Why is literacy declining?

Boris displays his shameless competitive streak as he remembers being beaten by his sister when reading

Lurking in the childhood of anyone ambitious there is always the memory of some humiliation that sets them on the path of self-improvement. Show me a billionaire, and I will show you someone who was beaten up for his lunch money. Many is the megalomaniac who first had to overcome a case of acne or puppy fat or being forced by his mother to wear a flowery tie to a friend’s birthday party. You want to know my moment of childhood shame? Shall I tell you when I decided that I was going to have to sharpen up my act to survive?

I must have been about six, and my younger sister must have been about four or five, and we were sitting on a sunny river bank being taught to read by my grandmother. We were reading alternate sentences aloud when my grandmother announced – as my sister Rachel has never ceased to remind me – that the girl was reading better than the boy. Yes, in spite of the 15-month gap between us, she was somehow deciphering the words more easily than I was. I cannot tell you how much it costs me, even now, to report this buried shame. I blushed. I fumed. Beaten! By my kid sister!

As the antelope wakes every morning and knows that he must outrun the lion, so I wake every day and know that I must somehow scamper to keep ahead of Rachel, all-powerful editor of The Lady and authoress of what is currently the number two best-seller in France. I remember the pain and horror at being left behind in the reading stakes, because it is an emotion that is all too common in children in our schools today. Unlike the village schools of Somerset 40 years ago, it seems that our methods of dealing with the problem are painfully inadequate. Over a third of London primary school children reach the age of 11 without being able properly to read and write, and 20 per cent are still having serious difficulties by the time they leave secondary school.

This is a source of huge economic inefficiency, but in every case of illiteracy we are also talking of a grievous personal handicap. If you cannot read properly, you are more likely to suffer from low self-confidence – and if you suffer from low self-confidence, you are far more likely to turn to crime.

That is why I commend an excellent pamphlet by Miriam Gross, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, in which she examines some of the difficulties with improving literacy in London. She takes aim at some familiar targets of conservative wrath: child-centred learning, by which children are invited to “discover” the meaning of the printed page before them, rather than being taught; the hostility to academic selection that has bedevilled the teaching establishment; the lack of discipline in some schools; the time wasted in considering the “emotional well-being” of the child, rather than good old instruction in reading and writing.

Some of these complaints will no doubt infuriate many hard-working teachers, and some educationalists will be outraged at what they will present as a traditionalist and downright reactionary approach. At the heart of Miriam Gross’s argument is the story of one of the greatest kulturkampfs of the last century. It is like the dispute between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders, or the war that raged between those who thought Christ was homoiousios and those who thought he was homoousios in his relation with God the Father – except that this argument matters.

Ask yourself what happens when your powerful Daily Telegraph-reader eye skitters effortlessly through this article. What cognitive processes are going on in your head? With incredible speed you are decoding clutches of letters into sounds, in order to identify the words; and those words are being virtually simultaneously converted into sense; and the reason you can do this so fast is that hard-wired into your reading brain is an understanding of how the alphabet generates the 44 sounds of the English language; and the best way to reach that instinctive understanding of how letters make sounds is a system known as synthetic phonics.

That is the system that rescued me after the appalling verdict of my grandmother. I remember going to primary school and sitting cross-legged as the class learned C-A-T, and how each sound helped to make up a word, and after a while I had cracked it; and I find it unbelievable that so many children are not given the opportunity to learn by this simple and effective means.

It was about 100 years ago that the split began, and some educationalists began to argue that phonics was too dogmatic, too authoritarian. It was demoralising for children who couldn’t spell out every word in their heads, they said. Perhaps they should be encouraged just to recognise the words – and so was born the system of “whole word recognition”, intended partly to bolster those who found phonics a strain.

And yet the result, say the phonics proponents, is that children are not being given the basic all-purpose deciphering tools they need. That is why literacy has declined in the past 50 years, they claim, and that is why we face a skills shortage caused very largely by the inability of one million working Londoners to read and write.

Are they right? It is time to end this culture war, and to try to settle once and for all, in the minds of the teachers, whether synthetic phonics is the complete answer or not. We have in Nick Gibb, the admirable new schools minister, one of the world’s great militants for synthetic phonics. Indeed, you can have a meeting with Nick on almost any subject, and I can guarantee he will have mentioned it within five minutes. I am almost 100 per cent sure he is right.

And yet I have also met London kids on Reading Recovery programmes who are obviously benefiting hugely from a mixture of phonics and word recognition. It is surely time for the Government to organise a competition, a shoot-out between the two methods, to see which is the most effective for children of all abilities.

