Opinion

How do we stop children's literacy falling behind after Covid?

After a year of disrupted education help is at hand, says Jonathan Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust

How do we make sure children's literacy doesn't slip during Covid? Image credit: Image credit: Victoria Borodinova / Pixabay

How do we make sure children's literacy doesn't slip during Covid? Image credit: Image credit: Victoria Borodinova / Pixabay

There is an urgent literacy challenge in the UK that existed long before Covid-19. We know that disadvantaged children have lower levels of literacy than their well-off peers. The effects show from a very early age: by five, they can already be up to 19 months behind in their language development.

International research shows that children who enjoy reading and who read often go on to have better opportunities in life. It may surprise some but reading for enjoyment is a stronger predictor of social mobility than someone’s socio-economic background or parents’ levels of education. This is at the heart of World Book Day: inspiring children and young people to see that reading can be fun.

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It’s so important to act early.

Even at five years old, there is an established pattern that children who struggle with language are more than twice as likely to be unemployed at 34

It has been estimated that school closures as a result of Covid-19 will reverse all progress made in the last decade to close the poverty attainment gap. The pandemic exacerbated all existing literacy concerns. There will be a time when we can step back and truly take stock of the devastating impact of Covid and lockdown on children’s literacy, learning and livelihoods, but right now our focus is on supporting as many people as possible.

What needs to be done to ensure kids get back on an even playing field?

The Government is leading a national catch-up movement within schools that is focusing on hard skills. I believe it’s important to also consider softer issues around wellbeing, engagement and motivation, and put considerable effort behind the recovery of children and young people’s social networks.

Children have been seriously impacted by lockdown and there should be a focus on the emotional fallout of the pandemic. As a charity, it’s something we are very passionate about, and we have resources and advice available that look at literacy alongside wellbeing.

Literacy starts in the home and children’s reading stamina will have been undermined by the pandemic.

If you are a parent or carer, it’s important to read regularly with your child and encourage them to read regularly too. You can visit our websites for inspiration, advice and activities: Words for Life provides children aged up to 13 with support to improve their language, literacy and communication skills from home. Zone In has a range of resources for young people aged 13 to 24 to help them feel more confident reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Speech and language skills have suffered as a result of so many people quarantining at home. It’s so important to talk to your child, no matter how young, and make sure that conversation keeps going throughout their childhood. It’s key to developing their literacy ability.

What tips do you have for anyone who thinks their child could be falling behind?

1) Help your child to find something that interests and excites them, whether that’s football, sharks or pirates, and find a book that matches that passion. The same book doesn’t work for every child – and it just takes one book to spark a lifelong love of reading.

2) Keep a regular schedule. Whether it’s keeping up activities during holidays with a teenager or making sure you spend 10 minutes a day speaking to your baby, keeping literacy-related activities to a regular structure is good.

3) You may not have enjoyed it, but in lockdown, you were your child’s greatest influence on learning. Build on that unique experience (as much as you can bear to!) and maintain stories, partnership and support for learning.

The National Literacy Trust is a voluntary organisation that relies on donations, partnerships and volunteers. Visit literacytrust.org.uk to find out how you can help their mission to raise literacy levels across the UK.

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