Literacy problem at home and abroad

1st February 2008 at 00:00

Maggie Downie's belief (Inbox, TES, January 25) that the systematic teaching of phonics can leave fewer than one in five pupils unable to read well by the age of 11, and so obviate the need for such interventions as Reading Recovery, is based on a misunderstanding of why English-speaking countries have similar levels of illiteracy.

We are not alone in spending extra money on trying to make Every Child a Reader. Other Anglophone countries have programmes for improving literacy, and so far none has produced even moderately impressive gains.

In Finland and Korea, nearly all pupils manage to learn to read competently because their spelling systems make this skill very easy. The Italian, Swedish and Spanish orthographies do not leave many pupils struggling either. The Dutch and German ones are trickier and produce more reading failure; more so the Danish, Portuguese and French. The less regular the spelling system, the higher the proportion of poor readers. As English spelling is phonemically the most complex and least systematic, it defeats more learners than any other.

What helps children to learn to read best is having literate parents. That is why there is such a close correlation between the educational success of Anglophone children and their home background. Our main problem is that one in five parents cannot read themselves or help their children enough, and so consign their offspring to a similar fate.

Masha Bell, Literacy specialist and author, Wareham, Dorset.

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