Jonathan Douglas explains what literacy is and why it’s more important than ever for children and young people’s life chances
The definition of literacy is changing; what it means to be literate today is different to what it meant to be literate 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Broadly speaking, literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world. But children and young people today are growing up in a digital age, so they need to develop additional literacy skills to navigate, survive and thrive in today’s fast-paced environment.
The impact of having poor literacy skills today is more detrimental to the lives of children and young people than it ever was before. It is therefore vital that we provide greater levels of support to the groups of children who are most at risk of falling behind, including those from the most disadvantaged communities and those with speech and language difficulties.
Why is literacy important?
Research from the National Literacy Trust shows that children and young people who are able to read, write and communicate well are more likely to flourish at school and go on to lead successful, happy and healthy lives as adults. On the flip side, having low literacy skills can hold a child back at every stage of their life.
Children who do not reach the expected standards of early language and communication by the age of five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11 and twice as likely to be unemployed at the age of 34. These children will also be at a greater risk of experiencing poverty, living in poor quality housing and having poor mental and physical health as adults.
Despite significant efforts to transform literacy and education policy and practice in recent decades, literacy levels remain troubling. Last year in England, more than 180,000 five-year-olds started primary school without the language, literacy and communication skills they need to learn and flourish.
Sadly, this picture doesn’t improve as children grow up. Last year, a quarter (25 per cent) of 11-year-olds left primary school unable to read well and a third (36 per cent) of 16-year-olds failed to get a good grade in English language GCSE. Add to this the fact that 7.1 million adults in England struggle with literacy and you start to see the immensity of the challenge we face.
Mind the literacy gap!
Some groups of children are more vulnerable to low levels of literacy than others, including children and young people from disadvantaged communities and children with SEN.
The link between poverty, educational attainment and basic skills is stronger in England than in any other developed country. The literacy skills gap starts at just five years old, where children from our most disadvantaged communities start primary school 19 months behind their better off peers in terms of vocabulary. This is a deficit most will never recover from during their school lives and one that is predicted to take 40 years to close at the current rate of change. With 4.5 million children currently living in poverty in the UK, this is a problem we can’t afford to ignore.
This deficit continues into primary school, secondary school and beyond. While 25 per cent of all children in England were unable to read well by the time they left primary school last year, this shot up to 40 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The older children get, the wider this gap becomes, with only 40 per cent of disadvantaged students achieving good grades in English and maths GCSEs in 2017 compared with 64 per cent of all students.
Children with SEN face an even steeper challenge. Last year, only 35 per cent of children with SEN had the emergent reading skills expected for their age by the time they started primary school, compared with 82 per cent of their peers without SEN. By the time children left primary school, only 38 per cent had the reading skills expected for an 11-year-old, compared with 83 per cent of peers. Worryingly, this challenge looks sets to deepen, as health visitors and school teachers report significant increases in the number of children they are seeing with speech and communication delays.
The ever-changing landscape of education policy
Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen massive changes to literacy and education policies, practices and levels across the UK.
Successive governments have placed increasing emphasis on raising standards in literacy. In 1996, the Conservative Government launched its National Literacy Project, while the Labour Opposition set up its Literacy Task Force – both intending to boost low literacy levels in primary education.
Shortly after coming into power in 1998, New Labour published its National Literacy Strategy and the first National Year of Reading campaign was launched. By 2000, literacy levels at the end of Key Stage 2 had risen sharply since 1997, from 63 per cent to 75 per cent.
The assumption was that these levels would continue to rise throughout secondary education. But a report by the OECD in 2014 found that, by the time these same children left secondary school, their literacy levels had not only fallen but they were now lower than those of any other age group in society.
More recent changes to education policy have seen the focus shift to language development in the early years as a means to improve social mobility, including the Department for Education’s ambition to halve the number of children finishing Reception year without good early communication or language skills by 2028.
We have learnt some crucial lessons from the last two decades. Children’s literacy learning begins long before they start school, and the teaching of literacy isn’t done-and-dusted in primary education. It must be sustained throughout early years, primary and secondary education if we are to truly give all children and young people the best possible chance of fulfilling their potential.
How can we help children fall in love with literacy?
At the heart of improving children’s literacy skills and aspirations is helping them develop a love of reading and writing. And this starts from day one.
How reading and writing are promoted to children as social, cultural and therefore enjoyable activities at every stage of their lives is crucial. Our research and work with nurseries and schools consistently shows that children who enjoy reading and writing do better at school and across many other areas of their lives.
Again, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and those with SEN face the greatest barriers when it comes to developing a transformative love of reading and writing. For example, we know that book ownership is key to helping children enjoy reading, but one in eight children from poorer communities don’t have a single book of their own at home.
To overcome these barriers, we must think about how children from all backgrounds think of themselves as readers and writers. If young people see their friends, parents, teachers and people they look up to actively reading and writing, they are more likely to pick up a book or pen themselves. By role modelling good reading and writing habits, literacy becomes something that is socially acceptable and positive for children.
To pique children’s interest in reading and writing, it is important to show children the sheer wealth of materials and formats available to them. Reading and writing should be a choice, not a chore, so children should be guided by their interests.
Regular visits to the school or local library are a great place to start; there really is something for every child, whether they like sports, superheroes or cooking. Some children love reading novels, while others are excited by comic books, fact books or audiobooks; some children like writing a diary, while others like to create posters or type a review of a film they’ve seen – all reading and writing counts!
What does the future hold?
It is a national scandal that, in 2019, a child’s chances of leading a successful life are limited by the circumstances they are born into. Socioeconomic disadvantage is rooted in all corners of our education system but literacy can be the key to levelling the playing field for all children, regardless of their background.
Of course, at this moment in time, the education sector is facing unprecedented pressures. In the context of cuts to funding, whole-scale reform of curricula, assessment and school structures, teachers and schools face significant challenges to implement best practice and build capacity to support their most vulnerable under-achievers. We must therefore make the most of every opportunity to put literacy at the heart of learning.
In the context of growing uncertainty in the education sector, coupled with increasing numbers of children and young people living in poverty and experiencing speech and communication delays, it is vital that we don’t lose sight of the transformative role literacy can play in all children and young people’s lives.
About the author
Jonathan Douglas is Director of the National Literacy Trust