by Pamela Zerafa
[This is the fourth Blog in the blog series from the TWG International Literacy Assessments]
Since literacy is an essential key competence for lifelong learning (EC 2018), it has been the object of assessment in Malta in many local and international studies. The results of these assessments, unfortunately, shed light on the literacy crisis we Maltese seem to be sharing with the rest of the world. For instance, in the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the mean reading score of Maltese ten-year-olds (477) was significantly lower than the international average (500) (MEDE 2017). Similarly, a local study conducted by Professor Mark Borg (2018) on differences in Achievement in the End-of-Year Benchmark 2012-2018 concluded that the mean achievement scores in each of the three core subjects for students in Year 6 (11-year-olds) attending State Schools are consistently below the national standardised mean of 500. Indeed, more relevant to adolescents is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 study, the results of which showed that 15-year-olds attending schools in Malta scored below average with 448 points compared to the average of 487 points in OECD countries with 36% of students performing below proficiency Level 2 in reading (OECD average is 23%) (MEDE 2019).
With these results in mind, it is of no surprise that many Maltese adolescents leave primary school unprepared for the rigors of the middle and secondary school curriculum demands that they encounter (Hock & Deshler 2003). The “performance gap”, over time, grows and is exacerbated in the later years when the academic growth of at-risk students plateaus. As a result of this performance gap, students are unable to meet the demands of required courses in the content areas in middle and secondary school and they are placed in Core Curriculum Programme (CCP) classrooms which are meant to cater to their abilities and needs. In fact, during scholastic year 2019-2020, 6% of the school population (over 620 students, most of whom were boys) sat in these same CCP classrooms. This Core Curriculum Programme is different from the mainstream one in that it focuses on basic language skills with no particular focus on literacy. As opposed to the mainstream one, the skills of which are pegged at MQF [See foothnote 1] Level 2-3, by the end of compulsory schooling at 16 years of age, the CC programme aims to help students achieve a certificate at MQF level 1 (equivalent to EQF level 1). However, looking at the end of Year 2018−2019 results alone, out of the 93 students who finished their CCP English programme in Year 11, only 12 made the grade and obtained an MQF Level 1 in their final certificate for English. For the rest of the students who registered for the local English Language SEC examinations (2019), 71% obtained Grade 1 to 5 (equivalent to EQF Level 3), 11% obtained Grades 6 or 7 (equivalent to EQF Level 2), 14% failed the exam and 5.15% were registered as absent. Another statistic worth mentioning is the increase in the percentage of candidates registering for examination access arrangements (EAAs). In 2019, 593 candidates were given EAAs which is equivalent to 11% of registrations. A difference between male and female candidates is also pronounced in this regard, as 14% and 8% of male and female candidates respectively register for EAAs. These access arrangements include prompters and readers particularly for students who have literacy difficulties.
This is not news, of course. In the past decade, certain questions have been raised, perhaps with more urgency than has typically been the case, regarding adolescents’ literate lives. Resultantly, one of the main areas for action listed in Malta’s Strategic Priorities and the EU2020 Strategy includes “reducing school drop-out rates below 10%” by raising the bar in literacy. According to the most recent statistics, the percentage of Early School Leavers fell from 21% in 2013 to 17% in 2019.
The recommendations of the National Curriculum Framework (2012) mirror this. This white paper clearly states that all young people should “possess a mastery of literacy, numeracy and digital literacy” (NCF, 2012, p. 21). The more recent Framework for the Education Strategy for Malta 2014-2024: “seeks to improve students’ learning experiences by encouraging creativity, critical literacy, entrepreneurship and innovation at all levels.”. In an effort to address the literacy needs and weaknesses of Maltese students, the National Literacy Strategy for All (2014) was developed and a complementary National Literacy Campaign was launched. Although this was meant to target different sectors of society to ensure that everyone in Malta and Gozo is “provided with the best opportunities to acquire the required literacy skills” (Ministry for Education and Employment, 2014, p. 17), reality shows otherwise. Due importance was given to the primary sector, leaving very little attention to middle schools. In fact, current programmes do not cater for learners’ gaps in literacy and additional support is minimal. Although a department which focuses on Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD), particularly dyslexia, exists and offers considerable, qualified support, help is not regular or systematic due to lack of human resources. As for Secondary school students, an education policy that included both vocational and applied subjects was launched in 2016 under the name ‘My Journey: Achieving through Different Paths’. Again, although these subjects were meant to cater to students who perhaps learn through a more hands-on approach, the systematic teaching of literacy does not feature across these curricula.
