Family Matters: Fighting back against the silent disease

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It’s a shocking statistic – as many as 17 per cent of 16 to 19 year-olds in this country are functionally illiterate.

The figure equates to millions of teenagers across the county and hundreds in Sheffield.

In fact, so bad is the situation that The World Literacy Foundation believes that as many as one in five of the UK population struggle to even write a cheque or read a label on a medicine bottle.

But the impact of illiteracy goes beyond the individual.

Research has shown not only does being illiterate reduce an individual’s quality of life, it also costs the British economy a whopping £81 million a year in benefits spending and loss of earnings. But there is hope.

Illiteracy is easily avoided – pioneering research at the University of Sheffield has shown that help is at hand.

Research conducted by the University of Sheffield and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) showed that early intervention is key to success when it comes to children and literacy.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Education, recently led a project whereby literacy experts trained 60 adults in a system that encouraged toddlers to engage with reading.

The system is known as Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction and Models – simply known as ‘ORIM’ and is based on four basic principles to engage very young children with reading. The first – referred to as ‘opportunities’ – suggests that children benefit from having books and writing materials around the home, this inspires children to either read or discuss printed work.

The second principle is ‘recognition’, where parents are shown the small steps their children were making in terms of their literacy awareness.

The third principle is ‘interaction’ and to crystallise a child’s engagement with reading and writing parents are encouraged to get involved with the children during activities such as making and writing birthday cards, singing nursery rhymes, reading stories or spotting print images in the neighbourhood.

The fourth principle – the ‘M’ – is ‘modelling, and this is where the parents lead by example by reading and writing at home, demonstrating that literacy is a fundamental part of life.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown also shared her approach on family literacy with Early Years practitioners including nursery workers, teachers, child-minders and family support units to help them plan and evaluate their family literacy work. And she was delighted to discover that the initial 20 practitioners had shared the approach with some 300 colleagues, far more than anticipated, creating case studies documenting the benefits of the approach.

Professor Nutbrown said: “We have been excited to see how the Early Years practitioners involved in this project are taking our ideas and developing them further to work with parents who have young children, so that they can help develop their interest in literacy from an early age. This has greatly exceeded our expectations and by the end of the project the new approach reached over 6,000 families.”

About 20 practitioners learned the theory behind the practical work they do and how it can benefit children’s literacy. They agreed to adopt the framework and report back on its application, how they adapted it and impact.

Professor Nutbrown’s work complements existing research. Another study into literacy in children showed that the benefits of early intervention and encouragement with literacy benefited children way beyond their toddler years.

In fact, the benefits of a stimulating environment at a very young age could still be reaped at the age of 14. The research, which was conducted by the Institute of Education discovered that the impact of early education had huge implications for a child’s performance in secondary school.

The same study also showed that a mother’s level of academic achievement is the strongest indicator of potential achievement.

Literacy is the bedrock of a good education, but it all starts at home.