Scotland gets to the point on literacy progress

There are reasons to celebrate the findings of the recent national survey on literacy and numeracy, but the impact of social background on attainment and the disparities between boys' and girls' attitudes remain a cause for concern

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It would perhaps be ungracious to describe the publication of the first results of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy last month as anything other than good news on a number of fronts.

The study shows that more than 90 per cent of students at all stages are working within or above the expected levels for reading and writing. In addition, for listening and talking, more than 80 per cent of all students are working within the expected levels, or exceed them.

The survey - which is the first of its kind - shows that teachers' levels of confidence about delivering literacy experiences and outcomes is also high, especially among primary teachers and secondary English teachers.

The government and the teaching unions have jumped on these conclusions, suggesting that they are evidence that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is starting to take effect as schools make progress with its implementation.

"Schools across Scotland are doing a good job and we know from recent inspection reports that they continue to improve," said minister for learning Alasdair Allan.

"Generally speaking, the survey results offer a welcome reassurance that students continue to perform well in Scottish schools and that key aspects of CfE are taking root," EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said.

Inevitably, though, there are a few "buts" in this slew of good news. The government survey, which assessed more than 10,000 students in reading, writing, and listening and talking, as well as almost 5,000 teachers, also highlights the barriers in supporting students who do not currently perform at the appropriate level.

Most dramatic is the impact of social background on children's attainment. The proportion of students living in the most deprived areas who perform well or very well at or beyond their expected level in writing is a staggering 21 points lower than those from the least deprived areas. In reading, the difference is 17 percentage points.

Although much smaller, there is also a notable difference between the performance of boys and girls, especially in writing, and more so once they reach secondary school.

"The biggest difference was at S2, where 80 per cent of scripts demonstrated that girls were performing well at, very well at or beyond the level, compared with 58 per cent for boys," the survey shows.

Age is also a factor. The survey concludes that engagement with learning "appears to reduce by stage". While only 4 per cent of children in P4 "agreed a lot" or "agreed a little" that learning is boring, by the time they reach P7 that number shoots up to more than a fifth. And in S2, more than a third of students agree "a little" or "a lot".

International research shows that getting children to read for pleasure is key when trying to improve literacy standards, said Sue Ellis, literacy expert at the University of Strathclyde.

Furthermore, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow states: "Students who spend more time reading for pleasure, read more varieties of materials and show more positive attitudes towards reading tend to be better readers, regardless of their family background and the wealth level of the country that they are from."

But, again, age, gender and most of all social background seem to affect how likely children are to read for fun. The literacy and numeracy survey shows that with age, the proportion of students who say they enjoy reading drops from 92 per cent in P4 to 62 per cent in S2.

Girls also read for pleasure more often than boys, according to the OECD. "For example, 58 per cent of males but only 33 per cent of females report that they read only to get the information they need," it says.

Young people from more deprived backgrounds, who may not have access to books in the same way as other children and may also lack the family support to help them engage with literacy, are also less likely to read for pleasure.

Chris Leslie, learning resource developer at the Scottish Book Trust, said the trust had found that in areas of deprivation there was often a lack of confidence among parents about reading to their children and helping them to go and find books.

Some schools have taken creative approaches to tackle children's disengagement from books. Adam Beaton, principal teacher for English and literacy at Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire, said his school had had to try to find new ways to improve reading when large numbers of S1 students came to the school with literacy levels equivalent to P3 or 4.

As part of the Reading to Learn scheme - an approach developed by the University of Strathclyde - students engage in active reading, highlighting and writing notes into texts as they read them. They also read and write every day, and every period of English begins with 10 minutes of reading.

Help has been brought in to support students who are struggling, including S6 students and additional English teachers. The school also plans to start involving parents. "The children's reading has just shot through the roof," Mr Beaton said.

Schools are also trying to rekindle children's love of books by involving outside partners, including visiting authors and organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust. It is this partnership approach, combined with early intervention and government support, that yields the biggest chance for success, some experts believe. But how successful these approaches will be will remain unclear until the next survey on literacy is completed.

"The extra work being put into these early stages is vital and looks like reaping benefits," said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.

"However, we have the issue of improving the current generation also. The continued emphasis on the part of government and schools on enhancing existing literacy skills is to be commended, but it is not an overnight fix."

Graham Donaldson, Comment, page 35.


  • 80% - Proportion of students in P4 and S2 who performed well or very well in reading at first or third level, respectively.
  • 21% - The difference in writing performance between the most and least deprived students.
  • 70% - The proportion of girls in S2 performing well at, very well at or beyond their expected level in writing.
  • 58% - The proportion of boys in S2 performing well at, very well at or beyond their expected level in writing.
  • 92% - The proportion of students in P4 who "agree a lot" or "agree a little" that they enjoy reading.
  • 62% - The proportion of students who say the same in S2.
    • Source: Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy


Booktrailers are an innovative way of combining modern technology and literature to engage students with books and reading.

They were piloted in Scotland last year as part of the ReadIT project, set up between the Scottish Book Trust and partner organisations from Denmark, Italy, Romania and Turkey.

Teachers across these countries took part in an online course, which took 30 hours and taught them how to create and teach the methodology of booktrailers, which involves creating one-and-a-half to two minutes of images, music or film similar to a movie trailer.

Nine teachers took part in the course in Scotland and went on to create trailers with their students in class. While some allowed children to choose their own books to create trailers, others chose a book for the whole class.

"We found that the project was successful in helping to engage students with reading and develop their ability to think critically about a text," said Chris Leslie of the Scottish Book Trust.

"In some of the classes, students resisted the idea of a class reader and wanted to produce a trailer on a book of their choice, even if they were not previously keen readers. The attraction of producing something different from everyone else was quite strong, particularly since the trailers were to be shown to everyone in class at the end of the project."

He said that students had had to develop a confident grasp of the book in order to be able to decide on how to convey characters, themes and atmosphere in the trailer.

"Allowing students to express their critical response in a new and technology-based medium seemed to be a very effective way of integrating reading with the technology-driven world students are familiar with," Mr Leslie said. "The methodology allowed teachers to hand a lot of responsibility for learning over to the students.

"Some teachers asked students to work collaboratively on the trailers, and when we visited these classrooms we found that all students involved had clearly engaged in a lot of dialogue about the book together."

Booktrailer materials are available at www.scottishbooktrust.combooktrailer-masterclass.

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Scotland gets to the point on children's progress in literacy

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