And don’t tell me children are averse to competition. Look at me and my sister.

Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph – see the column here

51 thoughts on “Why is literacy declining?”

  1. Children – humans – learn differently. This debate isn’t about reading methods at dawn: it’s about having teachers of sufficient ability to identify which child learns best in which way and to teach different methods simultaneously. Presumably, by extension, it’s also about class sizes teachers can cope with.

  2. Good morning, “Mr Boris”! (I gather form your writings that you are thus addressed, sometimes…)Prior apologies for this being longer than I intended…

    You’re right of course, about the destruction of reading-ability, and therefore not only of general literacy but also of the continuing existence of a people’s cultural roots. You and I both know, in our hearts, that cultural destruction, the erasing of liberalism (small “l”!) was always the prime objective of people like the Fabians. We in Britain were particularly singled out for this progeamme, for our culture had committed the capital crime of showing all people everywhere – loudly – the Way To The Door Out Of Hell.

    In our day, the correct way was not called “phonics”: it was not called anything at all, indeed: it had no name! It was, pure and simple, “how you learn to read”. Just that. Look at any instruction manual for toys, even, such as Meccano or Bayko or Triang Arkitex, or even (for older boys) stuff like “Practical Wireless”, and see how the vernacular use of English, the use of powerful linguistic constructions densely and economically-laden with meaning, and the breadth of vocabulary, has degraded over the decades.

    You may not have looked, recently, at the syllabuses for English GCSEs and A-levels. Furthermore, I shudder to think what they are taught for degrees in this now, with the possible exception of The Two Universities. Except that Beowulf might perhaps now be anaylsed for pre-renaissance allusions to the obstacles to the Empowerment Of Women.

    This aspect, that of literature appreciation, worries me especially: this is because the approved choices of “literature” now featuring in school syllabuses could not be better designed, even were they to try, to demotivate young people and put them off reading at all – especially boys! Trust me on this one: in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and I have the good fortune to be able to help Lancashire teenagers, children of friends and friends-of-friends, as a hobby in my retirement, with their GCSE and A-level English, and the teaching of essay-writing skills.

    To achieve victory, you and all those other politician chappies down there will not only have to root oput and expunge, terminally, the wrong and deliberately bad methods of teaching reading. You will also have to re-draft, completely and imperatively, the entire reading-lists administered by teachers in the “National (ised) Curriculum”!

    I suggest the following for a start, to be included:-

    Arthur Conan Doyle
    John Buchan (especially the Richard Hannay stuff!)
    Rudyard Kipling (_especially_ for poetry!)
    P G Wodehouse (to show them how to be funny)
    More Shakespeare (whole plays, from start to finish too!)
    Geoffrey Chaucer (and they can start by learning high middle-English as well!)
    Winston Churchill (possibly some of the finest modern historical writing.)

    You can add your own, as your canon will be wider than mine!

  3. Are you aware of the similarity of your childhood reading experience with that of Rudyard Kipling? He mocked his sister when they were reading together for what he perceived as her ignorance in the pronounciation of the word ‘that’, admonishing her: “putting a T on H-A-T does not make THAT”.
    Even great literary figures can stumble early on.

  4. Many cyclists are saying Boris Johnson’s cycle superhighways are an opportunity missed. You are still scrapping for space with cars and lorries and taxis.

    “It’s just blue paint on the road.”

    The previous mayor was the one who helped cyclists by having hte courage to introduce the Congestion Charge. The current mayor would be too spineless to do something similar.

  5. My moment of shame came when my father discovered I could not actually recite the alphapet from A – Z. I was about 14 at the time and good at English and so, in my arrogance, I thought that this pedestrian accomplishment was beneath me. I soon dropped this lofty attitude when informed by dear old Dad that pocket money would not be forthcoming until I mastered this “pedestrian” task. Still, I’m all right now. A.B.C.D.E.F.G.H.I.J……….er…………er!

  6. One can only assume that Boris’ reaction to his younger sister’s superior reading ability has caused some sort of massive over- reaction in later life. I, even as a classics scholar myself, never expected to see utterings on the Nicene and Gnostic theology of ‘homoousious’ over my breakfast porridge. Hands up all those who didn’t have to dash for the dictionary.

  7. I amazes me that will all the technical advances my education in the late 60’s was and is far better than my daughters got in the year 2000.
    Both of my daughters struggle with basic maths and rarely pick up a book.
    The internet and tv are to blame in my opinion.
    I am at a loss why you would need a calculator in an exam .
    I was taught that the human brain is the best computer in the world.
    It is time to go back to the teaching methods of the 60’s where you were taught parrot fashion and had to read aloud to your classmates.
    Embarrasment worked wonders as you did not make the same mistake twice.

