Education Policy, Research, School-wide Literacy
Comments 21

Addicted to Denial?

When it comes to the reading problem there appear to be two forms of denialism: the claim that there is no problem, and the claim that there is no solution.

Ostrich head in sand (Shutterstock)

The first claim goes something like this: “All the schools I know are doing a great job. The numbers of students who are not reading well must be very small. Besides, there is no evidence of large numbers of children leaving school unable to read.”

Such claims, while easily made, are also easily refuted. This blog post summarises some of the KS2 SATs data on reading. If there are 126 local authorities with more than 10% of Year 6 students reading at Level 3 or below, we have a reading problem. This National Literacy Trust report claims that 6 million adults in the UK struggle with reading. More recently, the Read On Get On campaign identified that 20% of Year 6 children go on to secondary school with insufficient skills. However, among poor children the figure is 40%. This study by University of York researchers suggests ‘there is considerable unmet need with regard to literacy difficulties in secondary schools.’ Internationally, academics such as Louisa Moats in the USA and Tom Nicholson in New Zealand, have put the number of children leaving primary school with reading difficulties at 20 – 25%.

The irony of my latest Twitter conversations on this topic is that they began by someone pointing out that we have no way of knowing how many students leave secondary school unable to read well. This position was argued on the basis that there is no evidence of students leaving secondary school unable to read well. To insist that there cannot be a problem because we don’t know of any evidence is merely to confirm that we are not collecting the data. A failure to collect data on a national level does not mean that the problem does not exist. It is the measurement systems in secondary schools which do not exist.

Another variation on denying the problem is to say that while there may be data to suggest that some children aren’t reading well, this is not significant. Such children are merely representing the diversity of the population and are evidence that ‘all children are different’ and will naturally be at different levels. The question is not of difference, but whether those at the lower end are reading well enough. As Alison Clarke explains here, it is not about getting rid of the Bell Curve, but ensuring  that the Bell Curve moves to the right. Yet another variation is to suggest that although some students finish their education with low reading levels, this is not nearly as important as participating in digital literacies, thinking skills and 21st Century skills. Such slogans are no substitute for genuinely being able to read the myriad of written artefacts we come across every day, many of them vital to our quality of life.

Shifting Sands (Shutterstock)

The second form of denialism is to claim that the problem is far from solvable. The basis for this claim is usually presented as: if it were solvable, we would already have examples of how this has been done. This then leads to a demand for evidence of success with non-readers. When evidence is supplied in the form of case studies, this is rejected as ‘anecdote’, even though pre and post-test measures using an independent variable have been applied. When the ‘anecdotes’ are shown to be drawn from reasonable data, for example this evaluation of three years data by Professor Greg Brooks, the demand then becomes one for ‘whole school transformation’.

This demand implies that successfully teaching children to read has not happened unless there is ‘transformation’ of the whole school. This is nonsense, of course, but it does show how desperately some people will try to ignore clear evidence. As it happens, this interview with the Assistant Headteacher of Clacton Coastal Academy specifically discusses whole school impact. The school went from Requires Improvement to Good with Outstanding Features in 18 months. Here is what Ofsted had to say about their systematic approach to solving the reading problem:

Reading levels at Key Stage 3 and 4 are improving rapidly because of effective intervention strategies. For example, in three months, some Year 10 students have raised their reading ages by more than three years because of good teaching.

Another example of whole school impact is St George’s Church of England Primary School in London. Their systematic approach to beginning reading instruction based on Sounds-Write has helped to ensure that they are now in the top 2% of schools in England.

It is perhaps worth pausing at this point to consider how far the ground has shifted. The denials have moved from saying that there is no problem to saying that solutions to this non-existent problem cannot be accepted until there is evidence of multiple whole-school transformations. In fact, the priority must be the students themselves. It is when these students’ lives have been transformed by giving them access to the reading skills that the rest of us take for granted, that teachers and schools begin to change their attitudes, and understand that a solution is possible.

This is not to say that it is either simple or easy: but nor is it too difficult for schools and teachers to do. However, it will require humility, study, practice, new systems, resourcing, and perhaps most of all, sheer determination. It must begin with taking responsibility.

Many years ago, as a beginning teacher, I was told “you will always have children who will fail”. That is, to me, the antithesis of teaching. Our role is to enable students to do what they could not do before. No amount of denial, or excuses, can change that. If teachers aren’t in the business of helping others to make great leaps through many small steps, what is the point of our existence?

As David Didau pointed out very recently:

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.

If we are to solve the reading problem on a national level, the first step must be to overcome a systemic addiction to denial.

You may also be interested in:

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

Pulling the Strands Together

Why is There a Reading Problem in Secondary Schools?

Accountability? A Scandal for Schools


  1. 16 years ago I was a newly qualified teacher and had started my first job in Dublin. I was in a learning support role working with 40 kids aged 7-9 who were struggling with literacy. I was advised to attend a Learning Support workshop/course at the local Education Centre. The lecturer on the course explained to us that once a kid fell below the 10th percentile in English it was highly unlikely they would ever rise above it. The argument was that such youngsters had failed to make progress at the expected rate and to move out of the 10th percentile group they needed to make more than 12 months progress, which for these kids was unlikely given their previous history.
    For me this attitude was shocking and is clearly a load of nonsense given the fact that since then we have reduced the numbers below the 10th percentile by 85%. What’s more we intend to reduce the numbers even further over the coming few years and I’m aiming for a 100% reduction.


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  9. My god, Dianne, it’s like pulling teeth getting this message across to the secondary community, isn’t it?
    The trouble is that what many teachers attribute to students’ inability to understand the content of their subjects is really about the students being unable to read and write. If a student can’t write, they can’t take notes in lessons; if they can’t read fluently and accurately, they can’t understand what they are reading. How can it be that difficult to fathom?
    The surest way to find out who can and who can’t read when they enter secondary school is to test them. That’s what we did for year after year when I worked in secondary ed. and we found out who needed the support. Simple really!
    Keep up the good work!
    Best wishes, John


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