Why literacy must drive efforts to close attainment gap

Covid widened a reading gap between rich and poor, says teacher and researcher Jennifer Milne

Jennifer Milne

Why literacy must drive efforts to close attainment gap

Despite continued and, at times, fervent focus on closing the attainment gap – in policy and practice – it still remains there, steadfast as ever.

The Scottish government, in June 2020, admitted that school closures as a result of the Covid pandemic were having a negative impact on the progress and learning of all pupils but that the hardest hit would be those young people from the most deprived backgrounds.

My research examining the impact of Covid-19 on young people’s reading behaviour and experiences from March 2020 to June 2021 – which I am in the process of finalising – shows that around a quarter of secondary school pupils read more and around a quarter read less.


Background: Progress on closing the attainment gap is ‘limited’

Covid: 6 ways Covid has hit poorer pupils the hardest

Poverty: Why closing the attainment gap is about more than school

Quick read: Closing the gap? Scotland lacks the data to know

Literacy: Why one-to-one reading time is so important


This was reading not required for school or home learning, but reading for enjoyment. Those who read more were the young people who had support and access to books at home over the pandemic; those young people with less support and access to reading at home, meanwhile, read less.

Many of these young people whose reading declined were the ones who had previously found support and/or access to reading at school but no longer had this lifeline.

Another strong influencing factor was environment. Over the pandemic, many of those children already advantaged in socio-economic status were able to read in a calm, spacious home; those whose home environment was cramped or stressful saw their reading decrease. Reading brings comfort, escape and is a tool for relaxation and managing stress, so this was a double whammy.

Reading is invaluable for learning and academic outcomes: strong readers have higher attainment across all school subjects and go on to achieve academically. Recent research has highlighted the importance of reading for health and wellbeing outcomes: reading enhances self-awareness and empathy, key strands of emotional intelligence, and contributes to the development of resilience in young people.

Those from the most advantaged socio-economic backgrounds read more – read much more – than those most deprived children at every stage and age of development. And Curriculum for Excellence clearly states that there is a link between low literacy attainment and poverty.

Literacy is the key that opens the door to all other aspects of the curriculum. It is through language that we learn to express and articulate our thoughts and feelings, spoken then written, and so to develop self-awareness and self-regulation. This is the core of communication and, in turn, collaboration and creative problem solving. It is also a basis for motivation and success across the curriculum.

Literacy is the heart of the curriculum and must be given its place at the centre if we are to see a decrease in the poverty-related attainment gap as we strive for recovery from Covid-19.

We read to know that we are not alone,” it has been said, and it is through reading that we can realise the true value in ourselves and others. When we accept and connect to another’s viewpoint through story, we go deeper and create new possibilities.

For young people living in poverty, literacy provides the possibility to access new stories and so write new stories for their lives: stories of growth, new chances, achievement – and stories of real change.

Dr Jennifer Milne is a principal teacher of English at Fife Council and an associate tutor at the University of Glasgow

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Jennifer Milne

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