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Emilie Silverwood-Cope: The hidden literacy crisis in this country

Back to school and luckily for me my children were happy about it.

Being a struggling reader at secondary school means every lesson will feel like an impossible challenge.
Being a struggling reader at secondary school means every lesson will feel like an impossible challenge.

This isn’t the case for lots of families though, and it didn’t used to be the case for mine. School was a source of shame and extreme tension for my youngest child. He dreaded going up a school year and he hated the end of the summer holidays.

“I couldn’t look at anyone and I didn’t want anyone to look at me,” he said of his time at his previous school. “I didn’t want my teacher to see me.”

My son felt like this because he was a struggling reader. He was so significantly behind it impacted his sense of self, confidence and behaviour. This isn’t the space to detail why he was behind or how this was resolved (at his new school he made more than four year’’ progress in one year and is now fully caught up). Instead, I want to share how widespread this problem is. If it had not happened in my family, I would have remained blissfully unaware of the hidden literacy crisis we have in this country.

The 2023 SATs results show that the number of pupils who met the expected reading level is down from 2022, from 75 per cent to 73 per cent. This means more than a quarter of children starting Year 7 will be slightly below, or very much below, the reading level they need to adequately access the curriculum. As reading is essential to every subject, being a struggling reader at secondary school means every lesson will feel like an impossible challenge. Catch-up classes are available in lots of secondary schools but for those children with a reading age two or more years below their chronological age life will be very difficult.

Reading problems beget behavioural and mental health issues. You don’t need to be a child psychologist to know that children are acutely aware of what they can and can’t do in relation to their peer group.

Not being able to read or write properly is shaming and humiliating. It is associated (incorrectly) with not being clever or with being unteachable. If a child then associates their school, and learning, with embarrassment they will do what they can to avoid those painful feelings. Being kicked out of lessons, or not turning up in the first place, is far preferable to being called on to read or answer a question.

Post-pandemic, school refuser numbers have shot up. Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, calculates that 1.6 million children were persistently absent during the autumn and spring of 2021-22. Not all of these will be because of literacy but children with EHCPs (education and health care plan or special educational needs are disproportionately more likely to be off school. I have no doubt that the humiliation and anxiety felt by those adolescents who can’t read well will result in persistent absence.

This year, 172,000 pupils failed their English language GCSE - the highest number in a decade. Again, not all of them will have failed because of their literacy - but a pupil with a literacy problem will struggle to pass any of their exams.

Emilie Silverwood-Cope
Emilie Silverwood-Cope

The illiteracy statistics are grim and the personal and societal costs enormous. Not being able to read confidently has a lifelong impact. They are shut out of the job market, vulnerable and isolated. Their life expectancy is shorter. A study by the Shannon Trust found that around 50 per cent of the prison population in the UK are what we call ‘functionally illiterate’. One in six adults in England are described as having ‘very poor literacy skills’ and these low levels of literacy undermine the UK’s economy. A report by the World Literacy Foundation, Economic Cost and Social Impact of Illiteracy, estimated the cost to the wider economy in the UK is £54.97billion per year.

The most frustrating thing about all this? This is a solvable problem. Literacy experts know how to support and teach struggling readers. I know because I found them to help my child and it has worked. He is now thriving, not just surviving, at school. It took just one year after five years of falling further and further behind.

If this is your child please do not despair. It is never too late. I recommend listening to the podcast Sold a Story. It is about the American school system but there is a lot of crossover. I also recommend visiting the Thinking Reading website or Sounds-Write website. Understanding how struggling readers need to be taught is the first important step. If your child is more than two years behind, I believe one-to-one support is essential.

If you know of an adult who needs support, head to Read Easy. They have a Cambridge group. One good thing that has come out of my son’s experience is that I now volunteer to teach an adult to read. If adults can learn, so can our children.

Read more Parenting Truths from Emilie Silverwood-Cope every month in the Cambridge Independent.

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