Poor reading skills are the most serious weakness in our education system

It should be obvious that reading skills are essential throughout education, so why has this very serious problem only just come to light?

Share
Related Topics

It was reported last week that many school pupils read so poorly at age 16 that they struggle to decipher their GCSE papers. I am not in the least surprised.

‘A child who cannot read cannot learn’ said David Blunkett when he was Secretary of State for Education in the Labour government in the late 90s. He was right of course, although it’s worrying that there should have been a need to state something so blatantly obvious.

So why has so little attention been paid – for decades now – to making sure that every child can read fluently and effortlessly? It is because no government, secretary of state or Department for Education adviser seems to be able to see beyond the mechanics of phonics or ‘sounding out’ systematically to deduce that the letters c-a-t ‘says’ cat and d-o-g ‘says’ dog.

Yes, of course phonics matter. They’re a good starting point for a very young, pre-literate child. Phonics provides useful grounding - but that’s all. Large numbers of words are not spelled phonetically. You have to learn to recognise and remember, say, ‘aunt’ ‘sign’ or ‘awkward’ as you go along. You have pick your way round anomalies such as ‘come’ ‘comb’ ‘tomb’ and ‘tome’ too. And if your name happens to be George or Charlotte …

It should be obvious - even to Department for Education officials - that phonics can only ever be half the story, but it isn’t. Following last week’s report that many GCSE students cannot read properly one of them apparently rummaged about in the DfE statement bank and intoned mantra-like:  “ … we are prioritising the teaching of synthetic phonics as the internationally proven method to teach reading effectively.”

He or she, as usual, clearly hadn’t read what the research by the company Renaissance Reading actually said. It was not critical of the way in which all children are now helped to decipher the squiggles on the page. It was concerned about how too many schools then fail to develop reading as a high level skill which has to be practised all the time for the rest of the pupil’s school life.

The teaching of reading does not end once the child knows all the sounds which letters and groups of letters (such as ‘str’ or ‘au’) make and can assemble or interpret them in words – along with some whole word recognition practice.

That is the point at which the real teaching of reading should begin. Every child should be led to books – and books and books – and given quiet time and space in which to work through them. That means school and public libraries. It also means giving reading real status in schools.

Every child should spend part of every day reading silently. Renaissance Reading offers computer-based schemes to encourage that but, although many schools have had some success with these, I find them a bit mechanical and I think you can encourage reading without them.

Actually it’s easy. All a school has to do is to put books and reading at the centre of what it does. Teachers and other adults in schools should be talking about reading and being seen to read themselves. For at least half an hour a day everyone should read – including the adults. Nothing is more important and example works wonders. Wise teachers let pupils choose their own books and don’t worry too much about quality at first. The important thing is to build reading stamina – in a world when there are many distractions.

It’s like swimming. You can learn a bit of theory about strokes, breathing and aqua-dynamics – the equivalent of decoding skills – but you learn to swim by getting into the water and striking out. Only deep end readers are likely to be able to read their GCSE papers confidently and competently.

So why has this very serious problem only just come to light? It’s because we’ve been bamboozled for decades by artificial, moveable contrivances such as ‘expected levels’ and ‘pass marks’ and a woolly, but pernicious, idea that every exam and test must be ‘accessible’ to all, which in practice simply means that everything gets easier and standards fall. So, naturally few people have noticed that reading skills have quietly declined – although the CBI and university admissions tutors have tried from time to time to raise the alarm.

Michael Gove and the coalition seem to be agreed that education has got itself into a very serious muddle. I hope they understand that failure to develop reading skills properly is at the heart of everything which has gone wrong. But I’m not holding my breath.

Susan Elkin’s book Unlocking the Reader in Every Child is published by Ransom and her Encouraging Reading by Continuum.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital