Our analysis makes clear how important it is for children to be good readers. Students who have poor reading skills will find it more difficult to access wide swathes of their GCSE courses - and those who lack subject specific language skills, which are difficult to acquire if students don’t have good reading skills, will be doubly disadvantaged.

Key findings

  • A quarter of students at 15 still have a reading age of 12 or below.
  • There is a significant correlation between student reading ability and eventual performance across all subjects at GCSE, which is just as strong in maths and sciences as it is in arts subjects.
  • The overwhelming majority of students – four in five – will be less likely to have the literacy skills to access a GCSE curriculum at Year 7.
  • Those who lack specific subject literacy, which is difficult to acquire if students don’t have general literacy skills, will be doubly disadvantaged.
  • The gender gap in reading ability widens at secondary school, with girls outperforming boys, whereas the gap in reading ability between FSM and non-FSM students remains static between Years 7 and 11.

Several academic studies over the past few years have suggested that there is a strong link between reading ability and general academic performance1. Children who are more literate, it’s argued, can more easily access the curriculum than those who struggle, and have more opportunity to succeed academically.

Ofsted clearly agrees. Its latest framework has emphasised the crucial role of reading in enabling children to access the whole school curriculum and its continued importance throughout a child’s school career – not just in primary. As it points out, “If we want to give all children an opportunity, a good place to start is reading to them frequently, introducing new vocabulary and meaning within contexts that stimulate their thinking2.”

Unsurprisingly, the inspectorate has been especially concerned that ‘all children’ cannot readily access the curriculum if their literacy is poor. Consequently, inspectors have been keen to learn if schools can identify struggling pupils, the help they receive and the progress being made.

Teachers in turn have raised pertinent questions. It might be assumed that there is a strong correlation between reading ability and performance in arts subjects but what about maths and science – is it as evident? How important is vocabulary and subject literacy? What is the impact of gender and social context?

To answer these and other questions, GL Assessment analysed the data from more than 370,000 secondary school pupils across the UK in one of the largest studies of its kind. We have also drawn on the initial findings of the Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project, which aims to raise the reading abilities of children in one of the most challenging areas of the country, and looked at one secondary school in particular to find out what obstacles to literacy teachers are facing and how they are overcoming them. The results are illuminating.

Children who are weak readers will struggle as much in maths and science at GCSE as they do in English and in arts subjects, according to one of the biggest ever studies of student reading.

The link between good reading and good grades is actually higher in maths than in some arts subjects like English literature and history.

Main findings

Our study showed that there is a significant correlation between reading ability (as measured by the New Group Reading Test, a termly standardised reading assessment) and GCSE results across all subjects3.

This was not just the case in English, but in maths and science too. Indeed, the correlation between good literacy and good student outcomes at GCSE was higher in maths (0.63) than in some arts subjects like history (0.61) and English literature (0.60). See more in the table below.

To assess the degree of association between NGRT and grades in GCSE we use a measure called the correlation coefficient. The correlation coefficient will vary between 0 (no association) and 1 (perfect agreement). Correlations above 0.7 are considered strong; correlations around 0.5 and 0.6 are moderate and statistically significant. High correlations in arts subjects are not surprising. But the correlations in maths and the sciences also underscore just how ‘text heavy’ most academic subjects are and why literacy is so crucial. Even the more expressive subjects – art, drama, music – have strong correlations to reading ability. Creativity, in effect, will be enhanced by reading.

GCSE subject Correlation
English Language 0.65
Geography 0.65
Maths 0.63
History 0.61
Science Combined 0.61
English Literature 0.60
Drama 0.57
Citizenship 0.56
German 0.55

Subject literacy

At secondary school, subject literacy is likely to be as important as general literacy. Anyone with extra-curricular interests will know how reading about them deepens understanding and enjoyment. The same is true of any academic subject.

