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About A Week: English Children Can’t Read English

Peter Hinchliffe is saddened to hear that 20 per cent of English children have failed to get to grips with their own language.

In the country which gave birth to the English language one in five 11-year-olds can’t read and have failed to master mathematics.

Chief schools inspector Christine Gilbert warned last month that these children could be on the educational scrapheap at 16 – unemployed and pursuing no further training.

Mrs Gilbert said: "If education in England is going to compare favourably with the best in the world, standards need to improve. In fact they have stalled. We have said so in our documentation. We need to accelerate improvements and we are looking at ways of doing that.

"It's unacceptable that 20 per cent of pupils go from primary to secondary not fully functional in literacy and numeracy. That's an area we really want to focus hard on."

Mrs Gilbert said there was a strong link between the 20 per cent of 11-year-olds who are failing to reach the required standard in literacy and numeracy and the 10 per cent of so called “neets’’, 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training.

At a conference of the Spelling Society held at Coventry University this month it was suggested that the English language has such a baffling spelling system that it is hindering children in their attempts to learn to read.

Masha Bell, a literacy researcher who carried out a study The Most Costly English Spellings, compiled a list of 800 words that confuse 11-year-olds because of the way they are spelt.

The list includes orange, foreign, rhinoceros, properly, vomit, tambourine, tournament, tourist, heaven, engine, exquisite, opposite, advertisement, gnarled, rigid, risen, sinister, spinach, video, vinegar, tie, wheelie, quiet, science, crier, pliers, soldier, Monday, mongrel, monkey, courage, magic, manage, palace, four, journey, gnash, gnaw, gnome, ghastly, guard, miracle, miserable, pigeon, pity, prison, month, mother, nothing, once, smother, son, sponge, tongue, wonder, almost, both, comb, ghost, gross, most, only, post, programme, deny, reply, July, obey, caterpillar, chapel, damage, dragon, fabulous, family, famished, garage, glacier, habit, hazard, hexagonal, imagine, panic, radish, miaow, powder, cauliflower, plant, pyjamas, raft, rather, salami, task, vast, kiosk, kiwi, machine, encourage, somersault, swollen, souvenir.

The words were identified as problematic for reading, as opposed to writing, because of their 'phonic unreliability', according to the study

Masha Bell says that 200 words on the list could be improved by simply dropping 'surplus letters' such as the 'i' in friend or the 'u' in shoulder.

She suggests that the spelling system places a huge financial burden on schools and is to blame for poor literacy results compared with the rest of Europe. In Finland, where words are usually pronounced as they look, children learn to read fluently within three months. In the UK it takes three years for a child to become a competent reader.

An Oxford University research team’s investigations indicated that fathers should accept a greater responsibility for teaching their children to read. They should set an example for their offspring, particularly sons, by making it clear that education and reading are a key means to success.

The researchers followed the progress of 17,000 children born in 1958. Those whose fathers regularly read or played with them, or organised family outings, were more likely to have successful marriages and obtain A-levels and higher qualifications.

Even in this computerised Internet age the 80 per cent of UK children who acquire adequate reading skills seem to have an insatiable appetite for books.

The Publishers Association reports that 225 million childrens books were sold in 2007, an increase of 17.4% on the previous year. The value of the sales was 404 million pounds (around $8 million), 34% higher than in 2006.

The majority of publishers have incensed authors, illustrators, librarians and independent book sellers by introducing an age guidance system for children’s books, due to be implemented this autumn. A black and white design will be placed on the back of the books, near the bar code, with the categories of 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen.

A “No To Banding’’ campaign is gathering support. Campaigners feel that “everything about a book should seek to welcome readers in and not keep them out.”

One of the leading protestors is Philip Pullman, internationally famed author of the trilogy, His Dark Materials, which comprises Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The first volume of the trilogy won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995. The Amber Spyglass, the last volume, was awarded both 2001 Whitbread Prize for best children's book and the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in January 2002, the first children's book to receive that award. Northern Lights was turned into a highly successful film under the title The Golden Compass.

It is both ironic and overwhelmingly sad that 20 per cent of the children should be unable to read in the land which has produced some of world’s finest children’s writers.

Philip Pullman is high on the list of “world greats’’ which also includes C S Lewis, J K Rowling and J R R Tolkien.

Lewis's works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies over the years. The seven books that comprise The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most. The first in the series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released as a feature film in 2005. The second, Prince Caspian, is released this year.

J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are the focus of a world-wide industry. Her books sell in millions. The Harry Potter films ensure full cinemas. And the unassuming author has earned a fortune estimated at well over $1 billion. Time magazine named her as a runner-up for its 2007 Person of the Year, noting the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given her fandom. She has become a notable philanthropist, supporting such charities as Comic Relief, One Parent Families and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain.

J R R Tolkien’s children’s book, The Hobbit, the precursor of the phenomenal Lord Of The Rings trilogy was also the foundation of a multi-million-dollar success story in print and on film.

My two sons came on the scene before Philip Pullman and J K Rowling first appeared in print.

I did read aloud to them though from the Narnia stories, and also from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord Of The Rings.

How well I remember the beginning of The Hobbit, and so too do my sons.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

"It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats — the hobbit was fond of visitors....’’

A marvellous remember-for-ever story, The Hobbit, written by a splendid Englishman.

What a tragedy that 20 per cent of today’s crop of English children will not be able to read it for themselves.


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