What do schools need to level up literacy post-Covid?

7 Mar 2022, 5:00

We all understand how important it is that we support and encourage our children to read for pleasure. The research shows us that doing so at age 11 has a bigger impact on future life chances than almost anything else, including parental levels of education. That makes supporting children to choose to read a social justice issue, and therefore ought to be central to every primary school classroom.

Over the past two years the nation has borne witness to the extraordinary lengths teachers have gone to ensure the children in their classrooms receive the best learning experience possible in spite of Covid disruptions. No wonder then, that when we asked teachers in January 2021, we came across story after story of primary schools that had been endlessly and relentlessly inventive in the ways in which they supported children to have access to books.

Schools developed a range of different systems, including complicated and ingenious quarantine systems so they could distribute their books to as many children as possible and make the most of their limited book stock. They found many different ways to read aloud and to share books across web-based platforms, and our findings show that teachers were working to ensure that reading, hearing and talking about books was absolutely key to learning provision. As one teacher told us: “I believe that reading has really helped maintain their mental health as well as its usual benefits to learning.”

But we also learned last year that teachers were worried about the access their children had to texts and to books. So this year’s survey has sought to ascertain the situation following the return to full-time face-to-face education.

Nearly two-thirds of teachers have no budget for new books

Books are the foundation of any reading curriculum, and to encourage reading for pleasure schools need to be able to provide children with a wide and diverse range of books. Encouragingly, 73 per cent of teachers told us they had more or about the same number of books in school as they had before the pandemic. This suggests the majority of schools have maintained their book stock. On the other hand, it also means that more than one in four have fewer books than they did before the pandemic.

The vast majority of primary school teachers (94.5 per cent) have a book corner in their classrooms. However, in 57 per cent of these schools the book corners contained fewer than a hundred books. This is a low figure if you are trying to create an environment where children have access to a range of texts and text types and genuine opportunities to develop their own tastes and interests in literature.  

This situation is further exacerbated by our findings about how often teachers were able to change the books in their classrooms. Nearly half the teachers (48 per cent) told us they couldn’t change the books in their classroom during the academic year.

We also asked teachers where new books in their classrooms came from. Only 37 per cent of teachers have a budget from their school for new books. This means that nearly two-thirds of teachers have no access to a budget for new books.

To encourage reading for pleasure, classrooms need books that encourage engagement, whoever pupils are and whatever their starting point. Children need access to texts that reflect the lives they are living, take them to new worlds and introduce them to new people – real and imagined. To build their reading repertoire and support them to develop stamina and to understand text construction, they need to have variety and the opportunity to develop and talk about new and different styles of books, authors and illustrators.

A stagnant and never-changing book stock is unlikely to support them to develop a habit of reading for pleasure. This is especially true for children with less (or no) access to books at home – and they are precisely those whose literacy will have suffered most from the lockdowns.

If we are serious about ‘levelling up’ and closing learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, then access to a range of appropriate and up-to-date books has to be a national funding priority.

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