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Narrowing the attainment gap and creating a kinder curriculum

Originally published in November 2018

Professor Sue Ellis works at Strathclyde University and is involved in literacy research on raising attainment, shortening the 'tail' of underachievement and narrowing the attainment gap associated with poverty. Her research encourages teachers to focus on the 'literacy mix' rather than individual programmes and to create a kinder, more joyful curriculum experience in which every child learns the pleasure of reading. She has worked with schools across Scotland, and intensively with schools in Renfrewshire and Clackmannanshire. She is also a member of the First Minister's Reading Challenge Advisory Group.

Teachers have always known that reading for pleasure matters but the PISA studies provide hard evidence. The pattern of how reading engagement, gender and social class interrelate was outlined in the earliest PISA reports. [1] From these we learnt that low reading engagement is associated with low attainment and that attainment rises amongst pupils who report 'sometimes reading for pleasure'. For pupils who often read for pleasure, attainment rises again and in this group, and this group only, the attainment gap associated with poverty narrows. [2]

Research has shown why this is so: put simply, reading makes you smarter. [3] Avid readers develop better verbal reasoning skills, a better vocabulary and a wider knowledge of the world. Together these confer a learning advantage across the whole curriculum. 

For teachers, this means teaching young people to want to read as well as how to read. It means teaching in ways that ensure every child experiences reading as emotionally, socially and intellectually rewarding. John Guthrie and his colleagues [4] demonstrate that teaching for high reading engagement requires strategy teaching and curricular coherence and a focus on intrinsic motivation by making school reading activities both social and interesting. The content of texts also matters: providing books that young people enjoy, and opportunities for them to choose what to read for themselves, are both important.

The First Minister's Reading Challenge, in its focus on reading for pleasure, sharing recommendations and personal choice, offers schools across Scotland an opportunity to dedicate themselves to building reading engagement in every child, year on year. Evaluating current practices around reading, learning from the best practice of other schools and creating a reading culture to interest and engage pupils is an ongoing process, but an important one. Involvement in this national programme each year ensures that teachers can continue to reflect on how they approach reading with young people and respond to new ideas and research. 

We have known for some time that young people can read harder texts when they find them interesting [5] and that good reading teachers cultivate individual reading interests and preferences. This means they provide books that specifically build on, and extend, the existing interests of individuals and that they present books in ways that capture and hold the imagination of the whole class. They probably continue use the 'old gold' ideas: they put books on birds alongside a display of real birds’ nests; they turn the classroom into a pirate ship whilst reading Colin’s Pyrate's Boy, [6] and maybe they even take pupils to Greenock, or the parts of Glasgow where it is set; they share powerful novels like Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth [7] and allow heartfelt, informed debates about refugees and how to help them. They may also use new digital technologies to promote communities of readers and access to texts.

Alongside such activities, research indicates that the focus needs to be on pedagogies that make reading part of the informal social fabric of the classroom. This means teaching in ways that encourage young people to recommend books to classmates, and making sure that teaching is inclusive. Being part of a literate society is a 'feeling as well as a fact' [8] so where classroom routines demonstrate highly visible judgements about who is in the 'top group', we shouldn’t be surprised if those in the bottom groups don’t want to read. Teaching for reading engagement does need teachers to rethink and reposition reading, but shifting the focus to make reading a social activity is worth it: Guthrie and Klauda (2014) [9] write 'The extent to which children feel part of a reading community affects what they read, how much they read, how they approach texts and tasks, and the engagement, persistence and motivation they bring'. That's an important message for Scottish schools.


  1. OECD (2003) Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement across Countries. OECD. Publishing Organization For Economic Co-Operation And Development
  2. Brozo, W. G., Shiel, G., & Topping, K. (2007). Engagement in reading: Lessons learned from three PISA countries. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(4), 304-315.
  3. Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American educator, 22, 8-17.
  4. Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. Handbook of reading research, 3, 403-422
  5. Baldwin, R.S., Peleg-Bruckner, Z., & McClintock, A.H. (1985). Effects of topic interest and prior knowledge on reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 497-504. doi:10.2307/747856
  6. Colin, E.B. (2013) Pyrate's Boy. Floris
  7. Naidoo, B (2000) The Other Side of Truth. Penguin
  8. Meek, M. (2011). On being literate. Random House.
  9. Guthrie, J. T., & Klauda, S. L. (2014). Effects of classroom practices on reading comprehension, engagement, and motivations for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 387-416.