Although nearly everyone would subscribe to the ideal of universal literacy, there are plenty of pragmatists in education who believe that in reality, we must accept that a certain proportion of students will leave school illiterate to some degree – that is, reading well behind the norm for their chronological age. This is the result of the bell curve, they say – and after all, the cost of addressing the problem in terms of time and money is too high. Some children just aren’t going to get there.
This certainly appears to be the way that the education system has worked to date. The National Literacy Trust estimates that there are six million functionally illiterate adults in the UK – that’s about ten per cent of the adult population. These people will have difficulty in understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, have difficulty reading even a basic newspaper and struggle – usually unsuccessfully – to complete the theory test for a driver’s licence.
Within this group (about a third of them) there is a proportion who are completely illiterate – they cannot read signs, spell their own names, or fill in the most basic of forms. They cannot read a restaurant menu, and if the restaurant has used a quirky sign on the toilet doors, they may not be able to tell which one they should use. They rely on strangers to tell them where the next train is going, and friends or loved ones to read them letters from the council.
The experience of the child who is going through education without being able to read can be difficult to imagine for those of us who are good readers. The school day is premised on the assumption that students can already read: instructions on the whiteboard or slideshow; quotations; paragraphs in textbooks; teacher comments in books; emails from teachers; newsletters or permission slips – the list goes on and on. In this world, always stalked by the fear of humiliation or rejection, the struggling reader survives by camouflage – blending in, becoming invisible; or by distraction – through disruption, becoming the class clown, or even the class thug.
Roll down the years until this student has to sit their final exams. Here there is no hiding. Whether they have been awarded ‘special conditions’ or not, the years of being unable to access the same curriculum as everyone else have created a cumulative knowledge and vocabulary deficit that can never be overcome simply by someone else reading the words off the page. And once they leave that environment – what a blessed relief that must be – they find few places of succour in the world beyond. Although they no longer have to meet the teacher’s expectations, or appease their peers, they now have to develop a different set of survival strategies to cope with a society that is routinely, implacably, ubiquitously permeated by print. Employment forms, health and safety notices, insurance contracts, letting agreements, bank documents – the stream of print continues. Job options are limited, and when you can’t even get a driver’s licence, you are pushed more and more to the margins, towards the underworld.
Most prisoners in UK jails are functionally or completely illiterate. Most of them have poor employment prospects. People with low literacy are statistically more likely to have lower earnings, poorer health, worse housing, and shorter life expectancy. They also have less knowledge of the world, less access to different points of view, narrower vocabularies and less expressive language. When they become parents, they cannot read their children stories, nor do their children see them reading, nor can they help their children with reading when they bring books home from school. And so the problem passes down the generations, and well-meaning educators scratch their heads and wonder how to close the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
Does it matter if some can’t read? It matters to the individuals, whose lives are enmeshed in a complicated web of compensating behaviours to disguise their problem. It matters to their children, many of whose life chances are more fragile, and who go through school themselves lacking a degree of parental support that others take for granted. It matters to society, which is paying for additional places in prisons and hospitals at a social cost estimated at £23 billion per annum. It matters to the economy, which has been conservatively estimated to under-perform by over £40 billion per annum due to illiteracy.
Does it matter to you?
The research on which this post is based is discussed in our new book, Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs To Know About Reading. If you want to know why so many children leave school unable to read, and what we can do about it, this book will show you.
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