Few people realise how badly most British citizens read. Up to 30 per cent (20 million) of our population leave school with a reading standard worse than an average 11-year-old. This means they cannot follow the instructions on the back of a seed packet or look up "plumber" in Yellow Pages. One in 10 has a reading age of less than six. Although official statistics claim that Britain has a literacy rate of 99 per cent, this merely means that 99 per cent can recognise and sign their own name. If that is all they can do, it hardly equips them to operate successfully in modern life.
This lack of skills is reckoned to cost the country more than £2 billion a year in additional educational and social costs. To this we have to add perhaps an extra £3 billion in lost production costs and damage caused by those failing to understand written instructions at work. Worse, failing at reading has a corrosive effect, driving a downward spiral of loss of self-confidence, negative self-image and depression. We've even known of children whose misery has driven them to suicide. Alternatively, far too often frustration and impotent anger with yourself and those who fail to help you leads to delinquency, vandalism and violence. Two-thirds of those in prison are functionally illiterate, and one of the few things that has been shown to reduce recidivism is to teach prisoners to learn to read properly.
But don't think it was better "before the war". In both world wars, recruiting officers were appalled at the low standards of their recruits' literacy. Nor can we blame the 1960s' fad for whole-word "look and say" reading. Although this contributed to a deterioration in spelling standards, it probably benefited those with good visual memories as much as it hindered children with poor auditory skills, and so had very little effect on overall reading standards.
Our literacy standards are actually not much worse in the UK than in other countries, even though in languages such as Spanish words are almost always pronounced precisely as they are spelt, so reading should be much easier. In fact, British schoolchildren read rather better than their Spanish counterparts. We do better than France and Israel, about the same as the US, Denmark, Holland and Germany, but a little worse than Canada, Italy, Japan, Singapore and Sweden.