So Why Can’t They Read?

Image of report coverBoris Johnson, Mayor of London, announces in his foreword to a new report by Miriam Gross So Why Can’t They Read?, published today Monday 19 July by the Centre for Policy Studies, that:

“The astonishing levels of illiteracy are not only an indictment of our failures in the last 20 years; they are an indication of potential. Imagine if we could so focus on the five, six and seven year olds that hardly any 11 year olds were having difficulty.

Think of the difference we could make to the economy and society. London has an extraordinary future over the next few years, with a young and growing population, the Olympic investments, major transport improvements and a real chance of lengthening our lead as the financial and cultural capital of the world. But if everyone is to share in that success, they must first learn to read.”

In her pamphlet commissioned by the Mayor of London, Miriam Gross explains why structured teaching methods – such as synthetic phonics – are far more effective than whole word teaching. Yet repeated attempts by governments to encourage schools to teach using these methods have not succeeded. For, despite all the evidence, the child-led approach to teaching persists in many primary schools.

But the answer is not more central interference. Even though current Government ministers are fully supportive of phonics, there must be more effective ways of persuading teachers that phonics works best . For example, one imaginative idea might be to initiate an annual contest among London primary schools – a kind of Booker Prize for literacy.

This could be sponsored by one of the large corporations which have been so vehement in complaining about the poor skills of school leavers. The competing schools would be independently assessed, culminating in three winners and 10 runners-up. Every child and all the relevant teachers in the winning schools would then be given an award at a large prize-giving party. The winning schools would get a substantial cash award to be spent entirely at the head teachers’ discretion. The teaching methods of the successful schools – as well as the conduct and enthusiasm of children – would be analysed, so that teachers and parents alike can see which approach works best.

As Boris Johnson says in his Foreword:

“If as the Centre for Policy Studies suggests, an annual competition can somehow be devised between the two methods – with adequate controls – then I would certainly give it my full support.”



  1. So why can’t they read? by Miriam Gross is published on Monday 19 July 2010.
  2. Miriam Gross has recently been working as a voluntary teacher with a group of immigrants. Born in Palestine, she came to England at the age of 10 and was educated at the progressive Dartington Hall school and then at Oxford University where she obtained an honours degree in English and later a Diploma of Education. She began her career at The Observer, where she was deputy literary editor and subsequently woman’s editor. In 1986 she joined The Daily Telegraph as arts editor. From 1991 to 2005 she was literary and associate editor of The Sunday Telegraph. She has also been senior editor of Standpoint, the monthly magazine. She is the editor of two collections of essays – The World of George Orwell and The World of Raymond Chandler.

Miriam Gross - Monday, 19th July, 2010