Reading between the lines: Welsh children’s reading and writing skills



Tuesday (November 16), the Minister for Education and Welsh Language will make a statement to the Senedd on ‘Orality and reading for children’. This article discusses concerns about the speech and language development of very young children and progress on the Welsh government’s long-standing priority of improving the literacy skills of older pupils.

The importance of speech development in the early years

Talk to me, the Welsh Government’s biennial plan (2020-2022) to improve speech, language and communication support for children aged 0-4 years and 11 months, states:

It is widely recognized that the development of a child in the early years is vital. This includes the acquisition by children of the speech, language and communication (SLC) and oral skills that underpin a child’s ability to read and write and to solve problems. Positive cognitive development is strongly associated with a child’s success in school and entering the workforce.

The Royal College of Speech-Language Pathologists (RCSLT) reported that restrictions on coronaviruses have worsened delays in SLC in young children. Even before the pandemic, stakeholders feared that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to lag behind their peers in their SLC development by the time they start primary school.

Save the children Research 2016 reported that nearly eight in ten reception teachers (79%) in Wales often see children who join their school having difficulty speaking in full sentences. 89% of teachers surveyed said that children who start in reception class with speech and language delays are even further behind in their learning.

Save the children previously reported in 2015 that children who have speech and language difficulties in their early years often still lag their peers in key literacy skills by age 11. RCSLT Submission in Senedd in 2017 provides more details on concerns about the development of SLC, including the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life and the negative impact of poverty.

Priority to school-age literacy

Improving student literacy has been a priority for the Welsh government since the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 provided, in the words of the then minister, a “Wake-up call to a complacent system”.

The Welsh government presented literacy and numeracy programs and subsequently a framework in 2013, aimed to “raise the bar higher” in terms of student achievement expectations in reading and arithmetic. Oracy, the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech, was one component of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework, which was later incorporated into English and Welsh study programs.

The Welsh government has also introduced national reading and numeracy tests (which have evolved into Personalized evaluations), taken annually by students in grades 2 to 9.

Literacy will continue to be a priority in the new Program for Wales, forming one of the three statutory transversal competences alongside numeracy and digital competence. It is therefore at the heart of the Welsh government pursuit school improvement program.

How well can 15 year olds in Wales read?

Reading is one of the three main areas of PISA tests, in which Wales has participated since 2006. PISA, which is run by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years, ranks countries’ education systems, based on the performance of a sample 15-year-old students.

The graph below shows how Wales’ PISA reading score has fluctuated over the five PISA cycles since 2006. In the latest results (2018), Wales’ reading score (483) remains the lowest in the UK and is further behind other UK countries and the OECD average than the other two areas of mathematics and science, which are also lowest in the UK.

Wales PISA scores in 2018 and previous cycles

Source: Extract from the National Foundation for Educational Research, Results for 15-year-olds in Wales: PISA 2018 national report (2019)

Because reading was the main area in 2018, which means there was more testing and more analysis of the results, there is a lot of information in the Wales official 2018 PISA results report (see chapter 2). Here are some key points:

  • While there has been little improvement in Wales’ reading score since 2006, there are signs of relative improvement. In 2018, 22 countries had significantly higher scores than Wales. This compares to 30 countries surpassing Wales in 2015, 31 in 2012 and 29 in 2009.
  • For the first time since the start of PISA, Wales’ 2018 reading score was not statistically significantly different from the OECD average (this has as much, if not more, to do with the declining average OECD than with the increase in the Wales score).
  • There were four aspects to how reading skills were tested in PISA 2018: ‘seeking information’, ‘understanding’, ‘assessing and reflecting’ and ‘reading fluency’. Wales performed relatively well (relative to its overall reading score) on ‘information seeking’ and ‘assessment and thinking’ and relatively poorly on ‘comprehension’. In terms of ‘reading fluency’, Welsh pupils performed better when reading documents containing multiple pieces of text than those containing a single piece of text.
  • Girls outperformed boys in reading, as in all other participating countries. In Wales, this difference was statistically significant in contrast to the gender differences in math and science.

The previous Welsh government had a goal that Wales would reach 500 in its PISA scores by the 2021 cycle (which now takes place in 2022 due to the pandemic). This requires a 17 point increase from its reading score in 2018. To put this in context, Wales’ reading score increased by six points between 2015 and 2018.

What does the school inspectorate say, Estyn?

Estyn reported this year on how children ages 3-11 are developing their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in English and Welsh– average settings respectively. It said:

  • Most children generally make great strides in developing their language and literacy skills effectively.
  • However, despite improvements in some aspects of speaking, reading and writing, overall language and literacy standards in primary schools are broadly similar to those reported in 2016.
  • The writing level of learners in many primary schools remains the lowest of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing).
  • In most settings and primary schools, learners have positive attitudes towards the development of language and literacy skills. However, learners’ enjoyment of reading decreases during their time in primary school. In English-speaking schools, this is more common among boys and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Most learners in Welsh speaking settings have positive attitudes towards the development of their Welsh skills. They pride themselves on communicating in Welsh and understand the value and benefits of developing their Welsh skills.

In his 2018-19 Annual Report Estyn’s chief education and training inspector at the time wrote about the importance of speaking and listening to students’ reading and writing skills:

In general, elementary and secondary school students do not always have sufficient opportunities to participate in learning experiences that focus specifically on speaking, for example to improve their ability to question, challenge and benefit from contributions. of others through the debate. In less effective schools, listening and speaking are seen as skills that support reading and writing, rather than skills that need to be developed as such. Frequently, teachers’ interventions and comments focus exclusively on what students are talking about rather than how they say it.

How to follow the Minister’s statement

The minister is due to make his statement on “The prayer and reading of children” in the Senedd around 4:15 pm on Tuesday November 16. It can be watched live or any time later Television sent. A transcript will be available on Senedd’s Record of proceedings about 24 hours later.

Members and stakeholders may be interested in whether the Minister is referring to the goal of achieving 500 points in Wales’ reading score in PISA and whether the Welsh government maintains this target.

Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament


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