Illiteracy: Ruining Life Chances

A recent Times article ( Owolade – 14.11.22) highlights the continuing problem of illiteracy: an issue close to my heart, given the work I am currently doing in a secondary school. This writer asserts that nine million British adults are functionally illiterate – many dyslexic. After decades of focused intervention for literacy, including the National Literacy Strategy, how and why have we allowed reading/literacy skills to plummet? The writer of this article states many ill effects: costs arising from illiteracy are estimated as 37 billion to the British economy, and illiterate people are more likely to be unemployed, depressed, obese, and to live shorter lives.

Illiteracy is linked to disadvantage. Data from DfE shows that only around half (51%) of disadvantaged students reached expected levels this year – down from 62% in 2019. Covid is only partly to blame, as book-reading has been in obvious decline for years. Owolade’s article states ‘nearly 19% of children between five and eight in England don’t own books at home…. that only half of children read daily outside school.’

Schools cannot deal with this problem alone. Families, communities and schools must work together. Meanwhile we also wait for this Government to get its act together and make adaptations that will enable the National Curriculum to work for all young people, including those with SEND and/or social or financial  disadvantage. 

All of which leads us back to the work I am doing with one disadvantaged secondary school. Part way through this first set of focused sessions, what have we learned from the responses of students, that could lead towards a whole school literacy focus? 

Pupil ownership: There has been a mixed response from our Year 7 to 9 students. About 50% appear to see their sessions as an opportunity, and respond well to the focused word and text level challenges. They engage with the activities, and appear to link these with subject-based lessons. 

Word level skills: Activities such as Cloze (omitting words from text) and cutting up multi-syllabic words as jigsaws have been well responded to by students – being kinaesthetic. Jigsaw cards have offered opportunities to focus on the phonic/morphemic elements of longer words – smaller words inside, phonic parts, meanings of prefixes (rediscover, unicellular). Opportunities  to discuss how multi-syllabic words change class and function within sentences (verb, noun, adjective, adverb) have also featured.

Comprehension: Text level activities have focused on key differences between literal and inferential: that literal questioning invites readers to simply find information on lines. At inferential level, readers need to search between the lines, dig down to deeper levels, using word and sentence clues. Activities such as drawing pictures from descriptive text have been well responded to: whiteboards and kinaesthetic activities offering an alternative to talk. Are some of these pupils thinking more about meaning as they read, rather than skipping lightly over words to reach the end? I would like to think we have awakened their thinking to some extent.

In class-observation: Lesson observations (in History, Geography, Maths, Science, RE) have thrown up many issues: making clear the different word reading and comprehension challenges that teachers need to identify and focus in on. 

Lesson observations have also invited me to question how far teachers can adapt lessons for different learners, without more in-class support. The statement ‘every teacher is a teacher of SEND’ has long been an established intention, if not yet effectively practised in all classrooms. But how far can secondary teachers also become teachers of literacy, through their subject? How easy is it for staff to build in literacy-based activities that focus on aspects of comprehension (main idea, details, cause/effect, sequence and comparison), that are subject-related, and teach pupils to access these at deeper levels? Can secondary level teachers really become teachers of reading/literacy, and SEND, without watering down subject demands? 

As long as significant numbers of children continue to leave Year 6 with word reading and comprehension delay, such a triangular approach to subject teaching (subject, SEND, literacy), that builds smoothly and effectively onto the literacy intervention already provided by English and SEND staff, will without doubt produce results. But training in literacy for subject teachers is needed. 

Meanwhile, as part of our initial project, what to do about the non-engaged – pupils who do as instructed to some extent, yet do not appear to take on ownership of their reading progress, responding to tasks only in minimal ways – passive, rather than active, learners? Do answers lie in the home, getting parents engaged too? I firmly believe so. While the Lamb Inquiry (2009) highlighted the huge need for parental partnership, subsequent action to provide parents with the inspiration, knowledge and support to become equal partners in education, remains thin on the ground.

My books for parents (Parents Help your Child Succeed series) offer the missing link because whatever strategies the Government and schools put in place in an attempt to raise reading levels – they can never fully succeed without parental support. 

Sylvia Edwards

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