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How can we tackle widening gaps in literacy skills following coronavirus?

School closures in response to Covid-19 are expected to widen gaps in educational attainment, including literacy, for disadvantaged children. One way to mitigate this risk is through high quality reading programmes. How do schools know which interventions will be most effective?

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are facing widening educational achievement gaps as a result of school closures during the pandemic. There are many reasons for this, including variations in home support and differing levels of access to high quality home schooling.

We know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds typically underperform in statutory literacy assessments from the early years to key stage 4 compared with their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. This is particularly true for boys.

With many children missing at least six months of education as a result of school closures, it is likely that a larger proportion of them may struggle to meet their reading targets when they return. With reading underpinning access to the curriculum at all stages, this is likely to have a significant impact on the life chances of these children.

The government has announced a package of financial investment to support the implementation of programmes that can mitigate this risk. To do this effectively, schools will have to turn to evidence to ensure that the programmes they put in place are effective, and avoid investing in approaches that will not achieve the desired outcomes.

Related question: What will be the impact of lockdown on children's development?

What does evidence from research tell us?

  • Small group interventions run by teaching assistants in schools have been shown to have a significant positive impact on children who may not be reading at the expected level.
  • Findings show that to support word reading, the most effective form of intervention combines training in phonological skills (the awareness of and ability to manipulate sounds in words), mapping letters to sounds and book reading.
  • In addition, to support reading comprehension, training in oral language is key, particularly vocabulary, grammar and narrative skills.
  • There is more known about early literacy support than support in secondary schools.
  • There is also a lack of evidence for programmes aimed at children whose first language is not English, despite the continued growth in this cohort. To date, there is little robust evidence for programmes specifically targeted at this group of children.

How reliable is the evidence?

Effective reading interventions are designed with a strong understanding of the science underpinning reading development. In addition, interventions should be rigorously tested using the ‘gold standard’ methodology of a randomised controlled trial (RCT) where possible (Snowling and Hulme, 2011).

In an RCT, children are randomly allocated to groups receiving different programmes or no intervention at all, and progress is compared across groups. For example, group A might receive an intervention while group B does not. If group A does better than group B at the end of the intervention, one can be fairly confident that the intervention received by group A was successful because the groups did not differ systematically in any other way.

Implementing interventions without this level of scientific rigour increases the risk of the programme having little or no impact. It is important to note that not all children will respond to an intervention for many reasons, but implementing interventions based on rigorous findings will give children the best chance. As such, this review is based on evidence from RCTs carried out in nurseries and primary schools across England, with some evidence from secondary schools.

In one such study, researchers compared three groups of children aged 7 who received a programme of only phonological skills, a programme of only reading skills, or a programme combining the two and a group of children who received no intervention. The programmes were delivered over 20 weeks by teachers and with approximately 30 children in each group. The result show that children in the combined group made more progress in reading than any of the other groups (Hatcher et al, 1994).

In another study, 77 four-year-old children with poor reading skills were divided into two groups. Both groups received an intervention programme delivered by trained teaching assistants that combined phoneme awareness, phonological skills and reading, with one group receiving two blocks of ten-week intervention, and the other group only receiving the second block.

After the first ten weeks, the results show more progress in reading for the children who had received the intervention compared to those who had not, although they caught up after the second ten-week block (Hatcher et al, 2006). Both of these studies provide compelling evidence for how to support word reading skills.

In a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation that focused on reading comprehension as well as word reading, reception class children were divided into two groups. One group took part in a programme combining phonological awareness, letter sound knowledge and book reading. The other group had an oral language programme that taught vocabulary, narrative and grammar.

Both programmes lasted 20 weeks and were delivered by trained teaching assistants on a daily basis. The results show that these programmes had different effects. As expected, phonological awareness, letter knowledge and book reading supported children's word level reading skills. In contrast, the oral language programme supported vocabulary development and grammatical awareness – skills vital for reading comprehension (Bowyer-Crane, et al, 2008).

In a follow-up study, a 30-week programme was implemented that began in nursery settings in the term before the children were due to start school. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the programme focused on language skills, with half of the children receiving 30 weeks of intervention throughout nursery and reception classes, and half of the children receiving intervention once they reached year 1 if it was still required. Nursery staff delivered the first part of the intervention and teaching assistants took over when children entered reception.

