Editorial - Ensuring poor literacy isn't a life sentence

1st August 2014 at 01:00

For many, the long summer break offers a rare and welcome chance to sit down and relax with a good book.

Most of us take our ability to read for granted, and only encounter difficulties if we are abroad and trying to decipher a foreign language. But just five years ago a national survey commissioned by the Scottish government found that one in 28 adults north of the border faced "serious challenges in their literacies practices".

You could joke that the officials who wrote that appear to have a few communication problems of their own. But there's nothing funny about what the statistics mean for the 3.6 per cent of the adult population who cannot read properly.

As the digital revolution continues, traditional skills like handwriting seem to be becoming increasingly obsolete. But for now at least, even the most tech-savvy humans still need the ability to read if they are to thrive in the world.

On which subject, hundreds more teenagers in the Scottish capital became average readers this year.

That doesn't sound like much to shout about. As Martin Gemmell, the educational psychologist monitoring their performance, noted wryly: "The headline could be `Edinburgh schools teach children to read shocker'." But put in context, his preliminary findings bring real hope that far more of the next generation will grow up able to understand the written word.

Nearly 450 secondary pupils across the city have spent the past year participating in a "back to basics" scheme entitled Fast Track. This is aimed at helping them to build up their reading from individual letters and words to sentences.

A before-and-after comparison conducted by Mr Gemmell, principal educational psychologist at City of Edinburgh Council, found that the mean scores of the group on global literacy tests rose from below average before starting the programme in 2013 to average 12 months later.

The Fast Track trials are part of an integrated approach to boosting reading in the city from nursery upwards, identifying pupils in need of extra help and providing that support early. Anecdotal evidence suggests that other schemes, which were launched in primaries several years earlier, have noticeably reduced the number of pupils starting high school still unable to read properly.

Edinburgh is one of five so-called literacy hubs that ministers established in 2011 to promote existing good practice and try out new methods. The aim is to share and implement successful approaches more widely. In response to the Fast Track results, the Scottish government is encouraging local authorities to "work together to improve their literacy strategies".

It might be time for ministers to do a bit more reading themselves - both about the emerging results and about the conflicting demands on school budgets and staff workloads - to make sure that can and does happen soon.



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