You are here:   Education > Our Reading's Bad - But Not That Bad

Both these visual and auditory processes are mediated by a brain system that is specialised for signalling changes, the magnocellular transient system. This is especially sensitive to movements of images over your retina, to auditory frequency and amplitude changes and to one's own eye and vocal movements, as when reading. It is particularly vulnerable to drugs and disease, which is why we tend to see double and slur our words when drunk. There are large inherited differences in individuals' magnocellular sensitivity that help to predict who will find reading most difficult.

But this new knowledge has not yet been transferred to the classroom. Soon after its election, New Labour introduced the primary school "literacy hour", a formulaic amalgam of "look and say" and phonics techniques. By 2000, and at a cost of £15 million, this had achieved a three per cent improvement in 11-year-olds' reading. Although that doesn't sound much, it actually represented reasonable value for money. But since 2000, progress has stalled and new approaches are needed. One suggestion is "synthetic phonics", concentration on systematic training in splitting words into their constituent sounds without any visual component. Supporters laud it, but it is probably little better than any other phonics programme. However, there is mounting evidence that training magnocellular systems directly by simple non-reading visual and auditory techniques is more effective. Large-scale trials are needed to demonstrate this, but these are difficult to fund because educational sources feel that this is inappropriate "medicalisation" of the problem, while medical sources say it is educational.

However, if the finer points of spelling and the complicated rules of where to put an apostrophe are really instruments of social control and establishing status, one has to ask whether these skills are really going to be necessary in the 21st century. Now that computers can become an extension of one's cognition in the same way as a violinist's bow becomes an extension of his hand, PCs could perhaps do the dogsbody work of reading and re-enfranchise our poor readers, allowing their brains to do the things they're much better at. Perhaps we should abandon social control by the tyranny of the complicated rules of grammar and illogical spelling and recognise that tomorrow's children may not need to learn to read at all.

View Full Article
Bill Corr
January 26th, 2009
7:01 AM
Having lived and taught in Africa, the Gulf and East Asia - decent credentials insofar as years of service mean anything much - I can agree with most of John Stein's article. In practice, the Brits aren't really all that less literate than other people, other than the members of the best-educated classes of northern Europe, who are WAY ahead of all the rest of us. Japanese education presents a puzzle to most Westerners, of course. Little Japanese kids have to learn just under 2,000 'kanji' [Chinese] characters. They write them again and again amid unrelenting peer pressure and soft teacher bullying [ "Everyone will laugh at you if you fall behind, Takashi!"] They also, simultaneously, learn 2 syllabaries of 45 characters each [Hiragana is smooth and rounded - "women's writing" - and Katakana is an angular, rather Bauhaus, version of simplified kanji. Then there are 68 combinations of Hiragana and Katakana to make sounds like mya, myu and myo. Plus almost every child learns English to a greater or lesser extend. Children in Korean-minority schools in Japan learn all the above, plus written and spoken Korean. However, most Japanese read pretty easy stuff most of the time. Comic books - some astonishingly and excitingly filthy but most quite tame - are read by office employees on commuter trains. You do not - repeat NOT - see adults reading 'graphic novels' on British commuter trains. Not yet anyway. Of course, we all ought to impose Spanish as the world language. It's easiest and neatest and - fear not - power would still stay in the right hands: Nosotros Los Gringos Unidos Hamas Seremos Vencidos!

January 25th, 2009
10:01 AM
Richard: not a man of many words, are you, dear chap. If 'your nuts' is all you can muster by way of retort, you've only proved the suggestion that your country, and I am assuming that you are from the UK, has a Third World education system.

January 25th, 2009
10:01 AM
I'm an English teacher of 16 years and I agree with Richard.

December 21st, 2008
8:12 PM
You're nuts.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.