Why Our Children Can't Read

Channel 4


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According to Government statistics, a fifth of youngsters leaving primary school can't read and write properly. That means they have not reached the benchmark reading age of an 11-year-old and are unlikely to be able to follow lessons when they go to secondary school.

Reporter Alex Thomson and producer Chris Boulding investigate how this failure has come about and show that with the right teaching methods virtually every child in mainstream schooling can be taught to read properly.

Thomson visits a comprehensive school in Bristol to see the impact that poor literacy levels are having on the children. The staff investigated behavioral problems in classes and found they stemmed from the fact that, on average, 40% of the school's years seven, eight and nine (ages 11-14) had major reading problems.

Those children who had not achieved a reading age of over nine were unable to access the curriculum - and dealt with the problem by disrupting lessons or, in extreme cases, simply refusing to enter the classroom. Following reading tests the school took radical steps, including ripping up lesson plans. As the head teacher says: "What's the point of learning French if you can't read English?".

But when Thomson visits a primary school in Hackney, it's a different story. Just as in Bristol, the children here come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but teachers achieve far superior results in teaching children to read. Thomson discovers that a key factor in this appears to be the use of synthetic phonics, a method of teaching children to read based on learning the individual sounds of English and then learning how to put them together as words.

Thomson interviews Sir Jim Rose, who last year completed his report into teaching reading. His report starkly showed that phonics was markedly superior to other approaches, which he argued sometimes left children confused and bewildered.

The Government has now rushed out advice to schools to change their teaching methods. However, despite Government backing, this technique still faces resistance within the educational world. Rose tells Thomson that parents with children in schools not accepting the new advice should ask why not. And there is one further option open to them, says Rose: "They can move schools."

Thomson visits West Dunbartonshire, a deprived area in Scotland where a combination of synthetic phonics and other initiatives that promote access to books have taken reading levels from 79% to nearly 100%. Dr Tommy McKay, the psychologist who engineered the project, says the changes have been dramatic.

With the help of the Institute of Education, the film reveals research which shows that if failing readers can be taught to read by the age of ten, their life prospects improve, but they are still far worse off than children who learn to read at the right age.

"A shameful one in five children reach secondary school unable to read properly – as C4’s excellent dispatches revealed…their plight is utterly avoidable."
- The Sun

First Broadcast

October 22, 2007



Producer Director

Chris Boulding


Alex Thomson

Executive Producer

Eamonn Matthews


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