Reading difficulty is linked to low self-esteem

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Some five years ago, I retired from teaching and decided to devote myself to my special area of interest - children with reading difficulties.

I have always been conscious of the very low position of the UK on the European league table of literacy which I found difficult to square with the relatively large proportion of the education budget which is consumed by this phenomenon.

It occurred to me that the vast amount of literature on this subject both here and in the United States contained a great deal of theory and conclusions or assumptions based on theories but very little factual evidence of why many children fail to learn to read well. The only common ground I could find was a universal agreement that all children with reading difficulties have very low self-esteem and I decided to focus on this and try to determine the precise origin of this phenomenon. During this research I made what I regard as a breakthrough.

Reading is not taught. It is a skill which is acquired in an appropriately structured learning environment such as that provided in almost all infant schools. This approach is wholly adequate for four out of five pupils. However, 20 per cent or so have failed to make a substantial start in reading at the age of seven.

When these pupils enter the junior phase of their education, the principal remedial strategy to which they are exposed is the act of reading a short passage to a teacher or helper, every day. In a majority of cases, this strategy fails to effect any substantial remedy and these children enter the secondary phase at the age of 11 with very low self-esteem and very poor reading standards.

I suggest that the origin of both problems is the practice of having the child routinely read an unfamiliar passage, which ensures them a daily dose of demotivating and self-esteem-eroding failure. Rather than being the remedial tactic which well-meaning teachers and parents believe it to be, it is counter-productive and debilitating.

Reading is the assimilation of the intellectual content of a passage and no intelligent competent adult reader would ever think of reading an unfamiliar passage aloud to a listener. They would always read through it first silently in order first to assimilate the intellectual content and only then, would they expect to be able to deliver a fluent, error-free, loud reading with all of the tonal variations which signal their understanding.

When we do set up a situation in which such children have the opportunity to read through a passage before reading it aloud to a listener, the effect borders on the miraculous. In offering such children this opportunity, we are not giving them any advantage; we are merely making possible the same level playing field that all intelligent, competent readers take for granted.

When provided with access to a number of computer-assisted learning products which enable pupils to read through a passage before reading aloud to a listener, dozens of teachers report a self-evident improvement in reading confidence and self-esteem in just two weeks. Just as nothing demotivates like routine doses of failure, nothing motivates like routine doses of success.

This approach does not require massive cash injections or armies of specially trained teachers.

Improving literacy standards has nothing to do with low investment. It is a consequence of inadequate research and our failure to have appreciated the mechanisms which bring about the demotivating loss of self-esteem which we know to be endemic among poor readers and which are a recognised phenomenon among those whose behaviour is anti-social.

EDWARD CARRON 8 Harley Drive Condover Near Shrewsbury Shropshire

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