The Great Reading Disaster

Book Review by Sean Gabb
The Great Reading Disaster: Reclaiming Our Educational Birthright
Mona McNee and Alice Coleman
Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2007, 341pp, £17.95 (pb)
(ISBN 9781845400972)
(Review published in The Quarterly Review, Winter 2007)

This book narrates and explains one of the great disasters of our time. As is often this case with disasters of our time, it also narrates and explains a scandal that in earlier ages would have provoked incredulity. Its theme is the collapse of educational standards in this country, and how this has been brought on by a persistent unwillingness to teach children to read using the only methods that are known to work in the great majority of cases.

Universal literacy was not a product of the 1870 Education Act, but was a fact already established by the late 19th century. Between 1818 and 1858, the British population grew by 68 per cent. However, the number of children at school grew by 271 per cent. In 1865, the Royal Navy reported that 99 per cent of its boy recruits could read. This was an improvement on the 89 per cent of seamen and the 94 per cent of petty officers who could read. But these latter figures show that illiteracy was all but unknown among what was probably not a grossly unrepresentative sample of the working classes.

The establishment between 1870 and 1891 first of state education, and then of compulsory education and then of free state education did little but consolidate the earlier gains. By the late 1920s, the Czech observer Robert Saudek, speaking from his wide experience of outer countries, declared that British education was the best he had seen. In 1931, the Hadlow Report stated that barely one per cent of school children in the state sector needed systematic reading instruction after the age of seven.

Contrast all this with today, where something like a third of school leavers are illiterate in the plain meaning of the word, and an unknown number can read in the most basic sense, but not well enough to be able to take up a book or one of the more serious newspapers.

We cannot make the full contrast, as statistics have not been collected, or have been withheld or massaged into nonsense. But we can see the fragments of evidence all around – from the childish babble of popular newspapers and magazines to the strangled illiteracy of most public and commercial notices. Those of us who are university lecturers live daily with the fact of native-born students who cannot read their text books and cannot write grammatical prose without systematic plagiarism from Wikipedia.

For the authors of this book, as said, the reason for the collapse is the method used for teaching children to read. Methods that have been used for thousands of years in our civilisation have been rejected in favour of methods that do not work – and are, perhaps, not intended to work.

Now let me digress a moment on the nature of what is to be learnt. It is never wise to trace complex developments back to a single cause. But one of the reasons why European civilisation – with the possible exception of two or three centuries – has consistently done better than all others, and why every reverse and even collapse has been followed renewed growth, is the nature of our writing system. Other civilisations have at best consonantal alphabets. The others have hieroglyphic or syllabic systems. In these civilisations, learning to read requires about the same effort and commitment as learning to play a musical instrument well. When someone must know hundreds or thousands of symbols before he can so much as read a newspaper, a substantial part of his mind must be given over to memorisation. When these symbols represent whole words or substantial combinations of sounds, he will lack the early, close exposure to what may be called atomic thinking – the endless arrangement and rearrangement of simple things into more complex structures. The result has been the confinement of literacy to small classes, or a stifling of the imagination – and usually both.

What the Greeks developed and handed on to us was the concept of a small number of symbols, each one of which represents a sound, and which can be used to signify any word in the language. The Greek alphabet has 24 symbols. The Roman alphabet, as adapted for English, has 26. The Slovak alphabet is the largest in the Roman family. Taking in the hacheks and liquid consonants, it has 44 symbols.

Learning these symbols, and how to combine them into potentially millions of words, is remarkably simple. All other factors aside, any people that has an alphabetic system of writing will have advantages of more widespread literacy and greater flexibility of thinking.

These advantages have seldom been absolute. Greek schoolboys do not seem to have been taught to read by combining letters, but instead had to learn a large number of syllables that had already been combined for them. And English is hardly a phonetic language: very often, the letters used to write a word give no guidance to its pronunciation. But even when not fully realised, alphabetic writing has advantages over all other kinds that make it one of the greatest achievements of the mind.

Yet, for sixty years and more, “progressive” theorists of education have been doing their best to make our alphabetic system into a mass of hieroglyphics. Traditionally in our civilisation, reading was taught first through the recognition of individual letters and then through their combination into increasingly complex words. This was a method that showed results within a few weeks and was substantially complete for most children within a few years. It was fast. It was cheap. It worked.

