It’s easy to mistake symptoms for causes.

I have been thinking recently about how reading problems become more and more disguised as children get older. Instead of seeing a reading problem, we see all sorts of other problems.

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At first, Richard is excited to be attending Tree Tops School. He is looking forward to learning about maths and science, and he enjoys stories. He is a bit slow to pick up reading in the way many others are, so the teacher talks to his mother about making sure he reads the books at home that he struggled with during the school day. Mum does her best, but with three other children it’s not easy to help Richard, who is already trying to avoid books as they cause him frustration. Besides, if the teacher can’t sort it, she reasons, how can I? At this stage, Richard’s reading problem is acknowledged, but it is not seen as urgent; he will read when he is ready.

After a couple of years, Richard’s problems are more pronounced and much more obvious. He has decided that reading is not for him. He doesn’t take reading activities seriously, is restless and sometimes disruptive, and won’t go near a book at home. He is disengaged from most academic learning, even in science and maths. Mum has asked the school for extra help but they say that Richard is just not developmentally ready and it will all come together in a year or so. Reading is still acknowledged as an issue, but it has been overshadowed by a developmental explanation.

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In a year or so it has not all come together, at least not in the way the school predicted. The developmental explanation has failed. Richard is now struggling in lots of areas because he can’t keep up with the work. He is clearly at the lower end of the class in nearly every subject, and his motivation is low across the range of subjects. His mother asks for help again and the school says that they will have him assessed.

An assessment is carried out and concludes that Richard is a little below average in intelligence and that he may have a specific learning difficulty. His restlessness and fidgeting mean that ADHD is a possible reason for his learning difficulties. Further testing is recommended, but the school is out of funding, and time, and so he goes into the next year. Because of the compounding effects of reading failure, his problem is now seen as a cognitive one. Various deficits within Richard are now being offered as the explanation for why he is struggling. No one questions the teaching.

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By the time he reaches secondary school Richard is labelled as SEN, with moderate learning difficulties and emotional / mental health needs including possible ADHD. The SENDCO allocates him to a literacy intervention and the teacher explains to Richard that he has dyslexia, dyspraxia, and a hyperactivity disorder. This means that Richard is always going to have difficulty with learning but that the school will give him every support to cope with his education.

Richard now has a number of clear messages:

  • The problems he has had with reading and other schoolwork are caused by something that is wrong with him.
  • There is nothing anyone can do to fix what is wrong with him.
  • There is no hope of real success: his time at school is now to be endured rather than enjoyed.

At this stage of his education, Richard is one of those students who seem to take up a lot of teacher time with very little result. There are after-school detentions for poor behaviour, catch-up detentions for missed homework, long talks with his form tutor about taking school more seriously, phone calls home to his weary mother. Richard’s behaviour, low motivation and low scores in specific subjects are the areas of greatest concern. No one would deny he is a poor reader, but then he has SEN, so this is to be expected.

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By the time Richard leaves school, he has joined the ranks of 17% of the school population with a clutch of sub-C GCSEs (DfE 2015 citing PISA, 2012), a patchy behaviour record and a highly developed set of skills for masking the fact that he can’t read or write at a functional level. How will he cope now?

According to the National Literacy Trust, there are over six million adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate. If we had six million people with any other problem it would be regarded as a massive epidemic. But we are so well-trained to conceal illiteracy, to dismiss it, to ascribe it to various syndromes, disorders and social problems, that this epidemic rages in silence around us. And when someone does raise a voice to say there’s a problem, there is a great deal of frowning and tut-tutting, because this shows that the person is not ‘kind’ and they do not ‘understand about disabilities’.

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‘Kindness’ in the sense of well-meaning sympathy is a key reason for this epidemic. Richard, no doubt, received a great deal of sympathy throughout his unhappy education. Unfortunately, this didn’t do him any good, because what he needed was practical help: a teaching approach that would break down what he needed to know and ensure that he learned it, even if this took time and considerable effort. Instead, the focus was on home circumstances, development, specific learning difficulties, behaviour, motivation – none of which changed his situation.

We become distracted by these issues, which effectively mask the real problem. Our students will wear the masks we give them, because they are children, and incredibly susceptible to the narratives we create for them. Tell a boy he is naughty, and he will wear that mask. Tell a girl she is so sweet, but that she has a learning condition, and she will wear that mask.  We don’t even have to tell them – we signal our expectations in all kinds of subtle ways, from the behaviours we tolerate as “his ADHD”  to surprise when a student does well.

I’m not suggesting that poor reading is the only problem students face, or that it’s the only one that schools need to worry about. I am suggesting that it’s the single most powerful issue that schools can address, with the biggest return for the investment of time and money it would take to fix. Obviously, the best scenario is to get it right in the early years, but even in later secondary, it can still be fixed.

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So instead of teaching Richard and his peers a dozen ways to mask the problem, how about we cast aside the camouflage, roll our sleeves up, teach reading explicitly, systematically and ambitiously, and solve the real problem?

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