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1 in 6 British adults can barely read. Why?

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

By Richard Pooley

Picture credit: Thomas Leuthard

How did you learn to read? If, like me, you are British and English is your mother tongue*, the answer will most likely depend on how old you are. I’m nearly 70 and my teachers and parents probably used the ‘whole-word’ approach (first called ‘look and say’, now often referred to as ‘whole-language’). This was invented in the 1830s and a century later had become the usual way children were taught to read in the UK. The reason I can only say “probably” is that from 1957 to 1960 I attended a primary school in Caracas, Venezuela which taught in English and used a USA-based curriculum. Note the “a”; there wasn’t and still isn’t one USA-wide curriculum. How children learn to read varies from state to state and from school district to school district. The same was true in the UK sixty years ago. Only in the last eight years has there been just one method used in all schools in England and Wales. It’s not the whole-word one. Research has shown this method is a wholly inadequate way to teach children to read, a fact which goes a long way to explaining why one in six adults in England and Wales are functionally illiterate; they can barely read or write.

The whole-word method teaches children to read words as whole units. Children are repeatedly told the word name while being shown the printed word, perhaps accompanied by a picture or within a meaningful context. Children learn to ‘sight read’, recognising patterns and shapes. It’s a mammoth memory exercise.

At the end of my previous article I asked you to decode this sentence:

How wlel can you raed steimhnog wchih icnudles an eruomons anuomt of psylalyloibc vubacraloy?

Readers who learned through the whole-word approach would have had little trouble:

How well can you read something which includes an enormous amount of polysyllabic vocabulary?

Each word is an anagram of the original but, crucially, the first and last letters are the same. That is enough for whole-word readers to ‘see’ the words they have memorised. It helps too that the original two and three-letter words have not changed and so give context. If you don’t believe me, try this:

slEghin llpsnegi si a emthagrin rfo sheto arengiln ot dare.

Harder to decipher? Here is the original sentence:

English spelling is a nightmare for those learning to read.

In 1955 the whole-word approach came under attack in a best-selling book by the Austrian-U.S. American, plain-English campaigner Rudolf Flesch – Why Johnny Can’t Read. He argued that the ‘phonics-based method’ was a much better way to teach children to read. It was Flesch’s book which inspired Dr Seuss (pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel) to write The Cat in the Hat two years later. Phonics teaches children to match sounds with the letters of the alphabet. ‘Sat’ is ‘s’ as in ‘sun’, plus ‘a’ as in ‘apple’, plus ‘t’ as in ‘table’. Children then blend these sounds together to make the word. Of course, English spelling is indeed an emthagrin. There are over 400 spellings for the 44 sounds in English. So, children have to memorise many ‘sight words’, words which cannot be sounded out and need to be remembered as whole words – e.g. ‘some’, ‘one’, ‘the’, ‘said’, and...’sight’ and ‘whole’.

At first sight (sorry), it seems to any person who learned to read using the whole-word approach that phonics is a much less effective way to cope with the illogical way so many English words are spelled (or spelt?). That was my view until I started reading some of the research on the matter and, more importantly, had to learn the phonics method in order to help an illiterate adult to read. Certainly, anybody who learned to read via phonics would find it hard to decipher that first anagram-filled sentence, let alone the second one (it has made me wonder if us oldies have an advantage over the young when solving cryptic crosswords!) But the key advantage that phonics has over the whole-word method is that it gives the learner the ability to decode the language. It combines decoding (by sounding out letters to form words) with remembering, whereas the whole-word method relies on remembering, and guessing if your memory fails you. This difference is particularly important for adults learning to read. As I have seen first-hand, phonics gives the adult learner a tool to work words out and not just rely on memorising words, shapes and patterns, something which becomes harder as we age.

After decades of furious argument over which method was best, during which phonics-based teaching became the most common in UK schools, the UK government decreed in 2013 that only phonics should be used in England and Wales. The Scots have not followed suit, something which is beginning to be used by those opposed to the Scottish Nationalist government to explain the decline since 2000 in Scottish pupils’ test scores** compared to the rest of the UK.

The so-called ‘reading wars’ in the USA have been going on for sixty years with varying degrees of intensity. According to a survey in 2019 almost three out of four US teachers use a mix of phonics and whole-word called ‘balanced literacy’. Yet twenty years earlier a panel of experts (including psychologists, neuroscientists and statisticians) set up by the US Congress came down conclusively on the side of phonics. The panel debunked whole-word and balanced literacy.

