A lot of people have been getting worked up recently about income inequality. If you read the financial press you are regularly bombarded with advertisements for the management of what is being termed “sudden wealth”: more people are winning life’s lottery. But in English-speaking countries one source of emergent income inequality that needs to be watched arises from the difficulty of learning the English language, even for native speakers.

The Guardian today has a report on another experiment that is improving literacy rates using synthetic phonics, similar to the Direct Instruction or DISTAR method which has achieved controversial success in the US. Although not all literacy authorities accept the research demonstrating that synthetic phonics is a superior method of learning to read, it is now government policy to promote it. And it seems to be filtering through, albeit quite slowly.

The path-dependent nature of illiteracy should not be underestimated. The report highlights the cumulative disadvantages that accrue to kids who don’t have anxious middle-class parents reading to them every night but parents who are themselves diffident with their own literacy or perhaps just don’t have the time.

Some schools will claim that they’ve always taught synthetic phonics, because the mixed strategies used in the past do indeed incorporate some phonics teaching. But in the Knackered Hack’s view, the reliance on guessing and picture clues that we have observed sets kids up for failure and disappointment when their guesses are wrong.

Anyway, the West Dunbartonshire scheme, pioneered by psychologist Tommy MacKay, is on track to eradicate primary school functional illiteracy in this 10-year project that began in 1997, according to the Grauniad.

What made West Dunbartonshire different from other authorities launching literacy projects at the time was that it wanted a cradle-to-grave system that involved the entire community.”What we were looking at doing had never been done in the world before, bringing about inter-generational change in a whole population,” says MacKay. “We deliberately built in things other people weren’t doing: vision, profile, commitment, ownership and dedication.”

The approach was two-pronged. First, a robust early intervention programme from nursery onwards reduced the number of children experiencing reading failure. Then, those who did fall through the net were caught in the later years of primary school and given the intensive, one-on-one Toe by Toe programme. “You pick up every one of them, and you blooter them with individual help,” says MacKay.”

[Incidentally, for the uninitiated, "to blooter" means to hit something hard; "blootered" also means drunk. This is Scotland, remember.]

Things were once very bad in West Dunbartonshire:-

When the project was launched, West Dunbartonshire had one of the poorest literacy rates in the UK, with 28% of children leaving primary school at 12 functionally illiterate – that is, with a reading age of less than nine years and six months. Last year, that figure had dropped to 6% and, by the end of this year, it is expected to be 0%. In all, 60,000 children have been assessed, and evaluations show that children now entering primary 3 have an average reading age almost six months higher than previous groups. In 1997, 5% of primary school children had “very high” scores on word reading; today the figure is 45%. Across the UK, it is estimated that 100,000 pupils a year leave school functionally illiterate.

English may be the lingua franca in our globalised culture, but it’s hard to learn to read because it isn’t purely phonetic; linguists call it “opaque”, meaning that each letter/combination of letters can make several sounds. As we all know, so much of English doesn’t come easily because it is a mix of several other languages (French, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse etc) with their various rules. It sometimes seems that the exception in English is the rule: even our language is eccentric.

Addendum:  Those interested in Dr Rice’s paper (see comments below) on the research literature dealing with developmental dyslexia in adults can find a pdf version here.

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