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School Leaders, Teachers

Boost children’s reading and give them a life skill!

The learning gap between disadvantaged children and those from more affluent backgrounds has increased by 46% according to a survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). With many children having to shift back to home learning at the start of this year, the challenge is greater than ever. In the following blog post,  Andrea Welter, assistant head teacher from Pheasey Park Primary School, discusses the need to close the gap and recover lost learning.

What impact has the pandemic having on families, and how does this affect children’s education?

Schools had been working hard to improve outcomes for children of all backgrounds, but Covid-19 came along and turned everything upside down, causing further wealth, education and digital inequalities.

Many families’ circumstances have deteriorated due to the health and economic effects of the pandemic, leaving parents unable to support their child’s education at home. Digital poverty is also a growing issue. You’ve got some children trying to access home learning on their parent’s phone, while others have no device to work with at all.

Children with special educational needs are likely to have suffered from the disruption to formal learning as they may have missed out on the additional support they usually receive.

How can schools take steps to address the learning gap?

I think the key is to identify children who need support and deliver it as early as possible so they are not held back in their future learning.

Reading, for instance, is a life skill. If a child can’t read, they are very limited in what they can achieve in their education, and in life as a whole.

However, reading difficulties can be tricky to spot as there are often hidden issues. Some children struggle with silent reading, others get distracted and some more able children are prone to go too fast and make careless errors.

One of the tools we use to see beneath the surface of reading ability is software which follows a child’s eye movements as they read. The technology records how long the child’s eyes rest on one word, and how quickly the eyes move forwards and backwards across a series of words.

This helps us identify pupils at risk of specific reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, so we can put interventions in place without delay, and monitor their impact.

Why are reading skills so important, and how can these be developed?

If a child doesn’t have the building blocks of literacy, they will find it much harder to access learning in all their other subjects in their primary and secondary education. For children with a specific learning difficulty, the challenge can be even greater.

Listening to a child read aloud can help to develop fluency, but that only gives you part of the picture. It’s important for children to be able to read in their head, build a strong vocabulary, and decode the meaning of what they see on the page.

If schools can identify and tackle reading issues as early as possible, they not only clear the way for a child’s wider learning, they open the doors to the discovery of stories and the joy of reading.

Can schools balance the need to manage pupils’ wellbeing while assessing their literacy skills?

Mental health is a priority for schools as children have been through so much over the past year. Many children have seen their families go through tough times, they have missed seeing friends, playing sport and taking part in activities. Children may have fallen behind socially as well as educationally.

However, schools need to set a baseline so they can see where their pupils are in their reading and measure their progress.

In my view, the best way to do this is to take a low-stress approach to testing. For some children, a digital quiz or an on-screen activity can be more enjoyable than a pen and paper task which feels more like a traditional test.

For children with additional needs, making tests a fun and positive experience is particularly important as this builds confidence as well as aptitude. Some of the screening technology we use is so popular, our pupils ask us if they can take the test again.

A significant advantage of technology-based testing is that it can be much quicker for teachers to access and analyse digital results than it is to read through a pile of paper-based tests. Saving those precious evenings and weekends is good for teachers’ wellbeing too.

Andrea’s top tips for schools

  • Build any new tools which support pupils’ reading progress into your CPD programme so all teachers are fully on board.
  • Never underestimate the fun element when it comes to reading, both in the content the children read and the tools they use to access it.
  • Invite pupils to share their opinions on the material they are reading. If they don’t enjoy a poem or story, ask why and use this as a basis for discussion.
  • Ensure that any technology you use to improve literacy skills or assess reading is quick and easy for teachers to use so it doesn’t add to their workload.

Read the Pheasey Park Primary Case Study

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