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The literacy hour

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Literacy matters. One in five adults in the UK is not functionally literate and this has serious implications for their well-being and economic circumstances, as well as for national productivity. To ensure that this problem does not beset future generations, attention must be given to how best to educate the young to read and write. While economists have much to say about the influence of changing school resources on pupil attainment, there is very little economic research about the effect of changing the content and structure of teaching. In this paper, we evaluate the effect of “the literacy hour” in English primary schools on pupil attainment. This was first introduced in the context of the National Literacy Project (NLP) in September 1996, before it was implemented nationally from September 1998 onwards in the context of the National Literacy Strategy. The central idea is to raise standards of literacy in schools by improving the quality of teaching through more focused literacy instruction and effective classroom management. We evaluate the literacy hour for schools in the National Literacy Project (NLP), which was undertaken in about 400 English primary schools in the school years 1996-97 and 1997-98. We compare the reading and overall English attainment of children in NLP schools as compared to a set of control schools at the end of primary school education (age 11). We find a large increase in attainment in reading and English for pupils in NLP schools as compared to pupils not exposed to the literacy hour over this time period. A further aspect of this policy is its potential impact on the gender gap in pupil attainment. For many years, the attainment of boys in literacy-related activities has been considerably lower than that of girls. We find some evidence that at age 11, boys received a greater benefit from the literacy hour than girls. Finally, we consider the cost-effectiveness of the policy. The benefits of the policy (in terms of standard deviations) are comparable to much more expensive policies such as a class size reduction. We estimate the wage return likely to arise from the increase in reading attainment as a consequence of the literacy hour. The per-pupil cost of the NLP is only a small fraction of the estimated benefits. Hence, the policy is extremely cost effective. These findings are of strong significance when placed into the wider education debate about what works best in schools for improving pupil performance. The evidence reported here suggests that public policy aimed at changing the content and structure of teaching can significantly raise pupil attainment.

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