Literacy is everybody’s business
Posted by Abigail Moss
8 Sep 2011
We launched our recent report on the reading habits of around 18,000 young people aged 8 to 17 years old with the headline, "The Reads and the Read-Nots". Not surprisingly, this got a lot of media attention and also struck a resounding chord with teachers, parents and commentators.
Although the research found that we have a fair number of "read-a-lots", there is a significant number of children and young people that rarely or never read outside of class. We already know that we, along with others, are not doing well in literacy attainment compared with the leading (pre-dominantly Asian) countries. Now we know that our children are reading less of everything, including books, than they did seven years ago and that nearly one in six of our children does not read books at all. Considering the strong link the research found between how much a child reads and how well they do at school, this is pretty scary, not just for the young people themselves (who so quickly gain a fixed idea of themselves as readers or otherwise) but also for teachers, parents, government and business.
A few of the media pieces on our new research picked up the idea that technology is damaging our children’s reading habits. Actually, there’s no evidence that texting or other digital literacy activities are bad in themselves, though the absence of reading books is. It’s more likely that at least part of the problem is the amount of other (non-literacy-based) media choices on offer.
So how do we turn the tide? Mike Baker recently featured an excellent article by Ray Blatchford in which he challenges the level of our ambition for our children’s reading and proposes a five point plan for schools. This is so spot-on. But we also know that where literacy issues remain, despite years of investment through schools, the barriers are often intergenerational and seem intractable.
Low literacy is one of a vicious cycle of factors that lead to disadvantage, poverty of aspiration and opportunity, lack of engagement and low confidence. As we examine the factors that contributed to this summer’s riots and seek solutions, literacy support within these communities has perhaps never seemed more urgent. It is also brought into sharp focus by today’s report from the independent inquiry into adult literacy. I sat on the expert group on family literacy for the inquiry and I have been particularly delighted by its focus on families and learning programmes. This supports the need to address literacy holistically and echoes our work with local areas over the last 18 years. Its significance cannot be overestimated: the engagement of families in literacy activities in the home and the development of a child’s intrinsic motivation to read outweigh all other factors that affect their progress and potentially their aspirations. Our Breaking the Cycle conference with Frank Field MP this October will address these issues.
If we are going to shake off this summer’s black cloud for good, we need to start the academic year with an acceptance that addressing the decline in our children’s motivation to read and the attainment gap between rich and poor is a matter of great imperative with a high moral and economic purpose. The organisations that are working with us to address literacy issues in their local areas are proving that they are not intractable and big changes really do happen when it is, crucially, everybody’s business: parents, neighbours, local services and strategists, politicians, schools, nurseries, businesses … not discounting those brands that have successfully got our young people’s attention.
Find out more about how we work with local areas.
We are currently looking for schools to take part in our next national survey so we can continue to monitor literacy trends in the UK. Find out how to get involved.
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