Strip away all the hot air about rote learning and stifling of creativity, and the look-say method really does turn alphabetic writing into hieroglyphs. Children begin by learning the shape of simple words. They then progress to longer and more complex words. The idea is that all the drilling is eliminated of letters and their basic combinations. Instead, children move straight to reading simple tests.

The problem with this approach has already been explained. Learning to read may seem faster at first, but soon degenerates into a memorising word shapes that is beyond the ability of many children who would learn to read perfectly well through a more atomic approach.

Of course, the Japanese and other Oriental races appear to have high levels of literacy. Hieroglyphic systems may not prevent universal literacy. But, as said, they require more commitment. And high levels of commitment are as denigrated by the progressive theorists as the older methods of learning to read.

Ayn Rand said somewhere that some mistakes are too big to have been made by accident. And the authors of this book make it clear that the progressive hegemony is more than just muddled thinking. We have a ruling class in this country that flourishes in proportion to the inability of ordinary people to read and think for themselves in ways that were common a hundred years ago. A population that has no taste for political thought, and is instead drugged on trash television, is almost as docile as the illiterates who, until the Reformation and the spread of printing, used to sit every Sunday in church listening to services and readings in a language none of them could understand.

Or, looking below the level of grand conspiracy, there is the tangle of special interest groups that grow rich on managing problems they have created and that they exist to perpetuate.

This book is the best place to start for anyone who wants to know what went wrong with education in this country, and why it went wrong. It is also strong on arguing for the radical decentralisation needed if the decline is to be reversed. A pure bonus, though, is the short reading course given in the last part of the book. The authors both have a long experience of teaching children to read, and their course is something that anyone with young children should be eager to have for himself.

In short, this is an excellent book. At £7.99 each, 650 copies would cost £5,193.50. Sending one copy to every winning candidate at the next general election would be as wise a political investment as can be imagined at the price.

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14 responses to “The Great Reading Disaster

  1. Edward Spalton

    Having briefly been a governor of an infants’ school in the mid Eighties, I can confirm the truth of this article. It was the school which our children had attended a few years previously where they had got on pretty well.
    The headmistress (whoops! sorry! head teacher) was a good ,conscientious woman due to retire shortly. She was very worried about declining reading scores which were then much more secret than anything guarded by MI5. She really did not know what to blame and put it down to videos and lack of sleep by the children. I had a pretty good idea that the poor results were in the classes taken by younger, newer teachers but, of course, I could not see the figures and she would not break the code of omerta (nor, in fairness, be disloyal to colleagues).
    They really did think that children should not be taught to sound their letters and looked upon this method (phonics) as equivalent to sending children up chimneys. Children would assimilate “word shapes” and “get closer to the text”. This works for most children at a Janet and John level but when they meet an unfamiliar word, they are stumped and haven’t got the clue of phonics to help them work it out.

    In one children’s art display, a boy had produced a splendid picture which he captioned “A Fireman” with an explanatory note underneath. The teacher had crossed out “fireman” and replaced it with the gender neutral “fire fighter” but left mistakes in the note uncorrected. When I asked about this I was told it would be “too discouraging” to correct the mistakes. When I asked “If you won’t tell him, how is he going to learn?” I got a sweet, caring, secret, professional smile.
    When the new head teacher arrived, we were pitched into something called “Local Management of Schools” which was supposed to give the school greater independence to manage its affairs but was a Stalinist sham. The school was supposed to produce its own “Curriculum Development Statement” , setting out its aims but, in fact, adopted the one dictated by the Education Authority. When I suggested that one of the school’s aims should be to get all children up to a certain standard of literacy, there was horror. Instead, they settled for “Our school is a welcoming school”. They also included the statement (like all but half a dozen schools in the county – infants. juniors and secondary) “It is the policy of the school to make the students responsible for their own learning” .
    After I told the head teacher, “I’m very sorry but the children are not big enough to do your job”, my co-option was not renewed. Possibly that saved my sanity – although opinions differ.

  2. Chris Morriss

    If only it was a ‘Head Teacher’. Too often these days it is the newspeak ‘Principal’. A word totally devoid of context. 100% agree with you though about the rest.

