Comprehending literacy pitfalls

7th October 2011 at 01:00
What is the key to improving children's reading skills A new European study believes it has the answers

Leselotta Karotta is a doll who gets a lot of mail. The woolly-haired redhead lives between two books on the shelves of a library in the Belgian town of Kelmis. From there she writes to children across the town in their first year of school, asking if they will be her penfriend.

It's a bit of fun for children. They have a real, albeit stuffed, penpal who gives them motivation to learn and a purpose for doing so. But Leselotta is going to have to do a little more if she wants to make a real impact on eradicating illiteracy across the European Union.

An average 19.6 per cent of 15-year-olds in Europe fail to read at the level at which they can "understand, use and reflect on written texts", according to the last Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests. The figure is a bit lower in the UK, but not much: 18.6 per cent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Like many countries in Europe, results will have to improve here if we are to meet a new target of reducing the proportion to 15 per cent by 2020. However, there are six places where the target has been hit already: Denmark, Estonia, Poland, Finland, Norway and the Flemish-speaking community of Belgium. If this level were achieved in England, it would mean around an extra 22,800 students leaving school as fluent readers.

So, is the answer for British schools to rush out and copy Belgium, perhaps by getting their own Leselotta Karotta doll? Possibly. But they might find it useful to see what countries across Europe have found to work in improving literacy. Handily, the European Commission's education information network Eurydice has recently published a report exploring this subject. Teaching Reading in Europe highlights the key areas teachers, teacher-trainers and politicians need to focus on to make this next step.

Of course, some might be sceptical about how helpful other countries' schemes will be for teaching English: "It's all right for them - their language isn't as difficult." There is some truth to that: English takes about twice as long to learn as a more regular language such as Finnish, Italian or Spanish. But it is not the only irregular language in Europe. Danish, Portuguese and French also have a high level of mismatch between how words are written and how they are said.

The Eurydice report also explores what works in the UK and picks out successes to show to other countries. England comes out of the study well, though some of the key plaudits are for projects such as Every Child a Reader and Bookstart, which are now being hit by funding cuts.

Many of the report's key findings (see panel, page 7) are not exactly rocket science, but they show that basic approaches need to be in place for reading to improve. They also show that work needs to be done on four levels: at the teaching stage; in specialist support; in teacher training; and in the world outside schools.

If countries including the UK fail to heed the report's messages, they risk repeating what has happened in the past 10 years. "Throughout the last decade, the importance of reading literacy has been repeatedly acknowledged and it has featured strongly in European co-operation in the field of education," says Androulla Vassiliou, education commissioner, in the report's foreword. But she adds that "reading literacy did not in fact show significant improvement".

At the classroom level

Teaching phonics - the link between sounds and letters - has been high on the political agenda in England. A test of the skill is due to be introduced for Year 1 pupils next year and a catalogue of phonics products is due out this autumn. These have been approved for match funding by the Government.

The Eurydice report certainly endorses both phonics and phonological awareness (the ability to split oral language into sounds). But the researchers point out that these approaches are now widespread. Where they believe more work is actually needed is reading comprehension.

Take this classic short poem:

"Algy met a bearA bear met AlgyThe bear was bulgyThe bulge was Algy."

Most people who read this will understand Algy's grisly fate, but there is nothing in the text that says Algy has been eaten. It is inferred. This type of skill - which is not about reading, but reading comprehension - is highlighted in the report as a key area of weakness that must be improved not just in primary, but also in lower secondary.

Reading comprehension is part of the national curriculum in England, but Jane Oakhill, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University, says that doesn't necessarily mean it is prioritised. "Reading comprehension and problems with it have been neglected," she says. "It is all very well to have objectives in the national curriculum saying by this age people should be able to do this or that, but there is very little on how to teach it. People assume that once children can read then everything else will fall into place. A lot of teachers don't really appreciate children having comprehension problems."

The first step is to assess children. This can be done by asking them not just to read, but to explain what is going on, to make sure they are understanding the text as a whole. And there are several strategies which can be taught to aid comprehension (see panel, page 6). Pupils can learn to monitor their own comprehension and be taught to summarise ideas and generalise from the text, as well as to use the structure of the story to help recall information. Developing their vocabulary is also important.

But Professor Oakhill stresses: "There is absolutely no evidence that these strategies can or should be taught in isolation from one another. Indeed, they must be interdependent. So, for instance, the 'comprehension monitoring' skills - 'have I understood and what should I do about it if I haven't?' sort of thing - are going to underpin and support the successful implementation of lots of other strategies. You can't make an inference unless you realise that there's a gap in the text that requires an inference."

Comprehension is crucial to get pupils to the next step: reading for fun. The Pisa report of 2009 revealed that between 2000 and 2009 reading for enjoyment fell among 15-year-olds. In England, 17 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls reported never reading a novel or short story outside of school.

