Tackling poor literacy skills

By 2025, 1.5 million children will be left behind in terms of literacy skills, and many other associated factors. This month, the Read On. Get On. report was published by the Save the Children Foundation, highlighting the scale of the problem and, particularly, how socio-economic background is a major risk factor.

Being able to read is the foundation of learning – the report repeatedly uses the idea “learn to read” then “read to learn”.  Children left behind with their reading by the age of 11 face a difficult time at school and beyond:

  • If children do not learn to read well when young, they can subsequently turn away from education, get poor qualifications and struggle in the world of work
  • In England, struggling to read is more closely linked to low pay and unemployment than in any other developed country
  • One quarter of people earning under £10,000 a year were not functionally literate, compared to fewer than 1 in 25 people earning over £30,000 a year.
  • The cost of this squandered talent could be over 2% of GDP

Children from poor backgrounds are even less likely to be able to read well:

  • Last year, one quarter of children left primary school without the ability to read well – this proportion rises to 2 in 5 in poorer children
  • 45% of low income, white British boys were not reading well by age 11
  • The reading gap between boys and girls in England is one of the widest in the developed world – boys are twice as likely to fall below at even basic levels

It’s not just employment where literacy impacts the futures of these children. There is a strong association between health and literacy. In the government’s 2011 Skills for Life Survey, only 11% of those who rated their health as very good did not have functional literacy, compared to 37% of those who rated their health as very poor. It is likely that poor literacy is an indirect cause of poor health, with poverty and unemployment being the linking factor. Illiteracy immediately puts up a barrier to getting effective treatment and an individual’s ability to understand preventative health literature and awareness campaigns.

Another area where poor literacy can be a predisposing factor is criminal behaviour. Poor literacy leads to disaffection with school and turning away from education; often important contributing factors to later criminal behaviours. Just over half of offenders at the peak age for offending – the mid-teens – have reading skills below those expected for an 11 year old. For adults, research studies have found that low literacy has an impact on the likelihood of a person being involved in risky behaviour or criminal activity:

  • A study by the Institute of Education concluded that, for men, “of the many known risk factors of crime explored in our analyses, having poor literacy skills… directly increased the risk of offending.”
  • Young people who are not in education, employment or training are 20 times more likely to be convicted of a crime
  • Literacy levels among prison populations are far lower than the general population – 48% of offenders in custody were found to have a reading age at or below that expected at age 11.

Following on from this report, the Read On. Get On. campaign is publicly launching, with the aim of ensuring that all children are reading well at age 11 by 2025. The campaign involves a broad sphere of individuals and organisations including schools, educational professionals, libraries, language and literacy charities, and is being supported by authors and celebrities.

The campaign has identified four key areas where action is needed to support children’s reading:

  • Celebrating the enjoyment of reading in all our communities – when children enjoy reading they are far more likely to learn to read well.
  • Support for very young children before they start school – in the critical early years of a child’s life, what happens before he or she even sets foot inside a classroom can shape their life forever.
  • The right support for schools – while thousands of headteachers, teachers and schools already make a huge difference, in order to achieve more, they need support, resources and the right degree of autonomy.
  • Support for parents – while mothers and fathers can be the most important teachers and want the best for their children, some need more support and help.

This campaign focusses on children up to the age of 11, but the report recognises that poor literacy is a much more widespread problem. Those who are already at a disadvantage will take much longer to reach. At least 1 in 6 adults in the UK has a literacy level lower than that expected for an 11 year old, and in 2013, the OECD found that England’s 16-24 year olds have literacy levels no better than those of their grandparents’ generation. It will take time, and each individual affected by poor literacy skills will need specialised, individual attention.

Bridge Builders Mentoring is already working with boys who have poor literacy skills – even just getting them to open up about the problems this causes them is a challenge. But the focussed attention afforded them during one-to-one mentoring is chipping away at the barriers that many young men from disadvantaged backgrounds put up. If you think there are boys in your school who might benefit from our programme, please get in contact today.

Helen Robinson