  8. Unfortuntely the 60s didn’t teach Jon gratton that “60s” has no apostrophe. Thought he would appreciate the “embarrasment” of this being pointed out for him. xx

  9. I agree with Boris’s thesis. I am now 80years. I have always had a language difficulty, but very good at Maths etc. I went to College of Education at 39 but found the 3 yrs eye opening but I found it difficult to get thoughts on paper when under time pressure. I was taught as a child by the C-A-T method. I would have been lost if I hadn’t been.
    It is the old story, everyone is an education expert other than the bod who has made his bread at the chalk-face.

  10. Why is the government proposing to continue with the £6,000 per child (gross) Whole Language/Reading Recovery programme which has been criticised in thousands of documents throughout the English speaking world? It costs approximately 1/10th this sum to teach children the alphabetic code, how to decode and to reach automaticity so that any word in the English language can be read.

    If the Conservative Party can ignore the findings of the Rose Report,
    All Party Science and Technology Committee, 2009, the Clackmannanshire 7 year longitudinal study, the government reports from US,UK and Australia, and instead employ hugely expensive Reading Recovery teachers, without any controlled trials, then I can only wonder at the power of KPMG, Reading Recovery PR and the gullibility of those that eschew the evidence.

  11. It’s a good idea to have a competition to test out various methods, and I hope this happens.

  12. I’m currently learning Welsh, which has a different alphabet, and different sounds associated with the letters in that alphabet. The idea that I should learn to read Welsh by “recognising the whole word” without knowing the phonetic quality of each letter, is staggering to me. The task is difficult enough without requiring me to have apparently supernatural powers of word divination.

  13. When my son was studying for his medical degree, he asked me to explain the use of the apostrophe. After venturing the opinion that we would be better off without them (it wouldnt be harder to read anyones writing without them) I did so. “Is that all?” he asked. It seemed so simple. Why had his school been so frightened of teaching him?

  14. Dear Boris

    The six year old you was not unusual in experiencing the pain and embarrassment of not being able to read as you felt you were expected to, and the fact that this memory has remained with you so clearly is also not unusual.

    There are hundreds of adults in prison in the UK today, who cannot read. They share this experience with you but unlike you they did not have the opportunities or support to perservere and become readers.

    Without this vital skill crime has become a viable career option and prison, an occupational hazard.

    The good news is that PHONICS WORKS FOR ADULTS TOO. Shannon Trust is an independent charity that trains prisoners who can read to teach those who cannot using a phonic learning resource called Toe by Toe.

    The Toe by Toe Reading Plan costs very little but is very effective and for some, is the first step on the road to reducing reoffending.

    Have a look at the website http://www.shannontrust.org.uk

  15. I was taught by the methods approved by most of the contributors, and they worked for me, and for most of my contemporaries. Can I suggest that those generations coming after me, like my children, communicate in writing with a casual abandon, and with a regularity that far surpasses that of my day? That we are in the midst of a non-verbal communication explosion? That copperplate handwriting and perfect grammar, and conventional spelling, admirable though they may be, are of very little importance to this generation of tweeters and texters and most of all, this international community of email writers? Is it not more effective than the highly disciplined, correct usage of a self-appointed elite? The Queen’s English is only a dialect of an international language, used by a diminishing number of speakers and two radio stations. It does not matter that I don’t understand what one kid says to another, and that’s nothing new anyway. Things will always be changed, precisely because the appointed elders, betters, and experts disapprove. But if you want to get to the top, you better learn to do it properly…..and I will kill to defend the correct use of the apostrophe!

  16. Why is literacy declining? British Police nationwide use this standard sign:


  17. Edna, the sign used by the Police is not eloquent. D’you think it works? Do people read it? Do they understand it? Do they respond? If people didn’t do any of these things, I guess the Police wouldn’t use the signs.

  18. I agree with Boris Johnson. The increasing numbers of the population who are ILLITERATE, has me wondering how do they get employment? But they do. Look at the sheer number of T.V. employees, who are illiterate. When children hear and see this, the effect runs in opposition to general education. Having said that, I suspect there are teachers who are illiterate.

    Fly the flag Boris.

  19. Following the demise of the formal treatment of grammar in schools, children in the English-speaking world (for which I suppose we must read ‘most under sixty years of age’, so long has the disease been progressing) have learnt what little they knew of the language from disc-jockeys &c. similar broadcasters.  Even before they approach the written word their chance of understanding of the structure of English has been mangled by their following this guidon.

