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3rd March 2021

Sharon Pindar: Why literacy issues matter more than ever in the age of Covid-19

Sharon Pindar

As children prepare to return to school once more, the phrase ‘education recovery’ is high on the agenda. There is no doubt that children have missed out on every dimension of their education, and despite schools’ and parents’ best efforts, home schooling simply can’t replicate the classroom experience. Government is now grappling with the impact of this missed learning in years to come, potentially affecting employability prospects for a generation.

After the lockdown in 2020, Ofsted reported that primary teachers noted children’s reading skills and confidence were particularly badly affected. However the most alarming findings showed that it was the more disadvantaged pupils, and particularly those with special educational needs and English as an additional language, who had fallen most behind. After years of determined efforts to close the attainment gap, we are now seeing that this progress has been reversed.

A child who is falling behind with their reading will struggle in every subject at school, and beyond into adult life. England already has one of the lowest literacy rates in the developed world, with an estimated 7.1 million adults struggling with basic reading every day according to the National Literacy Trust. Poor literacy can lead to limited job prospects, with strong evidence linking poor literacy and youth unemployment. It can also lead to poor health, low self-esteem and even reduced life expectancy. Moreover, adults with weak literacy skills won’t be able to support their child’s reading, so that without support, the cycle is perpetuated.

The reading charity Bookmark was created to address this crisis. I experienced the impact of poor literacy first-hand as a child as MY mother was unable to read, affecting the family in numerous ways. Today, Bookmark works to give children the reading skills and confidence they need for a fair chance in life, through a flexible and innovative volunteer-led programme.

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation and others has shown the benefits of one-to-one support for children who are struggling with literacy, and Bookmark seeks to give children that support through its pool of trained and vetted volunteers. Initially these volunteers worked face to face with children in schools, but last year Bookmark developed an interactive online programme in response to the pandemic, enabling volunteers to support children from home or work, without compromising school safety measures.

The programme has been well received by schools and Bookmark has been able to rapidly scale up to offer support nationwide, including supporting vulnerable and key worker children in school during the latest lockdown. Results have been striking; teachers have reported improvements in children’s confidence with reading as well as their attainment, with 90% saying that children enjoyed reading more after the programme. 

This last point is critical. As the OECD has found: ‘Reading for pleasure is the most important indicator of the future success of a child and is more important than family’s socio-economic status’. Working from this evidence, Bookmark designed its reading programmes to be fun, interactive and engaging, allowing children to choose their own books alongside those set by the school.

As the world starts to emerge from this devastating pandemic, it is clear that there are huge challenges ahead in helping children – and especially those who are already facing disadvantage – to recover their learning so that they can fulfil their potential in later life. Moreover, as a country, our economy depends on a skilled, healthy, and literate population. It is absolutely crucial that we focus on addressing literacy now, as a key step on the path back to a healthy future.  

The writer is the founder and chair of Bookmark

Photo credit: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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