Reducing school exclusions

School exclusions have recently been giving cause for concern, because excluded teenagers, left unoccupied and unsupervised, are apt to get up to no good. Knife crime and teenage drug dealing have both been linked to increases in permanent exclusions.

Schools are inclined to exclude pupils who play up, because they are under government pressure to get good SATs and exam results. But the kids who misbehave and disrupt lessons are mostly ones who are not coping with schoolwork. They lag behind their classmates either because they have learning difficulties or don’t get much educational help from their parents. Kicking them out, or ‘offloading’ them, is certainly not helping them.

Many of the current unruly and disaffected pupils became reluctant learners soon after they started school, mainly because they found learning to read and write English harder than most. Their reading difficulties made life harder for them in most other subjects too. It is difficult to learn much of anything without learning at least to read first.

Sadly, for children with any kind of learning difficulty and little educational support at home, learning to read English is extremely difficult. This fact tends to be unappreciated by people with better learning abilities and more favourable home backgrounds.

One simple and long-lasting way to help disadvantaged kids and reduce the number of pupils that heads want to get rid of, is to make learning to read and write easier. The educational prospects and life chances of weak learners who get little help with learning to read from their parents would improve greatly, if the number of spellings which make learning to read harder than need be became smaller, such as ‘bread, great, treat’ or ‘only, one, other’.

It would make the lives of teachers less pressurised and more successful too. Learner-unfriendly spellings make teaching children to read much more difficult too, not just learning to do so. A few sensible tweaks to English spelling could reduce many educational, personal and social problems in a relatively cheap and permanent way.

It’s not the fault of pupils with below average learning abilities, and parents who had similar problems, that they fail to learn to read as easily as their luckier peers and don’t become enthusiastic learners. The learning hurdles posed by English spelling are simply too high for them. They can’t reduce them. But the rest of us could give some thought to making their lives a bit fairer, even if it would mean a slight, temporary inconvenience to us.

I have seen how struggling readers can learn to read English more easily with simpler spellings.  For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for poor readers. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each of our sessions, for the purpose of looking at them again together and for revising at home.  But next to those words, I also put simpler respellings, like ‘heer, herd, hart‘ for ‘hear, hear, heart‘. They invariably read those more easily. 

We then folded the list in half, with the normal, trickily spelt words on top, for learning at home. The children were told to look at the simpler respellings only when stumped by the customary spellings. Their reading progress  improved very noticeably.

My little experiment proved to me beyond any doubt that weak readers would all learn to read far more easily if the tricky words that keep tripping them up were spelt more sensibly in the first place. It would enable them to become independent readers and learners more quickly and with much less help than they need currently.


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