Poverty is often blamed for the relatively low levels of literacy in schools in the poorer parts of the USA and the UK. But Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the US, is showing that may not necessarily be true. Once scoring second worst (49th) among states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mississippi has moved up to 29th as a result of a 2013 state law which imposed much higher literacy standards. Phonics is the reading method now being used in the state’s schools. Like so much else in the US these days, learning to read has become partisan. But unlike their lethally stupid response to Covid-19, it’s the Republican Party which is on the side of science when it comes to learning to read. Alabama and North Carolina, following Mississippi’s lead, have passed laws mandating phonics as the sole reading method to be used in their schools. In Florida and Tennessee phonics is the norm. All except North Carolina have Republican governors, and the Republicans control both chambers of the North Carolina legislature. Meanwhile Democrat-controlled California is proposing to get rid of a certification exam which elementary school teachers have to take to show they can teach phonics. Why? Because lots of teachers fail it. Maybe it’s also because the exam was introduced by a Republican governor in the 1990s.

When I first started researching for these two articles, I assumed that the reasons why so many Brits and US Americans continued to leave school unable to read and write English were because class sizes were usually too large, primary school teachers were underpaid and poorly trained, parents were not supportive (no books in children’s homes, no reading of stories at bedtime), and English spelling was too damned illogical. These are all certainly major factors. You only have to look at countries with much higher literacy levels to see how important class size, the status and training of teachers, and family support and wealth are in explaining their success. Finland, for example, has one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. Class sizes for 5 and 6-year-olds in the UK are around 30, but Finnish children of the same age in pre-school have one member of staff supervising just 7 children (Finns don’t start school until they are 7 – do Brits start too early?). Finnish teachers are highly qualified and well-paid, reflecting their high status. Only 5% of Finnish children are living in poverty, far lower than the British percentage (one survey says it is now 30%!). Finns borrow more library books per person than any country in the world. Finnish may look and sound odd to native English speakers but its spelling system is logical and its syllabic structure simple.

Cultural attitudes to education matter too. Many east Asian and some Arab countries have even higher literacy levels than Finland. Being able to read and write well in such cultures is considered essential if you are to succeed in life. It is significant that those children with the highest literacy levels in English in the UK are of Chinese heritage.

It would be easy to blame central and local governments in the UK for not doing much to tackle this huge social and economic problem. Easy but wrong. Setting up well-funded adult literacy courses in colleges across the land would be a waste of money. It’s not that it would be hard to persuade illiterate adults to attend such courses. It certainly would be. As my previous article explained, illiterate adults go to great lengths to hide their disability. They are ashamed and afraid to “come out” in case they will be treated with disdain by their friends and contempt by the course teachers. The French chimney sweep, William Cauret, who I mentioned in that article, gave me the reason why such courses are likely to fail. He had attended such a course. He had left it after four sessions not only because he had been treated like an idiot child but also because he had been in a group. Each adult had a different reason why they couldn’t read or write. Each one was at a different level of reading ability. Each of them needed one-to-one training.

Six weeks ago I started helping a British man in his twenties to learn to read. I am a volunteer coach with Read Easy, a British charity - - set up in 2011 by Ginny Williams-Ellis, who had taught prisoners in south-west England to read. She had come to realise that what she was doing inside prisons was needed just as much outside them. But it was not being done almost anywhere in the country and still isn’t.

I have two half-hour sessions a week with my ‘reader’, Chris, in the local library. He blames his inability to read on his fellow pupils at school. They were always “messing around.” I’m not allowed to probe into his story but I strongly suspect there are other reasons. He’s bright enough and determined to learn. The manual – the first of five – uses phonics. And already, after just six hours coaching, he can read (and write) and understand so much more. And that’s because he’s getting help on a one-to-one basis and being taught using the method which has been proven to work best.

Friends and family want to know why I have taken on yet another task in my busy retirement. My answer is that it hardly takes up any of my time or head space (unlike editing and publishing an online magazine, and running a literary estate!). And why not do something so obviously worthwhile? You are reading this with ease, I hope. Why not give up a smidgen of your time to help someone else do the same? Think what pleasure you would be giving them… and yourself.

*In the 2011 Census 9% of people living in England and Wales said they spoke a language other than English or Welsh as their first language. The five most common were Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Gujarati.

** These are the PISA rankings; the Programme for International Student Assessment is designed to examine how 15-year-olds can apply what they have learned in school to real- life situations.


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