The UK’s Literacy Crisis

Article  by  Dovilé DAVELUY  •  Published 29.06.2011  •  Updated 29.06.2011
Increasing numbers of British children live in homes without books and have difficulties reading.

London’s evening daily the Evening Standard has recently consecrated a series of articles to what it calls “London’s literacy crisis”. In one such article, it reports the following worrying statistics: 6 million adult Londoners – one in six – cannot read with confidence; and one child in four in the British capital finishes primary school at the age of 11 without being able to read or write properly.  The Evening Standard concludes that “[i]n London, the home of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare’s Globe, and T.S. Eliot, schools are, in 2011, churning out illiterate pupils at unacceptably high rates”. The newspaper has organized a campaign entitled “Get London Reading”, and has raised £100,000 to date. The money will be used to train volunteers who will provide one-on-one help to children who struggle to read.
Education Secretary Michael Gove praised the Standard’s efforts and declared that he is committed to eliminating “the evil of illiteracy”. He added that “children who cannot read are condemned to spend their entire life in a prison of ignorance”.
Immigration is often singled out as a culprit of literacy problems in Great Britain, but experts reject this line of reasoning. Michael Wilshaw, an executive principal at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, is convinced that with proper support, migrant children can make outstanding progress. Miriam Gross, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of “So Why Can’t We Read”, fully agrees. She claims that “this is not about immigration. It is about bad teaching”. Her report, released in July 2010, criticizes what she calls “the child-led” approach that focuses on children’s creativity and play rather than repetition and correction, and which, according to the author, has contributed to the current illiteracy problems.

Adult support in learning to read is vital for many children. And yet, the National Literacy Trust, a British charity that fights against illiteracy, has recently reported that around one in five parents in London struggle with their own literacy and may not be able to read confidently with their children. Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, has suggested that these findings represent a real tragedy: “Nursery rhymes, bedtime stories, word games and chatter with parents, grandparents and carers are the bedrock of children’s reading and writing”.
Researchers have shown that lower socioeconomic status correlates strongly with lower literacy levels and lower educational achievements in general. In line with this, the National Literacy Trust’s report on the state of literacy in the UK in 2010 notes that children not reaching expected literacy levels are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. The report also specifies that fathers with higher income read to their children more often: 21% of dads in £40-50k income households read to their children, compared with only 11% in homes with annual income of £10-15k. Daily Mail columnist Max Hastings concludes that the principal victims of the British illiteracy crisis are white working-class students, “because their parents cannot remedy at home the shortcoming of schools”.

Another recent survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust shows that three in ten young British people aged from 8 to 17 live in homes without any books. The Evening Standard reports the incident of a nine-year old student who brought an Argos catalogue to school, saying that it was the only “book” his family had. Households without books are bad news for those concerned about literacy levels. Academic research demonstrates that book ownership has a strong positive impact on reading skills as well as general educational achievements. A 2010 study from the University of Nevada[+] NoteEvans et al. (2010). “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations”, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28, pp. 171-197.X [1] suggests that the number of books at home has as big an impact on children’s achievement as parental education levels. The National Literacy Trust’s survey of British children confirms these findings. Children in households without books enjoy reading less, read fewer books and have lower reading levels. Although the Internet and new media technologies are often blamed for decreasing interest in reading on young people’s part[+] NoteSurveys show that 85% of UK children own a video game console, and 81% have a mobile phone.X [2], the same survey suggests that children growing without books are equally less likely to send emails, read websites or communicate through social networking sites. The study concludes that children who grow up without books “are at disadvantage in the modern world”. 

To make the current situation worse, CILIP, the professional association of British librarians, estimates that up to 20% of local public libraries across the country are under threat of closure due to budget cuts. Kensal Rise library in the London borough of Brent, founded by Mark Twain in 1900, is one of them. Widespread protests have managed to partially stall the process – as in January 2011, for example, when residents of Stony Statford spent a week checking out all of the town library’s 16,000 books in protest against its planned closure. The Independent reported that “at one point books were being withdrawn at a rate of 378 an hour”. British writer Alan Bennett suggested that closing libraries amounts to “child abuse”, as it hinders children’s development. Other writers and public figures have joined in protests. Brent Council was brought to court by its residents over its decision to close several local libraries. Despite these various protests, the future of many local public libraries in the UK, according to the Public Libraries News website, still remains uncertain.

Photo credit: basheem / Flickr
  • 1. Evans et al. (2010). “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations”, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28, pp. 171-197.
  • 2. Surveys show that 85% of UK children own a video game console, and 81% have a mobile phone.
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