Literacy, Dyslexia and How to Teach Children to Read by

Literacy, Dyslexia and
How to Teach Children
to Read
David Morgan
Why bright children so often struggle to read
and how to make it easy for them
with Guided Phonetic Reading
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Main Section:
The Story So Far
Understand the 7 Main Causes of Reading Difficulty
Know How to Solve the Different Forms of Reading Difficulty
What People Mean By Dyslexia
Find Out More About the Neurology of the Reading Process
A Summary of the Symptoms, Causes and Solutions
Background Section:
The History of Writing
The History of Literacy Teaching
The Future: Easyread and Guided Phonetic Reading
The Shannon Trust Story
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The Story So Far
“Life is what happens while you make plans”
When Jack was introduced to me, by his parents, it was obvious
that he was a bright, energetic boy with great potential. His
parents had been very involved in his education, he was at a good
school and he was evidently popular.
But Jack was 8 and could not read.
Despite everyone’s efforts his reading was on a plateau and going
nowhere. Both his parents and his teachers were baffled because
he had seemed to be progressing well through Reception and
during Year 1.
But then he steadily slipped behind through Years 2 and 3. Then he
began to lose confidence. He was intensely aware of his friends
reading more advanced books and even his younger sister was now
overtaking him.
His parents and teacher tried various approaches in order to help
him out of this situation. He really worked hard at them, but
nothing seemed to make any difference.
It was now beginning to infect his whole view of school and his
attitude towards more reading practice was becoming very
negative. In desperation his parents started hunting on the
6 months later Jack’s life had changed.
He was in the top half of his class and being awarded a
commendation in school assembly for his reading. Looking back he
could no longer even remember why he had found reading hard. It
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seemed like second nature to him now. And his life was back on
I have changed Jack’s name, but in any case he is entirely typical of
what we see again and again. I could interchange him with
hundreds of boys and girls, even from just the last few months.
Bright children come to us apparently able to read a bit, but
actually they are just memorising words and guessing the ones they
don’t know.
For a bright child that strategy works in the early stages of reading,
with simple first reading books. But it leads to real difficulties, as
the text gets more complex. Their spelling is usually disastrously
bad too.
So what had changed for Jack over those 6 months?
That is what this book is about. We will talk through the very
common cases we see like his, plus all the other less common
problems that lead to reading difficulty. We see 7 main causes of
reading difficulty and I will describe what you can do about all of
But first, we need to rewind further. To set the scene, I had better
tell you how the Easyread story developed.
In the Beginning…
My first contact with literacy, like all of us, was learning to read. I
can remember learning to read… and you will know that isn’t a
good sign.
I was bad at it. I was slow to talk as well. Even now I am not a
natural communicator.
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I can remember the enervating sensation of just not getting it. I can
even remember the sight of my poor mother’s exasperated face
one afternoon in our sitting room in 1968.
I feel a bit guilty about it actually, because I now know how tough it
must have been for her.
As far as the family is concerned, I am still definitely the digital
member of it. I studied engineering at university while they all did
English at least to A-Level standard. And while I love novels,
theatre and music, I have to confess that most poetry is as puzzling
to me as a cryptic crossword.
In 1974 I went through the whole thing again when I had to do a
year of Greek lessons. Those long minutes of being expected to
read that stuff out in class are well etched in my memory. I can
remember using many of the strategies that we see with children
learning to read English.
Then, 30 years after stressing my mother, it was my own turn to be
in that seat. I was amazed by how hard my two boys found
learning to read and how difficult it was trying to teach them. As
an untrained parent I didn’t have the first clue how I should be
setting about it.
We have a policy in the Morgan household that the parent who is
worst at something is the one that should be helping a child who is
struggling with it too.
The reason is that it is much easier to empathise with their
difficulty if you find the subject hard yourself. Somebody with an
innate talent for a subject often finds it harder to explain.
So teaching the children to read was clearly my task since my wife
is a writer! My only use for maths has been to solve the riddles
that their teachers send them back with.
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However, in this case, my own frustration used to boil within me,
and out of me sometimes too! To my shame I was much less good
at controlling my emotions than my mother. I remember thinking
with my first son “I am sure he will eventually learn to read… but he
will probably never want to look at a book again in his life after this
I am certainly not alone as a parent in finding it hard.
