Skills for the Job: Literacy problems

The National Literacy Trust's Emily McCoy explains the steps youth workers can take to help young people who struggle with reading.

How many young people have literacy problems?

One in six young people in the UK will struggle with their literacy. Young people not reaching expected literacy levels are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. By age 11, young people should be able to read simple texts, such as The Sun newspaper. After the age of 11, advances in reading levels will be hard to spot quickly, although young people should become more confident communicators, and their writing abilities should continue to become more refined.

The most recent statistics available show that about 20 per cent of pupils fail to reach the standard expected of them at age 11. At age 16, only 31 per cent of pupils from the most deprived areas achieve five or more A*-C grades at GCSE including English, compared with 59 per cent from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

A 2011 CBI/EDI employer survey shows that 42 per cent are not satisfied with the basic use of English by school and college leavers. To address the weaknesses in basic skills, almost half of employers have had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.

Why is reading so important?

Reading, writing, speaking and listening are the building blocks of literacy that are vital for a happy, successful and fulfilling life. In the short-term, when young people are struggling, they will sometimes attempt to "disappear" in class by keeping their head down and sitting in the corner when they are asked to read. Others memorise stories that have been read to them or will be disruptive.

In the long-term, people with poor literacy skills earn less, vote less, have lower aspirations, higher rates of family breakdown, and poorer mental and physical health. Many young people don't realise the impact of literacy on success. They feel disengaged from education, and come from families where parents also have literacy issues and don't know how to support their children to develop the literacy skills they need.

How can youth workers help?

The single most effective way to find out if a young person is having trouble reading is to have them read out loud in an environment in which they trust those they are with. Read to them, have them read to you and alternate.

Young people with low literacy tend to be reluctant to admit to their literacy difficulties and ask for help. Youth workers should discuss the benefits of improving their reading and writing.

For younger members, families and school are of vital importance for their literacy development. Local libraries can also be helpful, providing support such as appropriate reading materials.

For older members of the youth club who may have left formal education, they may need support with the process of finding and joining a class that can help them with their reading.

Are there any particular programmes that youth clubs should consider running?

Youth workers can use some of these ideas to help encourage reading for pleasure and to make literacy a less intimidating subject for young people:

  • Establish a place where young people can swap reading material - encourage them to read a range of materials such as magazines, newspapers, novels, non-fiction books or websites they like to visit.
  • Help young people to develop the skills they will need for life outside school. Make links with local employers to see if they will mentor pupils.
  • Use a buddying system to help encourage young people to read together once a week.
  • Link with your local library to get ideas of books that are good for those that find reading hard.
  • Celebrate any kind of written language, for example, blogs, screen reads, writing lyrics and even text messages.

Emily McCoy is communities and local areas manager at the National Literacy Trust.



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