: Does the data really matter when it comes to improving literacy? Melody Thomas questions the importance of data relating to closing the disadvantage gap in writing


Does the data really matter when it comes to improving literacy?

Melody Thomas questions the importance of data relating to closing the disadvantage gap in writing

by Gloucestershire Research School at the Gloucestershire Learning Alliance
on the

Melody Thomas

Melody Thomas

GLA Trust Lead for Writing and Assessment

Read more aboutMelody Thomas

We could be forgiven for putting ourselves above the national testing race: knowing that outstanding outcomes is about more than test results and that prioritising the production of test scores above the provision of support for children’s learning narrows the curriculum.

However, the facts are that in England last year (20222023) only 44% of our disadvantaged children reached the combined national expectation in reading, writing and maths in KS2, compared to 66% of children who were not disadvantaged (DfE, 2023). This must be challenged. The following tells the story of our collection of schools, and how we are tackling this very issue in writing, so that there are outstanding outcomes for all children.

Breaking the disadvantaged barrier in literacy – an honest reflection from our teachers

It was whilst reading Quigley’s Closing the Writing Gap’ that these figures really stood out for me, encapsulated by the figure Daniel’ and Quigley’s honest reflection that he did not have the literary knowledge required to break down the disadvantaged barriers, describing the complex act of writing as tantamount to a game of chess” (Quigley, 2022). This reflection being an honest truth for many teachers and leaders within our schools: changing this was a driver for our writing team vision that every child (and adult) is a writer who must break down such barriers. The EEF guidance documents have been crucial during this process, most notably: Putting Evidence to Work’ (EEF, 2019), Effective Professional Development’ (EEF, 2021) and Improving Literacy in KS2 (EEF, 2021).

Improving Literacy in KS2 (EEF, 2021) – recommendations to excel in literacy

The Improving Literacy in KS2 recommendations offer lever points’ where there is useful evidence about language and literacy teaching that schools can use to make significant difference.” (EEF, 2021 pg5)

Data and Literacy Lever Points

During the explore’ process and the continuation of our honest reflections as a group of schools, we were confident that our literacy curriculum was not quite hitting the mark’ for many these areas: we were missing key moves in the chess game.

The first of these moves was to address the gap in vocabulary, as prioritised in (1). The 30 million-word gap was originally developed by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley and suggested that disadvantaged children up to age 4 heard 30 million fewer words than non-disadvantaged children. Teaching vocabulary had to be explicit, linked to high quality reading and with opportunities for children to apply newly learnt vocabulary.

The next move was to bring reading and writing together ensuring that high quality texts led writing (a strategy encompassing many of the lever points’): 

When children are enjoying a particular book, they may find it easier to gather the motivation to write, come up with ideas about what to say, and focus their attention when they are asked to write about it.

(EEF, Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 Guidance Report, 2021)

The books chosen were thought provoking, magical, historical, with a mix of classic and new fiction. The result: children had ideas and a love of literature and – most importantly – barriers for disadvantaged children were being narrowed.

The next pawn to be moved was that of grammar. A word that can make any adult shudder when trying to understand parenthesis and the subsequent difference between dashes, commas and brackets. Many of our teachers and leaders related to Quigley and the lack of knowledge they had in the art of grammar. The evidence told us we had to face this and upskill the literary knowledge of our teachers. CPD became a priority and had everyone – including our head teachers and CEO – engaged in grammar and writing tasks. Through a mix of explicit sentence construction skills lessons (5) and contextualised grammar, modelled through shared writing techniques (4) children are finally able to see how graphemes form words, words form sentences, and sentences form meaning.

Pawns have continued to be moved ever since: explicit handwriting and progressive spelling strategies (5), the use of assessment to target those gaps in knowledge (6) and ensuring interventions close gaps identified (7).

Problem Solved?

Far from it. This is a long journey, one which is not completed quickly. There is still a way to go, but early indicators show that literacy outcomes for children in KS2 are improving rapidly in our schools, in particular for disadvantaged children. Staff are becoming more confident in their own ability to understand the complexity of grammar and composition, and use this knowledge to support children’s understanding, so that each time they play on a different chess board, in rapid succession, with a different opponent they are able to do so with confidence.

If there is one takeaway in this journey, it’s to take the staff with you. We’ve employed a saying in our schools: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Improving literacy and closing the disadvantage gap requires a dedicated team, not just a plan. Build your team so they are ready for the game!


Department for Education (2023). Key stage 2 attainment, Academic Year 2022/23.

Education Endowment Foundation (2021). Effective Professional Development.

Education Endowment Foundation (2019). Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Education Endowment Foundation (2021). Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2.

Quigley, A. (2022). Closing The Writing Gap. S.L.: Routledge.

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