Today many children do not learn to read, not because they cannot, but because they don't want to. A large percentage of the 60 per cent of 11-year-olds who cannot read at the appropriate level for their age at present undoubtedly fall into this category.
They don't want to because they have no belief in their ability to succeed. Perfectly able to learn phonics and any other method put before them, while they experience no confidence in themselves as people and have no regard for their potential, no matter how much time, effort and money is put into the scheme it will not achieve its aims.
The issue to be addressed is self-esteem. Within the limitations of a letter it is not possible to explain the many, varied and often subtle experiences which affect the self-esteem of children. Suffice to say that for these children in question there have already been a number of events in their lives which have significantly lowered their self-esteem.
In consequence, they are now giving themselves messages that it is very risky to get involved in any new projects that teachers want them to learn, as so many in the past have led to failure and disappointment. Therefore they avoid them in every way possible - losing their pencil or starting a fight are but two examples from an endless list. By doing this they unconsciously aim to preserve the little self-esteem they have left.
If teachers are to overcome these problems, a very understanding approach is required. When Paulo Freire undertook to reduce illiteracy in Brazil, it became apparent that the teaching of reading skills was totally unproductive if people saw little worth in themselves. It was only after a programme to develop self-esteem was introduced that people began to appreciate their potential and value and then got the motivation to widen their horizons. Eventually many did want to and did learn to read because they came to believe in themselves.
Healthy levels of self-esteem result in internal motivation and this in turn brings academic success, as well as responsible behaviour. Pupils try harder because they can see success within their reach.
Teachers who employ esteem-raising strategies are giving their charges incalculable assets for both their present and future lives. Children positively want to learn and will be eager to read as they become aware of the benefits this skill will bring.
Has the study of the worldwide research Michael Barber mentions taken this crucial factor into account? Will an effective approach be used in the time dedicated to literacy in the classroom? In all the training time to be devoted to this, will teachers be helped to build up a repertoire of activities which would enhance their pupils' self-esteem and will they be given an understanding of the psychological process involved?
If the answer is "yes", then the road Michael Barber plans for these children will be smoother, faster and a joy to travel along.
MURRAY WHITE International Council for Self Esteem 5 Ferry Path Cambridge