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Research School Network: The Challenges of Literacy – Blog by Ro King Greenshaw research school hosted Alex Quigley in the first of our webinar series which focuses on ​‘Developing Reading’.


The Challenges of Literacy – Blog by Ro King

Greenshaw research school hosted Alex Quigley in the first of our webinar series which focuses on ​‘Developing Reading’.

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Outlining the problem

The acuteness of the issue with literacy can most easily be exemplified through a focus on individuals.

Consider two pupils. Rebecca is a reluctant reader, who struggles throughout the curriculum to decode therefore also struggles to comprehend. The effect is a truculent teenager who may well refuse to engage or be very difficult to motivate, and ultimately someone who does not achieve as well at the end of KS4.

Then take David, someone for whom home has been a broad literacy experience – he was read to as a child, then picked up his own books early on and became a read reader. He became a learner who was confident managing difficult literacy situations, involving multiple topics and modes, and someone who, ultimately, managed to secure an Oxbridge placement post KS5.

Compare David and Rebecca’s experiences of school. David’s reading and word rich experiences outside the school gates supported his access to the curriculum, but Rebecca’s lack of early support and progress meant that she could not replicate his success.

This so-called Matthew effect’ can be exemplified with the graphic below.

GHS The Matthew Effect

Literacy is the key thread in the progress and outcome of a school career. When there are weaknesses, pupils may not be able to decode language and thus comprehend it, then so much of the school experience is compromised.

Emerging evidence about Covid challenges:

Has Covid brought extra difficulties? Almost certainly. What is clear is that if pupils had literacy difficulties before, then these challenges are now exacerbated.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), commissioned by the EEF, have just published an interim report on the impact of covid on attainment in reading and maths in KS1.

The key findings are:

  • Year 2 reading attainment in reading and maths was significantly lower in autumn 2020 compared to a standardised sample from 2017; representing a Covid-19 gap of around 2 months’ progress;
  • The disadvantage gap in reading and maths is around 7 months progress, which represents a widening as compared to KS1 in 2019.

Covid has certainly shone a light on the fact that pupils who had challenges with reading beforehand have had these challenges exacerbated hugely, with a widening of the disadvantage gap.

Reading, writing and vocabulary

Being literate in our modern society hinges on the ability to be able to read and understand a wide variety of texts, and then express in writing ideas and concepts, all the while using a broad range of vocabulary.

Just like the Matthew Effect with reading, if you have a base vocabulary broad, then you can build new learning onto that new knowledge – the word rich get richer just like the reading rich.

Consider the vocabulary required to be able to understand a new science topic on Endangered species’:

GHS Endangered Species

Unless some of this vocabulary is explicitly taught, we could well lose a number of our pupils with the level of complexity in understanding the topic, let alone the aspects of cultural literacy that sit behind vocabulary like Charles Darwin or Survival of the fittest’.

Just as reading and vocabulary build on each other in crucial ways, so writing is an expression of understanding and thought. Within the EEF guidance report on Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, crucial links are made between reading and writing. Recommendation 5 asks us to combine writing with reading in every subject, based on the evidence which shows that writing about what you’ve read strengthens your comprehension.

Secondary Literacy recommendation 5 auto x2

But this is a good time to make an important point about good literacy acquisition: each learner is unique and may require different levels of support in order to master different aspects.

Ronald Kellogg made the point in his 2008 paper that writing is like chess – it’s got complex moves all at once. It requires simultaneous demands on our cognitive systems for memory and thinking – retrieval from long-term memory stores, alongside active maintenance in the working memory, whilst also juggling handwriting, spelling and sentence construction.

Too often, we can assume people have a handle on the complexities of writing, particularly if their verbal abilities are quite good. However, if there are barriers in regards to handwriting or spelling, then the working memory can easily get overloaded and capacity to write fluently is diminished.

In addition to the secondary literacy guidance report, the EEF have also published a range of literacy guidance reports which cover early years and primary school phases.

There is no one singular problem across literacy and across the school phases, no one thing to fix. The consideration of individual needs and weaknesses is crucial in terms of our response. However, the different subjects have their own roles to play in this.

Disciplinary literacy

So some of the solutions are about individual pupils, and some are subject specific.

The acquisition of specialised vocabulary is crucial in the various subject domains – just look back up to the science example above. The different subjects needs to ask themselves: are there unique literacy problems in my subject area? What are the unique challenges pupils face when studying my subject? The demands in science are very different from history, for example – the EEF guidance report urges school to prioritise this disciplinary literacy across the curriculum.

Disciplinary Literacy

The changes in language demands are seen as pupils move through KS1 to 2. As well as considering the distinctions within different subjects, we should also consider nuances of phase and teacher knowledge and confidence.

Next Thursday, Timothy Shanahan – author of Disciplinary Literacy and Why does it Matter? (2012) – will be answering questions in the next webinar in the series. You may find this blog by Phil Stock, Director of Greenshaw Research School, a useful pre-reading for this webinar.

Our thanks go to Alex Quigley for whetting our appetite for the rest of the webinar series on Developing Reading’ in laying out the challenges of literacy.

If you haven’t yet signed up for the series, then you can do so here.

Ro King – Deputy Director Greenshaw Research School

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