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Nineties see drop in literacy at nine

Diane Hofkins examines a new study of reading ability. Children today make slower progress in reading between the ages of eight and nine than they did a decade ago, according to a study by Britain's leading research body.

The report, Reading Performance at Nine, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), also finds that nine-year-olds in England and Wales fall close to the overall average in an international table of reading achievement in 27 other countries.

However, of the English-speaking countries involved, only Trinidad and Tobago scored worse. The United States, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland all did better.

The report also shows the long "tail" of British children who score well below the average, which has been documented in other international studies, such as David Reynolds's recent Worlds Apart? report on maths for the Office for Standards in Education.

This tail brings the England and Wales average down in comparison with other countries. Reading Performance at Nine shows that, among the pupils in this tail, there were significantly more boys than girls and many more pupils receiving free school meals.

The study, by Greg Brooks and Ian Schagen of the NFER and Tony Pugh of the Open University, which is published today, highlights concerns about children's progress in reading at key stage 2.

The British education system "pays too little attention to low performers, and could and should pay them more", it concludes. The stability of the long tail over time and across areas of the curriculum suggests that this neglect is "a stubborn underlying tendency".

It also states that "remedies cannot be dispassionately agreed upon and implemented if the search for causes is equated with apportioning blame".

Children from low-literacy families should be identified before they start school, it says, and given a boost to prevent reading failure. In school, children at risk of reading failure should be identified by six, and given effective help.

The authors say that, in interpreting the long tail, "both the absence of pupils repeating a year and the higher proportion of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools in England and Wales needs to be borne in mind". But they do not fully account for the problem. "At least part of the long tail in the results for England and Wales therefore truly reflected lower attainment," says the report.

Britain did not participate in the international study in 1991 when it was carried out. Tests given to nine-year-olds this year have been used to add England and Wales to the table. They fall into a wide band of 13 countries in the middle of the table whose scores are very similar.

The same children were also given another test, the Reading Ability Series, in 1995, when they were eight, and again this year. When this test was given to two groups of children in 1987, their age-standardised scores were virtually the same at eight and nine.

But the age-related scores of today's nine-year-olds fell by 2.4 points, which is "statistically significant".

As possible factors in the decline, the authors point to the wide demands of the national curriculum at KS2, possibly leaving less time for reading, and inspection evidence suggesting a loss of pace and challenge in years 3 and 4.

Reading expert John Bald said reports from Her Majesty's Inspectorate since 1990 showed that teachers were having increasing difficulty coping with the full range of ability as children went through junior school.

He said there was now less withdrawal of children with reading problems for specific reading teaching, and more in-class support. This could mean that these children were being helped to participate in class rather than being taught to read, he said.

Sheila Dainton of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said many teachers were asking whether or not the national curriculum was helping to raise standards.

She believed the introduction of optional tests for nine-year-olds being developed by government advisers, "is really going to help".

Reading Performance at Nine suggests a number of ways to improve the focus on low achievers, including: * a focused debate on whether the curriculum at the beginning of KS2 is still too crowded; * fundamental research on what works in raising literacy standards; * dissemination of effective strategies for keeping up the momentum in literacy; * enabling initiatives from national and local government, consistently supported over time.

Reading Performance at Nine by Greg Brooks, A K Pugh and Ian Schagen, costs Pounds 6.50 and is available from Dissemination Unit, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berks SL1 2DQ

Reading around the world.

The reading scores of nine-year-olds in the asterisked countries did not differ significantly. To compare results, researchers judged all figures against a mean of 500.

Corrected for age,they were: Finland 570 United States 543 Sweden 539 Italy 528 France 526 New Zealand 524 Norway 524 Singapore 522 Iceland 518 Ireland* 516 Canada* 514 Hong Kong* 514 Switzerland* 512 Greece* 511 West Germany* 508 England Wales* 507 Belgium* 506 Hungary* 506 East Germany* 504 Spain* 500 Slovenia* 499 Netherlands* 494 Cyprus* 481 Denmark 475 Portugal 468 TrinidadTobago 454 Indonesia 378 Venezuela 368.

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