School literacy: encouraging reading for a life-long impact

  By Philippa Bowden   - Wednesday 05 December 2018

The argument in favour of promoting literacy as a key focus in schools is more pressing now than ever, with increasing number of pupils leaving education without the skills needed to be successful in adult life.

In fact, the most recent research from the Department for Education (DfE) and the National Literacy Trust (NLT) shows that there are large numbers of adults lacking in basic literacy skills across the United Kingdom, with as many as one in seven in England falling into this category.

The NLT describes adults lacking in basic literacy skills as being ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning that they have literacy skills below those expected of an 11-year-old and would most likely not pass and English GCSE.

In real terms, this can affect adults in their day-to-day life, including their ability to seek employment, complete regular tasks such as paying bills or helping their own children with their schoolwork.

Thinking longer term, this has the potential for significant negative impact on future generations, with adults not benefitting from the transmitting of literacy skills from their parents and ultimately locked into a cycle of poor reading and writing skills, limiting their opportunities in education and, consequentially, adult life.

On the other hand, further research from the NLT shows that developing a culture of reading for pleasure in schools can have significant positive impact, with learners benefitting from improved reading skills and, as a result, academic performance.

At age 14, children who enjoy reading have been shown to have an average reading age of just over 15 years, while those who avoid books showing an average age of just 12 years, which can have a major impact on how pupils take on board information and the appetite they show for learning.

And according to recent guidance from Ofsted, the importance of literacy in outstanding schools is clear to see, including the following criteria: -

  • Excellent practice ensures that all pupils have high levels of literacy appropriate to their age
  • Pupils read widely and often across all subjects
  • Pupils develop and apply a wide range of skills to great effect, in reading, writing and communication.
  • The teaching of reading, writing and communication is highly effective and cohesively planned and implemented across the curriculum.
  • Excellent policies ensure that pupils have high levels of literacy, or pupils are making excellent progress in literacy.

Perhaps one aspect of literacy that makes it tough to enact whole-school improvement is the label itself – there are a vast number of different areas covered by this term including reading, vocabulary, speaking, listening and writing. In addition, all these different areas covered by the term literacy may be co-ordinated by just a single person within a school.

Instead of looking at all these skills as one area of focus that can often be overlooked, embedding them all into our teaching across the board could be hugely beneficial, making the different elements of literacy a central part of every lesson, across all phases and subjects.

Developing literacy is something that a lot of schools aspire towards, but it can be a real challenge to create a sustainable plan for this and make a genuine difference to the pupils it affects. To help make this a reality, it can really help for schools to find ways of engaging learners across all year groups and identify methods for reaching even the reluctant readers in school.

One way of achieving this could be by using reading challenges – setting a defined number of pieces for pupils to read before a set deadline with the potential for a reward at the end. It’s amazing how competitive pupils can be when the reward matches the effort required.

Alternatively, the power of group dynamics could be effective with pupils sharing in the experience of everyone studying the same text, regardless of their reading level, with some input from teachers to make it accessible to all. This could be facilitated by group reading out loud or with multiple copies of the same book being provided to groups of pupils simultaneously.

Finding ways to encourage reading for pleasure may seem like an increasingly difficult challenge in this ever more digital age – it almost seems unfair to expect any literature to compete with the likes of Minecraft or Fortnite for the attentions of children, but it can be done.

Making an early breakthrough can be extremely effective, with children who do read for pleasure not only more likely to be lifelong readers, but also more likely to succeed academically and socially.

In a crowded school day dominated by curriculum-focused objectives, finding time for pupils to down tools and read can be a real challenge, but the benefits it can bring across the board in terms of developing literacy skills certainly justify the time spent.

By scheduling in time that cannot be shifted or removed from the daily schedule, reading can become a reliable part of pupils’ everyday lives and something that becomes an automatic feature of the school day.

In turn, once reading in this way becomes a consistent pillar in pupils’ lives, it’s essential to provide them with opportunities to develop their own preferences for subjects and genres, discovering authors that enrich their experiences.

Like any new approach, encouraging reading for pleasure can take a while to embed, but the real key to making it stick is passion – from senior leaders, teachers and school librarians, all of whom have the opportunity to influence pupils for the better and getting across the message of enjoying reading.