School closures in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions have had a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils, which could reverse any progress made over the last decade to narrow the attainment gap. These children were already twice as likely as their better off peers to leave primary school unable to read or write to the standard expected for their age and to leave secondary school without good GCSEs in English or maths, as Department for Education data published in 2019 and 2020 suggest.
However, a range of initiatives organised by the National Literacy Trust, an independent charity working to raise literacy levels across the UK, is attempting to help address achievement disparities. Fiona Evans, the trust’s director of school programmes, explains what the trust has done: “In response to Covid-19, we quickly galvanised our partnerships and programmes to support children and families from disadvantaged communities whose literacy and learning have been most seriously impacted by the pandemic.
We conducted surveys of children, young people and parents during lockdown to better understand the impact Covid-19 has had on their literacy behaviours and attitudes, in order to target our support where it is needed most, and we published reports outlining our findings in relation to children and young people’s reading, writing, and engagement with audiobooks before and during lockdown.”
The trust has since developed new digital platforms to support parents and young people with home learning. They include an initiative called Words for life for parents of children up to the age of 12, which offers exclusive author content, free digital books, reading and writing activities, book lists, videos, audiobooks, apps, competitions and reading challenges. Zone in, part of the same platform, is designed for students aged 13 and over. It provides similar activities and resources, and gives young people the opportunity to attend virtual events – all aiming to improve their literacy while they’re at home.
Meanwhile, an online audiobook club Behind the cover, offering young women additional access to books, has been a particular success at Harris Academy Beckenham, based in Bromley. Charlotte Evans, a teacher at the school, said: “… We have been delighted to offer the opportunity for our students to listen to a wide range of inspiring audiobooks at a difficult time when many were studying from home. There were times this year where students had limited access to books, this project was a fantastic way of helping to address that ….”
Virtual school library
Another important initiative is the trust’s virtual school library, developed in partnership with Oak National Academy, an online classroom for teachers, set up in response to Covid-19. The library offers free e-books or audiobooks, as well as reading and writing activities set by popular children’s authors, as well as exclusive video content for primary school children.
Fiona Evans claims: “The need for this free digital library is greater than ever, as schools across the country are closed to everyone except vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We work alongside Oak National Academy, to increase access to e-books and audiobooks for the most disadvantaged young readers during school closures and support the literacy of children most adversely affected by Covid-19.
While we were unable to physically be in schools to deliver our programmes for early years, primary and secondary teachers and students, we continue to adapt and develop new ways to help teachers to support their students’ literacy via remote learning. Many of our programmes are now available to do online, so students can take part from home.”
But not everything is online. Game changers, a reading intervention, helping secondary students in pupil referral units and alternative accommodation, has been developed as a workbook to cater for those who do not have internet access at home or are reluctant to use it. The intervention uses football-themed activities, texts, and role models to motivate and equip students to read. Diane Blackmore from H3 Hospital School in Hereford said: “We have a few pupils who would not engage with online learning but did work well with paper-based resources. The Game changers workbooks engaged and enabled these pupils to work on their own over a sustained period of time, whilst the other work we provided tended to be shorter tasks, which were completed quickly.”
These programmes have been bolstered by the trust’s 14 literacy hubs across the UK, bringing together local partners who work in communities where low levels of literacy are affecting people’s lives. Facebook and YouTube pages were launched to provide families with local activities in which their children could participate to support their learning at home. National and local partnerships also ensured books were distributed to children who needed them – over 300,000 books and literacy packs were delivered to families in vulnerable communities.
Training for teachers
There’s also a focus on teachers – during the pandemic, the trust’s training for this group has been moved online. The training helps teachers deal with the challenges posed by Covid-19 and offers them ongoing continuing professional development and support. Meanwhile, tutors delivering the national tutoring programme have been receiving training, highlighting the importance of teaching literacy skills in every subject and at every key stage.
Building in routine reading time
According to Fiona Evans, teachers and schools that promote literacy well are those that help establish routine reading time.
She states: “While children aren’t in school and teachers are doing all they can to help parents and carers set out a routine for them, encouraging them to build in reading time can be a great way to boost pupils’ literacy skills and also help support their wellbeing.
Our research found that three in five (59.3%) children and young people told us during lockdown that reading makes them feel better, and three in 10 (31.6%) said that reading helps them when they feel sad because they cannot see their family and friends.
What’s more, research shows that reading with your child for as little as 10 minutes a day can make all the difference. One thing we recommend is reading for 10 minutes together before bed. Reading stories at night makes for a calm bedtime.”