Teaching a child to read can be a very tough, even traumatic,
experience for both parties. As parents we usually have no
knowledge at all of how to teach reading and yet it is a highly
skilled process, when done properly.
There seemed to be no structured reading instruction happening in
our schools at the time. So I just muddled through, virtually
working it out from first principles.
In 1996 I can remember driving down the road with someone
talking on the radio about the “phonemes” in words. It was a term
I had never heard before. It turned out to be the technical term
for the individual sounds in words. So I went to the dictionary later
that day to look them all up.
At about the same time in the late 1990’s, my father became aware
of the fact that 67% of our prison inmates were effectively
There was no question in his mind that it had almost certainly
contributed to many of them being there. It has a huge effect on
your self-esteem and earning ability. And frankly I am in awe of
the people who can go through 10 years of schooling unable to
read the whiteboard without becoming delinquent.
Humans do not like to fail at things. Rather than fail, most of us
will avoid them. We all know we tend to do that with things we
are bad at; we just say we don’t like them! OK, yes, it is possible to
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be good at something and not like it too. But that is less common,
I am sure you will agree.
As a schoolchild you don’t have the opt-out option and so some
children take the next logical step and choose to “succeed” at
rejecting the system, rather than being seen to fail within it. We
will talk more about that, but we all know people who have
bragged about their latest punishment.
Anyhow, during a long, hot soak in the bath it occurred to my
father that there was still a third of the population in each prison
who could read. They were effectively a free resource that could
be used to teach the others. They all had time on their hands after
In that moment The Shannon Trust was born, as a plan.
Now, twelve years later, it teaches thousands of people to read
every year, at almost negligible cost to us taxpayers.
The Shannon Trust story is an interesting one. It was also crucial
for the development of my thinking. So I have included it in the
background section of the book. And you can see more details at It is a great organisation doing an
amazing job.
Anyhow, my father had a spell in hospital, during which I ran the
activities of the Trust for him.
Before then I had been interested, but not heavily engaged in it.
That now changed. When I started visiting prisons I was
particularly struck by two things.
First, for the prisoners the project was about much more than
learning to read. It was changing their lives.
Learning to read rewinds them back to when they were 6 or 7 and
things started to go wrong. Without getting too fluffy about it, I
think it is fair to say that hope is often reborn inside them.
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Some people take the view “you guys are just teaching them to be
better criminals”. If you want proof of the reverse, consider this;
the Prison Officers’ Association was our first and easily our most
important supporter.
The POA is the union for the prison officers in the UK and has not
been famed for its “progressive” attitudes. Well, it is true that
they are pretty single-minded in fulfilling their role as the champion
for their members’ interests. That is their job.
However, the POA management unlocked the doors to the system
for us (sorry…). Many prison officers would never have considered
working with us without their recommendation.
The management of the association had not suddenly come over all
gooey about a new mission to help prisoners. They are not against
helping prisoners, but that is not task and they are clear about that.
Nonetheless, it was an enlightened but simple decision for them.
They knew from their officers that the inmates became more
rational and positive to work with, after doing our reading course.
That was clearly good for their officers. So, if the aim of the
association was to make life better for their officers, it was their
duty to help us.
We do not yet have figures for it, but I will eat my library of literacy
books if it is not shown, in due course, that learning to read
reduces the rate of recidivism amongst the released prisoners.
Since the average reconviction rate is currently 80% within two
years of release (in the UK), it won’t be a hard measure to beat.
As I have said, children often become delinquent because it feels
better to succeed at disrupting than it does to fail at conforming.
Each new punishment becomes a new qualification as a successful
disrupter, to be valued just as much as the stars on the classroom
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chart. Who hasn’t heard someone bragging about the
punishments they have received?
But, as new readers, the prison inmates were developing a new
belief in the future within the systems of society. The prison
officers became our supporters because they saw the psychological
impact it had on the inmates.
So that was all very inspiring. But there was something else.
My second realisation was that these people were often learning to
read in 4-5 months.
That is as fast as you or I. Much faster than me in fact!
