We saw yesterday one of the main ways in which those who do not believe that the teaching of reading to children is a necessary or wise undertaking, manage to justify their actions. Or, what is more to the point in this case, their inaction! The starting point is the claim that one in five children taught to read at school remain illiterate, whatever teaching method is used. This figure of 20% is then used to demonstrate that a certain proportion of children will have difficulties in acquiring literacy and it is therefore not surprising to find a good number of home educated children who also do not learn to read at the age of six or seven. In this approach, the inability to read is treated not as an educational failure but as either a neurological deficit or natural stage in development. This is the biological determinist view of reading!
Now the fact of the matter is that the literacy rate in the UK is not 80% but too all intents and purposes 100%, or at the very least 99.9%. It is incredibly rare to come across anybody who has been to school in this country who is unable to read a popular newspaper like the Daily Mirror or write a shopping list. Perhaps readers would like to ask themselves the last time they met anybody who could only sign his name with a thumbprint, or by making a cross? Teaching reading at school is generally effective and almost every child acquires some degree of proficiency in reading and writing by the age of eleven. Where then does the idea come from that one in five people in this country are functionally illiterate? The answer is that it all depends upon what you mean by illiterate. The old definition of literacy was the ability to read or write a simple note. This level of literacy would enable one to get by in day to day life. One could follow printed instructions, read a simple newspaper, write a shopping list and so on. The vocabulary and syntax of The Sun, for instance, is designed to be accessible to a nine year-old and thus cater for this level of literacy. There are very few people in Britain unable to function at this level. That developed countries like Britain have a near 100% literacy rate is because they have almost universal schooling. Less economically developed countries where schools are not available to much of the population have lower literacy rates. True illiteracy in this country, a complete inability to read or write, is not spread evenly throughout the population. It is very rare and tends to occur in specific communities such as Gypsies and Travellers. These are the same people who often manage to avoid schools.
Every so often though, some body such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will announce that the literacy rates in developed countries are actually very low. They do this by redefining literacy in terms of those who have a high level of so-called 'document literacy'. This means the ability to fathom out tables and charts, read timetables, understand technical documents and so on. This is the level of literacy which one would need to flourish in business. Most ordinary people manage quite well without high levels of 'document literacy'. This an entirely different thing from true illiteracy.
Even so, what about 'dyslexia'? Surely a certain proportion of children both at school and being educated at home are going to have trouble with learning to read? Well, not really. Ofsted's survey Reading by Six more or less disposed of that myth. It may be found below;
I know one of the schools mentioned in this report; Woodberry Down in Hackney. I work nearby and visit this school frequently. It has a huge number of children whose home language is not English, many children with special needs, including some on the autistic spectrum. There is no dyslexia at all in the school; all the children learn to read by six. This is due to good teaching. Nor is this school alone, as you will see from the report.
As a general rule, children who are taught to read properly, learn to read. Those who are not, often fail to do so. The key is in effective teaching. Among some home educators or in communities such as Gypsies or Travellers, or for those who attend lousy schools; there will be reading difficulties and 'dyslexia'. When proper teaching is given; this usually vanishes and is replaced by literacy. The 'treatment' for dyslexia is almost invariably that used for illiteracy; i.e. intensive and highly structured work in phonics. It is this simple equation, that good structured teaching yields good results in literacy, which apparently eludes many home educating parents.