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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

Reading during lockdown: Supporting vulnerable learners

Jane Carter, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at University of the West of England

Learning to read is perhaps the most important thing we learn to do. There is significant evidence that being a reader impacts on future social, emotional, economic and academic success. A failure to learn to read comes at a great cost: to the economy, to public health, to safety, and to democratic and community engagement (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018).

It is not surprising therefore, that when the Covid-19 virus struck, forcing schools to close their doors and migrate learning online, there was a deep and real concern for the most vulnerable learners: those who had already been identified by schools as needing additional support and specialist intervention; and those with few books at home or with parents and carers who did not have the confidence or resources to support their child. In their research for the National Literacy Trust, Clark and Picton (2020) found that while reading engagement and enjoyment increased for 8-to-18-year-olds during lockdown, they also identified a growing gap between the genders. Lucas, Nelson and Sims (2020), meanwhile, have highlighted the impact of social and economic disadvantage on access to learning during lockdown. This highlights how Stanovich’s (1986) ‘Matthew Effect’ can impact on the youngest readers – the more you read the better you get; the better you get the more you read.

‘A failure to learn to read comes at a great cost: to the economy, to public health, to safety, and to democratic and community engagement.’

I have been awarded a small grant from the British Educational Research Association to study the impact of school closures on the lowest-attaining readers in primary schools. Part of the study focuses on schools with a reading specialist teacher (a Reading Recovery teacher). The study also aims to highlight the innovations and challenges experienced when trying to maintain one-to-one reading support online.

Six of the 28 schools taking part in the study managed to continue one-to-one reading with the most vulnerable learners, but this was not an easy task. The following are just some of the hurdles that the teachers have reported as part of the study.

  1. Access to appropriate IT hardware – the children involved were six years old, so few had access other than through a parent’s phone.
  2. Safeguarding protocols, as both the child and the teacher were in their private homes during the one-to-one tutoring.
  3. Data protection (GDPR) concerns.
  4. Sharing books online so both the teacher and the child were able to see the text. The obvious solution might have been to use ebooks, but this presented further issues with accessing external websites while in the session and sharing screens.
  5. Engaging young children online through a small screen. This challenge was magnified as the children identified for support were those who were already reluctant to read, found reading difficult or were often distracted even when face to face.

Initial findings from the research show some of the innovations that teachers developed during the lockdown period: developing banks of scanned books; involving parents in the one-to-one reading sessions so that safeguarding concerns were addressed along with the added benefit of parents developing their skills in supporting their child’s reading; working with publishers around copyright; and adapting sessions to address the engagement of each child. Further innovations involved increasing the number of adults trained to deliver one-to-one reading interventions and so working with local initial teacher education student volunteers. One parent participant in the research study reported that the involvement of the student had been the first online learning her child had engaged with during the whole of the lockdown period and, in fact, the child was so excited about his reading session with the student that he had got up early on the days of his online reading and changed into his school uniform ready to impress the student teacher!

Clearly we are not yet out of the woods with Covid-19, so it is essential that we learn the lessons from school closures in the summer term and from the teachers that were able to adapt and develop one-to-one support online for the most vulnerable readers.


Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.

Clark, C., & Picton, I. (2020). Children and young people’s reading in 2020 before and during the COVID-19 lockdown. London: National Literacy Trust. Retrieved from

Lucas, M., Nelson, J., & Sims, D. (2020). Pupil engagement in remote learning. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research. Retrieved from

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 360–407.