This week I watched a documentary called “Jay Blades: learning to read at 51”. The experience was both uplifting and frustrating: uplifting, because of the determination and sheer hard work of Jay, whose painful but rewarding journey we followed; and frustrating, to hear so many of the well-worn clichés about the causes or reading difficulties being replayed.

A number of adults who were also, finally, learning to read were interviewed. In almost every case, the desire to read to and with children was a powerful motivator. It became apparent that for everyone involved, reading was a way of connecting with other people, and being unable to read had cut people off from experiences that they deeply regretted missing.

Jay himself was a walking advertisement for the distinction between decoding skills and comprehension skills. He had left school without qualifications, found his way into university, and completed a criminology and philosophy degree even though he couldn’t read a book. Instead, he had dedicated ferocious concentration and memory to understanding everything he had heard read to him (via software), and met every challenge head-on. But at the beginning of the course that would finally teach him to decode, he had trouble with words like ‘egg’.

Jay was also a good example of the toll that can be exerted when we try to press on and leave the past behind without dealing with it. When the charity that he co-founded with his wife failed, his marriage also failed, and in his own words, he hit ‘the end’. He was literally ready to end his life, was living out of his car and had separated himself from all who knew and cared about him. I couldn’t help wondering how much of his frustration and depression sprang in part from the price of compensating for not being able to read, which is so integral to our society. In the end though, long before he learned to read, he was restored by a friend who searched for him and brought him home, and by a family who made him part of their lives.

Watching the immense effort required to grapple with isolating the sounds in simple words like ‘egg’ was a powerful reminder of the challenges in learning to read. As fluent readers, most adults can easily overlook the immense effort required, especially with such a complex code as English. But, with perseverance and encouragement, learn Jay did, to the point where he could read a book to his daughter. The relief, the quiet satisfaction, the regret – all were apparent when he had achieved this first and most important goal. There was a telling comment from Jay’s fiancé about how reading had changed him.  His quiet agreement affirmed that not just his skills, but his very personality had been affected.

Not unexpectedly, we heard that the source of Jay’s reading problems was ‘dyslexia’, and that prevalence estimates for this condition range from 7 – 9% (in fact, there are some estimates that as many as 15% of the population are affected by dyslexia). It was clear from Jay’s account of his own education that he had not had good quality teaching when it came to reading. He had also been offered an overlay when he was assessed as dyslexic by his university. If anyone thought that overlays help people learn to read, they had only to consider that despite about two decades of having an overlay, he still hadn’t learned to read. What enabled him to read was learning to connect the sounds of spoken language to the letters on the page.

The idea that reading problems may arise from inadequate teaching was suggested by an educational psychologist, who pointed out that up to 25% of children leave secondary school with poor reading (at least 16% above the number of those considered ‘dyslexic’). The other confirmation that teaching is the critical factor was that Jay became able to read as a result of systematic teaching. But no one confronted this issue directly. Perhaps if we spent more time on improving the teaching, and less on explaining away reading failure, we might have less people in Jay’s situation, with all the pain and sadness they have to endure as a result.

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