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Reading: The golden key

Reading is the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities.

Yet in our wealthy nation, with its long history of free education, we still have one in four of our 11 year-olds not meeting expected national standards in reading – and a similar percentage not achieving a grade 4 in English GCSE.

And what will months of interrupted schooling mean for all children and young people with their reading development?

The linguist Noam Chomsky identified that every human has an innate language acquisition device. Only in rare circumstances do humans not learn to speak, and this is true across cultures. The psychologist Steven Pinker remarked that while children are wired for sound, print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.

I began my working life in education in H.M. Prison Brixton. All educators should spend time in the education department of one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It is a poignant reminder that basic literacy is a birthright that should be denied nobody.

In my time at the National Literacy Trust, I used to give talks entitled ‘Have you ever met a mugger who’s read Middlemarch?’  This was my way of affirming that whatever else we do for children and young people in classrooms, we must give them the dignity of being able to speak, read and write with fluency to make their way in the endlessly fascinating global society which they inhabit.

A political leader once said that the word ‘priority’ should not be used in the plural. Asking a school to set out just one catch-up priority at the start of 2021 would be unhelpful. But we must break this cycle of a sizeable section of the young population growing up with faltering language skills.

Let us be properly ambitious emerging from the 2020 interruptions to schooling. Set the goals and see where we get to.

  • Every primary to say to itself: almost all children will at age 11+ have a reading age which matches at least their chronological age.
  • Every secondary to say that, no matter the child’s starting point, almost all will achieve a grade 4 in English at 16+.

So what’s to do?

A reading agenda

First, schools need a rigorous approach to word recognition: enabling children to use a phonetic approach, to divide words into syllables for pronunciation, to have a knowledge of prefixes and suffixes.

Second, a planned approach to vocabulary development: learning new words, keywords and concepts, technical abbreviations and etymology, symbols and formulae – through regular and consistent use of a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Third, a systematic engagement with comprehension and organisation of text: summarising what has been read, distinguishing essential from non-essential, fact from opinion, drawing inferences and conclusions, noting cause and effect, reading between the lines.

Fourth, a programme to promote reading interests: voluntary reading for pleasure, reading for personal information, developing a passion for particular subjects, the use of the school library, the downloading onto the iPad of a favourite biography.

Fifth, a whole-school approach to study skills: sitting still long enough to read, using skimming for different purposes, reading maps and graphs, learning how to take notes, reading more rapidly with adequate comprehension, forming the study habit.

Reflecting on the five points above, skilled teachers and tutors will not make the mistake of adopting simply an age-related approach to the teaching of reading. Rather, they will select what works for a given child or group of children at a particular point in time.

Teachers and tutors will be driven by the belief that every child can tackle texts with confidence, whether on the printed page or the Kindle.

Written by: Roy Blatchford

Roy Blatchford (CBE)

Roy Blatchford CBE is Adviser to Unity Schools Partnership and Chair of the UK’s leading children’s communication charity I CAN – https://ican.org.uk/ 
He chaired the ASCL commission ‘The Forgotten Third’ – https://www.unitysp.co.uk/the-forgotten-third/

Reading is the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities.

Roy Blatchford