Why our children can’t read

It has taken a few days for me to write this, simply because the Evening Standard front page two days ago left me in the sort of rage that doesn’t lend itself to blog posts.  ‘A city of children who cannot read’, screamed the oh-so sensationalist headline.  Cue pages and pages of so-called insightful journalism.  I read all the pages, took a few moments in a dark room and decided to take a tactical pause.

Congratulations, Evening Standard, for a) pointing out the bleeding obvious to anyone who teaches and b) managing to make a pig’s ear of the whole thing.  Thanks to organisations like FullFact, who have unpicked the statistics the Evening Standard used, it is clear that the numbers alone don’t add up.  What bothers me most about the whole thing is the lack of clarity on what the actual issue is.

My hackles went up when I read the articles because, as is so often the case with articles about education, the implication is that somehow teachers are getting things wrong, that we aren’t educating the nation’s children and ensuring that they are capable of fitting into the capitalist machine as productive and efficient citizens.  It seemed that the Evening Standard couldn’t really decide who to point the finger at.  They started with schools (“this goes to the heart of our education system”) and moved swiftly to the government ( “years of government initiatives and investment have failed”).  The full article decided to focus on the “plight” of poor Aurelia, who doesn’t have a single book in her home. It would seem at this point, the Evening Standard had defaulted to its usual editorial standpoint: let’s blame the immigrants.  Aurelia and her mother are clearly recently arrived Eastern Europeans.  Most teachers will agree that the rate of language acquisition of newly arrived Eastern European children is quite phenomenal.  Were the Evening Standard blaming Aurelia’s mother for not being able to speak English fluently and therefore, aid Aurelia’s progress at school?  Again, unclear.  Taking the Evening Standard’s statistics, “72,00 British schoolchildren [are] arriving at high school every year unable to read to the expected level”.  Is Aurelia one of these children? 

I am bewildered, dear reader, most bewildered. 

At times like these, when the truth is hidden underneath mountains of statistical excrement, I try to focus on what I know.  Sometimes, I can find comfort in this place, sometimes I just work myself into a minor frenzy and have to be brought back down with a nice glass of wine and some Choco Leibniz. 

What I know, after eight years in teaching, is this: some children come to secondary school not able to read fluently.  It’s not as simple as those who can and those who can’t.  Some students read words well, but don’t have any comprehension of what they are reading.  Some find it hard to decipher words, but when they have, they understand it perfectly.  Some students, like Aurelia, arrive with a whole other language and learn English, slowly and usually to ‘playground proficiency’.   

Are you still with me?

The issue of books has nothing to do with Aurelia.  The issue of books is complex and related, as much as we all hate to admit it, to the class system and the value parents place on education.  Ruth  Lupton (2006) points out ‘most working class parents think education is important but they see it as something that happens in the school, not the home’.  Various studies on the link between attainment and socio-economic status have pointed out the correlation between working class households, poor rates of literacy, the lack of engagement in school life and poor prospects. 

When the Evening Standard so haphazardly points out that there is a city of children who apparently can’t read, they conveniently forget that by the time a child arrives in my classroom, it is a catch-up game they often can’t win.  That child may not be able to read and this, funnily enough, is not the fault of the education system.  They conveniently omit the fact that reading begins at a very early age, in the home, with a parent.  The child sees that reading is valuable; they may see their parent reading a novel, or a newspaper – it doesn’t matter what it is – they see that reading is something important. 

So the opposite happens when parents dismiss their own responsibility for the education of the children they have brought into the world.  If education is something that happens in schools, and schools alone, what chance do those children have?  Children learn their habits from their parents, they absorb values and they take on the messages presented by their parents’ every day actions.  If the message is ‘this household does not see reading as important’, then regardless of whether there are books in the house or not, they will not read.  It is rare in our schools to meet students who literally do not have a book in the house.  It is more likely that their parents have indulged the idea that the PlayStation or the X-Box is more important.  The games console takes pride of place in the living room.

The Evening Standard wants to shock us by declaring the levels of illiteracy in London.  It would be more  revolutionary to point out the elephant that has been rotting in the room for far too many years without mention.  It is poverty of parenting that perpetutates the damning cycle of low socio-economic status in this country. It is poverty of parenting that causes children to reject educational activities.  It is poverty of parenting, intentional or not, that leads to children who cannot read.


  1. Anon

    Something unsaid in this piece is whether early years and primary education bears any responsibility. In your view, the fight is clearly between parents and secondary teachers. If that’s the case, you’re absolutely right that 11 is much too late to inspire children to enhance their literacy. But what about those parts of the system which should, at their best, level the playing field for all children, regardless of parents’ attitudes to reading? In this case, it should be pre-school and primary school which gives every child the chance to learn. I’m not excusing negligent parents, but I don’t think the teaching profession (if that includes pre- and primary school teachers) is absolved either if children reach 11 and can’t read.

    Also, working class parents are no better or worse than the parents who are much too busy with their careers to read their children a story every night. Ignorance and illiteracy in adulthood is actually a more valid excuse for failing to read with your children than the fact that a power couple in the City both work 7am-9pm and never see their children.

    Basically, I agree that the Standard’s story was rubbish. It’s far easier for them to blame a system than a class of people (many of whom might be Standard readers). In any case, reading the Standard most evenings, you’d think many of the illiterate children had gone on to careers on their news desk.

    • thenewstateswoman

      Many sage points. I agree that my main focus is on the work done by secondary schools, however, I do acknowledge the role of early years education. The fact is that many early years providers and primary schools do make huge efforts to level the playing field, employing phonics programmes and literacy specialists to aid reading recovery. What I worry about is, in all types of families, is the reckless abandoning of personal responsibility for instilling values related to education and reading. A middle class parent may be just as guilty of this as a working class parent. I teach a real mix of students and it is a variety of parents who shrug their shoulders at me and complain their children don’t read.

      The piece isn’t about teachers finding absolution; it is about saying what is often unsaid. I will try my hardest to help a child to read but the first step is in the hands of the parent.

  2. BreitIdeas

    The thing that is really going to blow your mind, Anon, is that there are rules about what early years carers are and aren’t allowed to do when it comes to educating our children. Namely, they are not allowed to introduce ‘topics’ to children under three. Now, I’m not an early years carer myself, and this comment is based on conversations I’ve had with my son’s key worker at nursery, but basically, the carers are obliged to wait until a child shows interest in a ‘topic’ – be that reading a book, building a train track, or playing in the sandpit – before they are allowed to administer the appropriate levels of encouragement. My son’s own key worker finds this very frustrating, as he is very interested in counting, but she is not allowed to encourage his interest unless he outrightly requests her help – by going to the number wall, counting out loud etc. And even then she is limited as to what she is allowed to do with him until he is three. What this means for literacy is that children will only get a story read to them at nursery if they ask for it, or if they join an already existing story circle. This is of course something they are unlikely to do based on the logic of the New Stateswoman’s above post – if reading isn’t something encouraged at home, it’s not likely to be something they’re bothered about at nursery. Sad times.

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