Reading failure? What reading failure?

“Yes, A level history is all about READING!”

I say it brightly as I dole out extracts from a towering pile of photocopying taken from different texts that will help the class get going with their coursework. I try and ooze reassurance. I cheerily talk about the sense of achievement my students will feel when they have worked their way through these carefully selected texts, chosen to transfer the maximum knowledge in the minimum reading time. I explain this sort of reading is what university study will be all about, while dropping in comforting anecdotes to illustrate it is much more manageable than they think. I make this effort because I NEED them to read lots. The quality of their historical thinking and thus their coursework is utterly dependent upon it.

Who am I kidding? This wad of material is the north face of the Eiger to most of my students. Some have just never read much and haven’t built up the stamina. The vocabulary in those texts (chosen by their teacher for their readability) is challenging and the process will be effortful. For a significant minority in EVERY class the challenge is greater. They don’t read well. Unfamiliar words can’t be guessed and their ability to decode is weak. To read even one of my short texts will take an inordinate time. Such students are bright enough, most students in my class will get an A after all, with some Bs and the odd C. They all read well enough to get through GCSE with good results and not one of them would have been counted in government measures for weak literacy. According to the statistics the biggest problem I face day in, day out as I teach A level history simply doesn’t exist. Believe me it exists and there is a real human cost to this hidden reading failure.

Take Hannah. She loves history, watches documentaries and beams with pleasure as we discuss Elizabeth I. She even reads historical novels. However, she really struggles to read at any pace and unfamiliar words are a brick wall. She briefly considered studying history at university but the reading demands make it impracticable. Her favourite subject can never be her degree choice because her reading is just not good enough. She is not unusual, her story is everywhere.

At this point I am going to hand over my explanation to Kerry Hempenstall, senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT. I include just a few edited highlights from his survey of the VAST research literature on older students’ literacy problems that you can consider for yourself by following the link. He says:

These struggling adolescents readers generally belong to one of two categories, those provided with little or poor early reading instruction or those possibly provided with good early reading instruction, yet for unknown reasons were unable to acquire reading skills (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Sammacca, 2008)…

Hempenstall outlines the problems with the ways reading is currently taught:

…Under the meaning centred approach to reading development, there is no systematic attention to ensuring children develop the alphabetic principle. Decoding is viewed as only one of several means of ascertaining the identity of a word – and it is denigrated as being the least effective identification method (behind contextual cues). In the early school years, books usually employ highly predictable language and usually offer pictures to aid word identification. This combination can provide an appearance of early literacy progress. The hope in this approach is that this form of multi-cue reading will beget skilled reading.

However, the problem of decoding unfamiliar words is merely postponed by such attractive crutches. It is anticipated in the meaning centred approach that a self-directed attention to word similarities will provide a generative strategy for these students. However, such expectations are all too frequently dashed – for many at-risk children progress comes to an abrupt halt around Year 3 or 4 when an overwhelming number of unfamiliar (in written form) words are rapidly introduced…

  1. a) New content-area vocabulary words do not pre-exist in their listening vocabularies. They can guess ‘wagon’. But they can’t guess’ circumnavigation’ or ‘chlorophyll’ based on context (semantics, syntax, or schema); these words are not in their listening vocabularies.
  2. b) When all of the words readers never learned to decode in grades one to four are added to all the textbook vocabulary words that don’t pre-exist in readers’ listening vocabularies, the percentage of unknown words teeters over the brink; the text now contains so many unknown words that there’s no way to get the sense of the sentence.
  3. c) Text becomes more syntactically embedded, and comprehension disintegrates. Simple English sentences can be stuffed full of prepositional phrases, dependent clauses, and compoundings. Eventually, there’s so much language woven into a sentence that readers lose meaning. When syntactically embedded sentences crop up in science and social studies texts, many can’t comprehend.” (Greene, J.F. 1998)

…In a study of 3000 Australian students, 30% of 9 year olds still hadn’t mastered letter sounds, arguably the most basic phonic skill. A similar proportion of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds. Over 72% of children entering high school were unable to read phonetically regular 3 and 4 syllabic words. Contrast with official figures: In 2001 the Australian public was assured that ‘only’ about 19% of grade 3 (age 9) children failed to meet the national standards. (Harrison, B. 2002) [Follow the link if you want to read all the research listed.]