It meant that they had had no intrinsic reason for not learning to
read in the first place. It just hadn’t worked out for them.
So I got into literacy knowing that there had to be at least a partial
solution lurking in the dark. A positive attitude can be a real help
The Millennium Arrives
In early 2000 I was looking for new a new direction in life.
Designing and marketing commercial furniture, rather moderately
successfully, had run its course for me.
I was looking to break out of the pattern of business management
8-6 combined with full-on parenting 6-8. So I decided to start
wasting a bit of time, studying things that interested me again and
letting the world get back into my life.
I have a very poor memory. No, I really mean a very poor memory.
I really can’t remember much at all! Not names, faces, stories,
facts, figures or almost anything. I can read a book twice and only
realise a hundred pages in that it is familiar.
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It is quite hazardous really, especially when sent on a mission to the
shops on the way home. I fill my life with systems to help me
manage the things I do. The computer diary is a godsend for me
because you have to remember to look at a paper diary.
So I did some research on how the memory should work and how
to help it.
It was extraordinary to me that after a little bit of study, I could
read through a list of 50 random words and recite them verbatim.
I couldn’t see a use for it… but it was amazing nonetheless!
To achieve that all I had to do was engage my visual memory in the
My visual memory is poor in comparison to most people, but still
immensely powerful in absolute terms. How many objects, places
and people can you recognise? It is almost limitless. Every one of
those has to be matched to a stored memory in your head, for the
recognition to take place.
In order to remember the 50 words I was just using the ancient
Greek technique. You create a visual image of the word and drop
it into an easily remembered location. I had 50 “slots” around the
house and would put one image in each. Then, to recite the list, I
would just go to each slot (in my imagination) and see what image I
had stored there.
To make it easy you need to make the image very vivid.
For instance, my first slot was the arm of our green sofa. If the
first word of the list was banana I would imagine a mass of soft,
rotting banana flesh being squidged into the fabric of the sofa.
That pops back into the memory rather better than a neat little
yellow crescent because the emotions are involved.
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Anyhow, it really works as a technique. It still didn’t help me
remember the shopping, but I felt it must have a practical use
The more I talked to people about this discovery the more I found
that people with a good memory were naturally visualising things.
So, since literacy was on my mind, I started thinking about the
alphabet. It is very abstract, which makes it hard to remember.
My inclination was that if we could turn the letters into locations
where some bizarre animal or person was seen, it would make
them easier to remember.
I wanted the animal to be interacting with the shape of the letter,
but to be a separate entity. So I teamed up with a brilliant graphic
artist, called Robin Evans, to develop a set of images we could use
in that way.
The characters that we created look pretty simple, because I
wanted them to have simple block colours.
As adults our visual processing is fully developed and is far more
sophisticated in its interpretation of the world than a child’s. That
is why they respond more to a less rendered picture. Picture
books for young children are usually very simple for a reason.
Here is a selection of some of our images.
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These are the ants in pink pants, the bear with long hair, the cat
having a chat, the duck covered in muck and the eggs with little
legs. Each one has interacted with the shape of the letter in a very
specific way.
I took our work into a local school to test it on the children there.
The results were startling. We were teaching children the alphabet
in just days.
The alphabet is timetabled over 6 months using conventional
approaches. Most experts will flatly deny that it is possible to
teach a child the alphabet in a week, because they have never seen
it happen. But they are wrong.
So, I thought I had a rather good alphabet book to publish.
I put the artwork together and called it the Ants in Pink Pants,
because the first animal was a group of ants in pink shorts
clambering over the letter a.
The final element of the book to be designed was the front cover. I
decided to use the letters and images from within the book to spell
out the title. Here is the original artwork for that:
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XXXXXXXXImage Ants in Pink pants cover artwork
As I looked at the cover it occurred to me that it had the letters and
then a parallel code in the characters, showing what sound each
letter represented. I thought the images could potentially be a
real aid to an early reader. The characters would help the child
decode the text.
Reading is really a skill, like riding a bike. To be good at a skill you
need to know good technique, but you also need to practise. The
problem is that it is difficult to practise reading as a learner,
because you just get stuck. This could be a system to help a child
practise reading without needing constant intervention from an
So I generated a few words with the letters and images. They were
words that I knew the children would really struggle to read
Again, the effect was amazing.
