Over the weekend I saw two sets of parents, both of which are highly educated and middle class and both of which have decided to pay for private tuition in numeracy and literacy for their children.
When I asked them why, their reasons were almost identical: in terms of the children’s literacy, they were not satisfied that their children were able to read with fluency. The problem was NOT one of comprehension: both said that their children understand texts that are read to them without difficulty. However, when it comes to reading similar texts for themselves, it takes the children twenty minutes to struggle through a short paragraph, and by the time they have finished this laborious task, they don’t know what they’ve read.
This is precisely as described by Keith Stanovich in his research: ‘The combination of lack of practice, deficient decoding skills, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reader-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word-recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word-recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher-level processes of text integration and comprehension.’ In other words, the children need to be taught to decode so that they can understand what they are reading.
The parents also said that when they asked the school how their children were doing, they were told that they were ‘fine’. However, they were not given a reading age, nor were they told whether the children’s skills, conceptual understanding and code knowledge was what one would expect for children of their age. In fact, such a breakdown and mode of analysis is completely unknown to most teaching practitioners and parents are almost invariably fobbed with the kind of blandishment mentioned above.
That both sets of parents are highly educated and want the best for their children also gives the lie to the oft-claimed assertion that illiteracy is a problem confined to families who are poorly educated and don’t have a habit of reading to their children.
What the government needs to do is follow Diane McGuinness’s advice given in her book Why Children Can’t Read:
'First, adopt a method with solid scientific support, one with a comprehensive curriculum. Provide clear, operationally defined goals, and make sure that each sub-goal or sub-skill is developmentally appropriate, so that every child can learn to read, write and spell. Design objective, up-to-date standardized tests normed on a large population over a wide age-range. Get outside testers to administer these tests… Publish the test results of every school at regular intervals.’
But they won’t because if they did it would cause a national outcry when it was discovered how many school are failing to teach their pupils to read and spell.