‘Illiteracy surge’ requires systemic response, warns educationalist

Literacy expert, Katy Parkinson, was reacting to reports that more than a third of pupils starting secondary school in September will struggle with illiteracy

On 4 April, the Sunday Times reported on unpublished government figures suggesting that more than a third of pupils (200,000) transitioning into secondary school in September will require help with illiteracy.

The report prompted one expert in the field, Katy Parkinson, to warn the government against responding by simply adopting a ‘catch-up culture’.

“It would miss the point,” she said. “It would be a shameful failing to dismiss the problem in this way.”

Boris Johnson indirectly addressed the issue at his Downing Street press conference on 23 March, saying: “It’s the loss of learning for so many children and young people that’s the thing we’ve got to focus on now as a society.”

To that end, it is reported that the PM will give a speech in May or June detailing how the government plans for the country to move forward from the pandemic, including a ‘citizens’ army’ to help with reading standards and personal tuition for disadvantaged pupils.


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While this may help ameliorate matters for some children dealing with illiteracy as they head into year seven, Parkinson insists that the situation demands more than an ad hoc fix.

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“What we absolutely cannot do is to view this as merely ‘COVID catch-up’,” she said. “We must see the systems and structures changing once and for all if we’re ever going to address the issues the UK has around literacy and our young people.

“Key to sustainable change is how we deliver to children, and how teachers are taught to impart their literacy insight.”

Parkinson was herself a teacher for more than 25 years before frustration with teaching aimed at helping illiteracy and vocabulary cognition prompted her to found the learning system, Lexonik.

The model reports a typical reading age gain of 27 months over six hour-long sessions.


From the archive: In 2019, Britannica launched free digital literacy webinars for teachers


“We have been talking about these issues in some form or other for so long now, and it’s a well-established fact that children living in ‘persistent poverty’ are at a significant disadvantage for educational and academic progress,” added Parkinson.

“While [COVID] has widened the gap for those disadvantaged youngsters, we have to also acknowledge that for the first time we may see less disadvantaged children bear the brunt too.

“Literacy development is not just about structure taught via a screen, but about the nuances of expert questioning and oral reasoning, which come when a student is face-to-face with a skilled teacher.

“I cannot deny being deeply concerned about how year six pupils will adjust when they enter year seven.”

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