Improving Literacy

The Barrier of Low Literacy

The newly released Fair Education Alliance report has highlighted the difficulties caused by low levels of literacy, and has revealed that it can act as a major barrier to a fairer society. The report argued that education in the UK at present is not a fair system, as many young people from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to succeed in comparison to their wealthier peers. The cost of this problem to the UK is two-fold, as after financing the child’s education the nation will pay again for the consequences of failure. A recent study of trends in the national workforce found that many companies are finding it necessary to provide basic skills training for their school-leaver employees (Confederation of British Industries, 2014). Although the reasons for educational inequality are complex and interwoven with various social issues, raising literacy levels would go a long way to improving the numbers of disadvantaged children reaching their potential.

Worst affected are boys, who are shown in repeated studies as being far less likely to read outside of lesson time or for their own enjoyment when compared to their female classmates. This leads to a clear achievement gap between the genders later on in education. The National Literacy Trust (NLT) published a Boys’ Reading Commission report in 2012, which included some worrying figures on literacy rates for boys. The report noted that the issue was a long-term and international one, with boys’ attitudes to reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading, and their levels of literacy all consistently lower than those of girls bar the notable exceptions of Chile and the Netherlands. Boys are already falling behind in literacy by 11 percentage points by the time they begin school at age five, and by age 16 girls are most often out performing their male classmates in the majority of GCSE subjects (NLT, 2012). Boys’ underachievement in reading therefore remains a significant concern for schools across the country.

The Enjoyment Factor

A previous NLT survey of around 21,000 eight to sixteen year olds confirm the findings of numerous other studies that girls on average enjoy reading for its own sake far more than boys do. Reading for pleasure improves achievement in both literacy and writing, with 49% of young people who read above the expected level for their age group also attaining higher level results for writing (NLT, 2012). Addressing the reasons for this negative attitude towards reading would therefore go a long way to rebalance the current gender gap in literacy.

The Boys’ Reading Commission found that male underachievement in literacy is not a result of fixed biological differences, as many boys do attain good levels in reading and writing and read fluently. The report suggests three intertwined sociological factors associated with the problem. Firstly, a comparative lack of support may exist in the home and family environment, where boys are less likely to be bought books, taken to the library or have a male role model reading. They may also face a lack of opportunity to develop their identity as a reader through experiencing reading for enjoyment in school, accompanied by a limited knowledge amongst teaching staff of contemporary and attractive reading material for boys. Additionally, the report noted the prevalence of male gender identities that do not value learning or reading as a mark of success (NLT, 2012).

Technology As A Solution

One solution that has been put forward as a means of engaging boys with literature is the use of technology. Phil Jarrett, National Advisor for English at Ofsted, explained that boys need to view the English curriculum as active, practical and productive: ‘work in English needs to engage with the world outside school, involving real audiences and real contexts for reading’ (2012). Modern technology such as e-books, interactive digital texts, tablet computers, and other gadgets can be an excellent way to make reading and writing feel more contemporary and relevant to young people, boys especially. Studies have shown that young children are far more likely to read for longer and have a better understanding of vocabulary when accessing reading material through touch-screen technology (NLT, 2014). Tablet computers especially, had a significant impact on those individuals who were traditionally most resistant to reading, and boys were far more likely to use such technology for educational activities and longer periods of reading.

Although the problem of motivating boys to read is complex and will likely require a multifaceted and sustained approach, allowing reluctant readers to access literary material in modern formats such as digital texts will certainly help. Most children now have access to a touch-screen device in the home, and technology already plays a central role in vocabulary development. Promoting the use of technology within schools precisely for this cause should therefore be an integral aspect of teaching and learning strategy.


Photo: Maria Elena 

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