  3. Spot on. The same could be said of pretty much all public bodies; they have all been deliberately undermined – our police force, which was once the envy of the civilised world, the NHS, the libraries, you name it. One wonders who these people are and what their agenda is, but they have been remarkably successful in destroying something that worked well, imposing completely new practices then wringing their hands in amazement when nothing works any more.

  4. This has been done deliberately and on purpose.

    As Ayn Rand said: “mistakes as huge as this are deliberate.”

    The only thing we need to do, henceforward, is to discuss the extent of the punishments to be retributised upon the living bodies of the participants in this crime.

    None of these will involve wounding of any kind, or any bodily violation. But they will be terminal (eventually) for most if not all recipients, and will involve initial transportation.

    The purpose of such punishments is to actually be a death sentence. Indeed, we might even dubit “special treatment” – and our enemies cannot object for they invented the term. But, being clerics ouselves, we cannot be seen to shed blood directly: so we will not.

  5. Well, as you say, this has all been done deliberately and on purpose. It has been clear to me for the past two or three decades that what has been done to the police force, to take but one example, goes beyond mere mismanagement and is clearly sabotage.
    The problem for us is that we only see these things in retrospect. Seemingly insignificant things in everyday life come together at some point and we can then say “Ah, so THAT’s what they were up to”.
    Just a couple of examples from my own world – the ‘countdown’ road signs on motorways used to read “so-and-so 1 mile” then 1/2 mile, etc. Now, for the past five years or so, its been “2/3 mile”, “1/3 mile” etc. I am, convinced this is the precursor to metrication. One day these signs will be switched to “1km”, “0.5km” etc.
    Also, for the last twenty or thirty years (or even forty perhaps) all new road systems have been designed to be ‘ambidextrous’, in other words they will work when we switch to driving on the right. Indeed, there is a roundabout near Brighton which serves no purpose at all, but which would be necessary if we drove on the right.
    Trouble is, you tell people stuff like this and they think you’re nuts. That’s the problem – the architects of all this stuff are decades ahead of popular perception. We can only view it in hindsight.
    To return to the original article, the ‘experts’ promote a new method of teaching children to read, and before we know it we end up with a nation of illiterates. Then we wonder why.

  6. Agreed.

    I think there’s something deeper though as well. It’s part of something I’ve been thinking a lot about later, which is the mix of culture and nature in aptitudes of populations, and which I had a bit of a bunfight about with Paul Marks a few threads down. It is very dangerous to discuss such things under the current tyranny. Nonetheless, at the risk of being racist, I think it is valid to wonder what is so special about the Jews.

    It’s obvious that Jews have enormous intellectual aptitude, at least in various intellectual pursuits, as the Nobel list shows. Hitler was quite correct in calling modern physics “Jewish science”. Without Jews, we’d have no Relativity and no Quantum Mechanics. Nor would, on the negative side, we have Marxism or Freudianism. It has been suggested in a reputable scientific paper that this is a result of evolution- basically that the cleverest Jews avoided the pogroms. But in reality other than the Nazi regime, a very small percentage of Jews died in pogroms.

    It is also hard to see what other evolutionary pressure there might have been. Most of the Ashkenazi until the 20th century were farmers living in the shtetl villages of the Pale Of Settlement, etc. Hardly requiring of intellectual prowess.

    I think it’s education. The Jewish classical education was basically torah study and analysis. This means that, from an early age, Jewish boys were forced to engage with complex language and text. They weren’t reading stories about friendly lions and elves, but struggling through a dense and complex religious legal document.

    Comparably. Protestants adopted much of the same approach; bible study under the Protestants and, particualrly, my favourites the Puritans, was intense. It seems thus to me that such cultures will produce not just widespread literacy, but relatively high proportions of brains trained to appreciate and manipulate complex intellectual abstractions. This it seems to me may be sufficient to explain the considerable intellectual achievements of these two culture groups.

    Of course, this is a double edged sword. Such minds are also capable of producing reams of compelling but nonsensical bamboozlement. In Jewish culture, there is the derided sophistry of pilpul, for instance. So, by putting these protestant and jewish minds together, you might get the genius of Relativity or the incisive analysis of Von Mises- or the intellectualised drivel of post-marxism or psychoanalysis.

