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Why literacy skills can help mitigate the impact of the pandemic!

There’s an urgent need to support children in literacy so their life chances are not affected by Covid-19, says Andrea Welter, assistant head teacher from Pheasey Park Primary School and Early Years Centre.

The pandemic is creating new inequalities among the youngest in our society. A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) suggests the gap between disadvantaged children and those from more affluent households has increased by 46%.

With schools having to close to most pupils once again this spring, the task of plugging these gaps will be all the more challenging.

Inequality of opportunity

The extent of the damage is widespread because not only has Covid disrupted face-to-face teaching and learning, it has also deepened the economic divide.

Many families’ circumstances have become more difficult and parents may be less able to support their child’s learning while dealing with financial pressures or health worries.

There is a growing digital divide too. While government, schools and charitable organisations are finding ways to put laptops in the hands of learners, some children still don’t have the devices or connectivity they need to access online learning and build their digital skills along with their English and maths.

Redressing the balance

We cannot turn back the clock and make up for all the face-to-face teaching a child has missed, but what we can do is give that child the building blocks to support their future learning.

One of these is reading which is a skill for learning and for life. If a child doesn’t have a strong foundation in literacy they will find it harder to access other subjects, which could hold them back right through their schooling.

As well as being able to read aloud, children need to be able to read in their head, develop a wide vocabulary and decode the meaning of what they see on the page. When a child can do this, they open doors to a whole world of learning.

Hidden reading difficulties

The challenge for schools is that issues with reading can be difficult to spot. It’s sometimes hard to tell if a child has problems with silent reading, or lets their minds wander away from the page.

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

This tool helps us see which children are at risk of specific reading difficulties such as dyslexia so we can get the right support in place quickly.

Assessment without pressure

In a year when children have been through so much, schools are very mindful of pupil wellbeing, and the need to help children ease back into the school routine. However, it is still important to set a baseline to see where pupils are in their learning.

The best way to assess children without raising anxiety levels is to take a low-stress approach, such as an on-screen activity or digital quiz. These can be more accessible and enjoyable than a traditional pen and paper task.

Making tests a positive experience can go a long way towards building confidence as well as aptitude. Some of the screening technology we use is so much fun, pupils want to take the test all over again.

Another advantage of technology-based assessment is that teachers generally find it quicker to access digital results than to work through heaps of paper tests. Reducing workload and saving time is good for teachers’ wellbeing too.

The impact of the pandemic on children’s education has been far-reaching, but by tackling the literacy gap, schools can accelerate pupils’ recovery in all areas of their learning.

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