Reading should be our top priority

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I’ve just read a sobering piece on reading in UK schools from Mike Baker’s website written by Roy Blatchford, a former headteacher and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, and Director of the National Education Trust. Here it is:

Provisional figures for 2011 indicate that, in England, one child in five reaches age 11 unable to read confidently. Confident, that is, to access the secondary school curriculum they are embarking on this month.

History suggests that those same children will struggle over five years of secondary schooling to achieve an English grade C at 16+. The latest GCSE tables indicate that thirty per cent of 2011’s cohort of sixteen year olds failed to achieve that benchmark.

What is it about our wealthy nation, with its long history of free education, that we perpetuate such failure in reading: the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities?

The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, identified that every human has an innate language acquisition device. Only in rare circumstances do humans not learn to speak, and this is true across cultures. The equally distinguished psychologist, Steven Pinker, remarked that while children are wired for sound, print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.

I began my working life in education in HM Prison Brixton. All educators should spend time in the education department of one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It is a poignant reminder that basic literacy is a birthright that should be denied nobody.

In my days at the National Literacy Trust, I used to give talks entitled ‘Have you ever met a mugger who’s read Middlemarch?’  This was my way of affirming that whatever else we do for children and young people in classrooms, we must give them the dignity of being able to speak, read and write with fluency to make their way in the endlessly fascinating global society which they inhabit.

So what’s to be done?

The former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, once said that the word ‘priority’ should not be used in the plural. However, as it is perhaps unrealistic to ask schools to set just one priority at the start of a new academic year, let me at least challenge every primary and secondary school to make reading its number one priority for 2011-12. We must break this cycle of a sizeable part of the young population growing up with stuttering language skills.

Let us be properly ambitious and ask that:

  • Every primary should ensure all children will at 11+ have a reading age which at least matches their chronological age.
  • Every secondary should say that, no matter the child’s starting point, they will achieve at least a grade C in English at 16+.

So, how do we achieve this? First, schools need a rigorous approach to word recognition: enabling children to use a phonetic approach, to divide words into syllables for pronunciation, to understand prefixes and suffixes.

Second, we need a planned approach to vocabulary development: learning new words, keywords and concepts, technical abbreviations and etymology, symbols and formulae, through regular and consistent use of a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Third, a systematic engagement with comprehension and organisation of text: summarising what has been read, distinguishing essential from non-essential, fact from opinion, drawing inferences and conclusions, noting cause and effect, reading between the lines.

Fourth, a programme to promote reading interests: voluntary reading for pleasure, reading for personal information, developing a passion for particular subjects, the use of the school and public library, the downloading onto the iPad of a favourite biography.

Fifth, a whole-school-every-teacher knowledge of study skills: sitting still long enough to read, using skimming for different purposes, reading maps and graphs, learning how to take notes, reading more rapidly with adequate comprehension, forming the study habit.

 In recent years I have taught reading to Year 2 children, using the enchanting picture-books of Anthony Browne to develop a first understanding of inference. I have taught able Year 6 children to appreciate the beguiling narrative of Harper Lee. I have coached Year 10 students in GCSE comprehension exercises.

Reflecting on the five points above, skilled teachers will not make the mistake of adopting simply an age-related approach to the teaching of reading. Rather, they will select what works for a given child or group of children at a particular point in time. They will be driven by the belief that every child will leave their hands able to tackle texts with confidence, whether on the printed page or the Amazon Kindle.

Let us make this a true Year of Reading, measured in an outcome that condemns no child to a life of fractured literacy.

Finally, to every parent of a young child reading this article: if you’re too busy to read with your child, you’re just too busy!

I’m inspired! A target of C+ in English for every student? Bring it on.

2011-09-28T20:55:52+00:00September 28th, 2011|English, literacy|


  1. Gill Robins September 29, 2011 at 8:02 am - Reply

    I entirely agree with all that you write. However, until the issue of high stakes testing is resolved, many Primary teachers will continue to work in contexts which teach to test and which, in doing so, implicitly model for a generation of children that reading is something you have to do to get a SATs level in preparation for KS3 banding.

    I have been fortunate to read Beowulf, a range of Shakepseare plays, science fiction and Victorian narrative verse with my KS2 classes – I would love to have time for this kind of teaching to be the rule rather than the exception.

    National policy is looking through the wrong end of the telescope!

    • learningspy September 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm - Reply

      Gill, I fully understand your concerns and as a secondary English teacher, I am under enormous pressure to get exam results.

      However, I would make two points. Firstly, the two aims are not mutually exclusive: if I engender a love of reading in my students they will do better in exams. I’m sure of this.

      Secondly, we must follow our consciences. If Ks2 testing really does get in the way of teaching in a way that will help children to develop a love of reading then quite simply it should be avoided. I’m right behind those primary heads who choose to boycott such tests cos, let’s be honest, they’re completely meaningless to the kids.

      Would welcome your views on these points.

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  9. Ru August 21, 2017 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    But when the government awards grades by allocating a specific grade to a specific per centagre of children, we can’t actually ensure those C grades are achieved, can we?

    • David Didau August 21, 2017 at 8:37 pm - Reply

      No, we can’t. This has, I believe, some merits.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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