Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Multiple barriers prevent children and learners from acquiring literacy skills – Ofsted

An Ofsted report launched today looking at the barriers to good literacy shows that poor development of speaking and listening skills at an early age is holding children back from learning to read and write.

The report, Removing barriers to literacy, also highlights the need for teachers to have high expectations, the importance of the systematic teaching of phonics, and how the clear assessment of individual pupils’ progress and needs can drive improvement.

Inspectors found that less successful schools limited their expectations of pupils because they measured success against the average for a particular group rather than against the national average for all pupils. For example, where targets for pupils from low-income families were below those of their peers, schools were less likely to narrow the attainment gap for all groups of pupils.

Launching the report, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert said:

‘Despite some major initiatives in recent years to improve reading and writing, the standards being reached by some groups of children and young people, including those from low-income families, certain ethnic groups and looked after children, still fall far below that of the rest of the population.

‘Our recent report, ‘Reading by Six’, focused on how to help the one in five children who arrive at secondary school without the expected standard in reading and writing. This survey looks at a wider age-range and types of provision, but the messages are the same. Literacy is fundamental to good learning and achievement. It must therefore be a top priority for all age groups.

‘The approaches to literacy that work best are rooted in high expectations, in a systematic and consistent approach with staff well trained to teach literacy and to monitor progress closely. Reports on achievement and progress in literacy should be produced regularly for governing bodies, looking at individual and group performance.’

In raising the attainment of learners in literacy who are most at risk of not gaining the skills they need for successful lives, the factors identified from visits on this survey included:

  • teachers with high expectations for pupils’ achievements in literacy
  • an emphasis on speaking and listening skills from an early age
  • a rigorous, sequential approach to developing speaking and listening and teaching reading, writing and spelling through systematic phonics
  • sharp assessment of progress in order to determine the most appropriate programme or support
  • carefully planned provision to meet individual needs
  • rigorous monitoring of the impact of provision
  • high-quality pastoral care to support learning in literacy
  • highly effective use of time, staff and resources.

The most successful schools, colleges and other providers of adult education and training made outstanding use of national test and assessment data to raise the expectations of staff and to set sufficiently challenging targets.

The most effective providers had at least one senior member of staff with an excellent knowledge of how to teach literacy well. They understood the stages of language development and how and when to provide additional support.

The best early years providers and primary schools visited understood the need to teach phonics rigorously and systematically and the importance of regular reading. However, phonics needs to be central to the teaching of reading in both secondary schools and colleges too.

The most effective providers reflected on and adapted their curriculum, including any intervention programmes, to meet changing needs. Literacy was taught in contexts that were relevant and meaningful to learners. Staff identified learners’ different starting points and needs accurately.

Successful schools showed that the acquisition of literacy skills often needs to be underpinned by high-quality pastoral care and supported by effective partnerships with parents, carers and agencies beyond the school.

The report recommends that the Department for Education should, as part of its reform of performance tables, consider how to reflect the achievement and progress of pupils from disadvantaged groups, especially in literacy, compared with the national picture for all pupils.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should ensure that revisions to adult literacy qualifications include suitable assessment of learners’ writing skills.

Learning and skills providers should ensure that adult learners without a grasp of phonics receive the necessary teaching and all teaching and support staff receive regular training in developments in teaching literacy.

Notes for Editors

1. The report will be available on the Ofsted website It draws on evidence from survey visits conducted between June 2008 and February 2010. Inspectors visited 45 early years registered providers, 37 secondary and 61 primary schools, 21 colleges, 16 independent training providers, eight local authority providers of adult and community learning, and education provision in one prison and one young offender institution. These were selected because previous inspections and current data indicated strengths in their provision, and in the case of schools, particularly for those who were eligible for free school meals.

2. The survey focused mainly on: pupils eligible for free school meals; looked after children (children in public care); and White British boys from low-income households. In the second year, the focus of the survey shifted, in all the schools selected for visits, to pupils known to be eligible for free school meals who were reaching at least average levels of attainment nationally in English. The intention was to identify good practice in supporting these learners. In the main, the providers visited served areas of high socio-economic disadvantage and yet achieved outcomes in English that were at or above the levels expected nationally.

3. In November 2010 Ofsted published Reading by Six: how the best schools do it.

4. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children's social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

5. Media can contact the Ofsted Press Office through 020 7421 5866 or via Ofsted's enquiry line 0300 1231231 between 8.30am - 6.30pm Monday - Friday. Out of these hours, during evenings and weekends, the duty press officer can be reached on 07919 057359. Alternatively, please email


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