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Literacy, reading for pleasure and a generational problem.

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope” - Kofi Annan

With over a quarter of a million children set to enter secondary school without basic maths and English skills, the short term impact of Covid-19 and lockdown has the very real potential to become generational.

We have recently seen plans which would ensure all young people study maths to the age of 18 and, though this is clearly a positive step, significant challenges remain (chief among them, an existing shortage of maths teachers). In Further Education, maths education has been bolstered in recent years by the Centre for Excellence in Maths (representing over £40m in additional funding).

Though there is concern at falling levels of numeracy, there appears to be less support for literacy, reading and English skills. With fewer than 3 in 10 children and young people aged 8 to 18 years old reading daily (the second-lowest figure ever recorded [1]), this too could represent a generational challenge.

To put this in real terms, there are currently over 7 million adults [2] in the UK who are classed as functionally illiterate, with apparently no specific additional funding or strategy planned.

So how does this happen and what can we do about it?

Well, the reasons for poor literacy are complex and myriad (from socio-economics to lack of available, suitable literature). This means that it is challenging in the extreme to define, create and implement one overarching strategy. What this means, is that we need a layered, holistic approach to reading, writing and literacy.

Part of this, surely, has to be better promotion of reading for pleasure. From helping with feeling of loneliness (19% of readers surveyed felt that reading helped them feel less lonely) to higher levels of self-esteem and greater life-satisfaction [3], reading for pleasure has significant impact not only on achievement, but also much more holistically (and in the long term).

This needs greater focus in Secondary schools where there is a shift from reading for pleasure, relentlessly championed in Primary, to using reading as a means to an end (a step in accessing assessment, therefore aligning reading to high-stakes, stressful scenarios). Additionally, reading is too often seen as punishment (i.e. in detention) or filler (i.e. form time or the end of lessons).

To better promote reading in Secondary and FE, we must follow the Primary lead by creating safe spaces for reading (outside of the library) and collaborating and gaining feedback from students on the books they want to read. We must also make sure there is a whole-school, targeted approach: what books will engage in history, science, MFL, PE?

A whole-school audit of books is a great way to start. Do we know that our school canon is engaging, inclusive and diverse? What condition are books in? Are they new and well-kept, or are they dog-eared and unattractive to young people who have so many other shiny, modern distractions? This too is vital in Further Education. How much time is given to reading (at all) in FE (let alone for pleasure)? As in Secondary, it is important to remember that this is not the sole preserve of English teachers and we need all teachers and lecturers to support reading.

A study of 1,136 self-reported ‘avid-readers’, indicated that collaborative reading experiences and recommendations supporting choice are key influences on positive attitudes towards reading [4] - we need staff to be readers, too.

Clearly, the issue of low reading rates and literacy challenges goes much further beyond reading for pleasure, but we also know that practice makes perfect: the more we read (and, some cases, are supported in our reading), the better we get at it. If children, young people and adults don’t enjoy reading, we are likely to see many more than a quarter of a million children moving into Secondary below expected levels, and many more than 7 million adults identified as functionally illiterate.

What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear from you - please post your comments below and share this post - and our other blog articles - with your colleagues.

For more information on The Base Project? Visit or contact Jonny directly at to see the support, resources and huge impact the project and our team can have.

[2] Hodge, L., Little, A. and Weldon, M., 2021. GCSE attainment and lifetime earnings: June 2021

[3] Billington, J (2015) Reading between the Lines: the Benefits of Reading for Pleasure Quick Reads University of Liverpool p.6

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