (Being shut out of 21st century jobs makes them angry--and guess who they want to blame for their plight?)


The reading problems or Northern Irish Protestant boys and African American boys are horribly tangled social problems that need to be addressed, despite how intractable they seem. Perhaps we should be heartened by the fact that the Catholic boys in Belfast did relatively well despite the histories they have experienced. Perhaps making reading an issue of identity and pride in those now-struggling communities would work. It has before.


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Literacy in Northern Ireland


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