COVID-19 and literacy: Discussion, analysis and recommendations

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Ongoing educational research is providing a breadth of insight into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s learning, literacy and mental wellbeing. As with many other areas, such as health and employment, the pandemic both exposed and exacerbated pre-existing educational inequalities. Research exploring the impact of the pandemic, national lockdowns and school closures on children and young people is providing an essential insight into the impact of this period of educational disruption on learning, literacy and wellbeing.

However, while reports span from the earliest days of the first lockdown in March 2020, new data is emerging daily and longer-term outcomes are still hard to predict. This observatory is therefore a work in progress, and will be updated regularly to synthesise findings from new research, assessments and policy developments, and our insight and analysis will evolve alongside the emerging evidence base.

To date, a thread running through much of the research is the impact of inequality in access to resources between children from lower and higher income households on learning at home. For example, many younger children enjoyed enhanced quality time with parents during periods of lockdown, with the majority of families saying they were doing more activities known to support early literacy, such as chatting, playing and reading. However, COVID-19 also increased economic hardship and job insecurity for many families, both of which can influence the prevalence of parental depression, and not all parents were confident in supporting their children’s learning at home. Indeed, despite many families spending more time together, more than three-quarters of schools felt children starting Reception in the last year needed more support than those in previous cohorts (Bowyer-Crane et al 2021).

With regard to older children, much of the research exploring the impact of school closures has found a significant difference in educational outcomes between those from more and less advantaged backgrounds, proving early concerns about the detrimental effect of school closures on the attainment gap correct (see. e.g. DfE, 2021). For example, reading assessments carried out in autumn term 2020 found that both primary and secondary pupils showed a learning loss of up to 2 months in reading, while a later analysis concluded that disadvantaged pupils experienced, on average, 1 month more learning loss in reading than their peers - equivalent to undoing a third of the progress made to close the attainment gap in primary schools over the last decade. Research looking at spring term 2021 assessments for Key Stage 1 pupils also found a gap of 7 months' progress in reading between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils, compared with around 6 months in the 2019 cohort. Perhaps more concerningly, findings also suggested that 5 to 7-year-olds' achievement in reading and maths had fallen further behind since the autumn term.

Similarly, studies exploring secondary pupils' reading assessment in the autumn term 2020 noted that schools with a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had learning losses 50% higher than those with fewer disadvantaged pupils. Further research and analysis of spring term reading assessments for secondary pupils is due shortly (see DfE, 2021, p.5). In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge that not all research has drawn the same conclusions about the reading attainment gap. For example, one study published by the Fisher Family Trust, Teacher Tapp and the EEF (Weidmann et al., 2021) concluded that, as the reading attainment gap both widened slightly and closed slightly between 2019 and 2020, “we can’t be confident that the attainment gap in reading changed at all” over this time (Allen et al., 2021). Forthcoming studies will allow a broader perspective to be taken, for example, on the extent to which efforts made since children returned to the classroom after the third national lockdown have helped to mitigate the impact of lost learning.

While perhaps unsurprising, the breadth of research in this area has presented a detailed picture of the multiple challenges faced by children from lower income homes. This ‘divide’ clearly stretches beyond the digital, although lack of access to high quality devices and wifi presents a fundamental barrier not only to remote learning, but to learning outside school more broadly. Government efforts to ensure laptops are made available to vulnerable children to date are a first step in addressing this disparity, but there is much still to do to ensure that all children are to be given the best chance of reaching their academic potential.

While addressing first-level digital divides was a pragmatic first priority, research also indicated that inequalities in school and home resources, from teacher and parent knowledge and confidence to pupils’ day-to-day experience of home learning, access to books and quiet space, played a significant role in children’s learning outcomes. For example, schools in more affluent areas were more likely to have an online learning platform in place prior to the first lockdown, giving them a head start in teaching their pupils remotely.

Again, government support for online learning platforms such as Oak Academy and initiatives such as the EdTech demonstrator programme have been playing a vital role in helping teachers share knowledge and experience of digital tools and resources. However, it is essential that all teachers feel confident and well-informed about using technology to support literacy and learning, and it is important to note that the EdTech initiative has recently been expanded, enabling it to reach more schools. Improving access to devices and teacher knowledge and confidence around delivering effective blended learning has the potential to support all children's learning, both in and out of school. This is important not only with the potential for new variants to continue to disrupt education for months or even years to come, but also as literacy that enables health and employment and supports democracy is increasingly a digital experience.

In the meantime, a wealth of studies conclude that learning loss in reading has been greater for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds and those in urban areas and regions such as the Midlands, the North, the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Our work has long been targeted on communities that most need help, working with local partners to deliver place-based solutions. National Literacy Trust Hubs are already working hard to support schools and families in many of these areas, including Birmingham, Bradford, Doncaster, Manchester, Middlesbrough and the North Yorkshire Coast. Find out more about our work in communities.

Finally, while education recovery packages are ostensibly targeted and focused on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, the financial investment announced to date falls far short of the amount many experts believe is required (see e.g. EPI, 2021).

"As researchers, we spend considerable time collating and reviewing existing literature on the state of the UK’s literacy and learning. The National Literacy Trust realised no other organisation was bringing all the essential research into the effects of COVID-19 together in one place. The observatory will be regularly updated to reflect the latest findings and we hope parents, practitioners and policymakers alike will benefit from the information.” Dr. Christina Clark, Head of Research at the National Literacy Trust

Recommendations

If children are to catch up and recover from this period of educational and emotional disruption, alongside strategic and foundational efforts to reduce child poverty, we should seek to:

  • Create a cross-government strategy for improving literacy outcomes for all children, with a special focus on disadvantaged communities where the impact of lockdown on learning has been most damaging and where the levelling up challenge is now even more pressing. This strategy should include evidence-based commitments to closing the literacy gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
  • This strategy should be underpinned by a place-based approach to support locally delivered programmes that aim to:
    • Move beyond a deficit model to a community enhancement model.
    • Engage disadvantaged and disengaged people in literacy programmes and services through the creation of community assets and activities tailored to specific groups.
    • Take a holistic approach to literacy, which focuses on helping children recover their skills, but also provides opportunities for them to experience the social and cultural activities - whether language play or enjoying reading - that have been disrupted by lockdown.
    • Build supportive and connected communities through support networks, including peer support from people with lived experience, to help individuals have positive reading and writing experiences – by extension developing literacy skills in the process.
    • Embed literacy within broader societal objectives, such as wellbeing.
    • Reduce literacy-related stigma, especially with regard to adult literacy, by making an open commitment to using language and imagery that does not stigmatise in all education-related campaigns and policy outputs.
    • Ensure that recent progress made in addressing the digital divide continues by ensuring that all families have digital access to support children’s learning by expanding the laptop scheme.
    • Commission research and impact evaluation on what works to learn how we can better support parents and practitioners as we move into our education recovery phase.

Further resources

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