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Few people realise how badly most British citizens read. Up to 30 per cent (20 million) of our population leave school with a reading standard worse than an average 11-year-old. This means they cannot follow the instructions on the back of a seed packet or look up "plumber" in Yellow Pages. One in 10 has a reading age of less than six. Although official statistics claim that Britain has a literacy rate of 99 per cent, this merely means that 99 per cent can recognise and sign their own name. If that is all they can do, it hardly equips them to operate successfully in modern life.

This lack of skills is reckoned to cost the country more than £2 billion a year in additional educational and social costs. To this we have to add perhaps an extra £3 billion in lost production costs and damage caused by those failing to understand written instructions at work. Worse, failing at reading has a corrosive effect, driving a downward spiral of loss of self-confidence, negative self-image and depression. We've even known of children whose misery has driven them to suicide. Alternatively, far too often frustration and impotent anger with yourself and those who fail to help you leads to delinquency, vandalism and violence. Two-thirds of those in prison are functionally illiterate, and one of the few things that has been shown to reduce recidivism is to teach prisoners to learn to read properly.

But don't think it was better "before the war". In both world wars, recruiting officers were appalled at the low standards of their recruits' literacy. Nor can we blame the 1960s' fad for whole-word "look and say" reading. Although this contributed to a deterioration in spelling standards, it probably benefited those with good visual memories as much as it hindered children with poor auditory skills, and so had very little effect on overall reading standards.

Our literacy standards are actually not much worse in the UK than in other countries, even though in languages such as Spanish words are almost always pronounced precisely as they are spelt, so reading should be much easier. In fact, British schoolchildren read rather better than their Spanish counterparts. We do better than France and Israel, about the same as the US, Denmark, Holland and Germany, but a little worse than Canada, Italy, Japan, Singapore and Sweden.

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Bill Corr
January 26th, 2009
7:01 AM
Having lived and taught in Africa, the Gulf and East Asia - decent credentials insofar as years of service mean anything much - I can agree with most of John Stein's article. In practice, the Brits aren't really all that less literate than other people, other than the members of the best-educated classes of northern Europe, who are WAY ahead of all the rest of us. Japanese education presents a puzzle to most Westerners, of course. Little Japanese kids have to learn just under 2,000 'kanji' [Chinese] characters. They write them again and again amid unrelenting peer pressure and soft teacher bullying [ "Everyone will laugh at you if you fall behind, Takashi!"] They also, simultaneously, learn 2 syllabaries of 45 characters each [Hiragana is smooth and rounded - "women's writing" - and Katakana is an angular, rather Bauhaus, version of simplified kanji. Then there are 68 combinations of Hiragana and Katakana to make sounds like mya, myu and myo. Plus almost every child learns English to a greater or lesser extend. Children in Korean-minority schools in Japan learn all the above, plus written and spoken Korean. However, most Japanese read pretty easy stuff most of the time. Comic books - some astonishingly and excitingly filthy but most quite tame - are read by office employees on commuter trains. You do not - repeat NOT - see adults reading 'graphic novels' on British commuter trains. Not yet anyway. Of course, we all ought to impose Spanish as the world language. It's easiest and neatest and - fear not - power would still stay in the right hands: Nosotros Los Gringos Unidos Hamas Seremos Vencidos!

January 25th, 2009
10:01 AM
Richard: not a man of many words, are you, dear chap. If 'your nuts' is all you can muster by way of retort, you've only proved the suggestion that your country, and I am assuming that you are from the UK, has a Third World education system.

January 25th, 2009
10:01 AM
I'm an English teacher of 16 years and I agree with Richard.

December 21st, 2008
8:12 PM
You're nuts.

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