    The problem has been exacerbated by the deliberate policy of recruiting to the premium broadcasting stations — in no case more noticeably than that of the B.B.C., both Home and World — those whose English is not up to standard, in both articulacy and enunciation :  all in the name of ‘equality’.  No-one may ever be described as wrong in the socialist World of to-day.

    The immigrants of yester-year to the British Isles spoke beautifully and had an outstanding command of English.  It is to our eternal shame that we dumped them in the worst part of town and let their children grow in to the ‘innit’ generation.


  20. I wonder whether, in adducing German words, just as we write minima as the plural of minimum, we ought to use the German plural form (-kämpfe in this case).


  21. Salaam

    The demand for state funded Muslim schools is in accordance with the law of the land. Muslim community is not asking for any favour. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. Muslim schools give young children self-confidence and self-esteem in who they are and an understanding of Islamic teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fullfilling role in society.

    A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit who is unable to speak and understand any other language except English. This is one of the main reason why British society and schooling are the homes of institutional racism. The first wave of migrant Muslims could speak two or three languages, including English but their offsprings have become notoriously monolingual Brits. They have adopted all the evils of the English scoiety. There is a positive co-relation between language and culture. A Muslim must speak, read and write Standard English, Arabic, Urdu and other community languages that gives him self-confidence and self esteem which are crucial for mental, emotional and personality development. State schools do not teach Standard English to bilingual Muslim children. They pick up English in local accent in the play ground or in the street.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

  22. Decline of literacy standards has significant implications but the functional illiteracy of 20% plus is an absolute tragedy. Teaching children to read is a basic right and is neither difficult nor expensive if taught logically and systematically. The fact that over one billion pounds will be spent during the next decade on dissipating and, ultimately, destroying the work of the Rose Report, is a travesty of justice and provides teachers with mixed messages.

    Instead politicians should be ensuring that all teacher training institutes provide the basic information students require .

  23. Wa ‘alaykumu s-salaam, Iftikhar Ahmad

    What would be far better, I suggest, than schools exclusively for Muslims — or any other small part of the population — would be a system of universal education that incorporated teachers from all minorities and offered a curriculum wide enough to ensure a knowledge amongst the indigenous of all the cultures of the World.  Such an understanding might, for example, have prevented Conservative M.P.s’ following Iain Duncan Smith in to the No lobby (sc. in favour of the war) in 2003.

    Although racialism is undoubtedly a function of ignorance, you might be stretching the point in suggesting that the ignorance of language — our own and those of other countries — that our teachers so ably inculcate in their pupils lies at its root.


  24. Pericles, your passage, “….a system of universal education…….cultures of the World” seems to be as good a definition of an inclusive and decent education as I have read. Well done.

  25. Pericles – we should give words their ‘foreign’ plurals as long as they remain foreign words, printed in italics. Once they become naturalised, they should take English plurals; ‘minimums’, for instance. This is because they are English words, although based on words in foreign languages, because it makes the language pointlessly complicated if we have multiple ways of forming the plural, because insisting on ‘correct’ plurals is mere showing-off and because it cannot be done consistently. What, for instance, are the ‘correct’ plurals of ‘kayak’ (Inuit), ‘kiosk’ (Persian), ‘dacha’, ‘wombat’ or ‘orang-utan’?

  26. Griffin was due to attend a palace garden party as a guest of his BNP colleague, Richard Barnbrook, who is a member of the London assembly, prompting London mayor Boris Johnson to protest and accuse Griffin of a “political stunt”.

    The BNP party leader dismissed Johnson’s comments as “alarmist, stupid and juvenile” and insisted today that his status as an MEP for the north-west had changed things.

    alarmist, stupid and juvenile.

  27. Well, if the police classify it as a serious accident then it might involves deaths, so surely they should treat it as such – a serious matter – by using correct spelling; not only because it is a serious matter but also as a mark of respect for all concerned. Not all people who saw the accident happened are funky-jerky teenagers.

    There seems to be a love-hate between U and I, I mean you and me, love…

  28. If it’s a serious accident, it might involves deaths which, in this case, expects some respect. To start with, the police should use correct spelling as it’s an official language. Also, witnesses who saw the accident happened might be an old, foggy pensioner whom the police can’t call ” U “, can they?

    There’s a place for text language- your cell phone.

    It’s taken millions of years to perfect this English language. Officials shouldn’t turn it into bush-people’ language on a whim.

