So what if they can’t read? And whose fault is it anyway?

A recent discussion on Twitter provided something of a jolt for me. It is very easy for us to assume that what we know is also known by others who work in our field. So when it was suggested in a recent Twitter conversation that 15% of the UK’s population being functionally illiterate was not necessarily a big problem, I was taken aback. Despite the fact that the epidemic is largely silent, and certainly hidden from most highly literate people, there seemed to me to have been enough written and said on the topic in recent years that no one should be in any doubt as to the scale of the problem. But clearly, there is still work to be done.

Here are some numbers:

  • According to the National Literacy Trust, there are over five million adults in the UK unable to read well enough to cope with daily tasks.
  • According to the Social Exclusion Unit’s report from the early 2000s, 70% of prisoners lack basic literacy skills; 60% have writing skills below those expected of an 11-year-old; and 25% have reading skills at less than the level expected of a seven-year-old.
  • Last year the Read On. Get On. campaign released a report showing that one in five children are not reading well at age 11; however, the figure increases to two in five amongst disadvantaged students.
  • Our analysis of 2015 national Key Stage 2 results for English shows that in 126 local authorities, more than 10% of students were reading at Level 3 or below – too low to cope with the demands of secondary school.
  • At the other end of secondary education, 17% of UK school leavers in 2012 did not achieve the minimum standard in literacy (DfE 2015, citing PISA).
  • People with low levels of literacy have a higher risk of experiencing poor health, lower earnings, unemployment, and incarceration (DfE, 2015) and are at higher risk of mental illness (Hempenstall, 2016).


Given that reading is a teachable skill, this catastrophe is entirely preventable. Instead, it is getting worse. A recent report identified more functionally illiterate people in the 17 – 22 year age bracket than those aged 56 – 61. It appears that schools are getting better at producing illiteracy.

Elsewhere, it was reported:

In a study of 3000 Australian students, 30% of 9 year olds still hadn’t mastered letter sounds, arguably the most basic phonic skill. A similar proportion of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds. Over 72% of children entering high school were unable to read phonetically regular 3 and 4 syllabic words. Contrast with official figures: In 2001 the Australian public was assured that ‘only’ about 19% of grade 3 (age 9) children failed to meet the national standards.

(Hempenstall, 2013)

Some will ask for proof that this problem is caused by methods of teaching. Leaving aside the question of what else it might be caused by – given that literacy rates have fallen over recent decades, and that they vary greatly from country to country – it is useful to consider the research literature.

Here are some statistics from the USA, courtesy of Professor Louisa Moats:

“About 20 percent of elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read; at least another 20 percent do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent reading . . . .” (Moats, 1999). Some might not accept that teaching is the problem, but Moats goes on: “The tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary. We now know that classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components and practices, can prevent and ameliorate reading difficulty. . . .”

Moats has plenty of research to draw upon. Citing Scarborough and Dobrich (1994) for example, she points out that: “Scientists now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read at a level constrained only by their reasoning and listening comprehension abilities.” Apart from the reference list at the end of her monograph, diligent readers may also wish to study the dozens of videos with reading experts, including Moats, on the Children of the Code website.

Some will find it unsurprising that poor children have difficulty with reading; coming from deprived backgrounds, they are much more vulnerable to failure. But Moats shows that socio-economic status is no protection from poor instruction: “One-third of poor readers nationwide are from college-educated families who presumably encourage literacy in the home.”

Dangerous Cliff Edge edited (D) 2

For those still skeptical that instructional practices in classrooms influence students’ progress in reading, consider what happened in California:

Following the lead of Honig in California, states and districts installed whole language wholesale. In California, schools were monitored to make sure they complied with the whole language mandates and discarded whatever reading programs were in use, without regard to the performance data of children. At least three districts in California that had exceptional results using Direct Instruction were forced to drop the DI and install whole language.

Within months after the implementation of whole language, even teachers who believed the hype and were trying to use whole language as it is specified observed that a large percentage of children were not learning to read. At the end of the first grade year, achievement test scores were significantly down.

In response to the performance of children, the states and districts issued caveats that had not been disclosed as part of the initial projections. The main assertion was that although children may be far behind at the end of kindergarten and first grade, they will catch up by the fourth grade. Exactly where the proponents of the reform got this information is not obvious. What is obvious is that many teachers told many parents, “Oh don’t worry. He’ll catch up by the fourth grade.”

In the end, enough performance data was accumulated to discredit whole language completely. The data came in various forms, but mainly from achievement test performance of children in the early grades, and in Grade 4 (which revealed that the whole language promise was a fabrication). Data also came from the rising number of referrals to special classes and from the number of retentions.

(Engelmann, 2004)

wrong way

California subsequently mandated phonics.

But, does the method of instruction really matter? Surely the teacher should be able to use their own judgement about what is best for each child? Hattie (2009) found in his meta-analysis that phonics interventions had an average effect size of 0.6; whole language approaches just 0.11. In other words, phonics teaching is much better at helping children to learn to read. It also has a much better record of sustaining gains further down the line – in the exact inverse of the way in which whole language techniques fail students as they get older.

