Unlocking literacy

Written by: HTU | Published:

It seems literacy is never far from the headlines. We look at the latest research from the National Literacy Trust and ask how schools can get more children reading for pleasure

All headteachers know that literacy skills are essential to attainment in school and are working hard to ensure children develop the skills they need to succeed in life. However, alarmingly test results tell us that achievement in reading and writing has stalled, with one in six children failing to achieve the expected level at key stage 2. There has been no increase in children’s reported enjoyment of reading since 2005, which we all know is closely linked to attainment, and negative attitudes among boys have deepened.

In their Schools Guide to Literacy, new National Literacy Trust research of 17,000 pupils reveals that children who enjoy reading very much are five times more likely to be above average than below average in reading tests. It suggests that while synthetic phonics play a significant role in the teaching of literacy, it is only part of the picture. A 2011 Ofsted report on literacy found that the most effective schools have at least one member of staff with an excellent knowledge of literacy and its pedagogy, and that the most successful schools are the ones in which all teachers receive regular literacy training. This approach has been shown to increase literacy standards across the curriculum.

Getting results in reading

While their research proves that there is a clear link between how much children enjoy reading and their test results the message is clear: If your students do not read outside of the classroom, there will be an impact on their potential achievement in reading and across the curriculum.Children who read for pleasure enjoy better opportunities throughout life because they have gained a richer vocabulary, more knowledge, critical thinking skills and a self-directed learning framework. Practitioners should be unapologetic about encouraging children to enjoy reading and focusing energy and expertise on nurturing positive reading behaviours, as both are vital to an individual’s success at school and their economic and social capital later in life.

Enjoyment of reading

- Fewer than half of eight to 16-year-olds have read a book in the last month.
- 49 per cent of children and young people think that reading is boring.
- Children who enjoy reading very much are five times more likely to be above average readers.

The number of children who enjoy reading has remained low for the past decade. This is a real cause for concern because of the proven link between test results and reading for pleasure. Studies also show that reading a variety of literature independently by the age of 15 is the single biggest indicator of future success, outweighing negative factors such as socioeconomic background or family situation. As Michael Rosen, writer and former Children’s Laureate, puts it: “Reading for pleasure can easily sound like some kind of wishy-washy, soft option, while instructional stuff like learning to read through synthetic phonics sounds tough and purposeful. In actual fact research shows children who read for pleasure achieve better school performance than those that don’t.”

Motivation and relevance

- 36 per cent of teachers cannot name six children’s authors.
- One third of teachers never use computers to support reading.

For all of us working to support literacy, motivating pupils is a real challenge. One proven way to overcome this is by redefining reading so that it is relevant to pupils’ lives and aspirations, which often includes being part of a social group. For schools, this means positioning reading as a social experience for pupils and investing time in understanding motivations both in and outside of school. It also means putting teachers’ own reading preferences to one side and connecting with what is out there for children.

The home environment

- 22 per cent of children report that no one at home encourages them to read.
- One child in three does not own a book.

There is a strong link between children’s literacy and what goes on in the home. Research has repeatedly shown that the extent to which parents create a home environment that encourages learning is a far more accurate predictor of a pupil’s achievement than parental income or social status. Ofsted’s recent Removing Barriers to Literacy report highlights parental involvement in school systems for teaching reading and spelling as a key component for success. Engaging with parents can mean very different things for every school and the skills needed by teachers are likewise varied. Barriers for parents can be wide-ranging and include negative attitudes or fear of being judged, lack of confidence in English or in the use of phonics, inappropriate expectations of a child’s development, and work or time pressures. Some parents also need to be convinced of the validity of a school’s approach to literacy.

Reading for pleasure gets results

The National Literacy Trust’s Young Readers Programme supports reading motivation and enjoyment through fun and inspirational reading events.

Primary school teacher Sue Barry found it had an incredible impact on a girl in her class. She said: “When I was walking through the playground at breaktime I noticed one of the children who had taken part in the reading events. Shani was sitting in a corner by herself, completely absorbed in a book. I was surprised and delighted because both of her parents have very low literacy levels and her four older brothers all left school with below average reading. Since taking part in the sessions Shani’s reading level has increased and she is now on course to achieve the expected level for her age by the time she leaves primary school.”

Eileen Anderson, literacy co-ordinator at St Peter’s C of E Primary School in Ashton-under-Lyne, tells how the school was able to shift boys’ perceptions of reading and consequently increase their achievement in literacy by taking part in the National Literacy Trust’s Reading Champions initiative: “My colleagues and I observed that there were a large number of boys who were completely uninterested in reading. We ran a six week Reading Champions project with these pupils that focused on reading for information and motivated them to read non-fiction for pleasure as well.

“To our amazement, the boys sustained their enthusiasm for reading throughout the 18 months left of their primary school lives. Their change in attitude became tangible when their SATs results arrived. Every single member of the target group reached the expected standard (Level 4) in reading and half of them achieved above average (Level 5). These results could never have been achieved for these pupils if it weren’t for the new positive reading ethos that was instilled through the project.”

Both the Young Readers Programme and the Reading Champions Resource Packs are now available for purchase so schools can run these initiatives themselves.

Further information

The National Literacy Trust has launched a new programme of support for schools and a free Schools Guide to Literacy. Their new Schools Network costs £75 per school per year for up to five members of staff. Members can access exclusive new resources, use online school evaluation and pupil profiling tools, apply to use the “working with the National Literacy Trust” logo on school stationery and signs, and benefit from discounts on National Literacy Trust resources and conferences. The National Literacy Trust’s new programme of support for schools makes many of their tried-and-tested initiatives available to all schools for the first time, with resources and training including Premier League Reading Stars and Reading Champions, which featured as an example of good practice in the recent Ofsted report.

• To download a free copy of the 2011 Schools Guide to Literacy and to find out more about the National Literacy Trust’s support for schools visit www.literacytrust.org.uk/schools

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