Reading and literacy skills: Research offers reassuring picture of pandemic's impact

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We must not “overdo the doom” when talking about the impact of the pandemic on children’s reading ability and literacy, researchers have urged.

While reading scores have fallen due to national lockdowns and disrupted education, the decrease is not large and certainly not “catastrophic” as some national media headlines have implied.

In early April, The Telegraph, among others, reported that “200,000 children will leave primary school unable to read”, quoting “unpublished government figures”. The reports say that 30,000 more year 6 children are now “struggling with literacy”.

However, a study involving reading test scores from 160,000 pupils finds that levels have declined against age-related expectations, but only by a small margin.

The study, entitled Words of Encouragement and published by GL Assessment this week, concludes that at primary level pupils are the equivalent of two months behind where they might have been. At secondary level, the gap is less than a month.

However, the researchers – who do not dispute the 30,000 figure above – warn that, as ever, the national picture will mask “significant variations at the individual school, or individual student level”.

The biggest concern, they say, is that those pupils who were already struggling with reading pre-pandemic are likely to “have fallen further behind” and will need specific intervention.

For example, while the report finds that average and above average readers appear to have met or even exceeded their expected scores in reading, children with lower scores “often struggled”.

They add that the pandemic disruption might well have had a bigger impact on writing and oracy skills, which should be an equally important focus for schools moving forward.

The report is based on data from the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) in both 2019 and 2020 and includes the results of almost 160,000 primary and secondary-age students as measured against age-related expectations.

Any movement greater than three points from the mean score of 100 is considered significant. The research finds that in 2018/19, primary schools reported an increase in reading scores 0.5 points on average. In 2019/20, the results show a decrease of 1.9 points. Secondary schools have gone from a 0.6 improvement to a 0.5 fall in reading scores.

The report states: “The overall picture is clear – children’s reading ability does not appear to have been significantly affected by the disruption caused by the pandemic, regardless of type of school. Primary school children seem to have been affected a little more than secondary school students, but not significantly.”

One of the researchers involved in the report, Dr Jessie Ricketts, director of the Language and Reading Acquisition Lab at Royal Holloway University, said the stability in the reading scores reflects the good practice in schools to maintain reading work during the pandemic.

She said: “I suspect this reflects all of the good practice in teaching reading that is going on in so many schools and the efforts that schools have made to maintain what they could in such difficult circumstances.

“However, there are aspects of language and literacy that the NGRT doesn’t capture that may have been negatively affected by the pandemic, things like oracy and writing. Also, there will be some children who were struggling with reading at the start of the pandemic and these children may have fallen further behind.”

The report also interviews a number of teachers and school leaders, all of which reported that the “reading ability of the majority of their students met – and sometimes exceeded – expectations”.

The report adds: “Many said they had expected the worst after so many school days were lost to the pandemic, but that they have been pleasantly surprised at how resilient their students’ reading abilities were. This was particularly the case for schools with large numbers of Pupil Premium students.

“Nationally there was a small decline compared to non-FSM according to our data. In the schools covered in this report, most FSM children seemed to do well – and while overall the gap with non-FSM didn’t narrow, it didn’t widen significantly either.”

Dr Ricketts added: “Literacy support and targeted intervention is still really important now that all students are back in school. My work with schools has shown that teachers, particularly those in key stages 2 and 3, feel that they would benefit from more CPD on language and literacy development, how language and literacy can be assessed, and universal and targeted strategies for supporting pupils.”

Commenting on the report, Crispin Chatterton, director of education at GL Assessment, said: “It’s important we don’t overdo the doom. Yes, the increase in the number of students in year 6 struggling with literacy is concerning. But given the enormous disruption education has endured over the past year it isn’t catastrophic.

“Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, thanks to the hard work and dedication of schools and teachers the numbers of children struggling with literacy at transition has been limited to an increase of 30,000.

“Some children were clearly affected badly by the serial lockdowns – and it’s essential that we identify and support them. But it’s incorrect to assume there was a mass downturn in reading ability across all age groups. Our data, which is standardised and drawn from a large student population, is highly reliable and it clearly shows that there was no such mass decline.”

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