A mother and son read a book together.

Closing the Literacy Gap.

Jul 08, 2021

What is the literacy gap, and why does it matter? 

Put simply; the literacy gap is the disparity in reading and writing skills between children from poor backgrounds and those from wealthier backgrounds. On average, children from the poorest backgrounds start school 19 months behind other children. Sadly, this gap only widens as they get older. As a result, children from the lowest-income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education.  

Of course, this gives the UK’s poorest children an unfair disadvantage in the classroom. But the impact of the literacy gap extends way beyond school, with these children being four times more likely to struggle to read as adults and twice as likely to be unemployed at the age of 34. 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted disadvantaged students? 

It’s clear that the UK’s literacy gap is alarming, and its consequences are far-reaching. It has long been a concern for teachers who want positive outcomes for all students, regardless of their background. However, it has become a particularly prevalent topic over the past year as the gap in literacy skills between rich and poor has been widened as a direct result of school closures during the pandemic.  

Anecdotally, PEN has heard stories from some of our member schools of children falling behind, with children from poorer homes being disproportionately affected. This learning lag is due, at least partly, to a lack of access to computers and stable internet.   

The national picture seems to echo this. For example, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported that the gap has widened by 46%, with disadvantaged and BAME students being worst affected.  The NFER concluded this figure after interviews with 3000 teachers and headteachers, who widely reported that disadvantaged and BAME children had gone backwards compared with their better-off peers since March. This regression is hugely concerning considering the significant impact that the literacy gap already has on disadvantaged students. 

So what can be done? 

With teachers and school staff already under so much pressure with school reopening, it’s difficult to imagine how they’ll have the time or resources to solve this growing problem. The government has pledged to focus £700m in ‘catch up’ funding for education on disadvantaged children as schools and early years settings recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. No doubt, this financial backing, as well as teachers’ passion and tenacity, will go some way to helping disadvantaged children who’ve fallen behind. However, as children spend 70-80% of their waking hours outside of school, perhaps schools should consider how best to engage children’s parents/guardians with this issue?  

The importance of parental engagement 

It is PEN’s view that parents play a huge role in improving literacy and that successful engagement with parents will lead to tangible improvements in whole school attainment. Indeed, the research shows extensive evidence of the positive impact of parental engagement programmes on children’s literacy. Below, we’ve cited some of the suggestions from the NFER guide to Parental Engagement and Narrowing the Gap in Attainment for Disadvantaged Children. PEN believes these tips are an excellent foundation for any school looking to improve parental engagement. 

  • Use evidence to choose the best parental engagement strategies for your school Consider the available research evidence on which strategies work best and how to implement them; research into local needs and circumstances; data from consultations with staff, parents and pupils. 
  • Give your parental engagement strategies the best chance of working. For example, ensure they get proper financial resourcing and have designated senior staff engaged with and committed to the strategy. 
  • Use a whole school approach for engaging parents. You can use the PEN toolkit to help with this!  
  • Prioritise communication. Provide clear, specific and targeted information for parents. Use ICT to give parents access to information and engagement opportunities. Use a variety of approaches to engage parents and consult with parents regularly. Make your expectations of parents and children clear. 
  • Maximise choice, minimise barriers. When designing parental engagement activities, consider the logistical barriers faced by parents (such as costs, time and transport). Provide universal services to reduce stigmatisation. Use a range of different engagement strategies and let parents choose what they want to participate in.  
  • Provide advice, emotional support and training to enable positive parenting.  Support and training for parents can achieve greater parental confidence in managing children’s behaviour and supporting children’s learning. 
  • Work with others. Develop partnership and multi-agency arrangements with local services. This co-production offers more opportunities to reach the most vulnerable families because any service they are in contact with can refer them to supportive interventions.  
  • Don’tforget male role models! Use strategies such as hands-on activities designed to appeal to males, initial face-to-face contact with intensive follow-up contact via mobile phone, and employing male practitioners to work with them.  


The Literacy Trust has a range of evidence-based resources to enable children and families to build up reading skills.


Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team. 
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.