Proof or pot plants? We need to focus on evidence to tackle the early literacy gap

05 Feb 2019
Mum and child Leicester

Jean Gross CBE, long-term friend of the National Literacy Trust and former government Communication Champion for children and young people, explores the importance of evidence in action to tackle the literacy gap for disadvantaged children.

Did you know that one of the National Literacy Trust’s many important roles is to keep parliamentarians informed on key literacy issues? The Trust convenes and supports the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Literacy which is made up of politicians from all sides who are interested in how children across the age range can be supported to improve their reading, writing and communication.

Not long ago, I gave evidence at an APPG meeting in the House of Commons which heard from practitioners and experts about the links between spoken language, reading and writing. I shared statistics such as:

Drawing on such findings, it is not difficult to show a correlation between spoken language and literacy. This does not, however, prove that there is a causal relationship, and that improving children’s language skills would actually improve their literacy later on. I use the pot plant analogy here: there may be an association between the number of pot plants in the school foyer and whether the school is judged outstanding by Ofsted, but buying a bunch of pot plants will not of course guarantee that the school improves. Correlation does not mean cause.

Fortunately there are plenty of experimental studies of interventions in schools to improve children’s language which show that they definitely raise reading levels too, when compared to control groups who did not have the language intervention. The Education Endowment Foundation’s influential ‘Toolkit’ says that these interventions typically deliver an extra five months progress over the course of a year.

The APPG also heard about the evidence for language interventions in the very earliest months and years of life and particularly the importance of improving the home learning environment. The government is now very active in this space, with a raft of initiatives aimed at halving the number of five-year-olds starting primary school without good language and communication skills by 2028. The National Literacy Trust have been there for many years, of course, with their flagship Talk To Your Baby annual conference, now in its 16th year, and with initiatives they have developed to support the home learning environment, like Early Words Together.

In the long term, the new government campaign should mean we see fewer disadvantaged children start their literacy journey in school with limited spoken language skills. They will still need broad-based, language rich approaches to early reading and writing, however, and in some cases really skilled and intensive extra help.

Which brings me to another piece of ‘proof’ that has caught my eye recently – the ten year follow up of children who had such help when they were aged six from the Reading Recovery programme. It is rare to have evidence of the long term impact of any educational intervention; literacy interventions in particular have a nasty habit of ‘washing out’, with initial promising results soon fading.

But this new research found that, when compared to a matched group who did not take part (the comparison group), children who took part in Reading Recovery were:

  • More than twice as likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs including English and mathematics (49% vs 23%)
  • Less likely to leave school with no qualifications (2% vs 7%)
  • Performing only 5% below the national average at age 16 in GCSEs, despite having been in the bottom 10% of readers at age six
  • Requiring no intensive special educational needs support (a Statement of Special Educational Needs, or an Education, Health and Care Plan [EHC]), while 9% of the comparison group had a Statement or ECH at age 16

It’s interesting to speculate why the effects of this intervention seemed to stick. Perhaps it is because Reading Recovery provides language-rich sessions that support comprehension and reading for meaning. Perhaps it is because it develops not just the ability to read but a lasting love of books.

So the question is whether this new evidence on early language and literacy will prompt us to think again about what we can do in Reception and Key Stage 1 to raise standards and close the literacy gap for disadvantaged children. We need to use reliable strategies with the best possible evidence behind them, in my view. Proof, not pot plants, perhaps.