The results show that the intervention worked: children who received the intervention performed better on measures of language and reading comprehension than those who did not (Fricke et al, 2013). The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has since carried out two independent evaluations of this programme (The Nuffield Early Language Intervention), both using trained teaching assistants to deliver the intervention, and both of which show positive results.

In the first of these, children received 20 or 30 weeks of intervention, or no intervention (the control group), with approximately 130 children in each group. Children receiving 30 weeks of intervention group made an additional four months of progress compared with those in the control group. This progress lasted six months after the intervention (Sibieta et al, 2016).

In the second evaluation, approximately 1,000 children took part. The intervention group received 20 weeks of intervention, and made an additional three months progress in language skills, and two months progress in early word reading compared with a control group (Dimova et al, 2020).

Working with slightly older children, a study compared three types of reading comprehension programme for children in key stage two. One group of children received a programme focused on understanding text, a second group focused on oral language and a third group combined these two elements. A fourth group did not receive intervention.

After 20 weeks, all three instructional groups had made more progress in reading comprehension than the comparison group. Moreover, children who received oral language training showed even more progress 11 months after the intervention finished (Clarke et al, 2010).

In short, evidence about what works to support reading development for children in primary school is largely reliable. But there are still gaps in our knowledge.

What else do we need to know?

One area where evidence is lacking is how to support children in secondary school. We know that literacy continues to develop in secondary schools, so we need to find ways to continue to support children in these later stages of education. A study was carried out based on the findings from work in primary schools. Funded by the EEF, two programmes were compared for children in years 7 and 8 (ages 11-13).

One programme followed a typical reading intervention model while the other programme included more focused comprehension activities. Both programmes saw children make between four and six months of additional progress on word reading compared with a control goup, but neither programme made a difference to their reading comprehension (Sibieta, 2016).

The EEF published a review of secondary reading programmes last year and found the majority of studies reviewed had little impact on reading outcomes. One-to-one tutoring was found to have the most effect, particularly because programmes could be personalised. But the impact was still quite small (Baye et al, 2019).

We also need to find out much more about how to support children for whom English is not their first language. Many of these children have particular problems with reading comprehension, most likely linked to difficulties with vocabulary knowledge (Lervåg and Aukrust, 2010).

In recent work funded by the Nuffield Foundation, an oral language intervention was designed for use with children learning EAL (English as an additional language) and their monolingual peers. Unlike the previous studies described above with monolingual families, after 18 weeks of intervention, no difference was found between children receiving intervention and those who did not, except for words explicitly taught during the intervention (Bowyer-Crane et al, 2016).

Two reviews of intervention for children learning EAL have called for more research in this area (Murphy and Unthiah, 2015; Oxley and De Cat, 2018).

Finally, it is important to note that RCTs rely on overall group differences to show whether an intervention works or not. But as noted above, even interventions with strong evidence will not work for all children or in all settings. With the additional investment in support, it will be important to explore effects for children with different needs (for example, SEND – special educational needs and disability), and in different contexts, in order to identify what works best for which children.

Related question: How can we make up the learning losses from lockdown?

Where can I find out more?

Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: the EEF provides summaries of research and evaluations that guide school leaders in selecting the right approaches for their schools.

A glossy brochure is nice, but is it enough for schools? Megan Dixon explains the importance of using evidence when deciding whether to implement an intervention.

Oral language: the foundations of reading and reading intervention: Maggie Snowling talks about reading development and how best to support decoding and reading comprehension.

Tes talks to… Dr Jessie Ricketts: Jessie Ricketts talks about the importance of oral language in secondary school based on findings from her research.

Boosting reading comprehension at secondary level: Grace Elliott talks about implementing the challenges of tackling reading comprehension difficulties at secondary school and her own experience of implementing intervention.

Who are UK experts on this question?

  • Maggie Snowling, President of St John’s College, University of Oxford
  • Charles Hulme, Professor of Psychology and Education, Brasenose College, University of Oxford
  • Silke Fricke, Senior Lecturer, Dept of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield
  • Paula Clarke, Associate Professor in Psychological Approaches to Childhood and Inclusive Education, Dept of Education, University of Leeds
  • Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford
Author: Claudine Bowyer-Crane
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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