Literacy skills falling short in UK schools

Britain’s young people are not making the grade in literacy, according to the Chief Inspector of Schools. Reading and writing are essential to success. What can we do to solve this crisis?

In almost every aspect of our lives, literacy is fundamental. Whether following instructions at work, weighing up the arguments in an election or enjoying the twists and turns of a novel, our ability to understand texts and express ourselves in words is called upon every day.

According to Ofsted‘s Chief Inspector Sir David Wilshaw, however, literacy in the UK has stalled. Standards have not improved since 2005 – and Britain is falling behind the rest of the world.

The statistics are worrying. One in five children leaves primary school without reaching the expected standard of SATs level 4. Even those that do make the grade have no guarantee of success: 29% fail to get at least a C in their GCSE exams.

This is not the first time that literacy has given cause for concern. A recent Evening Standard investigation, for example, found six million adult Londoners were not confident readers. Three in ten children grow up in households with no books, making them much less likely to succeed in school.

And literacy difficulties extend well beyond the classroom. If pupils fall behind early on, they are likely to struggle in secondary school, too. Many will fail to engage with school subjects or do well in exams. That means that, as adults, they are more likely to be unemployed, ill or involved in crime.

When riots hit London this August, only bookshops were excluded from looting – suggesting to many that literacy was foreign to those involved. For The Guardian‘s Deborah Orr, it was evidence of ’an education system that left swathes of people not just unable to read, but unable even to register the existence of a shop that sold literature.’

But what to do about this crisis? Many believe the answer lies in tough targets, and specialist English teachers. Others think lessons need to swap non-fiction texts, like pamphlets or persuasive letters, with classic books and poems. And for Wilshaw, the controversial phonics method, which teaches students the ‘building blocks’ of words, is the foundation for any child’s reading life.

Between the lines

In this battle to improve children’s literacy, two distinct camps emerge. Many educationalists are uncomfortable with rote learning and strict targets. They say children should be allowed to think creatively, without the fear of passing tests or getting things wrong: only then will they develop the interest and engagement they need to succeed in their studies.

Others say this undisciplined approach leads to falling standards. For children to enjoy learning, they must have a firm grasp of the basics. Grammar and phonics aren’t fun, but sitting down and committing them to memory is necessary. Learning must return to rigour and discipline.

You Decide

  1. What motivates you more – passing tests, or feeling interested in a subject?
  2. Does Britain have a problem with literacy?


  1. Think about a scenario in which you have been challenged by reading, writing or maths. Write an account of your experience.
  2. Write a five point plan for improving reading and writing skills in your country.

Some People Say...

“Literacy is less important in a digital age.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do we need literacy when everything today is on computers?
Literacy is more than about being able to spell properly. It means being able to navigate texts, weigh up opinions, gather information and much more besides. All those skills are essential – to everyday tasks, keeping informed about the world, and, of course, in the workplace.
In jobs? How?
Evidence shows that people with poor literacy skills also find getting a job challenging. Even if interviews don’t present candidates with written assessments – and they often do – being articulate and informed is closely related to literacy. It makes students more likely to succeed at school, go to university, and get a good job, affecting not just future wealth, but what you go on to do every day!

Word Watch

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills is a government body that upholds standards in education. It inspects schools, nurseries and teacher training centres, assessing whether they meet, or surpass, expectations. The current Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was previously a distinguished secondary head teacher.
School pupils take Standard Assessment Tests at the end of years two, six and nine – when they are seven , 11 and 14 years old. The tests assess basic competence in core subjects: English, maths and science at age 11, and a wider variety of subjects at 14.
A method of teaching reading and writing, ‘phonics’ breaks down words into phonemes – basic elements of language. Learners will break down the word ‘cat’, for example, into the sounds of each letter – C-A-T. In recent decades the method has been criticised as inflexible and autocratic, and teachers have taught children whole words instead.
Rote Learning
Learning something by rote means learning by repetition: committing something to memory simply by going through it again and again. Many believe that it is not an effective way to learn, and refer to it in derogatory terms like ‘parrot-fashion’: they encourage learning through asking questions and doing creative tasks.


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