Schools should make reading skills their top priority

05 Sep 2011 Exclusive to

 Provisional figures for 2011 indicate that, in England, one child in five reaches age 11 unable to read confidently. Confident, that is, to access the secondary school curriculum they are embarking on this month.

 History suggests that those same children will struggle over five years of secondary schooling to achieve an English grade C at 16+. The latest GCSE tables indicate that thirty per cent of 2011’s cohort of sixteen year olds failed to achieve that benchmark.

 What is it about our wealthy nation, with its long history of free education, that we perpetuate such failure in reading: the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities?

 The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, identified that every human has an innate language acquisition device. Only in rare circumstances do humans not learn to speak, and this is true across cultures. The equally distinguished psychologist, Steven Pinker, remarked that while children are wired for sound, print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.

 I began my working life in education in HM Prison Brixton. All educators should spend time in the education department of one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It is a poignant reminder that basic literacy is a birthright that should be denied nobody.

 In my days at the National Literacy Trust, I used to give talks entitled ‘Have you ever met a mugger who’s read Middlemarch?’  This was my way of affirming that whatever else we do for children and young people in classrooms, we must give them the dignity of being able to speak, read and write with fluency to make their way in the endlessly fascinating global society which they inhabit.

 So what’s to be done?

  The former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, once said that the word ‘priority’ should not be used in the plural. However, as it is perhaps unrealistic to ask schools to set just one priority at the start of a new academic year, let me at least challenge every primary and secondary school to make reading its number one priority for 2011-12. We must break this cycle of a sizeable part of the young population growing up with stuttering language skills.

  Let us be properly ambitious and ask that:


  • Every primary should ensure all children will at 11+ have a reading age which at least matches their chronological age.


  • Every secondary should say that, no matter the child’s starting point, they will achieve at least a grade C in English at 16+.

  So, how do we achieve this? First, schools need a rigorous approach to word recognition: enabling children to use a phonetic approach, to divide words into syllables for pronunciation, to understand prefixes and suffixes.

 Second, we need a planned approach to vocabulary development: learning new words, keywords and concepts, technical abbreviations and etymology, symbols and formulae, through regular and consistent use of a dictionary and a thesaurus.

 Third, a systematic engagement with comprehension and organisation of text: summarising what has been read, distinguishing essential from non-essential, fact from opinion, drawing inferences and conclusions, noting cause and effect, reading between the lines.

 Fourth, a programme to promote reading interests: voluntary reading for pleasure, reading for personal information, developing a passion for particular subjects, the use of the school and public library, the downloading onto the iPad of a favourite biography.

 Fifth, a whole-school-every-teacher knowledge of study skills: sitting still long enough to read, using skimming for different purposes, reading maps and graphs, learning how to take notes, reading more rapidly with adequate comprehension, forming the study habit.

 In recent years I have taught reading to Year 2 children, using the enchanting picture-books of Anthony Browne to develop a first understanding of inference. I have taught able Year 6 children to appreciate the beguiling narrative of Harper Lee. I have coached Year 10 students in GCSE comprehension exercises.

 Reflecting on the five points above, skilled teachers will not make the mistake of adopting simply an age-related approach to the teaching of reading. Rather, they will select what works for a given child or group of children at a particular point in time. They will be driven by the belief that every child will leave their hands able to tackle texts with confidence, whether on the printed page or the Amazon Kindle.

 Let us make this a true Year of Reading, measured in an outcome that condemns no child to a life of fractured literacy.

  Finally, to every parent of a young child reading this article: if you’re too busy to read with your child, you’re just too busy!

  Roy Blatchford is a former headteacher and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, and Director of the National Education Trust –


User Comments

Wayne Holmes - 05 Sep 2011

Struggling readers

In addition to the five priorities identified by Roy Blatchford, we also need priorities for those children who will still fall through the net (and despite best efforts there will inevitably be many). Whilst effective strategies are essential for all children, those who struggle to learn to read will still probably need additional support.

Eylan Ezekiel - 05 Sep 2011

Reading Recovery

Thanks for this article Roy, I agree with your goals for literacy entirely.

What do you think about the role of approaches like Reading Recovery to enable teachers to better support all kids to develop their reading?

Rebecca Hanson - 05 Sep 2011

Agreement, a question and a comment.

Roy I absolutely agree.

A question
There was a series on telly a year or so ago about a primary school which followed exactly this philosophy with tremendous dedication and great results. But they were put in special measures because progress in other subjects was not sufficiently rapid while this was being established. Why is it a good idea to put a school which is making such coherent and rapid progress into special measures? Surely it will deter other schools from such intelligent planning and encourage them to focus on Ofsted targets instead?