The children found reading the words easy once they had the
assistance of these phonetic images.
I quickly found that this approach has lots of advantages:
The child has the tools to work out an unfamiliar word
The adult is no longer a crutch to lean on.
The process is private rather than public
Each new word decoded becomes a moment of
achievement rather than failure
We called the new system TrainerText. It has developed a bit from
the early days. In particular, the images are now floating above
the text rather than within it:
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TrainerText is the fundamental tool we have used to help every
child learn to read. It is the keystone to Easyread, the system that
we have developed over the last 9 years. We guide the children
along the right track, but essentially we just give them the tools
they need to teach themselves how to read.
Using TrainerText we can build a child’s confidence step by step
through short bursts of successful reading practice each day. This
is the first time that children have had a practical tool to develop
their phonetic knowledge of words by reading.
That is what we mean by Guided Phonetic Reading.
So we definitely had a useful tool, but now Lady Luck had her
It turned out that the very visual nature of our tool fitted exactly
with the very visual nature of the majority of children having
reading difficulty. Roughly 80% of children struggling to read have
a very strong visual style of learning.
From this base we have developed a sequential process for the
children to follow. During that process we are hunting for the
symptoms of the different causes of reading difficulty. As soon as
something is spotted, we then deliver additional support to deal
with that.
So the course becomes an individual experience for each individual
child. That is not the easiest way to go about things, but I do not
know of an alternative that will get equivalent results.
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Learning to read is quite clearly the most important thing that we
all learn at school. Modern society is largely built on literacy and a
weakness in reading and writing puts an individual at a great
disadvantage. On the other hand, strong literacy frees people to
teach themselves whatever they want to know.
Yes, there are famously successful dyslexics. But consider this;
roughly one in five children reaches 11 unable to read, across the
main industrialised English-speaking countries.
Are one in five successful people very poor readers? No, perhaps
one in a hundred or less. Indeed 43% of poor readers in the USA
live in poverty.
As you become aware of these things, the inevitable question,
“how can this be the situation we live with?” lodges in your head.
Puzzling Patterns
But literacy education is full of conundrums, which can seem quite
perplexing even to experts in the field. The neural complexity of
reading has led to many confusing patterns.
For instance:
Bright children often find learning to read particularly
Many children will seem to progress well between the
ages of 4 and 6, but will then find their progress reaches a
low plateau between 6 and 9.
Balance, co-ordination and exercise can have a big impact
on a child’s reading development in some cases.
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Some children can read single words fine, but not lines of
text. For others it is the reverse
Some children are able to read text on a beige
background, but not on a white background.
Some children make more mistakes with short words than
long words. For others it is the reverse.
Some children seem able to read out loud fluently, but
have no understanding of what they have read, however
simple it is. If you then read back to them the text they
have just read out to you, they will understand it instantly.
So the whole subject can seem confusing and even daunting. Many
sources of information on literacy talk a lot, without saying much
about what is really happening and why.
That is something this book will change for you.
With so much dispute washing around the issue, it can also seem
hard to know whom to believe on the right way forward.
Debates rage over the right approach to literacy, the causes of
reading difficulty, what dyslexia is, whether dyslexia can be helped
and even whether it exists. You can hear an expert put forward
very cogent arguments, which seem quite convincing… until you
hear some other expert exactly countermands those arguments,
with equally impressive reasoning.
And here is the funny thing; both of them can be right in certain
It is only by developing an understanding of the underlying
mechanisms taking place in the head of the reader that you can
start to know what is right and what is misconceived.
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I am afraid that it is only by developing your own knowledge of the
subject, and particularly the neural issues involved, that you can
have confidence in what you know.
The aim of this book is to give you that knowledge:
It will explain the reasons for each of the above
conundrums and many others.
It will explain the 7 main causes of reading difficulty.
And it will give simple methods for overcoming each cause
of difficulty.
Then, in the second section, you will also find a lot of background
material on the whole subject, which you can explore to whatever
degree suits you. It is not meant necessarily as a sequential read.
