Gap in Reading Skills Must Be Addressed

Skills Delay At A Young Age Can Mean Lifelong Disadvantage

At this year’s Reading Reform Foundation conference in March, Schools Minister Nick Gibb argued for a stronger focus on addressing the disparity between reading ability seen in young children. Gibb highlighted figures from the Year One phonics check (Department for Education, 2014), which saw a significant difference between certain parts of the country. In some local authorities, such as Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Norfolk, more than 30 per cent of pupils are failing to pass, compared to an 81 per cent pass rate in areas such as Solihull and Darlington. Gibb noted that the effective teaching of reading in schools was absolutely crucial, and argued that systematic synthetic phonics was the most successful method of teaching children to read and supported by a substantial body of evidence. He went on to describe how poor literacy at a young age can disadvantage people throughout the course of their education and continue to act as a detriment in adult life.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD, 2013) completed a survey of adult skills required in the workplace and how they compared to levels of economic and social wellbeing. The results showed that unemployed adults are twice as likely to have poor levels of literacy than those who are in full time employment. UK specific data highlighted the strong association between reading proficiency and hourly wages, with the median hourly wage of individuals scoring at level 4 or 5 in literacy a full 94 per cent higher than individuals at or below level 1. The survey also showed that countries where a large proportion of the workforce is employed in jobs requiring greater use of reading skills have higher output per hour worked, a standard indicator of labour productivity. There are social benefits to the more literate group as well, as highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland tend to be more trusting of others, more likely to believe that an individual can impact the political process, have a higher participation rate in volunteer and civic activities, and report being in better health.

Closing The Generation Gap

More worryingly, the findings by the OECD survey show that young people in England and Northern Ireland may not be prepared for the employment challenges they will face in the future, despite only negligible differences between proficiency in older and younger generations. Young workers in these countries will enter a far more demanding labour market, yet are no better equipped with literacy and numeracy skills than those who are retiring. In England, adults aged 55-65 actually performed better in both literacy and numeracy compared to 16-24 year olds. In comparison to their peers in other countries, younger adults show some of the lowest scores for their age group. A low level of literacy can act as a barrier to acquiring a wider range of knowledge and skills throughout the individual’s working life, and improving reading ability in children at a younger age should therefore be seen as a critical means of ensuring future economic progress.

In a drive to improve literacy levels amongst young students, earlier this year the government announced plans to create phonics networks among groups of schools. Schools that excel in teaching phonics will share their expertise with others in the hope of improving pass rates across the whole group. However, the National Literacy Trust (2015) suggests that work needs to start before the child begins primary school, and has set up the Early Words Together programme with the aim of developing young children’s communication, language and literacy through the support of families by peer volunteers over a six-week period. The two-year pilot programme was rolled out in 120 children’s centres and early years settings from April 2013 to March 2015, and initial evaluation shows a significant impact in children’s ‘school readiness’ due to improvements in reading-related behaviours (more sharing of books between parent and child, and greater enjoyment of children during these activities), social/emotional skills and children’s language and communication abilities. Standardised vocabulary tests showed that children’s average scores increased from 77.1 to 82.9 in approximately four months, closing the gap with same-aged peers in terms of language development.
There is potential for improvement at every stage in a child’s literary development, and investing time and funds in positive schemes such as those mentioned above will go a long way in deciding how successful young students become when entering the workforce as adults.

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Photo: Julie Falk

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