Yet, it is not all doom and gloom. Teachers in Middle and Secondary schools, particularly teachers of English, facing these challenging realities are extremely willing to support struggling learners get back on track and acquire functional literacy despite self-admitting that they lack the skills and training on how to do just that. Assiduous in our search for the most successful instructional practices that support adolescents struggling with literacy, we plan on including what the Adore Project has identified as critical in any adolescent programme; practices which support self-efficacy and self-concept (Garbe, Holle & Weinhold, 2009). With communicative language as its end, these conscientious teachers should be in a better position to help their learners acquire the literacy means enabling them to further their education in preparation for their living and working in the “knowledge age” (Meyer, 2016).
Pamela Zerafa works as an Education Officer for English within the Ministry for Education and Employment and teacher trainer with the University of Malta.
 The Malta Qualifications Framework (MQF) assists in making the Maltese qualifications system easier to understand and review, and more transparent at a national and international level. The Malta Qualifications Framework is also a referencing tool that helps to describe and compare both national and foreign qualifications to promote quality, transparency and mobility of qualifications in all types of education.It is mainly referenced to the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) as well as to other non-European qualifications frameworks. https://ncfhe.gov.mt/en/Pages/MQF.aspx
Borg, M. et al. (2018). Review of the National End-of-Primary Cycle Assessment: The Benchmark. Retrieved at: https://education.gov.mt/en/Documents/MEDE%20Review%20of%20the%20Benchmark%20Report%202019.pdf
EC = European Commission (2018). Proposal for a Council Recommendation on Key Competences for LifeLong Learning. Retrieved at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52018SC0014&from=EN
Garbe, C., K. Holle, and S. Weinhold (2009). Teaching Adolescent Struggling Readers. A Comparative Study of Good Practices in European Countries. European Commission, ADORE project report.
Hock, M. F., Deshler, D. D. (2003). Adolescent literacy: Ensuring that no child is left behind. Principal Leadership, 13(4), 55–61.
Meyer, O. (2016). Putting a pluriliteracies approach into practice. European Journal of Language Policy 8(2), 235-242.
MEDE = Ministry for Education and Employment (2014). Framework for the education strategy for Malta 2014-2024: sustaining foundations, creating alternatives, increasing employability. Retrieved from http://education.gov.mt/strategy/Documents/BOOKLET%20ESM%202014-2024%20ENG%2019-02.pdf
Ministry of Education and Employment (2012). A National Curriculum Framework for All. Malta: Ministry of Education.
Ministry of Education and Employment (2017). PIRLS 2016 Malta Report. Retrieved at: https://curriculum.gov.mt/en/international_studies/Documents/PIRLS_2016_Malta_Report.pdf
Ministry of Education and Employment (2019). PISA 2018 Malta Report. Retrieved at: https://curriculum.gov.mt/en/international_studies/Documents/PISA_2018_Malta_Report.pdf
Statistical Report Secondary Education Certificate Examinations 2019. Retrieved at: https://www.um.edu.mt/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/438694/SECStatReport2019FINAL.pdf
 The Malta Qualifications Framework (MQF) assists in making the Maltese qualifications system easier to understand and review, and more transparent at a national and international level. The Malta Qualifications Framework is also a referencing tool that helps to describe and compare both national and foreign qualifications to promote quality, transparency and mobility of qualifications in all types of education.It is mainly referenced to the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) as well as to other non-European qualifications frameworks.