Is being able to read all it’s cracked up to be?

As I wait for tirade of traditionalists to fall upon me let me first be clear – literacy is important. The skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening are the building blocks of learning and underpin success in life, love and all that.

But we seem to have entered a point where we have forgotten that – no matter what we do – some children will never reach their ‘age related norms’ in some or all of these 4 skills. And this group of children – likely to be at least 10% of the population – appears to have disappeared from our thinking on literacy.  Many children with dyslexia, language impairments and learning disabilities for example.

Too often system level literacy strategies are based on the premise that all children can reach age appropriate levels in each of these 4 skills. Documents from literacy organisations, and even school strategies, often talk about teaching these skills for all children – as universal, but on closer examination they tend to mean only for those that can while those that can’t – including many with dyslexia – are addressed in separate strategies and approaches. On many occasions it appears that ‘universal’ does not mean inclusive.

Take for example the Read On Write On Literacy Strategy. There is much to like in here – lots of practical advice matched with high aspirations. But search the document for the word dyslexia. A literacy strategy that aspires all to reach targets in literacy but fails to recognise the importance of specialist support for those who have impairments is doomed to failure.

See also the SEN Information Report for Michaela Free School. A worthy ambition of 100% of children reading at age appropriate levels. But can an inclusive school ever achieve this? What happens to those who just can’t.

The discussion on how best to support children who struggle with reading, writing, speaking and listening needs to be more nuanced. Some children who struggle with these skills can catch up with their peers and reach or exceed age related norms. Including some children with dyslexia or other impairments.

But not all can. Others will never achieve age related norms in their reading or their writing or their speaking or their listening – some won’t ever match their peers in all of these areas.

If we persist with the myth that reaching at least age related norms in literacy or GCSE top grades in English is something all children and young people can achieve, far from ‘accepting underachievement’ we – ironically - create a context that dooms many children and young people to much bigger failure.

A context that does not recognise that some impairments prevent typical progress in literacy will:

  • not access specialist support early enough (or at all)
  • mean that resources are allocated in the wrong place
  • keep repeating the same approaches or assessments with a focus on catching up and passing - leaving many children and young people with a deep sense of frustration or failure
  • fail to provide the access to the wider curriculum that can enable children and young people with significant impairments.

And this last point is particularly important. Even without the literacy skills of their peers children with dyslexia or other impairments can be supported to access a full and rounded curriculum. Many young people with reading and writing skills behind their age related norms can still – for example – get a range of top grades (A/A*/9) across EBACC subjects. But this takes teachers understanding their difficulties and putting resources into alternative strategies to help pupils access learning and support and making appropriate alternative arrangements for assessments and exams.

It is also important to note that even those young people who struggle with literacy who cannot achieve these top grades can leave school with qualifications – and as importantly skills and scaffolding – that can support access to FE, HE, employment, entrepreneurship and a rich and rounded life.

While GCSEs, A-Levels and degrees are important assets for young people that can unlock a range of opportunities it is important to remember that they are – ultimately – arbitrary measures that society has attached a value to. A young person with dyslexia might not – for example – be able to score highly on a test that draws heavily on the ability to recall facts and figures in quick succession. But the world beyond education exists beyond exam specification; knowing how to use search engines and text to voice readers, being able to rely on notes or images to prompt memory, having skills to ask colleagues and relentlessly self-advocate will mean that an adult with dyslexia can access work, achieve and succeed.

Is it time we were more honest about literacy?