Is illiteracy just another abstract, nothing we readers should worry about? Miriam Gross thinks we should. Her work published by the Centre for Policy Studies in the UK examines some of the difficulties with improving literacy in London.
She takes aim at some familiar targets of conservative wrath: child-centred learning, by which children are invited in “discover” the meaning of the printed page before them, rather than being taught: the hostility to academic selection that has bedevilled the teaching establishment; the lack of discipline in some schools; the time wasted in considering the “emotional wellbeing” of the child, rather than the good old instruction in reading and writing.
Her study arose not only from worrying illiteracy statistics but also from the clash between proponents of the old style phonics method of teaching reading and the more recent ‘whole word recognition’ approach.
So how are our children doing? It depends on which kids, as a recent Massey University study has found. Massey literacy education professor Tom Nicholson has just released findings of a study of 130 Year 1 pupils at schools in low, middle and high socio-economic areas.
It found the 5-year-olds at decile 10 schools significantly outperformed the pupils at decile 1 schools in reading and spelling. In a test of their ability to read words, the pupils from the higher socioeconomic areas had a mean score of 21.95 words, or a reading age of 6 years and 3 months. Those from the lower socio-economic areas had a mean score of 6.96 words, which was closer to a reading age of five years.
Dr Nicholson said he had hoped the gap between rich and poor would have closed but the latest results found similar trends to his research a decade ago.
Any reading of the research in this area is troubling. According to UNICEF, ‘Nearly a billion people will enter the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names and two thirds of them are women.’
Poor reading skills at an early age delay students’ ability to learn later. Some observers, ranging from heads of police to reading advocates believe there is a clear causal link between illiteracy and crime. The debate over this rages on – here’s a sample from Mona McNee, a champion of effective reading tuition in England. She rebuts a doubter in the Daily Telegraph:
The psychological effect of reading failure (CAUSED BY THE WRONG TEACHING IN SCHOOLS, NOT BY WHAT PARENTS DO) is enormous. Reading failure, among tiny infants [small children] who do not understand what has happened, shatters the self-esteem like nothing else - far worse than failing at math…
Why are schools the No.1 target for arson? Reading failure is something infants [small children] do not expect. They try their best, to no avail, because they are not taught the right way. They do not FEEL stupid but come to the conclusion that they must be (even if they are not) because they see other children learning, but not them. Some children come to me, and I almost feel they will spark if I touch them. They are 200% tense. School becomes a 12-year prison sentence of failure, humiliation, frustration... desperation.
The statistics seem to be on her side. The American website www.beginto read.com: cites a Justice Department study which states:
‘The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.’
Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help. This equates to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders.
At the core of the argument is that a correlation should not be confused with cause. In other words, there may be a link but is it the link which leads to crime? Sounds academic. Kids may not understand reading, but they get failure.