EEF Blog: Supporting struggling 11 year-old readers - how evidence can help

Dr Kevan Collins discusses how using evidence can help bridge the stubborn reading gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

My first day at secondary school was one of trepidation and excitement. A new haircut and a hand-me-down uniform I’d definitely grow into by Christmas. And though the haircuts have changed, I imagine that the sense of uncertainty I felt will be shared by a large majority of the 500,000 11-year olds who will make the transition from primary to secondary school this year.

But unfortunately, we can predict some facts about this group with all too much confidence. One in seven children will begin secondary school as a struggling reader this year if the outcomes of national tests follow the recent trend. In 2013, children from low-income families were twice as likely to be behind compared to their peers. For white children from low income families the picture was even worse: over 25% made the transition without achieving Level 4, the minimum expected standard for most 11-year olds.

The educational prospects of children in this group are bleak. If these pupils perform in line with previous pupils like them, approximately 1 in 10 will go on to achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths. The chances of children from low income families within this group catching up are worse still.

We can be confident about these facts because they are not new. Despite repeated efforts, the proportion of struggling readers at the transition has remained static for the last decade.

But there is enough variation among similar schools and English speaking systems for us to believe that the number of children leaving primary school struggling to read can be reduced. The problem is difficult, but not hopeless.

To support struggling readers, primary and secondary schools must be able to base their decisions on accessible, accurate information about what has succeeded and what has failed in the past. This is especially important in deciding how most effectively to spend money targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as the Pupil Premium and the Year 7 Catch Up Premium. We must also work together to test new approaches to build on what has been tried before.

Today, the Education Endowment Foundation and Durham University are publishing an Interim Evidence Brief: Reading at the Transition, which we hope will be particularly useful to teachers and school leaders.

This report sets out the challenge of the reading gap, introduces 24 EEF-funded literacy catch-up projects currently being evaluated, and reviews the existing evidence base which these programmes seek to extend. It will be followed by a second report next year summarising the findings from all these studies.

As Reading at the Transition makes clear, the reading gap is stubborn and wide, and there are no quick fixes. But some approaches offer greater promise than others. For example, both one to one and small group tuition can help pupils catch up, but the report highlights the higher per pupil cost of one to one tuition. It suggests that schools could consider trialling small group tuition as a first option, before moving to one to one tuition if small group tuition is found to be ineffective.

It also summarises existing evidence related to summer schools, phonics, reading comprehension and oral language approaches.

Starting secondary school is hard enough. Using evidence will increase the chances of the struggling 11-year old readers who need our help.

Dr Kevan Collins is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.