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Literacy and transition: evidence-informed strategies to close the gap

Written By: Robbie Coleman
6 min read
Transition is tougher for the children who struggle with literacy

Every student gets nervous about starting their secondary education: the prospect of a new school, new teachers and new friends looms large over the summer holidays.

For children who struggle with literacy, the challenge ahead is even tougher. Of the roughly 570,000 students who will begin year 7 at a state secondary school in September 2017, approximately 165,000 will have been classed as not meeting the expected standard for reading in their SATs (DfE, 2017).

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of the task ahead for this group. In the 2016 GCSE cohort, just 11% of students who began year 7 without level 4 went on to achieve Cs in English and maths (DfE, 2017).

The consequences of low literacy will be felt across the curriculum too. A student who has not yet learned to read will be unable to learn, making it likely that they will fall behind in many subjects. Fewer than 1% of students who began year 7 without level 4 went to achieve the English Baccalaureate.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, it is essential that teachers have the best possible knowledge to support students beginning secondary school with weak literacy skills. So what insights does research provide that might help?

The scale of the literacy gap

It is important first to understand the size of the literacy gap. In 2014, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) estimated that 58,000 students who transitioned to secondary not at the expected level were over a year behind the expected level (Higgins et al, 2014). This figure may need to be adjusted using new SATs, but it indicates the size of the gap for some students.

The challenge is also accentuated by the summer holidays. One US study estimated that on average, students lose a month’s learning over the summer break. And while this ‘summer slide’ is likely to affect most students, it was estimated as being three times as severe for students from disadvantaged families. These students are also most likely to have literacy problems (Alexander et al, 2007).

One intervention is not enough

It is clear that tackling the literacy challenge with a single intervention is unlikely to be enough. In 2014, the EEF reviewed more than 1,200 studies related to older, struggling readers. The most successful approaches boosted outcomes by between four and five months. See the summary table below.

Impact of reading catch-up approaches, based on Reading at the Transition (2014) table

Figure 1. Impact of reading catch-up approaches, based on Reading at the Transition (2014).

But while a five-month boost would clearly be valuable, even this will rarely eliminate the gap (Higgins et al, 2014). So while a high-profile ‘marquee intervention’, such as a summer school, might appeal, a programme of strategies that includes support in- and outside the classroom is likely to have more of an impact and be more cost-effective.

Effective strategies for teaching literacy

A balanced approach to teaching literacy appears to be favoured by evidence. In the EEF transition review – and a 2017 summary that focused on key stage 2 (Higgins et al, 2017) – reading comprehension and phonics-based approaches are shown to have positive effects, as do some effective talk strategies. A range of effective approaches for improving writing have been also identified in recent years. A balanced approach also aligns with evidence which shows that literacy is composed of multiple components.

When it comes to improving students’ reading comprehension, studies show that focusing on developing reading fluency is particularly effective. This relates to the idea of cognitive load and overload: unless processes, such as word recognition, are automatic, then finite cognitive resources are not available for comprehension. Approaches where adults model reading with meaning and intonation – and feedback on these aspects of students’ reading –  are useful for improving fluency. Some studies have even found positive benefits for ‘repeated reading’, where students read the same passage multiple times, for example in pairs after an initial read through from a teacher, to perfect their fluency and intonation.

Alongside strategies focused on fluency, extensive evidence supports the explicit instruction of reading comprehension strategies where students have to monitor what they are reading and do something if it does not make sense (Higgins et al, 2017). Prediction or summarising activities make pupils review what they have read and monitor their own understanding of texts so they can ask clarifying questions (see figure below). There is some evidence from observational studies that teachers tend to rely on a relatively narrow range of comprehension activities (Higgins et al, 2017). As a result, teachers are likely to need time and support to try out and embed new approaches. 

Comprehension example

Figure 2. 3,2,1 Comprehension example

For struggling writers, research shows that students improve more rapidly when writing for a clear purpose and audience (Higgins et al, 2017). Without this it is hard for pupils to evaluate and revise their work. Publication – through a classroom display, letter or published final product – can be a powerful incentive too. Another promising writing approach from the same funding round focused on improving improving students’ understanding of the impact of a range of grammatical features, rather than purely on accuracy.

Evidence also strongly supports the explicit instruction of approaches to planning and composition. In 2012, the EEF tested and compared 24 literacy catch-up approaches (Torgerson et al, 2014). The most effective was a writing scheme that supported students to plan and structure their writing, using a range of strategies including mnemonics and checklists.

Finally, there is a growing evidence base about the impact of oral language approaches. A study published in July 2017 found that students benefitted from activities involving dialogic talk, where pupils were required to provide extended explanations to questions and discussion topics, developing talk beyond responses to closed questions. The approach improved English outcomes for all students, including those eligible for free school meals (Jay et al, 2017).

Diagnose strengths and weaknesses

Students need a solid grounding in word recognition, which includes phonics, especially if you want to effectively improve literacy and reading comprehension in particular. This underlines the importance of a balanced approach to literacy and a careful diagnosis of the particular strengths and weaknesses of incoming students.

One tool that can help you diagnose these issues is Scarborough’s Reading Rope (see below). It emphasises the importance of both language comprehension and word recognition to support reading.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope, from EEF (2017)

Figure 3. Scarborough’s Reading Rope, from EEF (2017)

Where weaknesses in phonics are identified, promising approaches evaluated by the EEF include the Switch-on and Catch-Up Literacy programmes, both delivered by trained teaching assistants (TAs). Switch-On (Patel et al, 2015) trains TAs to deliver one-to-one support following an approach inspired by Reading Recovery, while Catch-Up Literacy (Rutt, 2015) trains TAs in a range of phonics and reading-comprehension strategies. [9, 10]

One-to-one or small group tuition has also proven to be beneficial in a large number of studies. While one-to-one support has a slightly higher impact on average, in some cases small group support has been found to be as effective. For this reason, it is logical and cost effective to begin with small group tuition – if it isn’t working you can move on to one-to-one support.

In all cases, including the most robustly evaluated interventions, higher impact is associated with professional development for staff. It is also important to consider how you support staff in- and outside the classroom. One-to-one or small group support requires a considerable investment (both financial and staff time), and ensuring that the team delivering this support communicate with the main teacher will ensure effort is not wasted. Targeted support might focus on a different component of the Reading Rope, complementing what takes place in the classroom.

No quick fixes

The literature and data on struggling literacy shows there are no quick fixes. The literacy gap is stubborn and substantial; tackling it requires a concerted and co-ordinated effort. But it is clear that some approaches to narrowing the gap offer more promise than others. Perhaps more than any other area in English schooling, literacy at transition has been an area of huge research investment and activity – ensuring that all schools benefit from the lessons learned will give future cohorts the best chance of success.

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