EEF Blog: Sweating the small stuff

Megan Dixon, Director of Aspirer Research School, introduces the EEF’s early literacy guidance report and explains how the small stuff can make the biggest difference when it comes to learning to read and write.

After two terms at school, Anna had made very little progress in learning to read and write. She seemed to be attentive in lessons but was described as dreamy. She tried her best, but nothing seemed to make sense to her. Her teachers were beginning to think she had an unidentified learning difficulty and were wondering what the next steps might be.

Acting on a hunch, her class teacher arranged for her to have her eye sight tested. A visit to the optician led to a visit to the hospital and after several weeks, Anna returned to school the proud owner of a brand new pair of glasses and transformed attitude to learning. To Anna, the world had become bright and clear, full of details and features she had never seen before. Remarkably, it appeared that she had always had poor vision, but with her new glasses, she was amazed the world looked so different. As she told her teacher, she now understood what everyone had been talking about. Her eyesight had always been poor and no one around her had considered that she might not see well – she was just Anna.

Foundations, the small building blocks on which progress rests, are vital when it comes to learning to read and write. It is impossible to learn to read if, like Anna, you can’t see well enough to discriminate the different in how letters look, or see what the teacher is pointing to. If you can’t understand the difference between letters and words, don’t have the ability to hear and discriminate sounds in speech or understand how a book works, then it is easy to fall behind your more experienced classmates.

Sadly, the evidence suggests that for children who live in persistent disadvantage, these challenges are a constant reality, regardless of the school they attend.

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The EEF report, The Attainment Gap, found that the attainment gap between children who live in disadvantage and those who do not starts early. By 5 years old, when most children are starting school, there was already a 4.3 month gap in attainment in literacy and mathematics between disadvantaged children and their classmates. Once the gap has started, unless targeted and addressed, the report shows that it grows and grows, doubling by the end of primary school.

So wouldn’t it be better, if the gap didn’t exist, at all – if we ensured that all children received the teaching and learning they needed, as early as possible, before they decide that the world is a place they will never understand, like Anna.

Preparing for Literacy, the EEF’s latest Guidance Report, gives us the starting point for this challenge. It is not intended to be a definitive guide – instead it highlights what the consensus of research evidence suggests are places to begin.

The seven recommendations emphasise the importance of the ensuring that each small building block of learning to read and write are firmly in place. They underline the need to ensure children can see properly and hear well. It reminds us to teach the children not only what letters look like, but the correct sequence of movements to write them. It stresses the fundamental role oral language development plays in all aspects of early literacy acquisition and challenges us to ensure we give this essential foundation the respect and attention it demands. It suggests we pay close and careful attention not only to what children can do, but the processes they use when they do these things and quickly respond to difficulties.

It reminds us to sweat the small stuff, to attend to the finer details of literacy learning in a systematic and robust way, ensuring that no stone is left unturned. It reminds us that often the answers are in front of us, already known. If we attend to this, just maybe, we can begin to close the gap, before it starts.