Boys reading skills still of concern

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9% of 11-year-old boys start secondary school with the reading skills of an average seven-year-old, according to data obtained by the BBC's Today programme, and find it difficult to ever catch up. This is because secondary school teachers are not used to teaching children who cannot read properly, as the syllabus is based on textbooks.

At 11-year-old, pupils should be at level four in reading. At level two, they only have an understanding of simple texts, whereas at level four they can understand the major themes of a variety of texts.

New Department for Education data shows that nearly 19,000 boys are starting secondary school with a reading age barely above that of a seven-year-old.

The Department of Education figures are based on teachers’ observations of hundreds of thousands of five-year-olds. Based on the so-called ‘nappy curriculum’ they assess physical, intellectual, emotional and social development skills.

Some 53.1 per cent of boys fell below the standard compared with 34.9 per cent of girls. And 15.1 per cent of boys cannot write their name, compared with 6.9 per cent of girls.

Poorer pupils, particularly poor boys, fare worse. A quarter could not write their name.

In 1995, the proportion of 11-year-olds getting Level 2 or below in English was 7%. In 2010, the standard expected of a seven-year-old had fallen to only 5%.

In some local authority areas that proportion was far higher: 15% in Nottingham, 14% in Barking and Dagenham, Telford and the Wrekin, Rotherham, Manchester and Derby.

Dylan William, professor of education at the Institute of Education, believes it has never been more important to be able to read to an acceptable level. He said: "Twenty years ago, you got a lot of information from television. Now it's the internet - you have to be more literate.

"If you ask the teachers of those boys who are struggling at 11, they probably were identified as having problems at seven. The problem is finding the resources to deal with it."

Reading recovery methods, designed to help children catch up through intensive tuition, are expensive, and the one-to-one tuition pledge for struggling students made by the previous government has been scrapped.

Mike Welsh, national president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We know that part of underachievement is due to children with very significant special educational needs where progress can be much slower.

"Many primary head teachers, particularly those serving disadvantaged communities under social-economic challenge, regard the raising of boys' attainment, particularly in writing and reading, as one of their highest priorities.

"Schools reflect society. What we want is school and home to work together, where children are actually listened to at home, in terms of reading, and obviously parents read to them."

The government is introducing a national reading test for all six-year-olds in England to identify those with problems.

Education Secretary Michael Gove  said: "I believe we need to make a series of changes so that children can learn to read so they can go on to read to learn.

"We want to ensure that there are additional resources for the very poorest children as well as making sure that those people who are going to be primary school teachers are trained to use the single most effective method that we know works in tackling reading failure – systematic synthetic phonics.

"We’re also going to ensure that Ofsted inspect properly to make sure that everyone knows the reading schemes that are used in schools. We’re going to ask schools to publish details of the reading schemes that they use so we can identify the best, and also identify those that are backmarkers, and we also want to ensure that there’s a basic check on children’s ability to read at the age of six.

"This will be an MOT to ensure that children are reading properly. That they are decoding the English language, understanding the individual letters, how they go together and how a word is made up. And we also want to identify those children who are not decoding fluently to ensure that there is additional support for them."

He added: "I don’t want to be in the business of sacking anyone, but I do want to be in the business of saying to all schools, to local authorities, I’m sorry, it is unacceptable if children leave school after seven years unable to read, when you have had ample resources and the full support of the Department for Education in tackling illiteracy."

The percentages of pupils achieving Level 4 or above in the 2010 Key Stage 2 tests by subject are:

  • English 80 per cent
  • Reading 83 per cent
  • Writing 71 per cent
  • Mathematics 79 per cent

The percentages of pupils achieving Level 5 or above in the 2010 Key Stage 2 tests by subject are:

  • English 33 per cent
  • Reading 50 per cent
  • Writing 21 per cent
  • Mathematics 34 per cent
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