Reading into the problem of illiteracy where 'Street' is often king

LONDON LETTER: In the English capital a million adults cannot read

LONDON LETTER:In the English capital a million adults cannot read. A new report explores the reasons for the 'astonishing levels of illiteracy', writes MARK HENNESSY

LONDON’S MAYOR Boris Johnson is one normally given to displays of child-like, infectious exuberance, but even he begins to despair about the standard of reading and writing among many of the city’s inhabitants.

Describing it as “the single most shattering indictment” of the city’s education system, Johnson laments: “In London – the motor of the UK economy – there are a million adults who cannot read. That is to say, they lack the basic ability to look something up on the web or the Yellow Pages.”

Some of the problems, but only some, can be laid at the door of the waves of immigration since the early 1990s, but the problem is the same with children of all backgrounds and creeds – up to a third of under 11s in state primary schools in the city are unable to read or write properly.

And the problem is worst of all among those who are not immigrants: the children of the white working class, who have, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “the most intractable reading difficulties”.

Now, a new report, So Why Can't They Read?, by Miriam Gross, puts much of the responsibility at the door of teachers and teaching standards. Too often children today, she argues, are being taught without discipline, and without structure.

“Over a third of all children who leave London’s state primary schools at the age of 11 still have difficulties with reading (even though they have passed national tests) and about 5 per cent can hardly read at all.

“About 20 per cent of pupils leave secondary schools without being able to read or write with confidence,” says the author, who was born in Palestine and came to England when she was 10, leaving Oxford University with an honours degree and going on to a distinguished journalistic career.

The core argument is one that has raged among educationalists for years: should children be taught reading and writing through synthetic phonics – in which children learn to “decode” words by combining individual letters and sounds, or by whole-word recognition?

The report argues that the problems are made worse because too many teachers serving in London schools themselves have a weak grasp of spelling and syntax.

“There is now a mass of evidence that more rigour in general and more synthetic phonics in particular would raise literacy standards,” writes Gross in her report commissioned by the Centre for Policy Studies – a centre-right think-tank.

“This especially applies to children from the poorest areas, particularly to boys, who are the worst performers in schools. Research shows that boys benefit most from discipline in the classroom and from learning to read by a systematic, methodical technique.”

In addition, she argues that pupils are suffering from the consensus left by the 1960s that believed “requiring children to memorise facts and figures” was not something that led to the enlarging of a child’s world, but to the stifling of imagination.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many British teachers advised parents not to help children with their reading and, in particular, rebuked parents if their children attempted to start joined-up writing before others in their class on the grounds that they were “overachieving”.

“The consequences of this ideology have been dire,” she says. Numeracy and literacy standards have fallen, while national examination grades have been inflated to reward lower levels of achievement.

“Mixed-ability teaching has not fulfilled the expectations of its advocates. Disruptive and violent behaviour has become a regular feature of many classrooms. Teachers have been reluctant to assert even such powers as they have for fear of precipitating complaints from children and their parents – and running the risk of dismissal.”

She goes on: “There is another language issue which is rarely mentioned: ‘Street’ English, the argot in which children – both white and non-white – who live in the poorer areas of inner cities often speak to each other.

“This language contains a mix of various ethnic influences – Caribbean, Cockney, Afro-American, Indian and others. Like dialects and slang in other countries, ‘Street’ has its own grammar, its own vocabulary and its own pronunciation.”

British teachers dedicated to “child-led” education believe that it is not their job to interfere with self-expression, she argues: “On the contrary, they encourage children to read poems and stories written in ethnic dialects – in Barbadian patois, for example – which is fine, but they omit to point out that there are linguistic discrepancies.

“Only later, when they get to secondary school, do these pupils discover that ‘Street’ is not acceptable in their written work. Understandably, they find this both confusing and discouraging,” she writes in her report.

Continental schools, says Gross, do not make the same mistakes: “Argot and slang are not allowed into the classroom; children know exactly what is ‘correct’ usage in their main language, and what is not.”

Given the scale of the problem, Boris Johnson now argues that the different ways of teaching reading and writing should be tested to destruction in classrooms, with the best solution becoming the norm for everyone.

Miriam Gross’s report, he said, had exploded “at least one myth about literacy in London: This is a city of 300 languages, a patchwork of communities and cultures – and yet she has found schools where immigrant children are being taught to read with beautiful fluency and precision.”

The “astonishing levels of illiteracy” in London, said the mayor, who is himself fluent in Latin, are not only “an indictment of our failures in the last 20 years, but are also an indication of the potential that is waiting to be untapped if schools can get it right.”