This blog is based on my talk entitled, ‘Why Literacy Fails (And What To Do About It)’, at the researchED National Conference, in a baking-hot Camden classroom! It will be the first part of a short series of blogs.


I’ve never found a teacher who disputes the importance of literacy, reading, writing, or the power to communicate. Everyone agrees that literacy success is vital. And yet, though we recognise the importance of the challenge of literacy struggles, or the value of supporting pupils to succeed, we tend to run into repeated failures.

Understanding why literacy may fail can prove valuable because if we can learn to anticipate failure, we can learn from it, thereby increasing our chances of future success. 

Why might literacy fail, country-wide, in a school, or a classroom? Let’s count the ways:

  1. Schools cannot wholly compensate for society. It is estimated that over 7 million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate. As such, many families can struggle to support their children to develop literacy skills because they lack those skills themselves. Issues like school absence – so salient for school leaders right now – reveal that what happens outside of the school gates inevitably has an impact on pupil outcomes. We can make a significant difference, but context matters too. 
  2. A poor range of accessible assessments. Schools are constantly searching for manageable (cost effective) standardised assessments. For reading, there are some sound measures, but for domains such as writing, oracy, or vocabulary knowledge, we have very little to go on. We try and diagnose most literacy problems via a reading age judgement that isn’t fit for purpose. Not only that, but there also isn’t a common array of diagnostic assessments that teachers are well trained to use either. Too often, we are left tackling literacy issues in the dark.
  3. Weak understanding of key issues such as dyslexiaAround 6.3 million people – around 10% of the population – have dyslexia. There has been a huge rise in dyslexia diagnoses too – up 22-fold in two decades when recorded in 2012-13. And yet, there is still a considerable degree of contention of what it is, what characterises an accurate diagnosis etc. Perhaps most importantly, there is little consensus or concerted action on exactly what to do about it in the classroom. Pupils gain the label, but too little changes. There are considerable knowledge gaps across the complex domain we label literacy. 
  4. A crowded curriculum. There are always calls to add to the school curriculum. But there are seldom serious discussions about what to stop in the school curriculum. We should ask questions, such as does the breadth of Key Stage 2 maths benefit the development of young mathematicians? Does the crammed science or history curriculum allow the space for the explicit teaching of writing? Reading can get squeezed out and repeated exam practice (given the high stakes) can too often push out attempts at literacy progress. 
  5. Shallow initial teacher training on literacy domains. The very nature of initial teacher training is that it is short. As such, it is not viable to cover the science of reading, spelling, writing, dyslexia, or other literacy issues, in the requisite depth. Singular sessions are not going to cut it, whilst new teachers grapple with the complexity of the classroom and the curriculum. The problem is simple: limited time.
  6. Partial, limited professional development. Every teacher could describe a literacy INSET or two. Fewer teachers can articulate a sustained sequence of evidence-based professional development that encompasses reading, writing, oracy, vocabulary, and more. Not only that, but it is also typical that professional development doesn’t flow on from initial teacher training, nor does it specifically address gaps in teacher knowledge and practice. 
  7. Too little specialist support for specific literacy issues, such as handwriting. Weak understanding of key issues with struggling literacy are matched by a dearth of specialist support (wedded to robust evidence) in many areas. Early reading is likely best served, but many aspects of writing, or adolescents struggling with literacy, lack specialist support. Speech and language therapists are on the decline, whilst SEND referrals are on the up. It is a perfect storm, that sees teachers get on as well as they can, but they are in isolated boats beating against a strong current. 
  8. Too little attention on literacy leadership. Before recent ‘Leading Literacy’ NPQs were inaugurated, there was a dearth of targeted support for literacy leaders. And yet, whilst there are positive recent developments, I get approached all the time – often with desperate appeals, just like this recent one: “I’ve been asked to turn around reading. I don’t know where to start!” Anonymous. Where do you start with that? There is much work to do to support middle leaders in secondary school on developing ‘disciplinary literacy’, as well as further support reading and writing leads in primary schools. 
  9. Enduring habits, routines, practices, and programmes. Routines and habits are typically good, and hard earned for teachers. But when it comes to literacy practices, routines can crowd out new, more effective approaches. Teachers understandably ingrain methods of reading with classes, or modelling writing, or doing the weekly spelling test. If professional development is light, it is no surprise that everyone simply gets on doing it as they have always done it. Not only that, once schools have paid for a programme, we can find it hard to drop it, once we have sunk the initial cost.
  10. Pressure on quick improvement deterring sustainable solutions. It is wholly understandable that schools want, and need, pupils to develop skills like reading and writing quickly. And yet, we can be wedded to plans and timelines that leave too little time for these complex skills to develop. A targeted intervention could boost reading fluency, for example, but it would still require months, if not years, to translate into reading comprehension success. If we are so busy getting pupils to undertake a battery of assessments (with their limits), we may be so busy proving, we are left with too little time for improving.

These reasons for failure may interact and prove complex and wrapped up with lots of related teaching and learning issues. It is what makes literacy too big, and too complex, for any individual in a school. As such, we need to go beyond the notion of any hero-leader paradigm, and instead pursue the complexity of every teacher being a teacher of literacy. We need better evidence and we need to face up to failure.

Understanding why literacy fails is a vital step on the path to success.

My next blog – Part 2 – explores some solutions to the challenges outlined here. 

[Image via H. Michael Karshis on Flickr:]