A comment
Finally, to every parent of a young child reading this article: if you’re too busy to read with your child, you’re just too busy!

Yes some parents are too busy. Some are single parents of several children. Some have little family support. They don't need to be reprimanded for being too busy. They need constructive advice, practical support and encouragement to keep on trying to make time for reading even if they often fail to manage it because a little is still so much better than none.

Jan Chambers - 05 Sep 2011

Reading data

From where do these provisional figures for 2011 originate that suggest that, in England, one child in five reaches age 11 unable to read confidently? According to the latest DFE figures 84% of pupils attained L4 or higher in the 2011 KS 2 reading Sats. That would leave 16% attaining L3 or lower. Failing to attain L4 in reading does not by definition equate to being “unable to read confidently”. I just feel it’s important if figures are used that there is an explanation of how they were obtained.

Ryan - 13 Sep 2011

Word Power

If we want to get students interested in reading more then part of the solution should be in making students aware of just how powerful words can be. For instance, at my site: I have a lot of word games that centre around creativity. They can be used as a fun and educational way to get students to do interesting things with words. A talented teacher can then relate this back to various pieces of writing and get students more interested that way.

Peter Asquith-Cowen - 19 Sep 2011

Reading Development.

In this I am trying to 'cut' all the hot air. I was a good early reader. Why? Because (a) My Mother/Father regularly read to me and with me. I well remember Worzel Gummidge, Tarka the Otter, The Family from One-End Street, The Hundred-and-One Dalmations and Rupert Bear. My reading knowledge started very early, why was this? (b) The house had a huge collection of literature. Everybody was reading, either a newspaper, a magazine or a paper-back. In this 'environment of family activity' I fitted in neatly and became a full part of it. At school, my interest in reading, -historical texts, crime, thrillers, murder mysteries and the "Classics" developed over time -. I remember reading 'The Twelve Labour's of Hercules' at a very young age (about 8 years old) Therefore, unless children are brought up in an environment where reading is commonplace,everyday activity, where conversation forms a natural part of daily life, where ideas are mawled over and arguments expounded, and debate becomes the norm; then I'm afraid, literacy/reading will suffer as will the ability to communicate verbally and use one's language flexibly, volubly with correct grammatical structures. All this comes with daily practice and it begins in the home. Remember: "Listen with Mother" (BBC Radio) Also, the examples of good spoken English on the first black & White children's TV programmes inculcated a love and an appreciation of good, well-spoken English; not 'affected' English. Good, clear English a channel for ideas and concepts. I'm thinking of the superb range of actors/resses such as Richard Greene, Basil Rathbone,Hattie Jacques,Joan Bakewell, Joan Hickson, Willoughby Goddard, Jean Kent, Alan Wheatley, Raymond Francis, Conrad Philips and last but not least, Roger Moore. This 'Generation' of well-spoken, erudite actors seems to have passed away, apart from the Dimbleby's and Stephen Fry. We now have chefs who have made a habit of using bad-language, indeed 'blaspheming' on the TV, and the all-pervasive pseudo-posh pronuniciation, often called "Estuary English" where 'yeah' replaces 'yes'. and the 'glottal-stop' is a sinister feature of this new posy English, spoken by university-educated young people who don't want to seem 'posh' but don't want to display their local accent/dialect either. The kind of English spoken by champagne socialists and expressed very clearly by Nick Clegg et al. Children need to have examples of good English expressed to them by their teachers in school. Recently, I heard a few young teachers talking on the TV. Their spoken English had much to be desired. My 'old' schoolmistress would correct any grammar errors immediately, and made us practice using sounds. She was excellent and her influence is still with me to this very day. Well done, Miss Wilson!

Milly Gandy - 18 Jan 2012

Reading for Pleasure

As a Parent, and one that does read every day with her children, I would definitely welcome a programme of 'reading for pleasure' in addition to the focus on the mechanics of reading and comprehension. I am constantly looking for ways to engage my 7-yr old Son in reading ... he's a competent reader and diligent student ... but does not have a love of books.

School graded reading books are pretty dire ... if left to read the at-home readers provided, most in a very delapidated state, I am sure he would be put off books for life.

Most local Library collections are also limited - particularly in the 'early Reader' 'abbridged' sections. Most online offerings at the moment can prove pricey and of course you need to tablet/PC access in the first place.

So the sad reality for many kids is that you're either lucky enough to have a Parent who has the time/inclination/budget to supplement the books and book-related activities provided by school or not.

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