A, B, C, easy as 1, 2, 3…

Literacy – including digital literacy – and numeracy are essential skills that many still lack. So, how can edtech drive development within these crucial disciplines, and how can education institutes ensure students don’t fall behind in these core subjects?

The Breakdown

  • Skills gaps in digital literacy leave students unprepared to enter an increasingly technological world
  • While digital literacy is not yet assessed, it forms an integral part of teaching in traditional core subjects – such as literacy and numeracy
  • We need a “universal design for learning”, but must be aware that the implementation of tech can be easily overdone
  • The “ultra-intelligent” use of technology – as seen across institutes in Asia – to build a strong conceptual understanding can bolster the UK’s competitiveness in the teaching of literacy and maths


Reading, writing and basic maths are critical skills for life success. While the history of digital literacy is not yet as extensive as its more traditional forebears, its impact is just as pervasive – the remote learning and working measures implemented in response to COVID-19 undeniably evidences that.

But if the statistics are anything to go by, the UK’s strategy and requirements for the teaching of these subjects is simply not up to par.

The importance of digital literacy

While digital literacy is not yet assessed in education, digital transformation is sweeping all corners of the globe, and with forecasts predicting that at least 60% of occupations will be heavily influenced by technology (McKinsey & Co.) in the not-too-distant future, it’s worrying that just 17% of adult learners are “confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue learning” (Pew Research Center).

It’s a problem that’s deeply rooted in the education system; as noted in The Road to Digital Learning report from Intel, Fujitsu and the University of Birmingham, just 60% of UK students and 46% of teachers are rated ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ when it comes to digital literacy, with 23% of students and 12% of teachers currently rating as ‘poor’.

The PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations report, penned last year by Andreas Schleicher, director of the directorate of education and skills at the OECD, shines a light on the growing use of digital tools in schools. As Schleicher states in the report: “People who cannot navigate through the digital landscape can no longer participate fully in our social, economic and cultural life.”

While the skills gap is growing, the PISA report revealed that access to new technologies has advanced at rapid pace; in the 2009 assessment, about 15% of OECD students, on average, reported that they did not have access to the internet at home. By 2018, that proportion had shrunk to just 5%. Of course, it’s worth noting that the coronavirus pandemic and the swift digital transformation implemented as a result has accentuated the divide between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, but there’s still no denying tech’s omnipresence in virtually every aspect of life.

But while the surge in technological advancements brings fresh bouts of opportunity, it also brings brand-new reading requirements, increasing the speed, volume and reach of information and granting us access to it anywhere, at any time. That’s why the proliferation of fake news and misinformation is such a big issue today. According to PISA’s assessment, improvements in education have not kept up with the demands of the digital world, since the proportion of 15-year-old students who scored the highest levels in the PISA reading test (levels 5 and 6, which means students can understand complex texts, tackle abstract contexts, and separate fact from fiction based off implicit information) rose only marginally across OECD countries, from 7% in 2009 to 9% in 2018. Even in Singapore – one of the world’s top performing countries – only one in four 15-year-olds achieved this distinguished level.

“Navigating ambiguity, for me, is at the centre of digital literacy,” Schleicher told ET. “Can you connect different information sources? Can you make sense out of half-baked information? Can you triangulate? Can you build a mental representation from just a small part of the information in front of you now? Those things are, for me, the digital literacy of the 21st century – the cognitive, social and emotional ability. I think if you do those things well then you can master the technology very quickly. If you don’t do these things well, you’re going to have a hard time using technology. If you don’t understand the nature of an AI algorithm, you’re going to become the victim of the algorithm as it will make up your mind for you. If you understand technology and its conceptual foundations, I think you will pick up the rest pretty quickly. But ‘the rest’ changes. While the digital interest is quite constant over time, tech literacy is rapidly evolving.”

“Navigating ambiguity, for me, is at the centre of digital literacy” – Andreas Schleicher

Condemned to ‘fail’?

Last year, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt emphasised the growing literacy skills gap among primary-level pupils. In the Channel 4 debate for Britain’s next PM, broadcast on 18 June, Hunt stated that: “A quarter of school leavers are unable to read or write properly.”

And he wasn’t wrong, since, a Department for Education (DfE) report from last year showed that 65% of pupils reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined.

It’s a systematic issue that has a knock-on effect on virtually every education level, driven by a process known as ‘norm-‘ or ‘cohort-referencing’. This means that grade boundaries are automatically set so that one-third of students fail their GCSEs – with grades C and above being a pass, and grades D and below being considered a fail. The UK exams system is fundamentally about comparing students with each other, rather than with benchmark criteria.

“One of the biggest challenges that all education systems face, [especially in] the UK, is that the whole reason we send kids to school to learn maths and numeracy is essentially to get a GCSE at the end of it,” said Dr Alison Clark-Wilson, principal research associate at the UCL Institute of Education. “The end goal has been a GCSE for many years now, and [it’s] been constructed very much as an examination that’s done via timed tests with kids sat in rows, and you’re actually very limited by what you can assess in that context. And that’s fundamentally why we’re failing children, because everything we do in the school system is geared up to that very important gatekeeper exam, while much of what children can do after that exam is determined by the grade they get,” Clark-Wilson explained.

“So, if we look at how people use and apply maths in their day-to-day lives away from school, it’s very collaborative work. It’s teamwork. It’s messy data. It’s trying to make sense of things that aren’t all easily described. And kids don’t get any, or at least very little, experience of this in their school education. The way teachers approach numeracy and maths problem-solving in classrooms is very limited by what they might get asked about in exams, meaning we really need to rethink how we assess to better reflect the sorts of numeracy skills and expertise we want young people to be able to apply, both in school and in their lives. It’s a matter of numeracy for lifelong learning, rather than numeracy to pass an exam.”

