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One Million Londoners cannot read

It was reported in today’s Metro newspaper that research published by the Centre for Policy Studies has found that a million Londoners are unable to read.

More relevant to us perhaps, is the uncomfortable finding that 1/3 of children leaving primary school have difficulty reading. That is 10 children in your class of 30. The study also suggests that 5% leave with almost no reading ability at all.

The study found that immigration was a contributory factor, but not a root cause. Although the report does not give a definitive reason for these statistics, the article examines the use of street language as a possible culprit.

Although slang is banned in many European classrooms, British teachers are reluctant to stifle any form of expression, claims the article. I reflected on this as I worked with the children today.

Certainly, some of my pupils have very poor grammar. Their subject verb agreement for example is consistently inaccurate. Some of the children have a very poor control of tense and others have real word finding difficulties and have poor vocabulary. I found myself asking, does this prevent them from learning to read, or is it a result of their lower than average reading ability?

The use of slang is prevalent in my class. When I ask the children what various words mean, they are usually able to define them fairly clearly. I wondered, if they are able to express themselves clearly then am I wrong to correct them?

Clearly I have a responsibility to ensure that my pupils can use correct English. It is required by the National Curriculum, and my pupils would be at a significant disadvantage in the adult world if they were unable to use English correctly. However, we are in the almost unique position that the English language does not belong to the English. It is a vibrant, eclectic and ‘wild’ language owned by no one and it grows and shapes sporadically around the world. The English people stake no claim on the language in the way the french do for example with their ‘Academy De Francaise’. What right do I have to impose my ‘English’ English on my pupils who are speaking perhaps, Jamaican English or American English? Is their English not as valid as mine? If I corrected an American colleague’s spelling of colour, or their use of the word ‘diaper’ would that be wrong?

What do we want from language? Communication? Expression? Exchange? Correctness? Universality? To suggest that the use of slang bars access to the ability to read is to ignore the work written in these other relatives of the English language. If my pupil can read Benjamin Zephania’s Talkin’ Turkeys can he read? I would say that he can, despite it being written in slang with dialect specific (but incorrect) spellings.

A quick check of my data revealed that all but one of my underachieving readers has English as an additional language. As the article suggests, this is understandable, at least temporarily, but not the root cause.

Why then this breathtaking statistic? Might some of these million Londoners be the parents of the 1/3 of children who leave year 6 unable to read? Many of my children claim that there are no books in their house. My father who left school aged 15, basically unable to read will tell you that there were no books in his home as he grew up. Take a stock check of your reading corner. How many books in there are relevant to your pupils cultural heritage, or, be honest, any of their interests? How many of your books demand sustained and committed attention in a world where You Tube has a 10 minute maximum video time, Twitter allows a maximum of 140 characters and a text is 160 characters long?

I believe that all children want to read. I believe they attach great prestige to the skill, hence the constant boasting about which book band they are on (another bizarre barrier to learning). It is short sighted to say that boys in particular, are not interested in reading. They are when the right book is put in front of them, either at the right level or with the appropriate support if it is challenging for them.

Schools need to support parents in becoming readers. The adult education sector needs to support us in delivering this. Reading needs to have a high profile and children need the right books and the right support.

To finish and summarise my points, I would like to share two quick stories about reading in my class this year.

One boy in my class is the classic, disengaged reader. He apparently had no interest what so ever and almost no phonic knowledge. He was supported superbly by the inclusion team who helped him to learn his sounds, but he was utterly disinterested in Wilf, Wilma, Biff, Chip, and Floppy (can you honestly blame him?) I decided to give him a Car magazine (far too difficult?) And sit with him for 10 minutes a day to sound out simple words in the headlines, the tables of statistics and some of the adverts. I read some of the articles to him and we chatted about cars. His reading level jumped 2 sub levels this year after years of being stuck on the P scales.

The second is my class books for the last year. There have been a few, such as The BFG (they hated it) The Lady of Shallot (only 2 of them understood it) Locomotion (too subtle) and when I look back over the year in black and white, I am not sure why I thought they would work. Our final book was Louis Sachar’s Holes. It is a complex story but it is full of regular exciting peaks, and has a really gritty edge to it that the children really responded to. It was brilliantly supported by a film, which we watched straight after we read it. They loved it and the work they produced was fantastic.

None of this is particularly inventive, all teachers look for the best books and innovative strategies to engage readers. We need to focus on resourcing and enabling these strategies and seeking new creative avenues. I think that this, coupled with a higher profile of reading and supporting the adult community around our schools will produce successful readers.

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