Reading not good enough

Poor reading standards have been a concern to governments of all English-speaking countries for a long time. In the UK there have been several commissions looking at the problem over the past century and producing hefty reports: Newbolt 1921, Bullock 1976, Moser 1999, Rose 2006.

According to Professor Topping from Dundee the problem persists. Having surveyed pupils’ reading habits, he is worried that secondary pupils are not reading enough hard books, with many of them still reading at the level of 13-year-olds by the time they take their GCSEs at 16. Which probably means that they have trouble understanding their exam questions.

The concept of reading ages is entirely an English thing, determined by the fact that around 2,000 relatively common English words are not entirely decodable, like ‘only one other’. -To become fluent readers, children have to learn to recognise them on sight. They gradually build up their stock of them, year by year at primary school, until even the likes of ‘echoing, marine’ and ‘epitome’ stop making them stumble.

Unfortunately, many children never quite reach that level, even by the secondary stage. For them, reading remains a tedious chore. Pushing themselves to read harder books is utterly beyond them.

In languages in which letter and letter strings always have just one pronunciation, as in all European languages other than English, there are no reading ages. When there are no gremlins like ‘plough through rough’ to baffle children, learning to read is just a matter of learning the sounds of all the spellings used in their language, with the likes of ‘a fat man ran’ or ‘nation, station, carnation’.

With writing systems that don’t tolerate disruptive spanners like ‘many’ or ‘ration’, most children learn to read pretty well in about 3 months. And that’s it. There is nothing beyond simple sounding out. Once they have learned this, children can read anything and improve their fluency by themselves. They don’t need to keep turning to an adult (for roughly 3 years) and asking for help with words they get stuck on.

If we want more of our students to become moderately competent readers and informed citizens, and even more so if we want them to progress to enjoying difficult books, we should modernise English spelling and make learning to read easier. It is ridiculous to keep adhering to spellings like ‘only, once, other’ and ‘treat, great, threat’ which make learning to read English roughly 10 times slower than with better writing systems and keep wondering why so many students don’t read well or enjoy it.

English spelling was last changed in the 1750s by Samuel Johnson, but entirely for the worse. Unless it is made more learner-friendly, we will keep getting disappointing reports on poor reading standards, from all Anglophone countries, again and again.

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