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Masters in Educational Practice: Literacy


Barriers to literacy: poverty and social factors


The effects of poverty and social deprivation

Reducing the impact of poverty on attainment is one of the Welsh Government's three national priorities. This impact has been well documented in Wales and in other countries. A considerable body of work points to the potentially devastating impact of poverty on children in the UK (see, for example, Cassen and Kingdom, 2007; Dysonet al, 2010; National Equality Panel, 2010; Kerr and West, 2010; The Sutton Trust, 2009; Kintrea et al, 2011). The attainment gap between those learners eligible for free school meals (FSM) – a commonly used, but not exclusive measure of potential disadvantage – makes itself evident through a child's time in school. The Sutton Trust found that some learners from the poorest homes are up to one year behind their peers by the time the start school at the age of five. This gap widens steadily as a learner progresses through school until the end of Key Stage 4 when the gap stretches to around 34 per cent (Estyn, 2013). The Institute of Education (amongst others), has found that early literacy intervention can help close the poverty gap in attainment.

Typically, levels of low literacy are highest in areas of deprivation. The National Literacy Trust outlines some of the key life limitations that can be associated with weak literacy skills.

Key life limitations that can be associated with weak literacy skills
Profile of a person with poor literacy Profile of a person with improved literacy
More likely to live in a non-working household. Becomes less likely to be on state benefits.
22% of men and 30% of women with literacy below Entry level 2 live in non-working households. Men who improve their literacy rates see their likelihood of being on state benefits reduced from 19% to 6%.
Less likely to have children. Those with improved literacy become more likely to own their own home.
Individuals with low levels of literacy are more likely to lead solitary lives without any children. A modest rise in literacy level sees the likelihood of a man owning his own house rise from 40% to 78%.
Individuals with low literacy levels are morelikely to live in overcrowded housing with reduced access to technology. Becomes more likely to use a PC at work.
Less likely to vote. Increased literacy rates improve the chances Becomes more involved in democratic processes.
Men and women with the poorest literacy or numeracy skills were the least likely to have voted in the 1987 and 1997 general elections. Becomes more involved in democratic processes.
   16% of men who improved their literacy between the ages of 21 and 34 had contact with government, compared with 0% of those whose literacy remained poor.

Causality is not as straight forward as it may seem, and it is right to exercise caution when considering the role of poverty in literacy development. Nonetheless, there seems to be some clear evidence that certain groups of learners may be more likely to experience difficulties with their developing literacy which will impact upon them as they progress though schools and beyond.

Activity 8.1

The statistical link between poverty and low educational attainment is well attested. At all key stages in Wales, learners who are entitled to free school meals perform significantly less well than those not eligible for free school meals against a range of attainment performance indicators. The gap between the performance of children from richer and poorer backgrounds widens during schooling (Estyn 2013, p. 11).

The gap in percentages of FSM and non-FSM learners attaining the core subject indicator at each stage between 2009 and 2011
The gap in percentages of FSM and non-FSM learners attaining the core subject indicator at each stage between 2009 and 2011

Consider the above information taken from the Estyn Annual Report 2011–2012 detailing the gap in percentages of FSM and non-FSM learners attaining the core subject indicator at each stage between 2009 and 2011.

  • What school-based factors do you think may help explain the gap in attainment between learners eligible for free school meals and those who are not?
  • Why do you think the gap widens as a learner progresses through school?
  • What factors outside of school do you think may impact upon a learner’s attainment?

Activity 8.2

Estyn (2012) identifies ten key features of schools that are effective in tackling disadvantage. These are:

  • taking a whole-school, strategic approach to tackling disadvantage
  • using data to track the progress of disadvantaged learners
  • focusing on the development of disadvantaged learners' literacy and learning skills
  • developing the social and emotional skills of disadvantaged learners
  • improving the attendance, punctuality and behaviour of disadvantaged learners
  • tailoring the curriculum to the needs of disadvantaged learners
  • providing enriching experiences
  • listening to disadvantaged learners and providing opportunities for them to play a full part in the school's life
  • engaging parents and carers of disadvantaged learners
  • developing the expertise of staff to meet the needs of disadvantaged learners.

Consider one of these key features and identify what steps could be taken within your own school to tackle disadvantages.

Activity 8.3

The literacy skills of learners who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have been identified as a key area of focus. Some of the features of successful approaches include the following.

  • Family involvement with school.
  • Cooperative group or paired reading strategies.
  • One-to-one reading with a teacher.
  • One-to-one reading with a teaching assistant.
  • High parental aspirations.
  • Learners' understanding of where they are and what they need to do next.
  • Early parental involvement in children's literacy practices.
  • Being read to at home (younger learners).
  • Reading encouraged as an out of school activity.
  • Focused talk and active listening strategies.
  • The rigorous use of data and monitoring.
  • Targeted interventions that meet the particular literacy needs of a learner.
  • Easy access to reading materials.
  • Guided, purposeful writing tasks across subjects.

Rank these features in order for: their current impact in your work; those you feel could be most effective in your context and those you think may be least easy to implement. Consider the reasons behind your positing of these features. If, for example, some of the features you think would be most useful are those you also feel would be most difficult to implement, consider why this may be so and what could be done to remove any barriers.

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