Weak readers struggle more in maths than in English lit

Researchers say that "wordier" GCSE exam questions in subjects such as maths are problematic for "a significant minority of students with a low reading age"

Catherine Lough

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GCSE students with weak literacy levels struggle more with maths exams than they do with English literature, research has found.

A study of 370,000 secondary school students who sat GCSEs in 2018-19 found a significant correlation between students' reading ability and their eventual performance across all GCSEs.

Comment: All teachers teach reading skills – so let's do it well

News: Reading to young children 'boosts maths skills later'

Literacy: Many GCSE pupils have reading level of a 13-year-old

There was a strong correlation between students' literacy levels and their performance in English language GCSE, and an almost as strong relationship between students' reading levels and performance in maths and science qualifications. 

But students' reading levels were a stronger predictor of their performance in maths GCSE than of history and English literature, according to the study by testing company GL Assessment.

"In maths GCSE, word problems can be especially challenging as a student often needs to read and comprehend a passage of text, identify the question that is being asked, and then solve a numerical challenge," a spokesperson for GL Assessment said.

In a recent GCSE maths question, terms such as "profit" and "loss", "remaining" and "justify" were used.

The spokesperson said: "New and, in the words of the DfE [Department for Education], ‘more demanding’ GCSE exams were first introduced in 2017. 

"Exams now tend to include wordier questions which, according the report authors, will prove problematic for a significant minority of students with a low reading age."

The report said: "Given the importance of literacy to the whole school curriculum, it follows that those students who struggle with reading are at a significant disadvantage in every one of the GCSE examinations they take."

Crispin Chatterton, director of education at GL Assessment, said: “Our analysis makes clear how important it is for children to be good readers.

"Students who have poor reading skills will find it more difficult to access wide swathes of their GCSE courses – and those who lack subject-specific language skills, which are difficult to acquire if students don’t have good reading skills, will be doubly disadvantaged.”

The study also found that a gender gap opened up between girls' and boys' literacy levels throughout their time in secondary school.

At age 11, 21 per cent of girls and 19 per cent of boys respectively had a reading age of 15 – which they would need to access GCSE exams.

However, by age 15 this gap had widened, with 53 per cent of 15-year-old girls having a reading age of 15 or more compared with less than half – 47 per cent – of boys.

"The later gender gap is of course reflected in exam results – only 44 per cent of boys in 2018-19 received a grade between 9 and 5 in English language GCSE compared with 61 per cent of girls," the report said.

There was a similar literacy gap seen between disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers.

Eleven per cent of 11-year-olds eligible for free school meals had a reading age of 15 or more, compared with 21 per cent of non-FSM students. Yet by age 15, this had widened, with 44 per cent of FSM students having a reading age of 15 or more compared with 55 per cent of non-FSM students.

Disadvantaged boys fall significantly behind poor female students during secondary education – the literacy gap widens from two percentage points at age 11 to eight percentage points by age 15.

Not all students are getting the support needed to tackle the demands of the curriculum, according to Alex Quigley, national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

He said that, while there was universal consensus that strong literacy skills were "crucial", "too many secondary school teachers and leaders prove undertrained and simply too busy to support their students to best access the demands of the academic curriculum".

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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