Reading for pleasure can also play a role in ending the gender gap, which tends to widen with age as girls increasingly outperform boys. "Reading for pleasure is not enough - an awareness of effective reading comprehension strategies is also essential," the Eurydice report states. "Therefore, when boys enjoy reading, read diverse material and adopt reading comprehension strategies, they can attain a higher level of performance in reading than girls.

"Similarly, disadvantaged students who read a diverse range of texts and employ effective reading strategies tend to perform well in reading."

Reading for fun feeds into the cycle of reading improvement, but the report suggests that teachers have a vital role in helping children get the most out of the stuff they read - whether it is Great Expectations, the Mr Gum books, or a surprise letter from a red-headed doll.

Specialist support

Some national initiatives can help schools improve reading. The report notes that postponing the age at which pupils are streamed down different educational paths is thought to have helped Poland and Latvia make significant gains.

Countries' curriculums come out of the report quite well, as it says they tend to reflect the academic research. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, it says there is no conclusion to be drawn about whether they should be more detailed in their guidelines on reading (which would be especially useful for England's current curriculum review). Some successful countries, such as Poland, have lightened their guidelines to give more autonomy, while Denmark and Sweden have just introduced more detailed objectives.

One area where the report does suggest clear national action is needed, is in providing schools with professional staff who specialise in teaching reading. This has long been widespread in Denmark and Norway, but was rare in England until the Every Child a Reader (ECAR) programme started. The project, set up by the Every Child a Chance Trust, was taken up in 2008 by the Labour government, which subsidised a three-year national roll-out. By 2010 there were 996 subsidised trained teachers working in 1,656 primaries.

England is praised in the report for being one of just eight countries to have a system of reading specialists. In contrast, across Europe as a whole three-quarters of 10-year-olds do not have a specialist who is available to work in class with them. The alternative is usually a referral system. This involves a teacher picking up on reading difficulties and calling in a professional such as a speech therapist or educational psychologist. Such an approach is not part of the special educational needs system, but purely for pupils who are not keeping up with their reading.

However, the problem with referrals is that the system is saggy. The report reveals that the average teacher tends to underestimate children's difficulties and that about a third of 10-year-olds have a teacher who operates a wait-and-see policy before referring, rather than actively seeking out pupils who might need extra support.

Jean Gross, former director of the Every Child a Chance Trust, says: "I think ECAR proved the value of having a specialist teacher for all children. Some schools had kind of accepted that some children would leave primary to go on to secondary unable to read, saying that having a specialist teacher was too expensive. But it is not OK to say that - every primary school has to have all children reading before they leave. And since it is a specialist teacher who enables that to happen, that has to be a good investment - better than the same amount of money spent on classroom support.

"Learning to read for some children is really hard work. I've worked in the field, and I've taught children who struggle to learn to read, and if they don't pick it up normally early on and quickly then it is hard, and it takes expertise to break those barriers."

The official evaluation of ECAR found that having a specialist meant the school's key stage 1 results improved by between two and six percentage points. The most controversial and expensive part of the programme was reading recovery - intensive support for the very weakest readers, normally one-to-one.

Ironically, just as England is recognised for its work in this field, the government subsidy for the whole scheme has reached an end. It is now up to schools to decide if they want to carry on funding it themselves. The evaluation of ECAR suggests that one way to continue might be to shift the balance away from the more costly part of the project towards other interventions covering children who have not fallen as far behind in reading.

"Having a specialist teacher on your staff is not just about direct one-to-one teaching with the lowest 5 per cent, which is what the reading recovery element of ECAR covered. It is of value for all children to have a literacy expert on the staff," Ms Gross says.

Training and CPD

Even if your school does employ a specialist reading teacher, the Eurydice report suggests this may not be enough. It argues that more should be done across Europe to make reading the business of all teachers - including those in secondaries - and the work should start in initial teacher training.

Here, again, Britain comes out quite well as it is ahead of many other countries in this area. The report points out that in the UK, in order to qualify all teachers must demonstrate professional competence in teaching reading skills. The UK is also the only country that requires teachers to pass a specific test in reading.

However, scope exists for improvements in continuing professional development. There is a lot available already: a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2008 found that 81 per cent of all lower secondary teachers had attended a course or workshop in the previous 18 months.

But Eurydice says there is evidence that a one-day course is not as fruitful as getting teachers to engage in research or networking themselves - activities that are far less common. An average of just 34 per cent of teachers take part in some individual or collaborative research.

The report cites the findings of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis) carried out by the OECD in 2007 and 2008: "It is through teachers' own investment that, on average, they engage in the activities they have found to be among the most effective for their development. Even allowing for the fact that teachers are likely to choose to participate in and pay for activities which they expect to be effective, this is an important finding."

