Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don’t have to go to school to learn how to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

I’ve visited a lot of schools over the past few years. All of them are working hard to do what’s best for their students, but too few, in my admittedly biased opinion, are getting reading right.

Reading though, is complicated.

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The mechanics of reading – phonological awareness, decoding, sight recognition – are mostly taught in Key Stage 1. The overwhelming majority of children best learn to read through systematic synthetic phonics (I am aware this is a can of worms.) but for all sorts of reasons a significant minority don’t. If you don’t ‘get it’ in KS1 your chances of getting it in KS2 are slim. If you’ve not cracked reading by the end of Year 6 you are, by and large, stuffed. Special Needs departments in secondary schools do what they can but in very many schools it’s too little too late.

Every comprehensive secondary school will have some children who struggle to read. This is an endemic problem, with an estimated 20% of students leaving primary school unable to read fluently (i.e. at 250-300 words per minute). So, how do we tackle this tragic and completely predictable problem? In the main we assume these children have learning difficulties. We consign them to bottom sets. We get often unqualified staff to babysit them. And what happens? They leave school unable to read.

The assumption that if student cannot read they must be stupid  seems to stack up on the face of it – after all, they can’t do something we find effortless. And this is the problem: the ability to read is so effortless we tend to think of it as somehow natural. It’s easy to see how this happens. After all, the ability to learn spoken language is innate. We receive no formal instruction; we just pick up speech from our environments. Reading though is different. No one, no matter their ability, just learns to read. You have to be taught. You can read more about this here.

But here’s the stinger: there is no correlation between the ability to decode text and intelligence. As Keith Stanovich sets out, in order for the belief that the inability to read is caused by intelligence, you would have to find evidence of the following propositions:

(1) that the pattern of information-processing skills that underlie the reading deficits of low-IQ poor readers is different from the information-processing skills that underlie the reading deficits of high-IQ poor readers; (2) that the neuroanatomical differences that underlie the cognitive deficits of these two groups are different; (3) that low- and high-IQ poor readers require different treatments to remediate their reading problems; and (4) that there is differential etiology in the two groups based on different heritability of the component deficits.

There is no such evidence. In fact, as he goes on to say, “there is a wealth of evidence regarding proposition #1 that is largely negative”. It might be that a reading problem is caused by low intelligence but it’s more likely to be a teaching problem.

I have two anecdotes from my teaching career with support this finding. The first is the story of Sam. He was in a Year 9 bottom set class and when I first met him he introduced himself by saying, “My name’s Sam, I can’t read and I’m thick!” He was not a happy boy. His lived experience of school was one in which he went from lesson to lesson unable to do what everyone else found easy. The evidence of his stupidity confronted him daily and unsurprisingly he found school a torment. But Sam wasn’t thick. In conversation he was bright, lively, engaging and saw links and connections his peers were unable to see.

Through a process of detective work we worked out that when he was in Year 1 he suffered from a condition called glue ear. This is a common childhood condition where the middle ear becomes filled with fluid and goes routinely undiagnosed.

It’s estimated that one in five children around the age of two will be affected by glue ear at any given time, and about 8 in every 10 children will have had glue ear at least once by the time they’re 10 years old.

Glue ear is hard to spot; it’s not that sufferers can’t hear, just that hearing becomes more difficult. Being able to hear the difference between vowel sounds is particularly tricky. And this might be affecting 80% of students! In most cases glue clears up by itself, and children may never realise they were suffering. But it may mean they’re unable to read fluently. In Sam’s case, no one noticed in had glue ear and instead his teachers assumed he was just slow.

We were incredibly fortunate in the school I worked in to have funding to send Sam to get intensive one-to-one phonics instruction off site for six weeks. He returned six weeks later able to read. He was moved out of the bottom set and began to flourish. He left school with five good GCSEs and, a few years ago, he wrote to me to say he’d been accepted on a sports science degree course at Loughborough University.

More recently, I taught a girl called Megan. Megan had Down Syndrome and as a result had very limited cognitive processing. But she could read. Whenever there was an opportunity to read aloud Megan’s hand would shoot up and she would read beautifully but often with no understanding of what she was reading.

These experiences suggest that learning to decode has little to do with intelligence. Of course you have to be taught, but after that you either learn it or you don’t. If we think about the estimated numbers of children suffering with undiagnosed glue ear, it would make sense to conclude that for very many the problem is that they just can’t hear their phonics lessons. And poor hearing is just one of the myriad of reasons for a child struggling to access instruction.

All this is complicated because difficulties in reading fluency are also tricky to spot. Computerised screening tests only tend to measure comprehension, but if a child’s ability to decode isn’t absolutely fluent, they may well be able to read a word and know its meaning in a test, but not in context. In order to see if someone has a fluency problem you have to listen to them read. If they skip words or substitute unfamiliar words with plausible sounding alternatives then they almost certainly have a problem with decoding.

Unlike decoding, language comprehension is highly correlated with intelligence. But our ability to comprehend also depends on the speed at which we can decode. Normal reading speed is about 250 words per minute. If your reading speed falls much below 200 words per minute the strain on working memory makes it much harder to understand the meaning of a passage of text. The mental resources a fluent reader can use to infer, hypothesise, speculate and anticipate are taken up with the laborious process of turning graphemes into phonemes. The more slowly you read, the more likely it is that comprehension will break down.

Attempts to solve reading difficulties that assume the difficulty is caused by low intelligence are likely to result in frustration and failure. Our first port of call should be to assume that reading difficulties have been caused by ineffective teaching. None of this is to hurl the blame at hard-working infant teachers; even with the very best phonics instruction, if the children can’t hear you, they’re unlikely to learn. Instead we should be alert for signs of glue ear and, when it’s been treated, ready to offer the type of cure most likely to address the problem: intensive phonics instruction.

Doing nothing – or doing what you’ve always done – is not an option. If it’s right that reading difficulties are, in the main, caused by teaching deficits not by intelligence deficits then it also makes sense to say that if a child leaves school unable to decode fluently it is the school’s fault.