Our Reading’s Bad – But Not That Bad

Literacy teaching has undergone massive changes, but more are needed in the modern world

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.

The truth is that reading is inherently difficult, and English is particularly so because of its multitude of irregular spellings: for example, the different pronunciations of “ough” – “Though the rough, tough, cough and hiccough plough me through, o’er life’s dark lough my course I still pursue”. Part of the explanation lies in the mixed Celtic, Viking, Germanic and French origins of the English language, all of which jostle for recognition in the script. But probably the most important influence complicating spelling was status – an unholy alliance of the upwardly-mobile middle-class with the teachers they supported. A long time after the invention of printing, even Shakespeare spelt his own name in many different ways. But soon good spelling began to define how well educated you were. So to keep the in-crowd privileged, spelling had to be kept fiendishly difficult.

Unfortunately, the human brain is not well adapted for reading. It is the most complex skill that most of us who don’t aspire to be concert pianists or advanced mathematicians have to master. To modern schoolchildren, it is not much different than for the 13th-century Florentine monk who wrote: “Reading is a painful task. It extinguishes the light from the eyes. It bends the back. It crushes the viscera and the ribs. It brings forth pain to the kidneys and weariness to the whole body.”

Before writing was invented, we never had to be able to pick up tiny visual details in letters – a tree is a tree whether upright, upside down or back to front, and one important thing we learn is to identify it from all these different perspectives. But these transformations do matter with letters. A “d” changes to a “p”, “b” or “q”. Likewise, “dog” becomes “god” or “was” becomes “saw” if you get the order of letters wrong. In fact, learning to focus attention on sequencing these tiny details for reading carries costs to our ability to see overall shape, form, symmetry and balance. Often children and dyslexic poor readers are better at seeing large-scale relations across whole scenes and information fields than good readers. That may be why dyslexics so often make good artists and entrepreneurs.

Although reading is primarily a visual process, we also need to learn to split spoken words down to separate sounds, or phonemes, which in English are represented by letters. So you also have to learn to attend to the sequence of the sounds in a word. Children only learn that you can split the whole sound “dog” into separate sounds “d” “o” “g” after they’ve learnt that you can represent the word visually by the three letters “d”, “o”, “g”. These phonemes are characterised by changes in their frequency and amplitude, so our auditory system has to pick up these transients very sensitively. This is analogous to sequencing the letters and letter features that we have to do visually when reading.

Both these visual and auditory processes are mediated by a brain system that is specialised for signalling changes, the magnocellular transient system. This is especially sensitive to movements of images over your retina, to auditory frequency and amplitude changes and to one’s own eye and vocal movements, as when reading. It is particularly vulnerable to drugs and disease, which is why we tend to see double and slur our words when drunk. There are large inherited differences in individuals’ magnocellular sensitivity that help to predict who will find reading most difficult.

But this new knowledge has not yet been transferred to the classroom. Soon after its election, New Labour introduced the primary school “literacy hour”, a formulaic amalgam of “look and say” and phonics techniques. By 2000, and at a cost of £15 million, this had achieved a three per cent improvement in 11-year-olds’ reading. Although that doesn’t sound much, it actually represented reasonable value for money. But since 2000, progress has stalled and new approaches are needed. One suggestion is “synthetic phonics”, concentration on systematic training in splitting words into their constituent sounds without any visual component. Supporters laud it, but it is probably little better than any other phonics programme. However, there is mounting evidence that training magnocellular systems directly by simple non-reading visual and auditory techniques is more effective. Large-scale trials are needed to demonstrate this, but these are difficult to fund because educational sources feel that this is inappropriate “medicalisation” of the problem, while medical sources say it is educational.

However, if the finer points of spelling and the complicated rules of where to put an apostrophe are really instruments of social control and establishing status, one has to ask whether these skills are really going to be necessary in the 21st century. Now that computers can become an extension of one’s cognition in the same way as a violinist’s bow becomes an extension of his hand, PCs could perhaps do the dogsbody work of reading and re-enfranchise our poor readers, allowing their brains to do the things they’re much better at. Perhaps we should abandon social control by the tyranny of the complicated rules of grammar and illogical spelling and recognise that tomorrow’s children may not need to learn to read at all.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"