Literacy – a matter of life and death?

23 April 2018

According to recent research by the National Literacy Trust (Feb 2018) there is a proven link between literacy levels and life expectancy. Since Blackpool is one of the most deprived areas in England and its life expectancy rates are the lowest for men and the second lowest for women in the country, then here it seems that literacy really is a matter of life and death.

So what are we doing about it? How do we counteract the problem of the Matthew Effect, cited by Barton (2017) ‘. . while good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible’?

As ‘we are all teachers of literacy’ (Barton, 2017), I’ve tried to pinpoint some simple tips to help all staff improve their teaching of literacy in the classroom. The biggest barrier to learning is limited vocabulary. It is necessary to know 95% of the vocabulary of a text or an explanation to be able to access it. Good readers can read around 1,000,000 words per year, whereas weak readers as little as 50,000 words a year. Whilst the word rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Consequently, it is our job to increase the vocabulary of the word poor.

My 8 year old son highlighted his frustration with vocabulary when attempting a maths homework problem. He was struggling with a question which required him to look at a graph showing pupil absence: ‘How do I know how many children got presents?’ he asked grumpily!

The default solution to the literacy problem has for many years been to encourage children to ‘read more’. Many schemes have been set up with the aim of achieving this, but most have met with little, if any success. The EEF have spent millions of pounds on research projects in this field, but some studies have even left students lagging behind their peers.[1]  Metacognitive science is showing us that the art of reading is massively complex, especially for a brain that was never designed to read at all.

All the skills necessary for fluent reading are shown in this diagram:


Daniel Willingham has identified the Big Five Reading Skills:

  • Phonemic Awareness (knowing that spoken words are made up of individual sounds – phonemes)
  • Phonics (the explicit linking of sounds – phonemes – and the corresponding letters – graphemes)
  • Fluency (reading with the appropriate speed, accuracy and expression)
  • Vocabulary instruction (vocabulary is largely learned incidentally, but explicit instruction can help)
  • Reading Comprehension (understanding what is read – built upon the other four components)

In secondary schools, it is difficult to focus on all of these due to the time constraints of the broad curriculum, but the final two are the ones we are targeting to drive improved literacy skills. Alongside vocabulary instruction to help directly address the needs of the word poor, the biggest factor in success at comprehension is familiarity with the content. The best way to help students improve their reading comprehension is to ensure they have fully understood the curriculum content, through excellent teaching and learning. In our History lessons, we are doing the following:

  • Explicitly teaching Tier Two and Tier Three words, with reference made to them regularly and opportunities built into the lesson for students to use them. Tick lists of words to include in student prose are very popular.
  • Starter activities with history sources or interpretations, practising the key skills of skimming, scanning and summarising over and over again.
  • Ensuring the best teaching and learning of the curriculum so that the students are more likely to understand what they read.
  • Reading aloud to students so that they can spot patterns and emphasis.
  • Talking about our favourite books a lot.

These are intentionally simple solutions to the very serious issue of literacy, but we hope they will start to close the word gap.

Further Reading

Lisa Gilbert, Anne Teravainen, Christina Clark and Sophia Shaw (February 2018) ‘Literacy and life expectancy – An evidence review exploring the link between literacy and life expectancy in England through health and socioeconomic factors’ (National Literacy Trust)

Barton, G. (2017) Don’t Call it Literacy (Routledge)

Willingham, D, (2009) Why don’t students like school? (Jossey Bass)

Willingham, D. (2017) The Reading Mind (Jossey Bass)


Blog Post Author LOW

Louise Wareing, Innovation Fellow and Research Lead, Blackpool Research School

Posted on 23 April 2018
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