British face hardest reading challenge

Julie Henry

BRITISH pupils take more than twice as long to master reading as their European counterparts simply because English is a difficult language.

Researchers say the slow rate of progress has more to do with the complexity of the language than the earlier school starting age.

The Dundee University research team set a range of reading tests for first year primary pupils in 15 countries, aged five to seven, depending on the school starting age. Two groups in their second year of school were also tested - in Scotland, where the starting age is five, and Denmark, where it is seven.

Knowledge of the alphabet and capacity to recognise familiar words were tested. Accuracy, speed and types of errors were measured.

Professor Philip Seymour, who presented the research at the British Association for the Advancement of Science conference this week, said:

"Mastery of the basic elements of literacy clearly occurred much more slowly in English than in many other European languages.

"Most groups master these elements within a year or less of starting primary school. The Scottish group requires two to three years of learning to reach the same levels. This was also true, though in a less extreme form, of Danish children who begin reading at seven."

All the children displayed good letter knowledge. However, the Scottish group was slightly poorer at naming letters than the others.

There was a large variation in the capacity to read familiar words. Performance was accurate and fast in most languages, but lower in Portuguese, French, Danish and, particularly, English.

The capacity to read simple one and two-syllable words also varied. Performance was again worse in the "complex" languages: Portuguese, French, Danish and Engish The range of individual variation was also much greater in the four complex languages. The Danish and English sample included children who remained virtual non-readers after a year in school as well as children who read very effectively.

Researchers said school starting age or teaching methods could also influence progress in English. But they concluded that the complex structure and inconsistent spelling system of English were more important.

Julie Henry

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Julie Henry

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