Hempenstall outlines the research showing that the effects of weak reading become magnified with time:

“Stanovich (1986) uses the label Matthew Effects (after the Gospel according to St. Matthew) to describe how, in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Children with a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency which is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading. There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year”…

Hempenstall explains just why it is crucial to spot problems with phonics in year 1:

The probability that a child who was initially a poor reader in first grade would be classified as a poor reader in the fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88.Juel, C. (1988

If children have not grasped the basics of reading and writing, listening and speaking by Year Three, they will probably be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Australian Government House of Representatives Enquiry. (1993).The Literacy Challenge. Canberra: Australian Printing Office.

“Unless these children receive the appropriate instruction, over 70 percent of the children entering first grade who are at risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood”. Lyon, G.R. (2001).

[The research literature for this finding is enormous – do follow link if interested]

A study by Schiffman provides support for monitoring programs for reading disabilities in the first and second grades. In a large scale study of reading disabilities (n = 10,000),

82% of those diagnosed in Grades 1 or 2 were brought up to grade level.

46%     in Grade 3 were brought up to grade level.

42%     in Grade 4 were brought up to grade level.

10-15% in Grades 5-7 were brought up to grade level.

Berninger, V.W, Thalberg, S.P., DeBruyn, I., & Smith, R. (1987). Preventing reading disabilities by assessing and remediating phonemic skills. School Psychology Review, 16, 554-565.

Hempenstall lists research on what it is that causes such problems for struggling readers:

“The vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level reading difficulties (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002). This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179). [Do follow link for more]

To debate just how many children are functionally illiterate and condemn Nicky Morgan for apparent exaggeration entirely misses the point. Reading failure is endemic. I would estimate that about a third of my A level students have noticeable issues with word level reading that significantly impact upon their progress in history at A level. Reading failure is one of the biggest obstacles I have face in my teaching and I have every reason to comment on the issue. I don’t even deal with all those students who chose not to even attempt A level history because they knew it meant lots of reading.  At secondary school we should be giving students more complex texts to build their vocabularies and reading stamina. However, the research is pretty clear about when difficulties need to be identified if children are to overcome them – way back in year 1. The research is also pretty clear about what it is that struggling readers lack – a grasp of the alphabetic principle that they are able to apply fluently when reading. Given this, the opposition to the year 1 phonics check is hard to justify. We know so much now about effective reading instruction but it can only be used to help children if teachers are willing to adjust their practices. While around 90% of primary schools continue to focus on ‘mixed methods’ (guessing from cues rather than sounding out) that limit children’s chances of acquiring the alphabetic principle essential for successful reading, nothing will change.

14 thoughts on “Reading failure? What reading failure?

  1. I think the primary practitioners who are most scathing about secondary, FE, HE teachers pointing out the problem of poor reading have had very or no experience of illiteracy. They simply don’t seem to understand what it is like and I actually think it should be part of teacher training to have to teach some adults who can’t read very well or at least observe it. Without seeing the effects for one self (as I have done in the case of my father) it is easy to pretend the problem lies elsewhere…

  2. Thank you for this posting.

    ‘Word-skipping’, when children/people read silently to themselves, I suggest is endemic and yet no-one even seems to talk about this issue – indeed are teachers even aware of it?

    You see, it IS possible to deduce the meaning of a text whilst word-guessing (multi-cueing) and ‘skipping’ new words in place of decoding them.

    This means that teachers and parents can quizz children/learners about the content of the books and be duped into thinking the children are reading ‘well’ – accurately and fluently – when this may not be the case. They may simply have gained the gist of the text.

    Further, whilst the general meaning of texts and new words can be largely deduced from the overall context, new words cannot be absorbed into spoken language if the reader does not come up with a ‘pronunciation’ for the new word. This means that the reader is not expanding personal vocabulary. I suspect that this is the case for many secondary-aged pupils.

    Whilst many literate readers may actually choose to skip new words when reading privately and silently – especially those words which are longer and more challenging, a literate reader could decode the word and come up with a pronunciation if desired.

    A poor word-decoder, however, of the profile you have described in your piece, with inadequate code knowledge and blending skill, will have to skip or guess the word (often wrongly) and will be no further forwards in reading ability or spoken language development.