Given the importance of literacy to the whole school curriculum, it follows that those students who struggle with it are at a significant disadvantage - a sizable minority are years behind their peers at age 15. According to our study, nationally 25% of 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 or below, 20% a reading age of 11 and below and 10% a reading age of 9 and below. Those proportions of course will vary by school – and will tend to be significantly worse in the most challenging.

On average, nationally only 20% of 11-year-olds have a reading age of 15 or above (see Fig 1). That is one reason why schools that introduce GCSE curricula prematurely at Year 7 are likely to encounter difficulties – because four in five students will lack the reading ability to readily access them.

% of students attaining reading age 15 by age of students
Figure 1
% of students attaining reading age 15 by age and gender
Figure 2
% of students attaining reading age 15 by age and Free School Meals
Figure 3
% of students attaining reading age 15 by age, gender and Free School Meals (FSM)
Figure 4

Gender and social context

Our research does point to some differences in reading ability by both gender and social background.

At age 15, 53% of girls have a reading age of 15 and higher compared to only 47% of boys (see Fig 2). This is a shift from the situation at age 11, where the gender gap is much smaller – 21% of girls and 19% of boys have that ability. The later gender gap is of course reflected in exam results – only 44% of boys in 2018/19 in England received a grade between 9 and 5 in English language GCSE compared to 61% of girls.

There is also a pronounced 11 percentage point gap in reading ability at age 15 between FSM and non-FSM pupils (see Fig 3). The gap is relatively similar over the course of secondary school – it is 10 percentage points at age 11, and 11 percentage points at age 15 – but the overall figure masks a big gender divide.

FSM boys fall even further behind their non-FSM male cohort, with the gap growing from 10 percentage points at age 11, to 13 at age 15 (see Fig 4). This performance is even wider when comparing FSM boys and girls – a 2-percentage point gap at age 11 widens to an 8-percentage point gap at age 15.

Reading in a local context

National averages, of course, mask a large degree of regional and school variation. Those in deprived areas will typically see far lower reading scores. Blackpool is a case in point. Of the eight schools taking part in the Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project, outlined in Stephen Tierney's article, seven have NGRT scores below the national average at KS3.

Reading comprehension is often poor, while many students lack the ‘cultural capital’ to fully understand texts or have the knowledge or confidence to range more widely. Speech and language difficulties also make the curriculum hard, if not impossible, to access.

In Blackpool, 16% of pupils are in the lowest NGRT reading performance band (stanine 1), which is four times the national average (4%). But just as national data can obscure regional variation, a town’s averages can mask considerable differences at the individual school level. South Shore Academy, for example, which is in one of the most deprived areas of Blackpool, has significantly lower scores than those of its neighbours. Almost one in four (24%) are in the lowest stanine – six times the national average.

The Literacy Project has started to achieve real results in a number of its schools – Ed Diversity, Armfield and St Mary's, to name just a few. Yet it is South Shore that has seen the biggest improvement in reading scores. To understand exactly how South Shore did it, click here.

In Blackpool, 16% of pupils are in the lowest NGRT reading performance band (stanine 1), which is four times the national average (4%).

Cres Fernandes
Cres Fernandes

Tom Gallacher
Tom Gallacher

About the Authors

Cres Fernandes is Head of Statistics at GL Assessment. He has worked on the national standardisations of most of GL Assessment’s tests over the past 20 years, including the subsequent research looking at how these assessments correlate with national tests such as KS2 SATs and GCSEs. He has an interest in computer adaptive tests and has helped to develop the algorithms for GL Assessment’s adaptive tests, including NGRT.

Tom Gallacher MA MSc MBPsS is a statistician at GL Assessment. He works on the standardisation and validation of many of GL Assessment's standardised assessments, as well as data projects in the UK and globally. His research interests include validity and curriculum, with a special interest in the applications of Rasch models.

  1. Reading: the next steps, Department for Education, March 2015; Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown, Institute of Education, 2013
  2. School Inspection Update, Ofsted, January 2019
  3. GL Assessment analysed the data from 370,000 secondary school students aged 11-15 who sat the New Group Reading Test in England in 2018/19

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