Children who are weak readers will struggle as much in maths and science at GCSE as they do in English and in arts subjects, according to one of the biggest ever studies of student reading.
The findings show that while there is a significant connection between reading ability and success in all GCSE subjects, the link between good reading and good grades is actually higher in maths than in some arts subjects like English literature and history.
The study also found that a quarter of all 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 or below, and that the reading ability gap between boys and girls widens significantly after primary school.
The research*, by GL Assessment, analysed reading abilities and GCSE results of more than 370,000 secondary school students during 2018/19. As well as the surprising link between maths and reading it also discovered that doing well in creative subjects such as art, drama, music, media and PE has very strong correlations to a student’s reading ability, underscoring how ‘text heavy’ and challenging these subjects are too.
New and, in the words of the DfE, ‘more demanding’ GCSE exams were first introduced in 2017. Exams now tend to include wordier questions which, according to the report authors, will prove problematic for a significant minority of students with a low reading age.
According to the ‘Read All About It’ report, 20% of all 15-year-olds have a reading age of 11 and below, and 10% a reading age of 9 and below. The report authors conclude that “given the importance of literacy to the whole school curriculum, it follows that those students who struggle with reading are at a significant disadvantage in every one of the GCSE examinations they take”.
In Maths GCSE word problems can be especially challenging as a student often needs to read and comprehend a passage of text, identify the question that is being asked, and then solve a numerical challenge. (Note: See example Maths GCSE question at the end of the press release where the words ‘remaining’, ‘justify’, ‘profit’, and ‘loss’ may be either inaccessible or require subject specific language skills.)
Alex Quigley, the National Content Manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, says: "Reading is the master skill of secondary school. Skilled reading, writing and talking is crucial for our students to succeed. Yet, too many secondary school teachers and leaders prove undertrained and simply too busy to support their students to best access the demands of the academic curriculum.”
“Literacy is too often seen as a bolt-on extra for teachers of science, geography and PE. Yet, when you dig into the research evidence, it is revealed that being literate is the most essential factor for disadvantaged students studying science. Reading, writing, vocabulary and talking all mediate the school curriculum. Every teacher therefore needs to know how academic reading mediates the sophisticated language of each subject in secondary school - and what they can do about it.”
Crispin Chatterton, Director of Education at GL Assessment, says: “Our analysis makes clear how important it is for children to be good readers. Students who have poor reading skills will find it more difficult to access wide swathes of their GCSE courses - and those who lack subject specific language skills, which are difficult to acquire if students don’t have good reading skills, will be doubly disadvantaged.”
Bernadette Kaye, an English teacher and Assistant Head, for South Shore Academy in Blackpool adds: “There is definitely a perception among teachers that the new GCSEs have made literacy challenges greater for schools. All staff need to know why literacy is so crucial and what it means for the teaching of their subject. Improved literacy needs to be a whole school endeavour and not the sole responsibility of any one department.”
GL Assessment also looked at the differences in reading ability by both gender and social background as part of its study. The findings showed that:
- At age 15, 53% of girls have a reading age of 15 and higher compared to only 47% of boys. This is a shift from the situation at age 11, where the gender gap is much smaller – 21% of girls and 19% of boys have that ability. The later gender gap is reflected in exam results too. Last summer 22.6% of girls got a grade 7 or above in English language, compared to just 12.4% of boys.
- There is a pronounced gap in reading ability at age 15 between Free School Meals (FSM) and non-FSM pupils (55% vs 44%). The gap is relatively similar over the course of secondary school – it is 10 percentage points at age 11 (21% vs 11%) – but the overall figures mask a big gender divide.
- FSM boys fall even further behind their non-FSM male cohort, with the gap growing from 10 percentage points at Year 7 (10% vs 20%) to 13 at Year 11 (40% vs 53%). This performance is even wider when compared to FSM girls – a 2-percentage point gap in Year 7 (12% girls vs 10% boys) widens to an 8-percentage point gap at Year 11 (48% girls vs 40% boys).
The National Literacy Trust estimates that 5.1 million adults in England are functionally illiterate, meaning that they have a reading age of 11 or below.
To download a full copy of ‘Read All About It: Why reading is key to GCSE success’, please visit www.gl-assessment.co.uk/whyreading
Case Study - South Shore Academy, Blackpool
National averages mask a large degree of regional and school variation. Those in deprived areas will typically see far lower reading scores. Blackpool is a case in point. Of the eight schools taking part in the Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project, seven have reading and comprehension scores below the national average.
But just as national data can obscure regional variation, a town’s averages can mask considerable differences at the individual school level. South Shore Academy is a smaller than average 11-16 high school serving some of the most deprived communities in Blackpool. It’s in one of the top 10 most deprived wards in England, with over 50% of students living in the most deprived area nationally and with over 70% of its students receiving free school meals. So it enthusiastically signed up to the Blackpool KS3 Literacy Project when it launched 18 months ago.
But before the project could get underway, teachers wanted to know how they could best identify the children who were struggling and what specific issues they were struggling with. This is where GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Test came in. It was used to ascertain the baseline scores for 400 11 to 14-year-olds and to help teachers understand what the data meant.
The NGRT results, which showed standard age scores for every child and how they compared to their peers nationally, painted an alarming picture. “The data uncovered the fact that a lot of our students have speech and language issues and that 24% are in the lowest reading performance band, compared to 4% nationally,” explains Bernadette Kaye, the literacy lead for South Shore.
The school also used the results to highlight the link between literacy and academic performance in every subject. In common with secondary colleagues elsewhere, many teachers at South Shore weren’t fully aware just how vital a role literacy played across the curriculum. “We hammered the data to understand the correlation between NRGT and GCSE results and used case studies in maths and science, for example, to demonstrate the link between literacy and subject performance,” Ms Kaye says. “And for many colleagues it was a light bulb moment.”
Students now spend 20 minutes each day in daily form reading, with the weakest readers getting tailored phonics support, too. The school has also gone from having virtually no textbooks in the classroom – and relying on dumbed-down, non-contextual handouts – to ensuring that each child has a high-quality textbook in every subject.
“Students are no longer spoon-fed chunks of de-contextualised information”, Ms Kaye says, “but are trained how to skim, scan and access material in textbooks”.
The results have been impressive. Of all the Blackpool schools involved in the KS3 Literacy Project, South Shore has witnessed some of the biggest improvements in reading in Years 7 and 9 with students improving by the equivalent of almost half a GCSE grade in a single year.
*About the research
GL Assessment looked at the correlation between reading ability (as measured by the New Group Reading Test NGRT) and GCSE results across subjects. The New Group Reading Test is a standardised, termly assessment that measures reading skills against the national average.
To assess the degree of association between NGRT and grades in GCSE we use a measure called the correlation coefficient. The correlation coefficient will vary between 0 (no association) and 1 (perfect agreement). Correlations above 0.7 are considered to be strong; correlations around 0.5 and 0.6 are moderate and statistically significant. High correlations in arts subjects are not surprising. But the correlations in maths and the sciences also underscore just how ‘text heavy’ most academic subjects are and why literacy is so crucial. Even the more expressive subjects – art, drama, music – have strong correlations to reading ability.
About GL Assessment
GL Assessment is the largest provider of formative assessments to UK schools. It specialises in assessments that help to reveal students’ potential, track their progress, and identify any barriers to learning they might have. www.gl-assessment.co.uk