Tunmer et al (2013) report from New Zealand that the whole language-based Reading Recovery programme has not only failed to have an impact, but that it has consistently over-rated its impact. Significant differences in achievement remain between ethnic groups, despite extensive support for (whole language-based) literacy teaching in the early years. Tunmer et al explain this by citing Snow and Juel (2005):

For some beginning readers, the processes of acquiring literacy skills are highly learner dependent. These children seem to grasp the idea of what is required to discover orthographic patterns after having had only a small amount of phonologically-based skills and strategies explicitly taught to them. In contrast, for other children the learning processes are more environment dependent. These children require a fairly structured and teacher-supported introduction to reading that includes explicit, systematic teaching of phonological awareness and alphabetic coding skills outside the context of reading text in combination with plenty of opportunities to practice and receive feedback on using these skills during text reading.

Hempenstall elaborates on how ineffective methods of teaching reading set students up for failure:

Under the meaning-centred approach to reading development, there is no systematic attention to ensuring children develop the alphabetic principle. Decoding is viewed as only one of several means of ascertaining the identity of a word – and it is denigrated as being the least effective identification method (behind contextual cues). In the early school years, books usually employ highly predictable language and usually offer pictures to aid word identification. This combination can provide an appearance of early literacy progress. The hope in this approach is that this form of multi-cue reading will beget skilled reading.

(Hempenstall, 2013)

Whole language proponents of reading can be recognised by their language. They will talk about being ‘child-centred’; teaching the ‘whole child’; reading for ‘meaning’; engaging in a ‘multi-sensory’ approach; focusing on a ‘love of literature’ (don’t we all?); and ‘immersing children in a rich variety of textual experiences’. All of which is to say, ‘we have strong feelings about how wonderful reading is, and we want to share these feelings with children.’ The problem is that this sentimentality prevents the genuine foundational work from being done at the most crucial time.

Hempenstall goes on:

However, the problem of decoding unfamiliar words is merely postponed by such attractive crutches. It is anticipated in the meaning-centred approach that a self-directed attention to word similarities will provide a generative strategy for these students. However, such expectations are all too frequently dashed – for many at-risk children progress comes to an abrupt halt around Year 3 or 4 when an overwhelming number of unfamiliar (in written form) words are rapidly introduced. This apparent stalling of progress became known as the fourth grade slump (Chall & Jacobs, 1983; Hirsch, 2003). The number of words a child requires to cope with grade level text in Year 2 was estimated by Carnine (1982) as between three and four hundred, and in Years 3 and 4 between three and four thousand. Share (1995) estimated that the average fifth year student encounters about ten thousand new words – an ‘orthographic avalanche’ that overwhelms most of those without adequate decoding skills.


To summarise: “Without accurate decoding skills, these youngsters’ performance will deteriorate rapidly in the middle elementary grades, when greatly increased demands are made on comprehension and on the ability to recognise a large number of unfamiliar words (Chall, 1983; Mason, 1992).” (Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 1994).

But, some will say, there will always be students who can’t read. Their brains just aren’t wired for it. Well, it turns out that with teacher skill and determination, they can. Consider this example on the Thinking Reading website. This young man was reading at a six-year level when he was in Year 10. Yet he made nine years’ progress in 13 months and went on to achieve 5 A* – C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. There was clearly nothing wrong with his intelligence. He was still the same person. He went to the same school, lived with the same family. The only thing that changed was the teaching.

Inevitably some will object “that’s just anecdote”. Yes, it is an anecdote, but not ‘just’ anecdote: it is also an illustration of many other students’ experiences. You can see six years of data evaluated in the latest edition of Professor Greg Brooks’ What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? (p.187), citing 87 case studies where, with effective one-to-one instruction, every single student caught up completely.

Where is the proof that teaching is the problem? It is in the research literature that we don’t read, in the children whose lives we damage without knowing it, and in the stories of those who were turned around by the decent teaching they should have had to begin with.

The question we need to ask is not “What is the proof?”, but “What should we do?”


You may also be interested in:

Can’t Read, Won’t Read – Part One

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools? 

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

Pulling the Strands Together


Brooks, G. (2016) What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? Dyslexia-SpLD Trust. Retrieved from 18 April 2016.

Department for Education (2015) Reading: The Next Steps. Retrieved from 1 November 2015.

Engelmann, S. (2004) Professional Standards in Education. Retrieved from 9 October 2016.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. Harlow: Routledge.

Hempenstall, K. (2013) Older Students’ Literacy Problems. Retrieved from 12 January 2015.

Hempenstall, K. (2012) Literacy and Mental Health. Updated 2016 version retrieved from 22 October 2016.

Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. Washington, DC: Amercian Federation of Teachers.

Scarborough, H.S. & Dobrich, W. (1994). On the efficacy of reading to preschoolers. Developmental Review, 14, 245-302.

Snow, C. E., & Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 501-520). Oxford: Blackwell.

Spear-Swerling, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (1994). The road not taken. An integrative theoretical model of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27 (2), 91-103.

Tunmer, W.,  Chapman, J., Greaney, K., Prochnow, J. & Arrow, A. (2013) Reading Recovery and the Failure of the New Zealand Literacy Strategy. LDA Bulletin, Volume 45 (3).


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