More than 130,000 11 year olds, a quarter of the cohort, left British primary schools last year without being able to read well (i.e. not reaching Level 4 in Key Stage 2 SATS). This figure includes 45% of white British boys from low-income families, who were less likely to be reading well than low-income groups for whom English is not the first language. The gap between boys and girls is widening, with boys twice as likely to fall below a basic reading level. Laura Fraine looks at the latest initative designed to address this issue.
The figures are shocking. In England, the huge gulf in reading ability is one of the widest in the developed world. Between the strongest and weakest readers aged 11, there is a gap equivalent to seven years’ worth of education. Only one country in Europe, Romania, has a more unequal reading attainment among 11 year olds.
If a child doesn’t learn to read well when they are young, they are more likely to turn away from education at secondary school, get poor qualifications and struggle in the world of work. The inability to read well holds people back in myriad ways. As adults poor literacy can be measured against all kinds of statistics, from low wages, to poor health, to crime. 48% of offenders in UK prisons were found to have a reading age of below the expected level of an 11 year-old. In England, struggling to read is more closely linked to low pay and a risk of unemployment than in any other developed country, including the USA.
‘Reading well’ means that a child should not only be able to read the written words, but also understand the meaning behind stories or written information, and be able to talk about them. A child of 11 who can read well should be able to read and understand a book such as Harry Potter or Treasure Island. This is defined in a report by Save the Children, which backs a major new literacy campaign, ‘Read On. Get On.’
Dame Julia Cleverdon, the chair of the campaign, implores those working with children, from teachers and parents, to charities and government bodies, volunteers and celebrity role models, to take these statistics seriously. ‘We must put reading and the joy of reading at the heart of our culture,’ she writes. ‘We can do little that makes more difference for children in poverty nor that contributes more to the society we need to build in the UK.’ Coming from Save the Children, which works on the front line of desperate situations around the world, this is a particularly arresting statement.
What is it that they want the campaign to achieve? That every child should be a reader is a clear goal but this can’t be attained overnight. Instead they have set a target that no child born this year will leave primary school without being able to read well.
At one level, the Read On. Get On. campaign hopes to affect Government policy, ensuring all parties have literacy on the agenda at the 2015 general election. At the same time, it is a very real call-to-arms to the rest of us – parents, teachers, librarians and volunteers – to make the goal a reality. It hopes to inspire teachers and those working in early years settings to put in place innovative approaches to literacy.
While Save the Children is at the head of the campaign, all of the UK’s major literacy charities are involved in Read On. Get On. It brings together the National Literacy Trust which runs community literacy projects; Booktrust with its packages of free books for young children; The Reading Agency with its popular library-based Summer Reading Challenge; and Beanstalk which places volunteers in schools to assist with struggling readers.
The campaign will also encourage schools to call upon their own communities of parents and friends to volunteer with reading. Teachers will be encouraged to help children learn to read for pleasure, by providing a broad and exciting range of reading material, so that each child can find something of interest. The campaign also calls for volunteers to make themselves available to charities and schools.
Perhaps most importantly, the campaign asks for the support of parents themselves. Statistics from Newcastle University show quite clearly that children who grow up with books in the home, and children who are read to by their parents, have higher levels of both reading ability and overall attainment. Statistics show that fathers have a particularly significant role in this. While some parents embrace reading with children, others – particularly those who have struggled with reading themselves – can see this as the school’s job. In many households, gaming and digital media play a large role in occupying down time, while parents often think the time they spend together with children should be spent doing something active.
Yet the report suggests that parents reading for just ten minutes a day is enough to make a serious impact on their child’s reading habits and ability. The figures show that this little-and-often approach has a greater impact than reading for a longer time less regularly. Reading, they suggest, might develop into a lifelong pleasure, but it starts off as a good habit, which is regular as clockwork, and which is the last thing that is dropped at the end of a busy day. Surely we can we commit to this for the sake of our children?
Five tips for your 10-minutes-a-day
Learning to read is not the same as reading for pleasure. Leave reading homework for another time: your ten minutes at bedtime should be reading a book purely for enjoyment.
Don’t worry if your child wants to go back to picture books, even when they have advanced well beyond this stage. Comfort reading is something we all enjoy.
It doesn’t really matter what you read. Some children love non-fiction, others love comic books. Try to offer a large and interesting variety of reading material.
Don’t stop reading to your child just because they can read by themselves.
The only way to form a habit is to do it regularly.
Find out more about the campaign
Laura Fraine is a journalist.