The heart of the book is in the explanation of the different types of
reading difficulty and the specific solutions to each specific
With the knowledge presented here and by using a multi-stranded
approach that delivers the solution each child needs for his or her
own mix of issues, we have found that easily nine out of ten
children struggling with reading can come to be proficient in
around 6-9 months and sometimes far quicker.
Can This Be Real?
There is an obvious question that is probably running around your
head as you read this.
It is probably something vaguely along the lines of “Yes David, what
you are saying sounds great... but… how is it that… the
combined resources of the entire English-speaking world’s
education systems have battled with this for 200+ years apparently
without success and you are saying you have a simple solution to
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almost all of it? Without wanting to be rude… that just does not
sound likely!”
It’s a good question and requires an answer. I agree that it does
seem surprising and I have pondered the question myself. I am
always concerned not to overstate what we can do..
Furthermore I am only too aware that I am no Einstein. So it
cannot be put down to some stroke of genius.
On the contrary, the reason we have had success is, I think, due to
an unusual combination of circumstances, the rather patchy nature
of what intelligence I do have and how it contrasts with that of
most people in the field.
And probably the key to it has been that I came to the subject
knowing nothing.
That may sound like a disadvantage, but it can be very useful. It
does not take long to read into any subject. Knowledge is quick
and easy to pick up. But not knowing what others think you should
know is very liberating. I guess that is maybe one thing I do have in
common with Einstein!
By contrast to us, most people have followed a relatively narrow
path of formal training, developed for them by a school of thinking.
They are emotionally attached and partly bound to their particular
speciality. As a result, they are often closed to other possibilities
and tend to want their particular knowledge to be “the answer”.
The truth is that reading is a complex neurological process and
there are many ways it can go wrong. Any attempt to resolve all
reading difficulty down to one cause is sure to be wrong.
Many of the arguments that rage about it are based on this error.
Both participants can be right for different individual cases.
For instance, I can show you situations where a particular solution
is critical for perhaps 5% of the population but irrelevant to 95%.
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As a unitary solution it looks like rubbish (5% success rate) and
easily discounted. But for some individuals it can be their only
possible salvation. For those individuals it is a 100% success.
In addition, while initially knowing nothing, I have now worked with
thousands of children, helping them to overcome their individual
challenges. That is more than many specialists do in a lifetime.
This has almost always been done remotely. So I have taken a
detailed description of their situation, tried to match it to one of
the causes of difficulty described by other people and then we have
delivered a solution suitable for that problem.
If we did not have the training resources needed for that child, we
would generate them there and then, and get immediate feedback
on the results.
As you do that again and again, you start to see patterns and the
process gets easier and easier.
In contrast to the academics involved, you will find most hands-on
dyslexia specialists will have a toolbox of systems to draw from,
because they know that different children need different styles of
We too have found that there is no single solution to every child.
We are constantly open to what might be at the heart of the
individual’s difficulty and adjust our response as necessary.
Each child who struggles will have an individual mix of problems
leading to their individual situation. If you propose an
inappropriate intervention you are actually doing more harm than
not getting involved, since you will be reinforcing their experience
of failure. We are very aware of that and are always very
concerned to get it right for each individual.
It is only by applying the appropriate intervention for each
individual child that you can get routine success.
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Collected Strands of Thought
So all I have done, in essence, is to collate all the excellent work
done by others and to present it as a unified process for helping
children with their reading. Newton’s quote of standing on the
shoulders of giants was perhaps never more appropriate.
Our training system is now a combination of coaching and
diagnostics, allowing us to add specific elements of support where
necessary for an individual.
Along the way we have inevitably made our own discoveries and
developed some new innovations.
Those have combined to create our new approach, which we call
Guided Phonetic Reading. And to deliver Guided Phonetic Reading,
we have our online system that we call Easyread.
But the truth is that none of this is rocket science and anybody can
do it, as you will see as you read on. My hope is that, in time,
Guided Phonetic Reading will become a standard approach to
literacy and other publishers will produce materials that compete
with Easyread. That competition will be good for us and good for
the children.
The Results that are Possible
Do we always get it right?
No, sadly not. Or at least not yet, because we always view the
system as being a work-in-progress. Seldom a week goes by, even
now, without us making some sort of slight adjustment.
