Reading is key

By Liz Twist, NFER Head of Assessment Research and Development

Thursday 31 March 2022

Many people watched furniture restorer Jay Blades, from The Repair Shop, talk recently about his struggles to learn to read in the BBC’s programme ‘Learning to Read at 51’. He described reading as like “giving yourself a headache … pure pain” and he talked about the strategies he used to get around the fact that he was unable to read.

Most people learn to read as children. Many people begin this process as soon as they start school, if not before. Some can’t remember a time when they couldn’t read. They’d been listening to stories, looking at picture story books, and generally learning ‘the concepts about print’ as literacy researcher, Marie Clay put it, long before any formal attempts were made to teach them to read.

In her annual report, Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills (HMCI) Amanda Spielman pointed out that 2020/21 was ‘a difficult year to be young, and a challenging time to be learning.’ Thanks to the tremendous efforts of many, at school and at home, children have been learning, but overall they have learned less than they might otherwise have done and some have been more affected by the disruption to school life than others.

Impact of Covid on attainment

NFER’s recent summary of the evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on attainment in England highlights that one of the most severe effects has been on the development of early reading skills. The children who experienced significant disruption to their reception year when schools closed to most pupils in March 2020, endured further disruption in Year 1 when schools were closed again for most pupils from January to March 2021. In an NFER research project, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, we found that, compared to what we would have expected pre-pandemic, there were well over double the proportion of children who barely scored any marks on the reading assessments in Year 1 and in Year 2 in the last school year.

Being able to read opens doors to so many areas of learning; and reading with increasing independence at a young age not only gives children opportunities to practice their developing skills but is also closely tied to a child’s self-esteem. This is how the virtuous circle of reading emerges, with increasing reading competence being associated with vocabulary growth and more reading practice. Keith Stanovich, an American psychologist, termed it ‘the Matthew effect’ – the rich get richer.

We know that poverty puts some children at increased risk of lower overall achievement in school. But we have evidence from PISA 2000 of how powerful high levels of engagement in reading activities can be as one of the levers of social change. Pupils who were highly engaged readers but whose parents had the lowest occupational status had better reading scores than pupils with low levels of reading engagement whose parents had high or medium occupational status (OECD, 2002). Similarly, PISA 2018 found that academically resilient pupils (disadvantaged pupils performing in the top quarter of reading proficiency) tended to enjoy reading more (OECD, 2019).

This is why the evidence of the impact of the pandemic on the children at the very earliest stages of learning to read is of such concern. The likelihood is that the attainment gap will increase between the children in key stage 1 who are struggling to keep up with their peers in reading and those who are establishing and growing their reading skills.

There is a clear risk that one of the long term effects of the pandemic will be an increase in the numbers of weak and reluctant readers, and disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers have at their fingertips a multitude of imaginative ways to engage children in the world of books. It is going to be even more important than ever to ensure schools are adequately resourced to provide this rich environment so that fewer people find themselves in Jay Blades’ position as beginner readers as adults.