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Does it Matter if Children Can’t Read?

Literacy is a critical first step for accessing a full curriculum, says Jules Daulby – but perhaps our definition of it is too narrow....

  • Does it Matter if Children Can’t Read?

The Simple View of Reading clearly states that to read, a child must be able to ‘decode and understand text’. For most youngsters, this expectation is met in KS1 – and learning to read soon evolves into reading to learn. But what if it doesn’t happen?

How do we label that child? Illiterate? Unable to decode? Unable to understand language? The distinctions are subtle but important. As an example, would you describe a blind pupil who cannot see words on the page as illiterate? If the same child listened to Harry Potter as an audio book, would you say they had read it?

For a learner with a visual impairment, the cause of an ‘inability to read’ is clear, and schools can support that pupil’s progress through the use of technology, modified papers and possibly braille.

When a child has a ‘reading impairment’, however, there is a tendency to assume that the ‘fault’ lies with the young person; the family; or even the teacher (‘dysteachia’ is an unsavoury term I’ve heard).

And whatever the cause, the school’s natural response comes in the form of an intervention, to ‘cure’ the emerging reader.

Supporting independence

A Hearing and Visual Support Service (HVSS) advises mainstream teachers on supporting children with visual and hearing impairments (VI).

My lightbulb moment came when an advisory teacher explained how the teaching assistant for a youngster with VI might be in the classroom, but will rarely sit with the supported child.

Instead, time would be spent removing barriers to allow the learner to work independently. Why, I wondered, was this not the approach we took in the Special Educational Needs Specialist Service (SENSS), for students with dyslexia?

If a child can comprehend but not decode, I asked myself, isn’t this like a VI learner? If they are accessing texts, and understanding them – albeit with their ears rather than their eyes – then surely, they are reading?

Therefore, should we not be enabling such pupils to access text alongside our quest to solve the problem of their apparent lack of literacy?

When they are not in intervention, what is school doing to ensure these learners can access the curriculum and record their knowledge (for it is likely if they cannot read, they will be unable to write either)?

Is technology provided and are resources modified, in the same way as such adjustments are made for a child who cannot see?

I know two students personally for whom technology has significantly reduced the negative impact of an inability to decode text and record knowledge. One was unable to write to a standard commensurate with his understanding.

It was picked up at an early age, and from around Year 5, he used Dragon Naturally Speaking at school.

Still unable to transcribe with his pen, he now uses speech recognition for all his work, achieved a first class undergraduate degree, and is currently applying for a PhD.

Archie also has dyslexia – but although he was offered technology to support him towards his degree, it came too late, with inadequate training, and he struggled.

Rather than using the software to enable his studying, Archie was learning how to use the technology. If he’d had it earlier, life at university would not have been so difficult for him.

The bigger picture

Does it matter if children can read? I would say yes, absolutely – but let’s be more flexible about what we perceive to be ‘reading’, and question more rigorously what a child who cannot read within the typical time-frame is doing in the classroom when they are not in an intervention.

For example, a pupil who cannot decode is likely to fall further behind their peers as the vocabulary gap increases (the so-called Matthew Effect, through which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer).

If, however, challenging words are routinely read out loud, and text to speech technology and audio books are used, access to high-level language can be opened to all, regardless of decoding ability.

The correlation between spending time in prison and a lack of literacy skills is often quoted by the DfE as a reason why we urgently need to teach children to read, as though this might be a panacea.

However, research shows that when you compare similar sectors of society, literacy rates are no lower for those who have been incarcerated than they are more generally, suggesting that it is poverty, not literacy, that is the real link.

There is also a correlation between being male and the prison population – yet we don’t try to feminise boys in a vain attempt at keeping them out of jail. Looking at the bigger picture is vital, and considering options like scribes can really help unlock what children are thinking.

And certainly, it can be the pattern that a language difficulty in KS1 may become a literacy difficulty in KS2, and a behaviour difficulty in KS3 – but it is the language that holds the key: “literacy is parasitic upon language” (Snowling & Hulme, 2012).

Those with a reading difficulty either in lifting words off the page or understanding them once decoded will require further support. But for a child who simply cannot decode (yet?), a computer could do this for them.

Alongside phonic intervention for half an hour a day, text to speech technology could help narrow the vocabulary and attainment gaps, enabling independent access to the full curriculum – and ultimately, academic achievement reflective of the pupil’s true potential.

Beyond Intervention

The following tech can support pupils who struggle to decode and record knowledge throughout their learning:

Free tech
  • Immersive Reader (onenote.com/learningtools)
    This has many functions, including reading aloud.
  • Read Aloud (support.office.com)
    Allows any text to be read out loud across a range of Microsoft solutions, including Word 2016.
  • Speech Recognition
    Available for Windows or in Google – a headset would be required.
  • Mobile Devices
    Accessibility features in smartphones and tablets will always have a ‘speak’ function, which can be turned on to hear text played.
  • rnib Bookshare (rnibbookshare.org/cms)
    Provides free electronic versions of texts a school owns if pupils have a print-disability such as dyslexia or are partially sighted. Project Gutenburg also provides many free, electronic books.
  • Audio Books
    Free from the library.
Tech to purchase
  • Clicker 7 (cricksoft.com/uk/clicker)
    This is a literacy word processing package which helps pupils plan, read text and write. Functions include predictive text, read aloud and an advanced spell checker.
  • Read&write (texthelp.com/en-gb)
    From hearing emails or documents read out loud to text prediction, picture dictionaries and summary highlighters, Texthelp’s comprehensive, intuitive and discreet software solution makes countless everyday literacy tasks simpler, quicker and more accurate.
  • Audible (audible.co.uk)
    A paid-for service which has many books in audio.

Jules Daulby is director of education for Driver Youth Trust, a charity enabling schools to support children with literacy difficulties.

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