However, we give a 100% guarantee on our training and we deliver
around just 1-2% in refunds. We never, ever dispute a refund.
By the way, people often think we must be mad because anybody
could rip us off. You will be delighted to hear that it is very
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unusual. I guess if we were selling swag bags the situation might
be different!
Most of the refunds are for children that we have genuinely failed
to engage in our process over the first 2-3 weeks. Good
psychology and motivation is very important to its success.
Without it we don’t stand much of a hope of success because the
children often come to us with extremely negative emotions
towards reading.
We aim to generate that motivation with a combination of
entertainment, praise, reward, challenge and a sense of developing
progress. It is a very fragile thing and that is where we still fail
most often. With the nature of human variation, it is possible that
we will always fail with some children.
Anyhow I take a lot of pride in that hit rate. We would love to get
a 100% score and I hate ever failing a child, but 98% isn’t bad in a
group probably around half of whom would never have learnt to
read otherwise.
In schools we achieve a 2.3 gain on average and our record is 4
years in reading age gain over six months of training.
That means that the children doing Easyread are progressing over
twice as fast as an average child (ie. one not having any difficulty).
Given that most of the children on Easyread were not progressing
at all when they started and had developed a very negative
psychology to the whole task, we believe that is also a great figure.
With the pressures of the school timetable, it is inevitable that
many children are not that regular with their lessons. If you look
at the progress per lesson done, it equates to around a 7-fold gain
(ie the child gains 7 days in reading age for each lesson completed).
So I am confident that what I am presenting here is new and
effective. Some people will always dispute whatever you suggest
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(at least in this arena!), but I am happy for anyone to look at our
Author’s Warning
It will be natural for you to discuss all of this with an independent
literacy or dyslexia specialist.
I must warn you that you may easily get a very sceptical response
from some literacy academics. Indeed they may even suggest it
cannot be true.
However, I think you will be able to see that that response is only
natural and might be how any of us would react.
First, they have never seen results like the ones I have just quoted.
So it is quite reasonable to doubt them.
And then all academics feel their reputation is based at least
partially on their knowledge. So it is a very unusual and very special
academic who easily accepts new information that is at odds with
their current knowledge.
I can give you numerous examples of entire academic disciplines
being held back by this mechanism. Perhaps the most
extraordinary is the field of geology, much of which did not accept
the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics for the best part
of a century, despite literally massive, indeed mountainous
If it is important to you, I can introduce you to highly trained and
experienced specialist teachers who now view our approach as
their core response to a child needing support.
And I can introduce you to any number of parents who have seen
Guided Phonetic Reading do its magic. Wherever you are in the
world, there will be one not far away.
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The Seven Main Causes
Of Reading Difficulty
“Pareto’s Principle at work: 80% of problems come from 20% of
the causes”
The key to helping a child, who is struggling to read, is to
understand why it is going wrong for that individual. This is the
aetiological approach.
To deliver the solution, you need to know the underlying problem
in detail. As Sun Tzu said, you must fully evaluate and know your
enemy before launching an attack.
We have found there are seven main reasons, accounting for at
least 95% of reading difficulty. We have practical solutions for all of
These seven main reasons are:
Auditory deficit
Dyspraxia & Neuro-developmental delay
Irlen syndrome
Low declarative memory capacity
Meaning Blindness
Stress Spirals
Of these seven key problems, one is by far the most important.
Around 80% of poor readers display an auditory deficit.
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Let’s just stop and consider that figure. It is very interesting.
It means that a solution to the auditory deficit alone could be a
solution to 80% of reading difficulty. And we have found that to be
roughly the case.
That would instantly yield 96% literacy instead of the current 80%.
Furthermore, once you have cut down most of the forest, the
remaining trees are so much easier to spot and deal with.
At the moment, children struggling to read swamp the special
needs teachers in schools. Just by dealing with this one issue,
auditory deficit, we could change that situation substantially,
allowing them to concentrate all their resources on the remaining
The next most important cause of difficulty is Dyspraxia. We see
elements of dyspraxia in around 15% of the children we help. It is
definitely possible to alleviate dyspraxia in the majority of cases,
with the right exercise regime.