  29. I meant ” as it’s an official sign “. Anyway, we need to nip it in the bud or one day we will see this sign at an UK airport: WELCOME TO UK PREZ OBAMA!

  30. Edna, it’s taken many, many years for the English language to absorb and employ words, constructions and spellings from many, many languages and dialects. Of course, objecting to effective and popular colloquial usage is in the great traditions of these islands, as exemplified by the former King, Canute.

  31. I’m afraid the Tories are coming up with more of their populist cowardly nonsense about removing speed-cameras.

    It’ll win votes, but it’ll make the roads more dangerous for cyclists.

    Boris Johnson will not mind about this, being a weather-cock.

  32. That’s not text language Edna u old foggy OAP! It should read like this in text language= WELCUM 2 UK PREZ OBAMA DUDE

    ( It has taken MILLIONS of years? Geez, I didn’t know that! )

  33. Texting can do your head in. My younger friends text me and I spend ages trying to decipher what they are saying and I’m not an old foggy OAP. But you havegot a great welcome for Obama. I’m still confused about My sister and me or my sister and I. Isn’t it something to do with the subject of the sentence?

  34. Whatever !

    Oh don’t forget to watch ” SHERLOCK ” on BBC1 at 9PM Sunday today, folks. It’s a new series and this time our BBC has turned Sherlock and Watson into a gay couple ( as you do ! ).

  35. Oh did you watch it, folks? It was so good – one hour LONG, the dialogues CUM THICK and FAST. Watson: ” Do you have a boyfriend? “. Sherlock: ” I’m married to my work “. Like, Sue Lawley: ” Mr Brown, you are still a bachelor? “. Brown: ” Umm… umm… I’m married to my work… ” Sue Lawley: ” Yes, Sir “.

    And did you notice, folks? Whereas the original Sherlock and Watson would chase bad men in a straight line, the newly invented Sherlock and Watson chased bad men in a zig-zag line. Meaning the bad men wouldn’t be able to get away (?)

    Anyway, folks, I wonder if the BBC deliberately showed their first SHERLOCK episode to time with the Brokenback Mountain coalition remark in order to get maximum publicity for their new SHERLOCK series?

  36. Kate Westley, sorry I missed your above comment and question, love. I’m not really an English language expert, love, but as a rule of thumb, it is like this:

    -The dresses are for my sister and me. Or: the dresses are for me and my sister.
    -My sister and I will wear them tomorrow. Or: I and my sister will wear them tomorrow.

  37. Time to leave the country?

    “The nation’s collective, unquestioning enthusiasm for London 2012 could be dampened, with the announcement today of the key traffic lanes that will only be accessible to Olympic traffic.

    The so-called “Games Lanes”, which will run along more than 60 miles of London’s roads, will only be accessible to vehicles from the Olympic family – which includes coaches carrying athletes and officials, but also “marketing partners” – and are designed to enable swift and safe transport between accommodation and venues.” – Guardian.

    Boris, are you in favour of this?

  38. It’s a splendid picture forming in my mind, Tiresias. The Londoners waving happily to the Olympic officials, as their cars are towed away for destruction by specially empowered Games Lane Enforcers, who also smile and wave at the Olympic Marketing Partners, as they flash past in bright, happily coloured eco-friendly multi-person vehicles, sporting the famous 2012 broken biscuit logo. It all reminds me of the Politburo, whizzing around Moscow in the nineteen seventies, gazing at the miserable workers, through one-way darkened mirrored windows.
    Come on Boris, make them cycle, in the true Olympic spirit!

  39. What the hell is the point of a cycle hire scheme where you don’t get a lock?

    How many cycle rides don’t involve stopping somewhere, even if it’s just to go to the toilet or to buy a paper?

    The previous mayor was brave. He took on the car lobby (congestion charge) and changed London for good.

    Boris Johnson looks spineless by comparison. Drifting around with no vision.

  40. Yes, ‘alumnuses’ or, better, ‘alumnusses’. We could also stop messing around with ‘alumna’ and ‘alumnae’. Otherwise why not say for instance ‘the incomes of Oxford alumnorum are often high’? Once one starts pretending to speak Latin, when actually speaking English, it leads to absurdity. The Romans did not hesitate to naturalise borrowed words and neither should we.

    Incidentally, since ‘Inuit’ is the plural of ‘inuk’, perhaps the plural of ‘kayak’ is ‘kayait’?

  41. So Boris’ sister beat him in reading tests. He can rest comfortably knowing that she can’t beat him in writing tests. Alas, poor Boris cleans her clock when it comes to writing.

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