GCSE students’ reading age lags five years behind exam material


New data has revealed a significant gap between the average reading age of students and the chronological reading age required to understand GCSE exam papers and course materials.

The research, by Renaissance Learning, involved over 24,500 Year 10 and 11 pupils across the UK, and found their actual reading ages were on average at least five years below their chronological ages, and therefore not at a sufficient level to effectively comprehend the GCSE exam materials.

Six randomly selected GCSE exam papers and materials were assessed using the ATOS readability formula, which uses average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage to ascertain the reading level of texts and books, to determine the average reading age required to comprehend the texts.

Meanwhile the reading ages of 24,795 children in GCSE Years 10 and 11 were assessed. While the average reading age of the exam materials was found to be 15 years and seven months – the correct age for GCSE aged pupils, the students’ actual reading age was found to be lagging significantly behind at an average of just 10 years and seven months, indicating a five year disparity between the average reading age of GCSE students and the reading level of GCSE texts.

Dirk Foch, MD of Renaissance Learning said:“These results are alarming because by GCSE level, most educators make the basic assumption that students are able to read and comprehend an exam text. It’s clear from this research that this is not a safe assumption to make. Most students have a reading age significantly below the level that GCSE texts are being aimed at meaning some students are not only failing to access the curriculum, but they are failing to comprehend key course and exam texts.

“No matter how much enthusiasm or aptitude they might have in chemistry for example, how can a child with a reading age of just above 10 be expected to comprehend a chemistry exam with a reading age of 15 and do well in it? Exam success depends on a child’s ability to read at the right chronological level and reading therefore should be the fundamental backbone of all learning.”

Jonathan Douglas, Director of charity the National Literacy Trust, said: “Pupils studying for GCSEs need to be strong enough readers to understand their course textbooks and comprehend exam questions. By failing to ensure all young people have the literacy skills they need to access their education, we could be depriving them of the opportunity to succeed both academically and in life. Children’s reading must be supported throughout their time at school to help them succeed across curriculum.”

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