Think about a child you know. How sure are you that they can read? 

As a secondary school teacher, I would regularly sit down with the parents of fourteen-year-olds at parents evening, and inform them that according to our software, their child had a reading age of eleven. “But I’ve heard her read fluently”, the parents would reply, aghast, “ her primary teacher said her reading was good.”

Our country is experiencing a crisis of reading comprehension. According to data from the OECD, our 18-24-year olds are less literate than our 55-65-year olds. Our young people are reading less for pleasure than previous generations. One reason that this crisis is invisible to so many is because you rarely think that your child, or children that you know, cannot read. 

This is because reading aloud fluently, sans stumbles, stops, or ‘sounding out’, and even reading aloud with expression, does not guarantee that the reader actually understands what they are reading.  When we imagine ‘illiteracy’, we imagine a teenager, eyes averted, laboriously sounding out the letters. This was, unfortunately, the situation of a handful of children in my class. But there was an even greater proportion of children who could read aloud fluently, without any comprehension whatsoever, just as Milton’s daughter’s read him Greek texts, without having a clue as to what they were reading.    

Up until roughly years 3 or 4, children concentrate on what we call ‘decoding’ – the correspondence between letters on a page and the sounds they signify. But from year 4 onwards, the level at which a child can ‘read’ is determined more by their understanding of what they have read. This level of comprehension is affected by their background knowledge of the concepts in the text, and their understanding of vocabulary and syntax. 

Unfortunately, year 4 is exactly the time when many parents step back from reading with their children or allow the ‘daily’ reading set by schools to become less regular.  This is when the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students yawns open, as children fall further and further behind, without their parents realising that anything is wrong. 

Now think of the secondary school teacher with a middle set year 10 class, the majority of whom have a reading age three years below their chronological age. These students are faced with GCSE exam papers, all of which have a reading age of at least 14. 

A reader of this article may remember that their own homework involved answering questions in their Science textbook, or that they were set a chapter of their GCSE literature text to read independently. Schools are far less likely to set this work because many students are incapable of understanding these texts on their own. Teachers read excerpts of Jane Eyre because they know they can’t set a chapter to read as homework, even in their top sets. Maths teachers lament that their students can’t access ‘C’ grade word problems, because their students simply can’t interpret them. High literacy level correlates to success in Maths and Science – low literacy levels condemns a child to low academic attainment, regardless of their intelligence or effort. 

Once a child can decode words, once they have accumulated the thousands of hours of reading necessary to develop their knowledge of vocabulary, syntax and basic general knowledge, he has a future in education. He can then ‘read to learn’ instead of falling at the comprehension hurdle. His writing will come to reflect the complex syntax, vocabulary and ideas to which reading has exposed him, and he can grapple with increasingly complex subject matter. 

If, on the other hand, a child cannot comprehend what they are reading, he is rendered entirely reliant on their teacher. And no matter how much we focus on teacher development, and how brilliant our teachers are, an excellent teacher cannot undo years of missed reading practice. As long as students fail to accumulate the hours of practice necessary to comprehend texts effortlessly as they read,they will continue to be excluded from educational success. 

Government policy needs to focus more on ensuring that children read every day – even if this involves extending the school day for daily whole class reading. Making sure that children read widely and deeply, choosing books that inspire their interest and change their perspective, is a matter of social justice. Any government serious about social ‘justice’, ‘mobility’ or ‘opportunity’ needs to wake up to this comprehension crisis, before reading fluency in the next generation declines even further.