COVID-19 and literacy: Primary Schools

Sunnyside Primary.JPG

Learning loss in primary schools

Extraordinary efforts were made by teachers and families to support children's learning under very difficult circumstances. However, the pandemic exposed the greater number of challenges faced by children from lower income homes, including poorer access to high-quality digital devices and connectivity, well-resourced teachers and confident parents. For example:

  • Only 23% of the most deprived schools began lockdown with an online platform in place, compared with 60% of private schools and 37% of state schools in affluent areas (Cullinane and Montacute).
  • While the DfE announced a scheme to provide laptops to vulnerable children (DfE, 2020), later reports suggested that 27% of children in households classed as ‘most financially vulnerable’ lacked consistent access to a suitable device for home learning (Ofcom, 2021).
  • Children in the highest income households were also found to be spending an average of 5.8 hours a day on educational activities compared with 4.5 hours in lowest income families, equivalent to a 15-day deficit in home learning by September 2020 (Andrew et al., 2020).

Educational organisations expressed concerns about the potential for school closures to widen existing gaps in performance between pupils from lower income homes and their peers. One early review predicted that school closures had the potential to reverse progress made in closing the attainment gap over the last decade (EEF, 2020). These concerns have been evidenced, to an extent, by studies emerging throughout the academic year 2020/21:

  • Studies carried out by the Department for Education (DfE), the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning in autumn 2020 found a learning loss of up to 2 months in reading in both primary and secondary pupils (DfE, 2021).
  • A later analysis concluded that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds experienced an extra month of learning loss in reading and an extra 0.5 month in mathematics compared to their non-disadvantaged peers. This is equivalent to undoing a third of the progress made in the last decade on closing the gap in primary schools (DfE, 2021a).
  • In November 2020, a study of standardised test scores in more than 250,000 primary pupils by RS Assessment also found learning loss to be greater for disadvantaged children, and further differences in relation to age and geographical location (Blainey et al., 2020).
  • By spring 2021, primary pupils in England were, on average, 2 months behind the expected level in reading and 3.1 months behind in maths (DfE, 2021).
  • Some regions were found to have greater learning loss in reading. Primary-aged pupils were found to have between 1.7 and 2 months’ mean learning loss in reading, but pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber lost 2.4 months and 2.2 months respectively (DfE, 2021). Find out more about our work in communities.
  • However, later research 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).
  • In April 2021, the then Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins suggested 30,000 more children would be starting secondary school without the reading skills needed to access the secondary curriculum (in addition to the usual 200,000 who leave primary school with below expected levels of reading).
  • Research published in July 2021 found that Key Stage 1 (5 to 7-year-old) pupils’ achievement in reading and maths had fallen further behind since the autumn term. Both Year 1 and Year 2 pupils made on average 3 months’ less progress in reading compared with the spring 2019 cohort. However, there is a gap of around 7 months’ progress in reading between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers, compared with a gap of around 6 months in 2019 (EEF, 2021).
  • In a report published in July 2021, communication charity I CAN estimated that 1.5 million children are at risk of not being able to speak or understand language at an age-appropriate level (I CAN, 2021). A survey of 1,000 UK primary and secondary teachers found that 63% of primary teachers surveyed believe that children who are moving to secondary school in September will struggle more with their speaking and understanding, in comparison to those who started secondary school before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Also in July 2021, a report quantifying learning loss in England since the beginning of the pandemic using data from commercial reading assessments concluded that younger primary-aged pupils were further behind expectations than older ones (Newton, 2021). Some older primary school students were found to be “actually ahead of expectations in reading” in late autumn term 2020, compared to the autumn term 2019 cohort. However, this relates to RS Assessment data from pupils in Years 4 to 6 from schools with lower than average percentages of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSMs). Based on ongoing disruptions from January onwards, the author concludes that pupils may be expected to be “some way behind” expectations in forthcoming assessments, with disadvantaged pupils continuing to experience disproportionate learning losses.
  • Analysis by RS Assessment and SchoolDash in August 2021 found that, based on more than 250,000 tests taken in summer 2021 (including PiRA and GAPS tests), reading attainment was similar to the prior cohort for pupils in Years 2 to 6 (Blainey & Hannay, 2021). Researchers concluded that, “Had the National Tests in Year 6 been held this year it is likely only reading would have had a similar number of pupils reaching the expected standard as prior years.”
  • However, while older age groups around a month behind, Year 1 pupils were as much as 3 months behind in reading compared with previous cohorts, with the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in this year group observed to have grown “significantly”. Similarly, the gap in GPS attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers increased from 5 months to 6 months in most year groups, and was estimated to be as large as 7 months in Year 1. In addition, greater falls in attainment for GPS were seen in schools in the North.


The wide range of research carried out into the impact of school closures on children's learning has provided a broad picture of the many challenges faced, in particular, by those from lower income backgrounds. Access to devices and data for home learning is significantly more limited for this group, and some studies indicated that children from disadvantaged backgrounds spent less time taking part in educational activities than their peers on an average day.

Reading assessments carried out in autumn term 2020 and spring term 2021 have found an increased learning loss in reading in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their more advantaged peers. Furthermore, one very recent study suggests 5 to 7-year-olds' achievement in reading and maths has fallen further behind since the autumn term. Whether this situation may improve in summer term remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it is clear that school and public libraries have a key role to play in supporting children’s literacy and wellbeing by offering access to print books and guidance. There is also a role for the wider community, including literacy organisations and the business community. We offer schools and families a wide range of support, advice, resources and training, much of which is generously funded by corporate partners, trusts, foundations and individuals.

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Further support for schools

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  • Puffin World of Stories

    Puffin World of Stories

    Run in partnership with Puffin, supporting primary schools to reinvigorate school libraries and reading spaces and champion reading for pleasure.
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