Education Policy
Comments 15

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

The glib answer that many secondary schools would give is: because there is a reading problem in primary schools. Indeed, at the recent National Literacy Trust Conference, Ofsted repesentative HMI Gill Jones said that the the most important function of primary schools is to produce fluent readers. A short look at the statistics makes it apparent that this purpose is not being achieved. About 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading below the levels that they need in order to access the secondary curriculum (Sir Michael Wilshaw, March 2012). Clearly there is something wrong in at least some primary schools. Jones suggested that it might be a lack of teacher knowledge about reading at levels higher than the early years.

the reading debate (Shutterstock)

But that does not let secondary schools off the hook. There is no excuse for a school to have a student with known reading problems failing for the entire five years – that is, at least 4,750 hours of instructional time – up to GCSE. Until lately, the relentless drive for more C grades has left students considered unlikely to gain a C to be ignored and then evicted from the education system at the end of their schooling, with few if any qualifications. What they do gain from their education, thoroughly and systematically taught by their experience of school, is that they are failures.  This most pernicious and cruel element of the education system has persisted depite years of so-called reform. What makes it especially cruel is that the problem is not the child; even people with intellectual disabilities can be systematically taught to read. The real problem is a lack of expertise in the teaching: a deficit masked by special education jargon, an endless list of manufactured ‘disabilities’, and cloying clouds of sympathy.

How many children’s educations, and lives, have been damaged through perpetually low expectations? The National Literacy Trust estimates the number of functionally illiterate people in the UK at 6 million. The annual social cost to the UK is estimated at £23 billion. The annual economic cost to the UK is estimated at £81 billion (London Evening Standard, January 2012). The scale of the problem is genuinely catastrophic – but in many secondary schools, teaching children to overcome problems with reading is a task left to those with some space in their timetables, funded by the dregs of the curriculum budget.

Pound coins

The new accountability measures in schools have the potential to make schools more accountable for how well they serve their most vulnerable students. It will be interesting to see how the profession adapts to this long-overdue challenge.

Post Script: We’re seeing some signs of progress with schools tackling this head on and making a real difference – transforming the lives of their once struggling readers. But, having done this research recently, we’ve seen that the reading problem hasn’t gone away.  There are still too many students arriving at secondary school with poor reading skills, leaving them unable to access the secondary curriculum. Is this situation being addressed in enough schools? Maybe schools don’t know where to start? Maybe they don’t think it’s possible? That it’s too late? Maybe they don’t know where to look for impartial advice? Or, maybe they’re refusing to acknowledge the extent, or even the very existence, of the problem?

You can find out more about working with us to develop a whole-school literacy strategy by visiting our website.

You may also be interested in:

Leveraging Literacy at Secondary School

10-Point Checklist: Literacy at Secondary School

The Road Goes Ever On

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap

Are all students screened for reading?


  1. MaggieD says

    I would say that most of the sec. children I worked with over the past 10 years would have learned to read perfectly well had they been given good, structured phonics instruction (with no ‘other strategies’ mixed in) at primary school. Made me very cross because their ‘failure’ was completely unnecessary. If this wasn’t a result of their primary teaching what was it?


    • I couldn’t agree more, Maggie. It would be wonderful if, during ITT, students were given the tools to do this. I look back to my own primary teacher training and am aghast that we were not taught any other methodology than Whole Language. I began to see the flaws when I had students who were not making progress. Thankfully, after only two years teaching I spent a glorious year studying for a Diploma in the Education of Students with Special Teaching Needs which had a strong research-base. All ITT should introduce students to educational research and give them the tools to evaluate it. Much easier to teach children according to what works from the start, rather than having to un-learn ineffective strategies that have become ingrained.


  2. You’re right. Most primary school teachers have not been taught to how to teach children to read using systematic synthetic phonics.

    There’s been an improvement over the last two or three years. Now most Reception and Key Stage 1 teachers in England understand far more than they used to about how to teach the alphabetic code and the skills of blending sounds for reading and identifying the sounds in spoken words for spelling. Unfortunately, a majority still don’t understand that children should apply those skills for all their reading and spelling.

    In addition, teaching of the alphabetic code stops too early in many schools and the children are left to pick up the more advanced code on their own.


    • I’m delighted to hear that there has been an improvement over the last two or three years. I long for the day when no child leaves primary school reading well below their chronological age. Leaving children to intuit more advanced code on their own would certainly explain a lot of the problems that we see in secondary.


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