    But I think there is a good argument that there is a strong correlation between engagement with language, a capacity for abstractions, and that nebulous thing we call “IQ”. The dumber language becomes, the dumber thinking becomes, and the dumber people become. Such that you end up with commenters using dumb words like “dumb” because they can’t think of a better one.

    • There’s a further matter with the Jews and Protestants. Religious leaders tend to be bright, and they tend to have large families. Over time, assuming that intelligence is hereditary – which I believe it is – there will be a steady rise in IQ of the group as a whole. For the Jews, that seems to have brought a higher tendency to madness. But there’s no such thing as a cheap lunch.

  7. Very good review.

    By the way I do not hold that we had a real bun fight Ian – it was good natured.

  8. I have long held that the Jewish people, if not individual Jews, have, in a perverse sort of way (we live in a perverse world) benefited from centuries of persecution by all and sundry. The slow and the weak were ‘weeded out’, and the smart ones survived, emigrated, and made damn sure that their offspring learned to be smart enough to survive. Their culture is one of argument and question, question, question. That, in a nutshell, is why they always rise to the top and set standards in the arts and sciences, for example, to which we lesser mortals may only aspire.
    Your comments on Protestantism are interesting. I had the tragic misfortune to receive a Catholic upbringing, which has undoubtedly left me scarred for life. You are taught to do what the Church teaches and do not question it. ‘Independent thought’ is forbidden. If you begin to question your ‘Faith’, you are the one at fault.
    This is a very frightening form of brainwashing, and it took me many decades to break free from all this bollox.

  9. Paul, I take the view that bun fights are always good natured. I would describe a friendly debate as a bun fight, but not, say, the Battle Of The Somme, for which I’d probably use a stronger term :)

  10. Hugo,

    As I said above, I don’t think there’s any strong evidence of a particular “weeding out” among Jews. Besides all else, the Ashkenazi rate of population growth was historically high. I think a cultural explanation is sufficient.

  11. Depends what you mean by ‘weeding out’. Maybe the exterminations are not significant in terms of percentage of population (that seems an awfully callous way of putting it, which is not intentional, just my usual clumsy style) BUT the Jews as a people have always been under pressure of some sort, being excluded from various professions and having to find other ways to survive etc. The Jews have always been persecuted in a hundred and one different ways, for reasons which frankly baffle me, but those that have survived have emerged stronger and smarter as a consequence.

  12. The Jews, being the “Christ-Killers”, were excluded more or less from “polite” Medieval European society for about 16 centuries. Even Edward I sacked them all when in 1290 they said they had no more money to lend him to fight the french and the Scotch. Since Christian doctrine falsely averred that usury was wicked, it was all that Jews could do, being farmed as they were in the meantime.

    The Jews have been mostly perscuted for being “money” people. My old father, a poor-east-end-boy-made-good, who got a place at ICL tor ead botany and then an MSc in “Insect Physiology”, hated the Jews. It’s ‘coz they “ran the shops”, and “wouldn’t give credit to the poor” who couldn’t pay for their food. So he hated them. He married my mother, a “Lebanese French Presbyterian” student of “the political American History of Women” from the AUB, who was a Vichyite hater also of Jews.

    She said “Willuk! Yi! Yi! Yi!” (It’s very rude in Arabic, is “willuk”, I am told…) “The Jews, you know, They Came in 1948, And They Took OUR ORANGE GROVES in “Izzri-Ull”!!”

    I never took, even as a very little child, to all this vichy-ite p-c Arab Jew-hating. It sort of, didn’t “ring true”. I did sort of, at school, try to support “The Arabs” in the 1967 6-day-war, but I got pretty scragged for my pains by both the teachers and all the other boys, and nobody took me seriously. In those day,s remember, the Holocaust had happened just five minutes previously.

  13. Liam Pickering

    “Ayn Rand said somewhere that some mistakes are too big to have been made by accident. ” Possibly in the “20th Century Motor Company” story by former employee Jeff Allan: “At first, I kept wondering how it could be possible that the educated, the cultured, the famous men of the world could make a mistake of this size and preach, as righteousness, this sort of abomination… Now I know that they didn’t do it by any kind of mistake. Mistakes of this size are never made innocently. If men fall for some vicious piece of insanity, when they have no way to make it work and no possible reason to explain their choice – it’s because they have a reason that they do not wish to tell.”