Comprehending literacy pitfalls

11th November 2011 at 00:00
What is the key to improving children's reading skills? A new European study believes it has the answers. Helen Ward reports

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.

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." 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

The Eurydice report also explores what works in the UK and picks out successes to show to other countries.

Many of the report's key findings (see panel) 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 past 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".

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.

At the classroom level

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 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). 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 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?' - 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.

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.


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 pupils 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 pupils 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.


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

Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency

OECD (2010), Pisa

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

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