Tailor the reading level to the target

29th December 1995 at 00:00
As a young boy at grammar school some 30 years ago I struggled, without much success, to make sense of the science that was put to me by my teachers. Comments such as "this subject would seem to be completely beyond his understanding" and "he has remained consistently at the bottom of the [streamed] class" regularly adorned my physics and chemistry reports.

This lack of understanding I was told was because of lack of any effort on my part - it was my fault, not theirs. Over the five years of my secondary education my self-esteem sank ever lower and reached its nadir when, at 16 years of age, I was not entered for an O-level in a single science subject or any of the available combinations of them.

It took a number of years in the outside world for me to put all this behind me; to realise that because my school had not deemed me suitable material for learning a second language did not mean that I was not capable of so doing. O-levels and A-levels obtained at night school earned me a place at university as a mature student where I graduated with an honours degree - a BA of course.

Now a father attempting to help my 11-year-old daughter with her science homework, alarm bells were soon ringing inside my head. Not only did I still find science difficult but so, obviously, did she.

Reading through some work which she had been given I realised that, in attempting to make sense of it, I was reading aloud. Old enough now to be able to analyse my actions, I realised that my reading aloud indicated some fault or complexity in the text and not a deficiency in my brain or my daughter's.

Random samples of text from her science books gave reading ages of between 16 and 18 years - a reading age not achieved by a significant portion of the adult population! Believing that I had identified a major problem, I presented my findings to my daughter's school. The response was that it was only to be expected as some aspects of science were very difficult.

If John Major, or Tony Blair for that matter, are serious in their desire to achieve greater scientific understanding in our children, then I would suggest the following remedy: secondary school teachers should hand their intended texts to primary teachers who, generally speaking, have the skills to match written text to the reading age of the children in their class unlike, it seems, their colleagues in the secondary sector.

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