New data released by educational software company Renaissance Learning has revealed that there is a significant gap between the average reading age of students and the chronological reading age required to understand GCSE exam papers and course materials.

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The research, which involved over 24,500 Year 10 and 11 pupils across the UK, found their actual reading ages were on average at least five years below their chronological ages, and therefore not at a sufficient level to effectively comprehend the GCSE exam materials.

Six randomly selected GCSE exam papers and materials were assessed using the ATOS readability formula, which uses average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage to ascertain the reading level of texts and books, to determine the average reading age required to comprehend the texts.

Meanwhile the reading ages of 24,795 children in GCSE Years 10 and 11 were assessed. While the average reading age of the exam materials was found to be 15 years and seven months – the correct age for GCSE aged pupils, the students’ actual reading age was found to be lagging significantly behind at an average of just 10 years and seven months, indicating a five year disparity between the average reading age of GCSE students and the reading level of GCSE texts.

Dirk Foch, Managing Director at Renaissance Learning, said: “These results are alarming because by GCSE level, most educators make the basic assumption that students are able to read and comprehend an exam text.

"It’s clear from this research that this is not a safe assumption to make. Most students have a reading age significantly below the level that GCSE texts are being aimed at meaning some students are not only failing to access the curriculum, but they are failing to comprehend key course and exam texts. 

“No matter how much enthusiasm or aptitude they might have in chemistry for example, how can a child with a reading age of just above 10 be expected to comprehend a chemistry exam with a reading age of 15 and do well in it? Exam success depends on a child’s ability to read at the right chronological level and reading therefore should be the fundamental backbone of all learning.”

Jonathan Douglas, Director of the charity, National Literacy Trustsaid: “Pupils studying for GCSEs need to be strong enough readers to understand their course textbooks and comprehend exam questions.

"By failing to ensure all young people have the literacy skills they need to access their education, we could be depriving them of the opportunity to succeed both academically and in life. Children’s reading must be supported throughout their time at school to help them succeed across curriculum.”

Texts analysed for the research included:

  • AQA GCSE chemistry exam unedited with an average reading age of 16 years and one month.
  • AQA GCSE chemistry exam edited with an average reading age of 15 years and eight months.
  • BBC Bitesize geography support text with an average reading age of 16 years and seven months.
  • QCA GCSE biology textbook with an average reading age of 15 years and five months.
  • QCA GCSE history exam resources with an average reading age of 14 years and six months.
  • AQA GCSE human geography exam with an average reading age of 15 years and four months.

Dirk added: “By failing to address disparities between reading ability and chronological reading age, we run the risk of depriving pupils of the opportunity to succeed both academically and in life.

"It’s clear that children’s reading must be supported beyond the foundation reading stages to make sure their reading development keeps pace with their chronological age as they move through school.

“Reading is a skill, and like any other skill it needs continual practice to develop. This can be done through daily reading practice and introducing a reading culture within schools. When reading skills are developed so too is comprehension which in turn enables pupils to access and engage with all subjects. Through nurturing the skill of reading there are numerous benefits to overall academic achievement,” he said.

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