    Thus, silent reading which is so revered and encouraged, may well be hiding a disaster that, to date, is not even on radar of the vast majority of teachers’ and teacher-trainers’.

  3. This is really interesting. I found myself saying ‘yes, yes’ at your description of history students groaning about the amount of reading. I am a school librarian who works with high achieving students but I still find that so many lack reading stamina. Our Head of History says ‘If you’re not reading about history, you’re not doing history.’ and works hard to get students reading but it can be an uphill struggle. I too, notice the difference between students achieving well at GCSE but then finding the jump to A-level and heavy-reading subjects difficult to negotiate.

    At the risk of sounding dense, I had not considered the possibility of the after-effects of poor reading tuition having such a long-lasting legacy, despite one of my own children having been taught in a less than ideal fashion and seeing reading struggles at close quarters.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece.

  4. More thanks for so much food for thought.

    I suspect that the issue of stamina is key; not so much that pupils don’t know the mechanics of reading, but they and we massively underestimate the gap between “can read the words” and “can read the words so well that it’s effortless and brains can process the meaning”. As a science teacher, my usual response is to trim the text and scaffold the reading required; one A4 page with fairly large print and double-spaced lines would be considered fairly ambitious, even with top sets. The idea of reading even a chapter of a book would be too ambitious, and the outcomes would be too unpredictable to seem like a good idea.

    1. Yes, I agree about stamina. Unfamiliar vocabulary and ideas make reading a slog and if you’ve never read extended text it will feel insurmountable. There is research by the late (and great) Jean Chall on this and it seems our desire to make text accessible is the very reason reading ages have gone down. By prioritising current learning through making reading easy we sacrifice future potential learning as we limit progress in more complex reading.
      All this said there are a significant minority in every class with more fundamental word level word reading problems.

  5. Great post, Heather!
    I can’t disagree with a thing you have said. Of course, the fact that the failures you so well describe are ‘endemic’ is not new. And, the problem extends well into adulthood: we find that many teachers (particularly young teachers) and TAs who attend our training courses use part-word reading strategies when confronted with challenging words. Put a long complex, polysyllabic word (subdermatoglyphic) on the board and it is immediately clear that processing time slows down dramatically and some attendees are clearly reluctant to read the word for fear of making an error. Very often trainees come up to me and say how valuable the session on polysyllabic words has been for them personally.
    What’s to be done? The answer, as you rightly suggest, lies not only in the early stages of learning to read and write, though that is precisely where we can establish a clear understanding of how the code works, build in the skills required to mastery level, and teach code knowledge from simple to ever more complex.
    Then, there needs to be a rich diet of textual resources, fictional and non-fictional, and spanning a broad range of domains, which again become more complex as time goes on throughout KS2. This should be the fodder on which pupils ruminate in preparation for secondary school and beyond.
    Teachers also need training to understand exactly where it is that pupils are likely to break down: if they can’t process (because they can’t decode fluently) abstract, more technical, less frequently encountered words automatically, they can’t possibly hope to cope with embedded relative clauses and more complex grammatical constructions. Thus, when faced with anything that looks remotely dense, they discard it in favour of the easy read. This is where your ‘effortful’ practice to build reading stamina comes in.
    Before the many simple texts written for children appeared, many children cut their literacy teeth on biblical texts at Sunday school and reading biblical texts was almost impossible to cope with by using a part-word or guessing strategy – all those long names! Later, if a person could read, they read Charles Kingsley, Rider Haggard, Alexander Dumas, Henty and then went on to the less accessible writers. Of course, this was for those who could read but these books offered the kind of effortful practice you are advocating.
    The texts I knew and loved as a boy are probably not to the tastes of modern readers, though it isn’t very hard to find suitable literary sustenance that will make ‘A’ level history/English/etc more accessible later.
    What is the answer to all this? The answer is a tough one: all teachers at primary and secondary level need a thorough and complete understanding of how our highly complex writing system works in relation to the sounds in our speech This should be a sine qua non. As you suggest, it isn’t the material itself that’s the obstacle: your ‘Hannah’ can cope with the ideas; she just can’t read well enough to handle two things at the same time: decoding and comprehension. It’s what Stanovich and the cognitive psychologists have been telling us for years.

  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is what education looks like if reading is not taught well in primary school.

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