Children's progress in reading not maintained in decade
Reading standards of children aged 11 and 15 are no better than they were 10 years ago and in one respect have fallen.
These are the disquieting conclusions of a survey carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The survey was commissioned by the Department of Education and Science and was conducted between mid-June, 1970, and March, 1971.
It shows that, on the basis of two reading tests of the “comprehension” type, which require the subject to complete a sentence by choosing the appropriate word from a selection of five, 15-year-olds did no better in 1971 than they had in 1964 on both tests. But 11-year-olds did no better in 1970 than they had in 1960 on one test and noticeably worse on the other.
Whereas between 1948 and 1964 the reading standards of 11-year-olds rose steadily, the progress has not been maintained. In 1964 the 11-year-olds had reading abilities equivalent to those of children aged 12 years five months in 1948, but 1948 children were between four and 12 months behind their counterparts in 1938 because of the war.
The 11-year-old who scored halfway between the highest and lowest scores in 1970 is six months behind his 1964 counterpart. The brightest 11-year-olds are three months behind and the least bright 10 per cent three and a half months behind. Both the top 30 per cent and the bottom 40 per cent of 15-year-olds had lower achievements in 1971 than in 1961.
The survey found that a small but identifiable number (0.4 per cent) of 11-year-olds were illiterate by the 1950 definition classifying as illiterate anyone with a reading age less than that of the average seven-year-old in 1938. Another 15 per cent were semi-literate, the definition being the mean reading age of a child aged between seven and nine in 1938.
For 15-year-olds there was a nil return for illiteracy, as defined, and a return of 3.2 per cent for semi-literacy. In all cases the figures were worse than those of 1964 or 1960.
If comparison is made with the average seven-year-old of today one 11-year-old in 12 is illiterate and one in four semi-literate, though the survey says there is no point in using the terms for children below the age of 11.
Dr Brian Start and Mr Kim Wells, the authors of the survey, make three important qualifications about their findings. In the first place absenteeism among 15-year-olds might mean that the standards of that age group were even lower than the survey suggests.
This assumes that those 15-year-olds who did not take part in the survey because they were not in school were likely to be those with poorer academic achievement, and therefore lower reading ability, than those in school for the tests.
The second point is that the tests show signs of growing old. One was 23 years old and the other 16 years old. For example, they use words such as “haberdasher” , “wheelwright” , “mannequin parade” and “bathing” for “swimming” , usages which are dropping out of the language.
The third reservation concerns the size of the sample. Only 73 per cent of the primary schools approached cooperated and only 53 per cent of the senior schools. The low rate of return was partly the consequence of the postal strike last year. But the authors were unable accurately to assess the effect of any of the three factors.
It was not within the terms of reference of the survey to determine the causes of any fall in reading standards but it does cite a number of authorities on reading ability on the effects of progressive primary methods, the absence of the teaching of reading after the age of eight, and the lack of instruction in the teaching of reading given to student teachers.
In a statement last night, Mrs Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education, said: “The report says that the progressive improvement in reading attainment observed in surveys between 1948 and 1961 has not been maintained over the past 10 years. It therefore raises questions about how we teach children to read and understand language and how to measure their achievements.
“The authors made a number of reservations about their findings but the main conclusions cannot be ignored. I shall be studying the report in greater detail and considering what further action is needed.”