A silent army of “lost girls” who struggle to read are overlooked because they have become adept at masking their problems, a new report on literacy reveals today.
A study of more than 60,000 children in England and Wales has found that up to 11 per cent of 10-year-old girls and 12 per cent of 12-year-old girls have significant literacy problems – with scores on literacy tests suggesting that they may be up to four years behind.
And it suggests that an “over-reliance on phonics” is obscuring deeper problems with reading in primary schools – where children can read words but may not understand them.
The study Lost Girls: The overlooked children struggling to understand the written word by GL Assessment, a testing and assessment company, suggests that nationally 40,000 girls in each year group have severe reading difficulties. But, it adds, the focus on tackling boys’ underachievement may have obscured the problems of this “significant minority” of girls.
“It’s understandable why boys have commanded most attention from teaching professionals when it comes to tackling poor literacy,” said Greg Watson, chief executive of GL Assessment. “Boys are, on average, weaker readers than girls. But that shouldn’t blind us to the significant numbers of girls in this country who also struggle. Just because they are good at hiding their problems with reading doesn’t mean we should play along.”
The report looked at the analysis of two types of questions from the company’s New Group Reading Test: completing a sentence by choosing a missing word and comprehending a passage of writing. If a child does well in sentence completion, but poorly in comprehension it could indicate that they have mastered phonics but do not fully understand the meaning of what they are reading.
It found that 16 per cent of ten-year-old girls scored poorly in sentence completion and 19 per cent did poorly in passage comprehension – with 11 per cent scoring below average in both, which GL Assessment calculates means they are 40 months behind in their reading age.
By secondary school, the scores for 12-year-old girls had deteriorated. One in five (20 per cent) of students did poorly in sentence completion and 20 per cent also did poorly in passage comprehension, with 12 per cent doing badly in both, which according to GL Assessment, suggests their reading age is 53 months below the average.
Sue Thompson, senior publisher with GL Assessment, said that the phonics check had shown that more children were now learning how to read words, but that their study's data was indicating that some children were below the level of understanding expected by the age of 10.
She said she hoped the report would raise the question of the place of phonics "and maybe start a discussion around it". "Phonics is essential but the other thing that is essential is developing children's oral language," she said. "There is clearly a slight imbalance at age 10 from our data. It looks as if phonics is sorted but we now need to see what more teachers can do to support children to become good readers."
Andrew McCallum, director of the English and Media Centre, an independent educational charity, agreed more focus must be given to comprehension skills. “We must develop much more of a culture of discussing whole texts and focusing on what stories mean rather than their constituent parts,” he said.
Sats results this year, found that 70 per cent of girls reached the expected standard in reading at the end of primary compared to 62 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls reached a high score in reading, compared to 16 per cent of girls.
Lorraine Petersen, an independent education consultant who specialises in special educational needs, said: “Boys, in general, display behaviours that come to your notice if you’re a teacher – whereas girls maybe don’t. So there may be girls sitting in the classroom not getting the attention they should be getting.
"In their written work, girls could have worked out strategies to cope. So they choose simple sentences because they don’t have the vocabulary, they might try to copy other people. They may ask friends and get support without the teacher being aware they are struggling.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want every child to leave school with a firm grasp of literacy and numeracy. It’s why we have introduced a new national curriculum and raised the bar on what we expect children to be taught by the end of primary school. Latest results show children and teachers are rising to that challenge with 66 per cent reaching the expected standard in reading and 74 per cent achieving the same in writing.
“We want to continue working with the sector to build on that success and encourage every child to read widely. Our increased focus on phonics has meant there are now an additional 147,000 six-year-olds on track to becoming fluent readers and we are working with the Reading Agency to encourage school children to join their local library. We have also provided funding to extend the Chatterbooks scheme which has led to 200 new book clubs being opened in primary schools since September 2015.”