He that will not apply new remedies, must expect new evils: for Time is the greatest innovator: and if Time, of course, alters things to the worse, and wisdom and counsel shall not alter them to the better, what shall be the end?

Francis Bacon

In 1978, Scared Straight! won the Academy Award for the best documentary film. It followed a group of teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks who, as part of a new crime reduction programme, were taken to a maximum security prison to be threatened, humiliated and intimidated by a bunch of murderers and rapists.

The premise was that unruly youngsters could be terrified into becoming law-abiding citizens. The film reported that

Over 8,000 juvenile delinquents have sat on these hard wooden benches and for the first time they really heard the brutal reality of crime and prison. The results  of this unique programme are astounding. Participating communities report that 80 to 90 per cent of the kids that they send to Rahway go straight after leaving this stage. That is an amazing success story. And it is unequalled by traditional rehabilitation methods.

You can’t really argue with that, can you? Juvenile judge, George Nicola certainly wasn’t minded to: in the film he said, “there is no doubt in my mind…that the juvenile awareness project at Rahway Sate prison is perhaps today the most effective, inexpensive deterrent in the entire correctional process in America.”

As a direct result of the film’s success, Scared Straight style programmes began to appear all over the US in the years which followed. The original film was followed by Scared Straight! Another Story (1980), Scared Straight! 10 Years Later (1987), and the TV movie Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (1999). The programme began to be adopted in parts of Europe including the UK and everyone involved eulogised its no-nonsense, quick-and-dirty approach to crime reduction.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

Back in 1977, even before the original documentary was aired, James Finckenauer, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice decided the statistics looked a little too good to be true. As Matthew Syed details in Black Box Thinking, Finckenauer’s investigation of the 80-90% success rate led him to discover that they were based on a the results of a questionnaire sent to the parents and guardians of children enrolled on the Scared Straight programme. The questionnaire asked four questions:

  1. Have you noticed a marked change in your child’s conduct since their visit to the prison?
  2. Has there been a slight change in their behaviour since their visit to the prison?
  3. Do you think another visit is necessary for your son/daughter?
  4. Are there any specific areas you think we might be of some assistance to you, or your son or daughter?

Obviously, observation of  ‘marked’ or ‘slight’ changes is hardly objective. We don’t even know if the changes or considered positive or negative. The questions, and, of course, any answers given, are open to interpretation. More troubling, only those who responded to the survey were included in the results. If a 1,000 questionnaires were sent out and only 100 returned, can we really infer that 80-90% of positive responses constitute “an amazing success story”? All these results told us were that 80-90% of those who had returned questionnaires were largely positive. It tells us nothing about the efficacy of the programme, so Finckenauer decided to run a randomised controlled trial.

He split teenagers in danger of becoming criminals into two groups. One group was given the Scared Straight programme, the other was the control group who were not given any kind of intervention. Judge Nicola saw this as unethical. He said that the 100s of letters he had, all attesting to the success of Scared Straight, made such an evaluation unnecessary and he did he utmost to get the trial cancelled. But eventually Finckenauer managed to get his trial started. managed to get the go ahead. When the results were published in 1982, were conclusive: scared straight made its participants more likely to commit crime.

Finckenauer said, “People were so convinced in the success of Scared Straight because it seemed so intuitive. People loved the idea that kids could be turned around through a tough session with a group of lifers. But crime turns out to be more complex than that.” (Black Box Thinking, p.176)

As is so often the case, ideology trumps reality. In Scared Straight: The Panacea Phenomenon Revisited Finckenauer details what happened next. He was dismissed as a “dilettante” and his research caricatured as “meaningless statistics”. His findings were ignored and the programme kept on running, and even expanded, despite the evidence it didn’t work. 

Is any of this starting to feel familiar?

Education has suffered similar victories of ideology over reality where teachers and policy makers have opted for intuitive, easy to understand ideas over the complexity of how children actually learn. Despite the fact that teachers’ judgements are entirely subject and dubious at best, we go with what feels right and damn the evidence!

The story of the research on how children learn to read has many parallels with the Scared Straight story. Daniel Willingham gives a potted history of the so-called Reading Wars in his book, When Can You Trust The Experts? Back in the old days before educational theorists got their hands on reading, teachers taught children to read by teaching the sounds associated with each letter or letter combination. This can be slow and was often painful, but it worked. Then in the 1920s a new idea, ‘look-say’ or ‘whole word method’ started to become fashionable. The idea was that children ought to learn to read the way adults do. Adults appear to read whole phrases in one gulp and they read silently instead of sounding out. Also, adults choose to read whatever interests them and are not confined to boring reading schemes. It makes intuitive sense that it would be quicker, easier and more fun to teach children to read like this. Children were encouraged to guess at meaning based on context, sometimes using accompanying pictures; boring phonics drills were dismissed as likely to put children off reading.

