Is Britain Facing a Literacy Crisis?

Many prominent charities, teachers and publishers think that we are, with predictions including  the alarming one thta over 1.5 million 11 year olds will be unable to read properly by 2025 unless we change tack.

They are so serious that they launched a campaign last week which will attempt to confront this potential educational failure.  The report is entitled ‘Read on. Get on’ and suggests that England has one of the biggest inequalities in educational and literacy abilities among the developed countries.  In fact out of all the EU countries only Romania has a bigger gap in achievements.


The problem is most acute among the poorer element of society, in particular white British boys of whom 45% reach 11 years old without being able to read properly.  40% of them are poor reader almost double the rate from more affluent groups of society.  These proportions sound worrying on their own but predictions suggest that they are going to get worse in the short term.

So what are the campaign goals? Through a series of initiatives, including supporting parents to read with their children for 10 minutes a day – the main focus is to simply have all children being able to read well by 2025.  To have any 11 year old capable of reading, understanding and discussing a book like Harry Potter by their 11th birthday. It’s an increasing problem where kids have so much more options for entertainment such -e.g. using American DNS for Netflix

The report came up with some other findings which are quite alarming.  In nearly 25% of homes with 11 year old residing there, had less than 10 books in the house.     These figures suggest that we are failing the poorer sectors of our society who are likely to be trapped in poverty by low academic achievement.

The report suggests that not only was this a big problem for the families affected, it was also a problem for the economy.  It is suggested that these low levels of literacy have a negative effect on GDP, with improvements likely to result in greater economic success for the UK.

The Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee said levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England were “alarmingly low” and the Government was missing an opportunity to raise economic productivity.

The committee said there was a particular problem with the least literate and numerate adults being able to get help and support because they did not know it was available. Advertising of free adult literacy courses ended in 2010.

Adrian Bailey, chairman of the committee, said: “A national campaign will get the message out to those who are most in need of support.”

Catherine Cookson
Education and Technical Writer

Researching Dylan

The title of our humble website  obviously has a focus on a variety of issues,  or if you wanted to be pedantic perhaps just two – literacy and research.  Both seem very difficult concepts to pass on to our latest generation of media buzzed youngsters, and it’s not surprising really – books, music and plays versus multimedia madness and YouTube comedy clips.  I know which one I would have chosen when I was young if the choice was available.

But let’s backtrack a little, educators today are not limited to stepping through Pride and Prejudice. Well of course, we have to follow the curriculum so maybe that’s not completely true – but we do have some leeway? Well I think I have. How much more fun would it be to analyse this with a group of teenagers.

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

It’s hip and cool and to some extent just as difficult to decipher as the Canterbury Tales or Jane Austen, but of course it isn’t.  Although its nearly 50 years old, the song means a lot to so many people, but if you search for definitions and meanings – it’s not easy to find.   The words ooze meaning, in a contemporary sense they mean so much more to today’s youth. Why not base our curriculum on texts like this – in case you haven’t guessed it’s from “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan recently voted by Rolling Stone as the ‘Best Song of All Time” – sorry Wolfgang but I think they may be right.

And if that’s little hard to decipher, think of how many anti-war and peace songs there are.  Another song from the list is ‘Imagine’ it’s certainly much easier to understand but just as profound and more accessible than the Canterbury Tales.

Shouts to : my friend on this article.

Developing Early Literacy By Using the Home Environment.

To be able to develop early literacy among young children, it is important to have a literate home environment. Research has shown that instructional environment have a phenomenal effect on developing early literacy skills among young children. These types of instructional environment are usually found within the confines of classrooms.

However, research has proved that the same learning environment in the classroom can be replicated right at home with great effect. Some researchers have stated that development of literate home environment should be given as much prominence as that of the classroom.

“Developing a home environment to encourage literacy is not simply about buying writing materials and stock piling books” said Sarah of Day Care Boise.  For the home environment to be truly effective there needs to be adequate planning of how these materials will be put to use. Experts agree that the first important step is to designate a specific reading area in your home. This action ensures that the children understand the importance placed on literacy in the family household. It will also show the young children that the entire family unit values reading.

A literate family home does not imply that everything has to be done in English. In fact, reading and writing in ones native tongue is just as powerful at developing literacy skills as using English. Regardless of the language being used, the message will (and should) remain the same I.E. Literacy is an important aspect of the family’s core values.

Before work on setting up the home library can begin, there are factors that parents must pay attention to namely:
1. The location of the home reading area.
2. The reading and writing material to be stocked.
3. The most effective methods of using the collected material.

Place To Set Up.

In theory, any space inside your home can be converted into a reading area. The most ideal space will be the one with great lighting and the one most comfortable. Interior cushions, comfortable chairs, pillows, etc, should be utilized to make the room comfortable. The selected reading area should have enough space to accommodate your family and individual reading positions (lying on the floor, stretched on the couch, etc).

Reading Books and Writing Materials.

A home library should be littered with books. Young minds need a variety of books to keep them engrossed. Parents should stock up on “touch- to- teach” books like Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt. There should be books that match the needs of babies. In addition, there should be an abundance of storybooks to suit the likes of toddlers and preschoolers.
Parents can get wordless books, which require the children and adults reading them to fill in the words. This can help build on your child’s creativity and language skills. Fiction and non fiction books for all ages should be found inside the family reading room.

Building a permanent library is more feasible since your entire family can come back to re-read their favorite stories. New collections from libraries and bookstores should be included to offer readers a wide selection of books.

Remember that this is a general family reading area and as such, there should be books that appeal to all ages. Magazines, encyclopedia, comic books, etc can all be included in your library. Everyone should be able to find something that appeals to him or her.

Is the End in Sight for Printed Media

A recent study by  the National Literacy Trust has just completed a rather interesting study.  It surveyed over 35,000 children aged from 8 to 16 with regards a variety of subjects.  One of the most startling results although perhaps not altogether surprising is the fact that young people would much prefer to read something on a screen than written down.

Of course people and especially the young have been brought up in a screen based culture.  Mobile phones, laptops and tablets are all over our home and it is inevitably one of these that our children will reach for when looking for information.  How many of us I wonder have rows of encyclopedias or reference books which hardly get a look in any more – want to know something you’ll probably look on the internet.

The figures came in at 52% of those surveyed would rather read something on a screen than written down.  32% still preferred normal print and the rest didn’t express a preference. Of these young people, almost 39% will read something on a screen every day compared to 28% with normal print.

In  the UK now 97% have access to computer and the internet at home, in fact 77% of children sad that they had their own computer.  When questioned about other related areas like newspapers and current news affairs the pattern was repeated with most seeking  their information from a screen.

In fact  the internet is becoming part of most aspects of our childrens lives.  From research, news and socialising – much of it is done virtually using the internet.   Even traditional screen based entertainment is being affected with people often watch videos and even TV online using a computer rather than a traditional TV.  Using various technologies to watch favorite programs via laptops and iPads like this site demonstrates -, which  they can even use abroad on holiday.

National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas said: “Our research confirms that technology is playing a central role in young people’s literacy development and reading choice.

“While we welcome the positive impact which technology has on bringing further reading opportunities to young people, it’s crucial that reading in print is not cast aside.”

Education in Hong Kong

When you look at the league tables for schools and literacy there are a few countries who seem to have just ’got it right’.  Of course there are fluctuations but a number of areas always score consistently well in all areas of basic literacy.  There are several Scandanavian countries from Europe, but one area that is almost always there is Hong Kong.  So what makes this ex-British colony so successful at educating it’s youngsters?

There certainly seems to be a huge emphasis on simple hard work. The colony as a whole was built on this pretext and it’s education system reflects these roots.  Unlike many countries, the concept of class is virtually unknown – if you  need to better yourself and your lives then education is the major route.

Many also point to the fact that Hong Kong itself has little in the way of welfare benefits, the state is not there to step in for people who need them.  Parents invest in their children as a form of pension, obviously this means there is much more incentive for the child to succeed.  Parents also are known for their diligience and take an extremely keen interest in their childs education.  Ever heard a parent complaining to a teacher about lack of homework – it’s something you’ll hear regularly in HK.

Parent’s also invest heavily in extra tuition and classes for their children.  It is estimated that over 70% of  secondary school pupils have some form of additional private tuition.  The curriculum is very traditional and extremely academic with core subjects which include Chinese, Maths and English.  There are other classes on art , music and drama but these are normally trimmed back in later years and especially during the run up to examinations.

Hong King also has an extremely modern infrastracture with for example very high broadband speeds.  Also Hong Kong does not suffer from the restrictive internet censorship that is practiced in China or like this in Iran, where you’re likely to get blocked a lot  -in HK it’s not necessary to spend time learning how to sidestep the firewall and video blocks – like this - over and over again.

