Claims of a crisis can distract us from dealing with the real crisis.

Another Sunday morning, another ‘literacy crisis’. The Sunday Times has just learned that some students are arriving at secondary school with reading ages as low as six, as if this was a recent development. “Teachers must now help 11-year-olds learn to read amid a literacy crisis caused by growing screen use and the pandemic,” proclaims the sub-headline. The phrase ‘must now’ tells us an awful lot about what the Times writer and her sources don’t know about the literacy problem.

First, this is not a recent phenomenon. The pandemic has exposed a long-running crisis – and, of course, made things worse, particularly for those with limited access to technology, (i.e. poorer children). But before the pandemic, we already had PISA results in 2012 telling us that 17% of 15-year-olds didn’t meet the minimum standard for functional literacy; SATS levels showing that large numbers of students were below level 3 i.e reading at least two years behind; a 2014 report from Read On. Get On., a coalition of 20 charities, found that 20% of students were arriving at secondary school reading too far behind to access the curriculum (that figure was 40% for disadvantaged children); and this 2020 report from GL assessment that found that 25% of 15-year-olds, about to go into their GCSEs, were reading at or below a 12-year-old level. I could go on, for a long time. Quite where the breathless ‘now’ in the sub-headline has come from, I do not know, but the intended effect seems to have been to create a sense of urgency.

Any sense of urgency achieved is soon dissipated by the conflation of some issues, which are genuinely a crisis, with some which are absolutely not a crisis. It is not a crisis that children are spending time on screens. Teachers and parents are adults, with significant influence over how children use their time. If adults choose, they can structure the child’s routine to require them to read books. The only crisis here is the abdication of adult responsibility.

Another claim is that some children are – gasp – reading six or even twelve months behind their chronological age, and that volunteers like Sir Michael Wilshaw are stepping into the breach. If you are leading a secondary school, you need to know how to interpret reading ages from standardised tests. A secondary school student reading within two years of their chronological is in the ‘average’ band for their age. By all means, push their reading higher, and if there are retired volunteers who would like to help, all power to them. But that is not a crisis.

What is a crisis is the children who arrive reading three, four, five or even six years below their chronological age. That crisis has been going on a long time, but it has been acceptable because of a series of misconceived narratives. We should be way past these misconceptions in secondary education now. It is not a crisis that secondary teachers should have to help illiterate children to read: it is a moral responsibility, albeit one that has often been avoided until recently. Describing this duty as evidence of a crisis simply perpetuates the notion that secondary teachers shouldn’t have to do it. The fact is, we do, so let’s get on with it. If the Times and others would like to campaign for more effective reading instruction in primary schools so that all children arrive at secondary school able to read well*, they will have plenty of support from the Science of Reading community.

It is good that the article recognises the problem of children at secondary school who are reading well behind their age, but unfortunately that message is overshadowed by the non-dramas of screen time and children who aren’t really reading ‘behind’ at all. The other problem is that the only solution mentioned that might help these seriously struggling readers is for some secondary teachers to be trained to use ‘the phonics approach’. It is hard to know exactly what this means, since phonics is a body of knowledge that can be taught successfully in a variety of different ways. It can also be taught unsuccessfully in a variety of ways, including the much vaunted ‘balanced literacy’ approach promoted in this over-hyped journal article. (I am sure that the timing was just a coincidence and not part of a campaign to put pressure on a new education secretary before he has defined a clear policy course.)

The lack of sophistication in the comments in the article is alarming. Extending the school day does not mean that struggling students will be taught any better – they may just spend longer in drudgery.  Practices such as sixth formers providing buddy reading, volunteer retirees, apps for e-books have been common for years. Phonics teaching will be needed for some secondary students with reading problems, but not all. Phonics is a necessary component of reading, but is not sufficient in itself.

What secondary school leaders need to know is that the techniques used for remediating reading problems at secondary school need to take account of the limited time that students have available, that is, students in intervention need to progress at very fast rates in order to catch up.  Along with closing gaps in phonics knowledge where necessary, support should provide opportunities for high response rates, effective feedback, and build fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Implementing such a complex approach takes training and hard work: you can’t just pull a manual off a shelf.

The article claims that about 200,000 children will reach secondary school reading behind their age, or 25% of the current cohort. This would mean that the situation is little different from the historical rate of 20%; but now we can blame it on the pandemic. Or screens. Anything but the way we teach.

The fact is that the UK has some 70,000 students a year leaving secondary school functionally illiterate, and this has been the status quo for a long time. Producing systemic illiteracy on this industrial scale over such a long period suggests that it is a feature of the system, not a bug. Solving the ‘literacy crisis’ is therefore not a short-term job, a quick win, or a funding problem. It is primarily a deficit in expertise that can only be solved by a long-term investment in training teachers to eschew myths and focus on scientifically validated teaching practices. There is of course a price tag to that, but it is a tiny fraction of the cost of illiteracy.

If we could focus on helping those with the most serious problems, we could radically change individual lives, and wider society. Short-term hype that misdirects attention away from this goal is part of the problem, not the solution.

*(It’s worth noting that the 2014 Read On. Get On. report noted that ensuring this outcome would add £43 billion to UK GDP by 2025).

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