“It’s a matter of numeracy for lifelong learning, rather than numeracy to pass an exam” – Dr Alison Clark-Wilson

‘A universal design for learning’

The exam model for literacy is very much the same, but as Martin McKay, CTO and founder of edtech software company Texthelp, told ET, many students are also lacking adequate support at home. “There’s a very large chunk of kids who are struggling with literacy – those with special educational needs (SEN) and those with English as a second language (ESL), for example,” he explained. When it comes to ESL, said McKay, these learners are living in a house where English is not the primary language spoken, and they often become linguistically isolated as a result. “The English language is so vast and 17% of adults aren’t adept enough to experiment with their literacy, which means that 17% of kids go home to parents who can’t really work with their literacy needs.

“As such, we need a universal design for learning,” he said, “which is really about accessibility, or designing educational content so that it’s for everyone, not just the middle or high performers in the class.”

An education system that’s fit for all is a must, because even those middle- or high-flyers mentioned by McKay still have certain hurdles to navigate. Part of Schleicher’s job at the OECD is to lead the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems. He believes that, when it comes to literacy – including digital literacy – and numeracy, it’s wrong to say that the UK is ‘failing’ students, but rather that its performance is “average”, and that it certainly isn’t teaching these subjects as well as other countries.

“[The UK] is clearly working below its potential,” he told ET. “If you look at the share of national income that the UK has put into education, you’d expect better outcomes and fewer disparities. I think in those world-class systems that produce the most amazing outcomes, you don’t see the kind of social disparities that you see in the UK now.”

‘Tech is no silver bullet’

Continuing with SEN and ESL students as an example, there’s no doubt that technology has the capacity to boost skills in these core subjects. Technology enables SEN students to accomplish tasks and work at their own pace (ACE Centre Advisory Trust, 1999), also improving independent access to education (Moore and Taylor, 2000; Waddell, 2000), and allowing students with profound and multiple learning difficulties to communicate more easily (Detheridge, 1997). That said, among education experts, there’s definitely a perception that tech can be overused, often treating a symptom of a mediocre system rather than the tackling the cause itself.

“I think one of the things that gets confused is that technology is a silver bullet, and so it needs to go in everywhere,” said Dominic Traynor, education evangelist at Adobe, in an interview with ET. “But actually, if it’s used badly, it’s as bad a tool as anything else.”

If research is anything to go by, Traynor is right, with a number of studies highlighting some of tech’s negative impacts on education; such as deteriorating students’ reading and writing competency, dehumanising academic environments, distorting social interactions between staff and students, and isolating individuals.

“I think the really important thing about technology [and digital literacy] is that we’re living in times where it’s completely seen as a fundamental skill in schools,” added Traynor. “The use of technology is so antiquated that a lot of students are coming out of schools, and they may have got As in certain subjects, but their comfort in using technology is just so low. A lot of people argue that they can play catch up when they get into a job, but I think that misses the point – which is that we want to use technology as an enabler, as something which accelerates good practice…it should be pervasive through everything we do. The idea that students would just [cover] the basic technology and then wait until they get to work, I just feel like that’s too late. We want to use technology…to bring more of the things that are going to be good for society as a whole. We want technology to allow us to improve, [not just] tick a box.”

“We want to use technology as an enabler, as something which accelerates good practice…it should be pervasive through everything we do” – Dominic Traynor

Teaching role models

So, which countries are doing it right? According to PISA’s 2018 assessment, China is the world’s leading player when it comes to scores in reading and maths, achieving 68 points more than the OECD reading average, and 101 points more than the average in maths. Singapore comes in second, with 62 points more than the maths and reading average, while Hong Kong comes third in reading, with 37 points more than the average, and Korea comes third in maths with 30 points more than the average.

It’s clear that we should look towards Asia for inspiration in the teaching of these subjects. According to Schleicher, it’s in the teaching of conceptual foundations that these nations truly excel. “Countries like Japan and China are very advanced,” he explained. “If you look in a British classroom, you’d find a teacher covering countless problems in mathematics in just one class. Conversely, in a Chinese or Japanese classroom, the teacher will tackle a single problem, and will look at that problem from many angles and perspectives, so students will really understand the idea, remember it and apply it from that day forward, while in Britain, students may well have forgotten everything as they enter the next school year.”

For the UK to stand up against these global competitors, we must banish the archaic and above all, ineffective rote learning structure that has for too long commandeered sector, and instead look towards building a deep conceptual understanding within these critical disciplines. And it’s not about sticking tech solutions and devices into every spare moment of teaching, but instead supporting the seamless, ultra-intelligent use of technology to embed the ideology of lifelong learning and, ultimately, boost success.

“When it comes to AI and big data in education, nobody beats China,” concluded Schleicher. “It’s immersed in the learning environments, and actually, students there spend very little time looking at a screen. But technology observes them at every step, providing feedback and helping teachers understand how students think differently about a certain problem. I think that is really forward looking. I don’t think screen time in itself is the answer because it can make learning more reactive, more superficial. It’s really about using technology to enhance the relational aspect of learning.”


Keep students motivated, engaged and achieving in writing

By Martin McKay

Engaging students to find the motivation to write has always been a challenge, both in and outside of the classroom, but we’re working hard at Texthelp to help solve that with our latest product, WriQ.

To engage a student, you need to ignite that spark of interest to help drive their learning forward; it’s the ‘what’ and the commitment of learning. Motivation then, is about the ‘why’ of learning. The magic of technology in any learning environment is that it gives each student the flexibility to find their own path to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ by being:


WriQ puts students in charge of their own learning. Positive nudge notifications spur students on to do a little better each day, only competing with themselves.

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Try WriQ: text.help/edtech-expert

You might also like: The Report: higher education ‘on-demand’


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