Sometimes after speaking with educators and parents, I get a sense that the most foundational goals of education (reading and writing) are missing in the day-to-day routines of many schools. When a parent asks me to recommend a "good school" in Dubai, I always let them know that one of my main criteria for judging a good school is how much active reading and writing is taking place on a daily basis. While swimming pools and the latest technologies are definitely a nice touch, nothing can beat a quality teacher who knows the value of strong literacy practises.
Last year, one parent told me that her child was struggling with reading and writing. She was an elementary-aged, bilingual student who had recently come to Dubai from Europe, so of course she was naturally behind her classmates in English literacy. I asked the parent how many reading books the student was reading and getting sent home each week. The mother replied that the school was not doing a reading programme and that no books had come home since the child had started school (over 4 months previously)! Although I'd like to say I was alarmed, I had already heard this from many other parents before. Still, it was a glaring sign that this school (which purported to leader in education) was not making good on its promise.
You see, any good school knows the significant role that literacy plays in overall student learning. If the value of literacy is understood by a school, you would see them incorporate daily opportunities for reading and daily opportunities for writing into their programme. Teachers would be required to develop their lessons from this basis and would be given professional development around how to do this effectively. Learning activities like "journal writing," for example, and "guided reading" with leveled reading books would be actively focused on. Teachers would take "running records" (individual reading assessments) a minimum of once every 4 weeks, while listening to students reading at every opportunity. They would be concerned with getting students to advance in their individual levels and would be able to tell them what they needed to do next in order to help them get there. They would have students writing daily; sometimes on a larger project, but mostly to journal and reflect on their own learning. Each day, there would be time for one or two students to share their writing with other students in the class. In this way, they would create natural opportunities for students to participate, enjoy listening and give valuable feedback to each other. Teachers would also sit with students frequently to "conference" with them about their writing and to give them feedback and new targets to work on. They would be concerned with the progression of thier students and would actively aim to move every student in an upward trajectory so that even the lower-achieiving students would be making good gains. If you think I might be too idealistic, I would argue that this would be the absolute minimum expectation.
In my first year of teaching, I was lucky enough to work with (and be mentored by) a very gifted Reading Recovery (reading specialist) teacher who monitored every child's reading progress in the school. It might be more accurate to say that she'd created a system to monitor and support teachers in managing students' literacy development. I remember that she had a huge chart with every reading level listed in columns, and she hung it up across a wall in the staff room. Every class teacher had the names of their students on a sticky note (of different colours) and they were expected to place each one along this chart in the column which corresponded with their reading level. The objective was that any staff could see the reading level of any student in the elementary school at any given time. At the end of every week, teachers went into the staff room and moved the coloured sticky notes for any students that had moved forward in their reading levels. Then Carol, the Reading Recovery teacher, would be able to see which students were still lagging behind without any movement over several weeks. She would then consult with the class teacher, offering suggestions to them and many times even work with the student herself to see exactly what the problem might be. Her expertise impacted everyone in the school. Carol wasn't only concerned with low achievers. She even wanted to accelerate students who were "average" and "strong" in their literacy levels. Because she was so experienced and was seen as a support to teachers, the school saw extremely good results in student literacy levels and all teachers became highly skilled literacy teachers. Literacy was given a very high priority in our school and school board.
Good schools know about the value of foundational skills like reading and writing (as well as mathematics), and they make skilled efforts in helping students become active and motivated learners. Students' reading is taken very seriously and teachers create opportunities for students to enjoy reading and writing. Teachers not only dedicate focused time in their day to literacy but they know what to do to when students struggle. They themselves are armed with a set of skills to support students. They don't see educational psychology as an intervention for students who display early signs of struggling. They themselves know how to provide strong support to students within the regular parameters of the school day.
To me, a "world class school," or even a "leader in education," needs to provide a good "basic" education with an emphasis on the fundamentals of literacy and mathematics. In case you find yourself looking for a school for your child, please be sure to ask about their literacy policies and practices. Then you will be better able to judge the quality of the school with greater confidence.