On Reading

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!­ – Hamlet

Nearly two centuries ago, a group of reform-minded individuals set out to transform the lives of people on the margins of Britain. They reported on their work in a book called Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1826), and this is what they said about their motivation in the introduction to that work:

The mere art of reading, ought not, perhaps, in strictness, to be held as education; yet the power which this art confers, of applying to our own use the wisdom and knowledge of every age . . . . renders it alone the most effective instrument of moral improvement. Whether or not instruction in this art should be made universal is, we believe, no longer in debate. . . . Our arts and institutions, our noblest distinctions, and most refined enjoyments – all are the gifts of education, without which, we descend almost to the level of “the beasts that perish”.

To read is to have access to the store of human knowledge. In reading we encounter not just knowledge, but the mind that recorded it, with its experiences and biases, its insights and perceptions.

Reading creates empathy. In reading we project ourselves into others’ experiences, and come away from them changed. In reading we see past ourselves and our immediate experience; we understand the world is ever wider, and to ourselves we become ever smaller, yet ever more complex.

When I read I feed my mind and strengthen it; I use it and train it; I can grow, and compare points of view, weigh up competing ideas, and arrange the store of knowledge that reading allows me to possess. To read is to have the power to learn regardless of the school I attend or the teacher who teaches me.

In reading I have the opportunity to master language. I hear the voices of others, and I can imitate them, blend them, and absorb them into my own voice. In reading I encounter thousands upon thousands of words I may never come across in daily speech, and with the words come thoughts and ideas I may never encounter on my own. To develop such capacities enables me to communicate in ways I could not have dreamt of without reading.

In short, reading is so essential to the transmission of culture that to be without it is to be, in every sense of the word, marginalised.

All this, of course, is agreed with by educators everywhere; we see great hand-wringing by politicians, foundations and trusts; we see sponsors lining up to support charities that seek to foster a love of reading; we see much made of disorders and disabilities, and great soothing oceans of sympathy for the afflicted.

And all this is a sham. The great scandal continues, and our multi-billion pound education system continues to churn out tens of thousands of students every year who cannot read or write adequately. What the educators and the sponsors, by and large, do not seem to understand is what it is like to be fourteen and unable to read.

To be unable to read is to be locked out, to be isolated from discourse, to grasp the edges of conversations, to be without the knowledge of one’s companions. It is to be terrified of failure, and haunted by its presence. It is humiliation and frustration, and it builds into anger, or despair. It is loneliness and a formless sense of injustice. It is to be without the words to evince my despair.

And that is why I know the educators and the policy-makers do not understand. Because if they did, they would ensure that in all the billions of pounds spent on education, enough was used wisely to ensure that no one leaves school unable to read. It must be that they believe that some people are destined to fail, and they must feel that this is somehow acceptable, whatever their speeches and sound-bites may say. It must be that because they were privileged enough to learn to read, they do not understand the despair that is the heritage of the excluded. If they understood, they would invest in solutions, not sticking-plasters. They would understand that imposing silent sustained reading on children who cannot read does not promote a love of reading, but an aversion to it.

After the division of the curriculum cake, (normally about 5% of a secondary school’s operating budget), after the funding of ‘innovative’ projects, we waste money on interventions that babysit failure, or label students instead of helping them, or that entertain them with a computer for an hour of wasted learning that they will never get back. Is this how education should work?

Is it not the truth that for many school managers, it is not the daily pain and frustration of the struggling reader that bothers them, but the negative impact on the school’s attainment targets? Is it not the truth that for most school leaders, their knowledge of reading problems amounts to a few well-worn myths about dyslexia, and a handful of well-advertised programmes? Is it not true that they would rather spend money on a computer programme than train staff to do what needs to be done?

Consider: what you would want if you were the child who cannot read?

You would want someone to teach you, and teach you well.

It is not a lot to ask.

