What every teacher needs to know about… students who leave secondary school unable to read

Many thanks to the good folks at Teach Secondary magazine for publishing yet another of my incoherent rants. This time I set my sights on the lamentable and inexcusable failure of secondary schools to teach students to read with adequate fluency and accuracy.

If a student leaves secondary school unable to read it is the school’s fault. I’ll leave that opening sentence hanging, parked like a tank on your lawn, while we consider what is actually involved in teaching students to read.

Reading involves two linked abilities: language comprehension and decoding. Decoding is the ability to turn squiggles on a page (graphemes) into sounds (phonemes). Before we can decode we live surrounded by meaningless symbols. Learning to read transforms us; we can’t switch it o . Our new ability is irreversible and draws a deep division between versions of ourselves. We struggle to understand what it might be like not to be able to do something everyone around us finds so effortless. Surely anyone unable to do something so simple must be cognitively impaired?

This is the standard view of reading difficulties: if you struggle to read you must be a bit thick. Although we know that’s not entirely true and have come to accept there are those we call dyslexic who walk amongst us, for those of us who can read, non-readers are an alien species. But there
is no correlation between intelligence and the ability to decode text. Read that again. Startling, isn’t it? Remember: decoding is just one part of the complex process of reading. Unlike decoding, language comprehension is closely linked to intelligence. Decoding though is a mechanical process, which can be automated just as we automate the skill of driving a car.

Now, while there might be a very small number of outlier students who have some sort of biological inability to learn to read, almost everyone can be taught to do it. Further, no matter how quickly some students pick up reading, everybody needs to be taught how to do it. Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that since we can just ‘pick up’ speech, we can also acquire reading simply from being exposed to texts. But consider, while we’ve been speaking for millennia, written language is a very recent invention; it’s only in the last few hundred years that reading has become the norm.

Nationally, around 20% of students leave primary school unable fluently and accurately to decode. This means that their reading speed is likely to be less than 200 words per minute. When reading speed is this slow, our ability to comprehend text starts to disintegrate. So much attention
is required to keep track of the grapheme/phoneme relationships that there’s little working memory capacity for thinking about meaning. Crucially, if reading is hard work, you’re unlikely to do it for pleasure and, without practice, students who struggle to decode fall even further behind their reading peers. It’s estimated that the top 10% of readers read in two days what it takes the bottom 10% a whole year to absorb.

How does this happen? One explanation lies in the fact that the NHS estimates eight out of every ten children between the ages of four and ten su er from undiagnosed glue ear. This means that although they can hear well enough to recognise they are being spoken to and respond appropriately, they may be unable to pick up the fine distinctions between different vowel and consonant sounds. When everyone else in the class is receiving phonics instruction, children with glue ear may not be able to hear what’s going on. Because this condition tends to clear up by itself, these pupils run the risk of being written o as academically weak.

Children who haven’t learned to decode in Key Stage 1 are much less likely to get the instruction they need in Key Stage 2. And if they haven’t cracked it by the time they leave primary – well, they’re stuffed! Because the screening tests used by most secondary schools don’t monitor the speed at which students read, we often fail to spot fluency issues. All we see is that comprehension for some is weaker than their peers and assume they’re not as clever. And even if we do manage to identify the problem, most children who arrive a secondary school unable to read are on a predictable and all-too-familiar trajectory.

The truth is, despite the valiant efforts of SEND departments, the overwhelming majority of youngsters who arrive at secondary school unable to leave will leave unable to read. We wring our hands and bemoan how this is ‘just one of those things’. It’s sad, but we tried our best and there’s nothing we could have done, we tell ourselves. Not so: as explained earlier, with sufficient time and patience (almost) anyone can be taught to read.

You may very well feel that there’s not a lot you can do about this sad state of a airs and you would, on the whole, be right. If you’re employed to teach science or DT, you most likely haven’t the time or the expertise to teach students to read. But what you can do is recognise that school is a terrible place for students unable to do what everyone else seems to take to utterly for granted. We can at least do those young people the courtesy of recognising that they have a reading problem and not an intelligence problem.

You may not be able to solve this problem yourself, but someone can. I’m certainly not blaming individual teachers but again, and without apology: If a student leaves secondary school unable fluently and accurately to decode text… it is the school’s fault.

13 Responses to What every teacher needs to know about… students who leave secondary school unable to read

  1. Carol says:

    Cuba manages to have 100% literacy rates for students leaving school.

  2. Ford Elevator says:

    Totally agree. As teachers and schools we need to admit that when a child goes through our system and comes out without the goals that we aimed for then it is our fault. We know that most teachers are snowed under and are not always equipped or informed in the best way possible by our schools, but there is too much blaming of the students/parents/other factors, in my experience, and not enough acceptance that we could all be doing more, or at least doing smarter – it needs to come from the very top though! We need emphasis on societal values where we’re not constantly judging each other and where we’re not all pitted against each other.

  3. 80% of 4-10 year olds suffer from undiagnosed glue ear??

  4. Mark says:

    It’s interesting that your article has a focus on secondary school. It’s my experience that too many children arrive at secondary school unable to read effectively. This can largely be put down to a lack of ‘family literacy’ but also to the emergence of a focus on constructivist pedagogy during the primary years.

  5. […] Source: What every teacher needs to know about… students who leave secondary school unable to read | David… […]

  6. As you have flagged this up via Twitter, David, I’d like to add that there is still much misinformation and ignorance regarding research into reading instruction entrenched in well-meaning organisations – including charities focusing on literacy and dyslexia-based organisations. This is seriously worrying because, in effect, it means that teachers and parents are given contradictory training and/or guidance. What are they to think if corporate-looking, established, so-called ‘specialists’ tell them to do the very multi-cueing reading strategies amounting to guessing new and unknown words instead of working them out through decoding that sets young learners off on the wrong trajectory in reading instruction? I write about these things via my Phonics Intervention blog – with evidence of course, here:

    https://phonicsintervention.org/2017/01/13/big-reveal-dyslexia-organisations-continue-promote-seriously-flawed-methods-advice/

    Who will sort this mess out and hold such organisations to account for spreading wrong methods?

  7. […] problem for her – we now think this was probably caused by, at least in part, a case of undiagnosed glue ear when she was in Year 1. Despite making a real effort to learn her spelling list each week, she […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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