As Willingham points out, there were a couple of clues that these plausible-sounding ideas might not work.

First, written language is a sound-based system, not a meaning based system. Seeing the three letters d, o and doesn’t tell you meaning. Letters signify sounds. If that weren’t true, then when I showed you an unfamiliar word – for example. “mielesta” – you wouldn’t just be uncertain of its meaning; you would also have no idea of how to pronounce it. Given that writing is sound based, teaching reading with a method that ignores sound seems risky.

Second, the theory encourages the teaching of reading based on the way adults read. On the one hand, you can see the logic: if you want to learn something, find someone who is good at it and try to do what he or she does. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the expert did it that way when he or she was a beginner… Copying an expert reader is not necessarily a good strategy for beginning readers. (p. 15)

Notice Willingham’s tentative language: he’s acknowledging probability rather than certainty. In order to know the best way to teach reading we would need to run a trial. Jeanne Chall was engaged by the Carnegie Corporation in the 1960s to conduct a literature review of all the scientific studies to date to work out which was was best. In Learning to Read: The great debate, she decided the phonics method was superior. We all know what happened next.

In the 80s, whole-word reading reinvented itself as “whole language”. Like its predecessors, it dismissed phonics as boring and unnecessary and claimed that learning to read should be as natural as learning to speak. The science was ignored, ideology ran rampant. In 1997, the US congress asked the Department of Education to settle the matter and, drawing together a panel of reading experts, they published a report which echoed Chall’s 30 years previously:

Findings provided solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a more significant contribution to children’s growth in reading than do alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction. (2-132)

And further, phonics boosts reader comprehension for younger children:

Growth in reading comprehension is also boosted by systematic phonics instruction for younger students and reading disabled students. Whether growth in reading comprehension is produced generally in students above 1st grade is less clear. (2.134)

All in all, they conclude that while some children do of course work out how to read using ‘whole language’ some don’t. These are the students who will be labelled as ‘dyslexic’ and end up hating reading.

As far as evidence goes on support for systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s mountains of the stuff! But, you can’t win arguments with evidence. As Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method, put it, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” In the UK using SSP to teach reading is now statutory. You can’t not do it. Except of course the curriculum is inevitably mediated by teachers’ values and there are plenty of folk out there to encourage dissent, folk who’ve produced their own evidence that the stuff they prefer is best. Anyone who uses terms like ‘barking at print’ is occupying the same territory as Judge Nicola.

When we get things wrong in aviation, planes crash. When we get things wrong in healthcare, patients die. Mistakes in legal system result in miscarriages of justice and ruined lives. But when we get things wrong in education, no one dies. When children leave school functionally illiterate we shrug our shoulders and say, It’s just one of those things. We did our best.

We didn’t: if a child leaves school unable to read, the school is to blame.

And if a child leaves Key Stage 1 unable to fluently decode, they’re unlikely to pick it up later. Their trajectory is utterly predictable. This is perhaps the biggest single problem I encounter in secondary schools. (Of course I know decoding is just the start: here are my thoughts on teaching reading comprehension.) It’s rare indeed to meet a child that cannot read at all, but for all too many reading is a chore so laborious and frustrating that accessing GCSEs is all but impossible. They can decode a word if you give them long enough, but reading comprehension depends on reading speed. If you read slower than 200 words per minute the tax on working memory leaves very little space for understanding and none for enjoyment. Decoding is not correlated with intelligence. Word recognitions skills depend on phenotypic plasticity, not academic ability; sometimes very bright students struggle to read, sometimes very weak students find decoding straightforward.

But, what do we do? Too often we consign struggling readers to bottom sets, give them a teaching assistant and take them out of lessons a couple of times a week and send them back, further behind and still unable to read. This cannot be acceptable. If we carry on doing what we’ve always done, we’re no different from doctors ignoring the research on germ theory or judges advocating failed crime prevention interventions.

I say all this not to make anyone feel defensive – though some readers will, of course, chose to feel angry instead of exploring solutions – my purpose is to say that we can do something about this. It’s not easy, and we may not be able to succeed with every single child, but to give up on any child is the very worst incarnation of low expectations. You can use the fact that I know very little about special education to dismiss this statement if you want, but I’ve met children for whom I thought learning to read would be impossible do exactly that. I’m not underestimating the profound difficulties involved, but how dare we decide in advance that some children cannot learn to read when we ignore the evidence?

I’d like to think all this will be enough to scare us straight, but I know it won’t be. That said, if a few readers have the courage to examine their prejudices, it’s worth upsetting those who appear constitutionally incapable of changing their minds.


For further detail and some very useful information have a look at the Reading Reform Foundation website, Susan Godland’s Dyslexia Demystified and Diane Murphy’s Thinking Reading site. And if you need it, there’s more useful research here: 

If you’re still unsatisfied, then you can do no better than to read Dianne McGuinness’ masterful, Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading.