Exceptional Education at the Heart of the Community

Literacy is central to lifelong learning
Literacy is central to lifelong learning

In this blog Elizabeth Rhodes, National Lead for Student Inclusion, reflects on her time as an Early Career Teacher and one particular student who helped motivate her to develop literacy approach that could change lives. 

In my first year of teaching, I met a boy named Riley*. He was a wiry 11-year-old with an infectious grin who could tell you more than you ever wanted to know about parkour. He was also one of the children who most tested my patience and abilities as a new English teacher.

There seemed to be an unending number of ways Riley could disrupt lessons: shouting out, throwing things at other children, storming out of the classroom in a rage. Between managing his behaviour and trying to keep him in the classroom, there wasn’t much hope of him making progress. I did my best, but so early in my career, found it hard to believe that I could help him achieve the outcomes he deserved.

In my second year of teaching, newly appointed as Head of English, I stared at recently gathered data on student reading ages. No wonder Riley couldn’t focus – he had a reading age of just 6 years old. Determined not to let him down, I did my research. What I found was staggering. According to the National Literacy Trust:

  • Children who enjoy reading and writing are happier in their lives. The longer children maintain an enjoyment of reading, the greater the benefits are in the classroom.
  • However, 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK say that they do not even have a book of their own.
  • As a result, 1 in 6 adults in England (7.1 million people) have a reading age below 11 years old and struggle as a result to access the jobs, healthcare and other services they need.
  • Low literacy levels lead to educational and social exclusion, with more than 50% of teenagers in youth custody having reading ages below 11 years old.
  • Finally, and most shockingly, children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England, dying on average 7 years earlier than their most affluent peers.

On a mission to change this, I read everything I could about how to improve Riley’s life chances through literacy, from James and Diane Murphy’s Thinking Reading and Alex Quigley’s Closing the Reading Gap to Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered and the EEF’s excellent guidance report on Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools. My research gave me newfound hope. According to British Land’s report on The Power of Reading for Pleasure:

  • If all children in the UK read for pleasure almost daily, the number getting five good GCSE grades could increase by 1.1 million over a generation.
  • Gaining five good GCSE grades would boost the average lifetime earnings of those individuals by £57,500.
  • This has a significant impact on life chances, improving health, wellbeing, social engagement and even life expectancy.

Inspired, I met with my Principal to lay out my proposal:

  • Daily ‘Reading for Pleasure’ lessons for all children to practise decoding, comprehension and fluency.
  • All children expected to carry an independently chosen stage-appropriate reading book as part of their equipment.
  • 25 minutes of reading homework for every child each evening.
  • Additional targeted intervention for children like Riley to address their underlying word-reading-needs, using an intensive phonics catch up programme

A year later, the moment that all teachers anticipate finally came: Ofsted called for an inspection. Rather than being apprehensive, I couldn’t wait to show them what we had achieved. Over the past year, children’s reading ages in the academy had accelerated by an average of 150%, helping our cohort catch up with their peers nationally. Children who had received targeted literacy intervention, like Riley, had made even stronger progress at 180% above expected levels. They were catching up and closing the gap.

One of the proudest moments of my educational career was sitting in a room with an Ofsted inspector and the children who had benefited from our intervention programme. As the inspector asked them their thoughts about reading. Riley reflected that he used to hate school because he didn’t see the point of it, but now he loved reading and English was his favourite subject. He even chose to read at home sometimes rather than watching television!

Two years previously, Riley’s behaviour and disengagement in school had placed him on a path towards educational and social exclusion. Now he was reengaged, with new aspirations and a new understanding of the world that education could open up for him.

This is the future that all Oasis’s children deserve. Our DRIVE for Literacy approach ensures that all children receive the highest-quality, evidence-based literacy education to ensure that they have the futures they deserve. Our approach is simple:

  • Disciplinary literacy ensures that all subjects prioritise reading, writing and oracy within their curriculums, so that children are exposed to high quality literacy instruction across a range of texts and contexts and throughout the school day.
  • Reading is taught explicitly, with teachers trained how to support children’s decoding, comprehension and fluency when reading aloud and independently.
  • Intervention is provided to all children whose reading age data flags that they are reading below age related levels, to help them catch up and keep up with their peers.
  • Vocabulary is taught explicitly across the curriculum to widen children’s access to the world of texts.
  • Enjoyment and exploration through literacy is promoted through reading for pleasure opportunities, high quality libraries and regular celebrations, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to experience a diverse range of books that open their eyes to the possibility of the world, and their lives ahead.

Literacy opened up Riley to a world of lifelong learning. It will do the same for all Oasis’ children. Now I encourage you to put down your laptop and pick up a book!


*(names have been changed to protect privacy)

Literacy is central to lifelong learning
Hannah Skinner