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11 Responses to On Reading

  1. Pingback: On Reading | Phonic Books

  2. What an excellent posting – thank you.

    I’ve added it to a thread below where I provide a link to video footage of my commentary on the resistance to phonics and research on reading in England – all linked to the issue you have raised here:


  3. Lucy says:

    I fervently hope, pray and cross everything – whatever it takes – that every teacher and headteacher that reads this excellent post takes the time to research and implement an effective synthetic phonics programme in their school/unit/department. Please forgive my amateur input into a professional domain but I have good reason.

    I am the parent of a child who could not read well throughout primary school. The anxiety and frustration this caused for my son, and the pain that in turn caused us, was awful. The school tried to help but nothing made much impact until we found a synthetic phonics programme and tutor to sort it out. He is now no longer ‘dyslexic’ and is an excellent reader. As I understand it, his difficulties were fairly typical for a boy who didn’t get decent phonics input in a school that favoured ‘mixed approaches’ to the teaching of reading. Without that excellent intervention his story would now be quite different. If we weren’t middle class parents and able to work out what was wrong, the outcome would potentially be much worse. That’s how it can be for those children who leave primary not able to read well.

    • It is sad to hear that it happened to your son but also gladdening to hear that there was a solution to hand. And that is what the politicos and philosophy pedlars don’t understand. Education is not, primarily, about shaping the next generation to be nice people who get along, or for that matter who have a “love of reading”. It is about equipping them with the tools to learn. The technology is there, but it is primarily an emotional issue that stops us implementing that technology on a system-wide basis. Thank you for your post, and all the best for your son’s education!

  4. JG says:

    Education is not, primarily, about shaping the next generation to be nice people who get along, or for that matter who have a “love of reading”. It is about equipping them with the tools to learn.

    This is all too true! Perfectly said!

  5. Eddie Carron says:

    At the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, our generals discovered to their horror that one in five of all men compulsorily conscripted into the armed forces could not read and write sufficiently well to handle the dangerous munitions they were given. One general is on record as saying that he felt more afraid when he entered one of his own training camps than when facing the Germans.
    Now after the publication of tens of thousands of academic papers on the subject by the cognoscenti,, the appointment of thousands of literacy consultants, specialist teachers, advisors and psychologists which did not exist in those days, little if anything has changed.
    Virtually every school in the land has one of the official, government approved phonics programmes and still many tens of thousands of children leave school every year unable to read and write confidently.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    • teachwell says:

      It’s not good having a phonics programme if it is not taught! It is no good spending money and then continuing to teach mixed methods. All the friezes showing phonemes are not worth much if ITT institutions will not train teachers on phonics instruction due to ideological differences. I know that I had to find ways to teach myself and even then I have realised since I had gaps in my knowledge of teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics. While there are high profile authors who support teachers to oppose teaching phonics and place emphasis on mixed methods including guessing words from initial letters and pictures, there is not going to be any change.

      In my experience as a teacher, if children have been SSP they are better readers and writers. Over my ten years as a teacher I have seen the improvements, how fewer children enter Year 3 claiming to be unable to read or write. Maybe they don’t know the correct spelling but they do know how to spell phonetically and therefore can articulate their thoughts far better than children who were stuck with a small list of words they could remember the spelling of. They couldn’t even attempt to spell words they did not know the correct spelling of as they had no concept of the correspondence between letters and sounds.

      What do all good readers actually do? They don’t guess that’s for sure, they don’t skip unknown words, they don’t look at pictures and they don’t know every single word in English off by heart. Instead they sound out words they don’t know (as an adult we do it so fast that we don’t really think about it).

      Having grown up with an illiterate father this article speaks volumes to me about the effect that illiteracy has on the entire person and not just in terms of the ability to read. The restrictions is places on one in a literate society are huge.

  6. Pingback: CUTTING THE COST OF PRIMARY EDUCATION | Reading Matters by Piper Books

  7. Tami Reis-Frankfort says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    “To be unable to read is to be locked out!” Great article on the importance of reading. Recommended!

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