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Dumbed-down early reading takes its toll on degree-level study

Undergraduates struggle to read complex books at university because school textbooks have been dumbed down for decades, according to research that may have implications for literacy policy.

Structured reading programmes in primary that rely on specially-written books may also be part of the problem, according to University of Warwick professor of literacy education David Wray.

He told a literacy event in Stirling this week that "very significant" US research had revealed the "clear and alarming picture that while the reading demands of collegeuniversity study.had held steady or risen over the previous 50 years or so, the texts used to teach subjects in high school had moved the other way; that is, they had become less demanding".

Students well versed in reading complex texts were better prepared for the demands of university, he said.

While there is little British research in this area, Professor Wray wrote on his blog that "there are reasons for thinking that the situation might equally apply in the UK".

One feature of modern textbooks, it appeared, was "a simplification in terms of text complexity" - the use of flow charts, drawings, colour coding, bullet points, bold type, labels, symbols and questions.

US policymakers have responded with the Common Core Standards Initiative, which introduces more complex texts to school-leavers.

"If we want students to achieve mastery over the increasingly complex texts they will encounter, one first, crucial step has to be that we need a deliberate policy and strategy for introducing them to progressively more complex texts," Professor Wray said. This should encompass the range of subjects, not just English, he stressed.

He is concerned by what he sees as a prioritisation in the UK of early reading skills over secondary school reading.

"I would argue that it may be precisely an over-emphasis on initial skills that might create some of the literacy problems that teachers later have to deal with," he said.

Too many reading schemes underplayed the enjoyment of books; schools that taught reading more effectively moved away from "tightly controlled texts" to allow children greater freedom over what they read.

Wednesday's conference was organised by the Scottish government, education directors' body ADES, Education Scotland, and Education Psychology Services in Scotland.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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