Critics would argue that Hong Kong should be ranked highly purely because  there entire focus is on examinations.  There is a selective education system which rewards the best results with access to the better secondary school.  The pressure on young children though to succeed is extremely high and opinion is divided whether this does lead to long term benefits.

The Young and IT Literacy

The youngest generation of our planet, have pretty much grown up surrounded by technology.  My youngest son could happily use a mouse before his 2nd birthday in fact I’m pretty sure he could use it before he could walk properly. In a earlier post we highlighted some of the other life skills that adults are missing out on. However this familiarity with technology has not led to a marked increase in overall IT skills.

My children are well used to using technology, but scratch the surface and their knowledge is pretty basic.  The problem with todays technology is it’s so easy to use that you don’t really have to expand your knowledge.  A recent survey by the Prince’s trust in the UK suggested that thousands of young people have very basic IT skills.

In their survey ten percent of the young people they spoke to couldn’t send a CV online to an agency.  Nearly a quarter would dread filling in a CV or job application online.  Nearly all of these people are regular users of technology but clicking around their phone, surfing through Facebook or updating status pages doesn’t really teach any useful skills.

Computer literacy is becoming more and more vital in todays technological world.  However when I asked a group of 15 year olds some basic IT questions it was apparent to me that this literacy is sadly lacking.  In fact out of the class full I asked only one had reasonable computer knowledge.  He had learnt while trying to set up a VPN on his iPad to watch BBC Iplayer – from here, when staying in the US for his summer holidays.  This young man apart, the knowledge was limited to point and click and a knowledge of phone apps and suchlike.

Basic computer skills are not just needed for a career in IT, there is virtually no sector where it isn’t a huge advantage to have at least some computer skills. It is also a way to get into a wide variety of different careers, computer literacy is a huge asset for any employee.

Literacy Can Be Fun

Now I don’t know about your kids but mine learn a lot better with a little fun included.  This is one of the real problems I’ve found with teaching my children to read, until they get to a certain stage the available books are just too dull for words.  However fortunately we live in a world of interactive media, the internet and some genuinely quality educational resources and TV programmes.  There are of course loads of resources available online, but I’d like to point you at one site that has just about everything you’ll need to help your kids at the earlier stages of their reading development.

The site is none other than The BBC and it contains a huge section of pages designed specifically to improve literacy.  The site is called Bitesize and is split into three sections – science, maths and literacy.  Here’s a screenshot from one of the literacy games -

All the lessons are interactive and can be replayed over and over again.  This game helps with simple words and sounds that rhyme, most children really enjoy the cartoon type graphics and interactive elements.

But these are more than just a selection of fun flash games to sit your children down in front of.  If you look in the site you’ll find much more there is even a teachers/parents section with suggested lesson plans.  These incorporate the games and then expand on them with class based activities and tasks which the children can play without access to a computer.

Of course the BBC are primarily known for their world class programmes and the childrens channels are focussed in two specific  channels – CBBC and CBeebies for younger children.  All these programmes are available online using their custom video player called BBC Iplayer.  Unfortunately access to BBC IPlayer is blocked outside the UK however there is a workaround – if you visit this page - you’ll see the solution.  It’s not very difficult, you just basically have to surf via a UK based server to make it look like you’re based in Britain, it’s quick and easy to do.


Early Learning Research

I was reading an interesting article about preschool language literacy on the Vanderbilt University website. The discussion centers around research that seems to show that preschool children who are exposed, in a structured way, to more sophisticated language will go on to have a larger vocabulary and better reading ability by the time they are grade 4 students.

This is of course very interesting news for childhood educators and parents alike. There are plenty of things that both these groups can do to foster improved language development. Some of them include the obvious such as reading to young children. At kindergarten, group stories using a large picture book, e.g. The Hungry Caterpillar have been popular for years. This is just one example of how we can excite youngsters with language.

There are practically limitless possibilities. For instance, at home parents can introduced their children to their own hobbies. Talking about something you are passionate about will likely rub off on your child and provide an excellent opportunity for learning as well as provide a perfect language learning opportunity. So if health is your passion, perhaps you could involve your child in gardening or food preparation in the kitchen. Click here to read more about health through juicing. Teaching young children about the importance of a healthy diet is knowledge that can benefit them for the rest of their lives.