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Improving global literacy outcomes through speech rhythms

Poor literacy levels are a significant social, health and economic issue, costing the UK approximately £2.4 billion annually. Coventry University researchers Professor Clare Wood, Professor Julia Carroll, Dr Andrew Holliman, Dr Helen Breadmore and Dr Janet Vousden have been working to address this issue.

Coventry University were commissioned by a number of high-profile organisations to focus on rigorous studies of the roles of metalinguistic (awareness of language) skills in literacy, establishing best practices in reading interventions and evaluating existing initiatives for their effectiveness. Metalinguistic skills can be around awareness of speech rhythms (prosodic sensitivity), speech sounds (phonemic sensitivity) and meaning units (morphemic sensitivity).

A project funded by the Nuffield Foundation featured Coventry University researchers testing speech rhythm sensitivity to help prevent literacy difficulties in young children. The results revealed that teaching prosodic sensitivity in the early years helps to improve literacy development.

This research was picked up by a publisher, Rising Star, who used the findings to underpin a new reading scheme ‘Reading Planet’, which educates teachers and parents about prosodic sensitivity, supporting children between four and seven to become confident readers. Over 550 fiction and non-fiction books now embed this research. Reading Planet is used by over 1,900 schools, reaching an estimated 200,000 children in the UK. Initial international sales resulted in over 500,000 export copies sold to date, with Australia the major export market.

Results from the Reading Planet include Tranmoor Primary School, who saw a 10% increase in the Key Stage 1 reading SATs (standard assessment tests) results, with a 15% increase in the numbers of children achieving ‘greater depth’.

Coventry University researchers have also played an important role in advising government institutions on best practice in literacy teaching, including reviewing effective interventions for children with special educational needs for the Department for Education (DfE). This informed the Early Career Framework, which now provides national guidance for newly qualified teachers, affecting over 28,000 new teachers annually. The DfE later worked with Coventry University to create the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Toolkit, a guidance resource for educators.

In 2018, the Education Endowment Foundation, an independent UK charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, commissioned Coventry researchers to review the literature on literacy attainment in schools, with the review underpinning guidance provided to secondary school teachers across the UK.

In 2020, an overview of specific learning difficulties was completed, including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia, for the Council of Science and Technology (CST), who advise the Prime Minister on science and technology issues. This led directly to a letter from the CST to the Prime Minister making six recommendations for change.

This research has not only influenced UK education policy and teaching provision for children at risk of literacy difficulties, but also lead to a commercial reading scheme which has been adopted in almost 2,000 schools internationally.

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