If you are reading this, you are one of the lucky ones, because it means you have a good level of literacy which unlocks many aspects of life that you probably take for granted, such as being able to decipher a menu, read a road sign or get the news headlines from a paper or magazine.

Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world. Unfortunately, 16.4% of adults in England can be described as having ‘very poor literacy skills’, which equates to about 7.1 million people who may find themselves locked out of the job market, struggling to claim benefits they are entitled to, and if they are a parent, they will be unable to effectively support their children’s learning. Lacking these vital literacy skills holds people back at every stage of life.

But having poor literacy can also affect life expectancy. A report from 2018 found that: “A boy born in Stockton Town Centre (which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country) has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford (which has some of the fewest literacy challenges)”.

Figures related to girls showed a 20-year difference. Even people within 2 miles of each other showed a significant reduction in life expectancy related to differing literacy levels – 11.6 years for boys and 9.4 years for girls.

Reports from KPMG suggest that low levels of literacy can also undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer approximately £2.5 billion each year. With a third of businesses complaining about the literacy skills of young people entering the work place, and another third organising remedial training for new recruits to increase their literacy and communication, successive governments inevitably ask what can be done to improve the situation?

It’s not just the UK though – literacy levels vary across the world although progress is being made generally. From 1985 to 2018, the number of illiterate youths (ages 15 to 24) decreased from 177 million to 100 million. But that’s still a significant amount of people. There are regional differences and literacy rates are higher among males than females with women accounting for 59% of the illiterate youth population.

Interestingly though, in developed countries such as the UK, boys perform less well than girls by an average of nine months of schooling.

So literacy matters, which is why the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, have been promoting the 8th of September each year as International Literacy Day (ILD) since 1966. The day is now part of the UN’s sustainable development goals programme, adopted in 2015, which aims to raise global awareness of child and adult literacy issues, and highlight the changes and improvements being made in literacy worldwide.

In the UK, literacy skills are embedded into the curriculums followed by England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, although their means of delivering and testing these skills vary since education is one of the devolved powers – meaning each country is responsible for its own educational policies, laws and assessments.

  • In England for example, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework identifies the standards that all providers must meet across 7 key areas of learning and development, which include standards for reading and writing (literacy). In 2018, 77% of five-year-olds met the minimum standard for reading, 74% for writing, 86% for speaking and 86% for listening.
  • In the same year, 64% of students achieved a good grade in their English language GCSE or equivalent (grades A*-C or 9 4)

And whilst these figures are broadly in line with other developed nations, there is clearly still room from improvement. Due to lockdown, almost all our young people have already missed out on months of their education, from early years to key stage 5, so it is more important than ever that we start to help our children catch up.

This year, the focus on ILD will be on “literacy teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond” with a further emphasis on the role of educators and changing pedagogies to highlight the need for greater support for lifelong literacy learning. If 64% of GCSE students passed their English language paper in 2018, that leaves 36% who did not ‘make the grade’ for whatever reason, leaving them at a serious disadvantage at the tender age of just 16!

At the same time, it must not be forgotten that we live in a digital age, and our recent home-schooling experiences have perhaps made each one of us appreciate our nursery and teaching professionals a little more. Lockdown saw a burgeoning of online learning platforms and a myriad of virtual lessons, but if you can’t read a sentence, what hope is there of reading or accessing material online?

The problem is a complex one and more research needs to be done to weigh up the benefits of technology as a learning tool versus concerns about language gaps, mental health and safeguarding associated with digital platforms.

But what can you do in your settings to encourage literacy, digitally or not? The answers are remarkably simple for early years. You will have your own ways of introducing literacy into your curriculum, but perhaps the best thing you can do at this time is to encourage parents to take up the baton and really set their child on the road to success at home.

Small-talk.org.uk is a pilot project from the National Literacy Trust and the DfE to help parents encourage literacy at home. It has advice, games, songs and stories online to help parents and nursery professionals too. Both these websites are full of resources which are all free to download. They don’t need lots of specialist equipment or fancy programs since their advice is very simple: chat, play and read with children as much as possible.

And sometimes the best advice is the simplest. We have all gone through a very difficult time in the last 6 months, and who knows what the future will bring? So perhaps, for the time being, the advice should be as simple and easy to manage as possible – chat, play and read – seems like something that we, as professionals, can all do every day, to improve the prospects for our children.

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