Outside school

Even with training, assessment, resources and specialist support, schools can only do so much. Each year, around 10,000 children's books are published in the UK. The number of books in a child's home is one measure of how much reading is encouraged outside school, but the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (see panel, page 4) found that it was not always linked to children's performance. Yet the number of children's books was significant in all countries.

While the statistics for England were not included in this study, Scotland - along with the Scandinavian countries - reported one of the highest rates of children's book ownership. But even in its case, 13 per cent of pupils lived in homes with fewer than 25 books.

Then there is the wider community. In almost all European countries there are major community programmes for promoting reading, many through libraries. This message - that society values literacy - is vital, but universal schemes risk being most attractive to those who are already on-message.

The Eurydice report concludes that while universal schemes are valuable, some groups of children need to be targeted, particularly boys and those in lower socio-economic groups.

In England, there was a national outcry when the Government announced last Christmas that it was stopping all funding for the book-gifting programmes run by the Booktrust charity. The response provoked a Boxing Day reprieve by education secretary Michael Gove. But it was a rather half-hearted U-turn, as it turned out the charity would be funded for another two years at half its previous level. The change has meant cutting one of the five schemes and sourcing cheaper materials - a treasure box beloved by toddlers has now been transformed into a treasure bag. Viv Bird, chief executive of Bookstart, has won the argument for government backing of a universal scheme and is planning to begin some additional targeted schemes this autumn.

Ms Bird said: "There is recognition that you can't just expect every child to have one experience of a good book and that's it. You have to develop more of a drip-feed. It's about having a buzz about books. Children are interested in learning. They want to know why is the sky blue, why does that happen, they want to find out more. Fiction also gives children a reflective space to understand better the world around them and where they are in that world."

Which brings us all the way back to the library in the Belgian town of Kelmis, and that red-headed doll.


The data collected in 2006 for the separate Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found that almost one-third of 10-year-olds read for fun no more than twice a month.

When the researchers compared places that had also taken part in their 2001 survey, they found five - Germany, Hungary, Italy, Hong Kong, and Ontario in Canada - had increased percentages of students in 2006 reporting reading for fun daily or almost daily. But in seven countries - Iceland, Israel, Slovenia, Sweden, Latvia, Norway and Singapore - fewer students reported daily reading for fun in 2006.


Eurydice (2011). Teaching Reading in Europe: Contexts, Policies and Practices.

Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency

Mullis, IVS (2007). Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in Primary Schools in 40 Countries. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)

OECD (2010), Pisa 2009 results. Learning to Learn - Student Engagement, Strategies and Practices (volume 3)

Scheerens, J (ed) (2010). Teachers' Professional Development: Europe in International Comparison. European Union

Tanner, E et al (2011). Evaluation of Every Child a Reader. Department for Education, DFE-RR114

For full references, visit


The seven strategies for improving reading comprehension are:

1. Comprehension monitoring: where readers learn to be aware of their understanding

2. Co-operative learning: where students learn reading strategies together

3. Use of graphic and semantic organisers (including story maps): where readers make graphic representations of the material to assist comprehension

4. Question answering: where readers answer questions posed by the teacher and receive immediate feedback

5. Question generation: where readers question themselves about aspects of the story

6. Story structure: where students are taught to use the structure of the story as a means of helping them recall story content, in order to answer questions about what they have read

7. Summarisation: where readers are taught to integrate ideas and generalise from the text


- Research has underlined the importance of phonological awareness (the ability to detect the sounds in words), phonics (the link between letters and sounds) and developing fluency in basic reading skills.

- Reading comprehension becomes more important as children move into upper primary and lower secondary.

- For struggling readers, intensive individual or small-group instruction by reading specialists is essential.

- During initial teacher training, having a firm foundation in the research and theory of teaching reading is crucial. Ideally, this should be strengthened later on through professional development that allows teachers to reflect on their own work from a research-orientated perspective.

- Engagement in reading activities outside school is crucial for becoming a successful reader. Most countries have national bodies to promote reading.


Some examples of national reading initiatives in Europe:


"Lire et faire lire" aims to develop joy in reading through inter-generational co-operation. Volunteers aged over 50 spend some of their free time with small groups of children in recreation centres, nurseries and libraries, and read for and with them.


One initiative is a reading hour where volunteers provide books and read to children in paediatric hospitals while they are temporarily removed from school and family, to develop their reading for pleasure and general reading habits.


The National Reading Campaign for School Children aims to develop children's joy in reading by getting libraries to organise reading competitions in collaboration with local schools. The participating classes form teams and the whole class supports the team throughout the local, regional and national rounds of the tournament.

Czech Republic

Here, teachers register children in their first year of school for library membership and for taking part in various reading promotion activities, such as meetings with authors, book exhibitions, discussions and performances. The children who participate in these activities receive a book specially written for this purpose at a ceremonial event.


Where you see this icon, visit for links to resources and research in this article.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today