A quarter face literacy barriers to GCSE success

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

With one in four 15-year-olds having a reading age of 12 or under, schools are urged to prioritise key stage 3 literacy support. Pete Henshaw looks at the implications of new research findings

The “significant correlation” between reading ability and GCSE success is just as strong with maths and science as it is in the arts and literacy-rich subjects, like English and history.

A study involving 370,000 secondary school students has warned, however, that 25 per cent of 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 and under, while 20 per cent have a reading age of below 11, and 10 per cent of below nine.

The reading ability gap between boys and girls also widens significantly after primary school.

The research, conducted by GL Assessment, analysed the reading abilities of students during the 2018/19 academic year. The findings emphasise just how important reading ability – both general and subject literacy – is to GCSE success, including in subjects like PE and creative disciplines like arts and music.

The report – Read all about it – says that under the new more demanding GCSEs, papers now include “wordier” questions, especially in maths.

It states: “Given the importance of literacy to the whole school curriculum, it follows that those students who struggle with reading are at a significant disadvantage in every one of the GCSE examinations they take.”

Word problems in GCSE maths can be especially challenging to those with poor literacy, who struggle with vocabulary such as “remaining”, “justify” and “profit”.

The analysis, which is based on students who took the New Group Reading Test assessment, establishes a correlation coefficient (between 0 and 1) for how important literacy is to success in each subject. Correlations above 0.7 are considered strong, while correlations around 0.5 and 0.6 are moderate and statistically significant.

English language and geography topped the pile with a correlation of 0.65, followed by mathematics in third with 0.63. Then came history (0.61), combined sciences (0.61), English literature (0.6), drama (0.57), and citizenship (0.56).

The report states: “High correlations in arts subjects are not surprising. But the correlations in maths and the sciences also underscore just how ‘text heavy’ most academic subjects are and why literacy is so crucial. Even the more expressive subjects – art, drama, music – have strong correlations to reading ability.”

The report includes a case study from the Blackpool Literacy Project, which has been rolling out literacy interventions since September 2018 with the aim of improving decoding skills of key stage 3 students, enhancing vocabulary acquisition, and increasing the amount of time students spend reading.

Writing in the report, project leader Stephen Tierney said that key to this work has been long-term planning, staff CPD and training, and creating the leadership capacity.

He added: “We identified staff’s limited knowledge and their views about literacy as an early problem. The academies were required to commit to significant whole-school training of staff.”

South Shore Academy in Blackpool was one of the schools to embrace the project’s aims and has seen some of the biggest literacy gains in years 7 and 9. A key area of focus was the teaching of reading in all subjects, with students being taught how to skim, scan and access material in textbooks.

Bernadette Kaye, English teacher and assistant head, explained: “We have gone from having virtually no textbooks in the classroom – and relying on simpler, non-contextual handouts – to ensuring that each child has a high-quality textbook in every subject.”

The school realised quite soon that students lacked the subject-specific literacy they needed to access the curriculum. Ms Kaye said: “We realised they were getting breadth but little depth. So the reading materials we now give them aim to give them a deeper understanding.”

She added: “There is definitely a perception among teachers that the new GCSEs have made literacy challenges greater for schools. All staff need to know why literacy is so crucial and what it means for the teaching of their subject. Improved literacy needs to be a whole-school endeavour.”

Alex Quigley, the national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation who has been supporting the literacy work in Blackpool, added: “Reading is the master skill of secondary school. Skilled reading, writing and talking is crucial for our students to succeed.

“Yet too many secondary school teachers and leaders prove under-trained and simply too busy to support their students to best access the demands of the academic curriculum. Literacy is too often seen as a bolt-on extra for teachers of science, geography and PE. Yet, when you dig into the research evidence, it is revealed that being literate is the most essential factor for disadvantaged students studying science.

“Reading, writing, vocabulary and talk all mediate the school curriculum. Every teacher therefore needs to know how academic reading mediates the sophisticated language of each subject in secondary school – and what they can do about it.”

Further information

Fernandes & Gallacher: Why reading is key to GCSE success, February 2020: www.gl-assessment.co.uk/whyreading


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