The other five causes of reading difficulty are each found in far
fewer cases as the main cause of difficulty, but may all contribute
quite frequently. They have simple solutions too.
So now we are talking about roughly 98% or 99% literacy.
You will see that my aim is not an incremental change. It is a
revolution in expectation.
Auditory Deficit
Let’s have a look at each of these all-important underlying causes in
turn. For me they are the heart of this whole subject.
So what is this “auditory deficit”, which we can now see is the key
to the citadel?
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Well, there is a sequence that your brain goes through as you read
this text, if you are an average reader. We will explore this in much
more detail in the chapter on the neurology of reading, but here is
an overview.
First your eyes perceive a small group of 2-3 words.
The images pass down your optic nerve, switches left to
right and gets processed in the visual cortex in each
hemisphere at the very back of your brain.
The processed signal is then passed to the auditory cortex
in your left hemisphere, in from your left ear. Here the
letters and letter groups are mapped to the sounds
represented and those sounds are blended into words.
Next the words are passed to Wernicke’s area in the
linguistic processing cortex, just forwards of the auditory
cortex, in from your left temple.
The stream of words is then passed forward to the prefrontal cortex where you actually “think” about the
meaning of them.
If you are reading out loud, the information will now go to
Broca’s area in the linguistic cortex, in from the back of
your left eyebrow, which generates the spoken words that
your motor cortex makes your mouth voice.
Finally the eyes jump to the right to take in the next group
of words. That movement is known as a saccade and is
controlled by the flocculus in the cerebellum.
The process repeats.
To get us orientated, here is a picture of the brain sat in the skull:
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Cross Section of the Human Head
Now let’s see where the key areas for reading are situated:
Left view of the brain
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Some people will say, “No, I don’t process the text in that way”.
That is potentially true.
First, you may be using a visual reading strategy, in which you
recognise some words, work out the others from the context and
skip the remainder. Unfortunately that means you have not be
taught to read well. Even if you were unaware of it, you are
constantly working at a disadvantage to someone who can decode
every word. And new words and place names are a constant
hazard for you.
Also, very highly trained readers, like lawyers and academics for
instance, can move to a purely visual approach, to increase their
speed. They scan the page for elements of meaning. That is how
they can read at such a phenomenal rate (around a page a second).
Once they see something interesting that they need to read in
detail, they will switch to the auditory process.
However, you may also be reading in the way I have described, but
feel as if you are “recognising” words visually.
I can show you that while it might seem that you are recognising
the words in this line of text, the process is actually much more
subtle than that. You are actually mapping sounds from the letter
patterns and blending them.
For example, as an exeprinceed rdeaer you can pobbraly raed this
snentece qiute ealsiy, diespte the fcat that I hvae meovd all the
lertets aonrud, expcet the frist and last. Weird, isn’t it?
If we were just “recognising” words visually, then that sentence
would be impossible to read fluently.
By the way, if you did find it hard to read, then you are reading
visually and reading is much harder for you than it needs to be.
And the following nonsense words will be very difficult for you:
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A normal reader will be able to read those words out without any
difficulty. A purely visual reader will find them very hard.
In the History of Literacy Teaching chapter I will describe how some
academics have taken the high-speed visual scanning technique I
have mentioned and base their literacy instruction on it. The truth
is that it is possible to use it for collecting a rough idea of the
meaning in a page very quickly, but is not an appropriate strategy
for a learner.
It is like a rally car driver teaching a new learner-driver to power
slide around the corners, as the quickest way to get across town!
In any case, the process described contrasts with the processing
pattern of children with an auditory deficit, who we already know
have a de facto reading difficulty. We know that they are not using
their auditory cortex and when we move them over to the more
conventional approach to reading, their problems go away.
So the empirical evidence is that visual reading strategies clearly
cause difficulties.
Anyhow, in a person with an auditory deficit the visual signal passes
down the optic nerve and is analysed in the visual cortex. It then
passes symmetrically forward through the two hemispheres
directly to the pre-frontal cortex, bypassing the auditory cortex,
which remains dormant.
The frontal lobe is where you do most of your higher thinking.
Effectively the word cow is processed in virtually the same way as a
picture of a cow. Effectively the word is treated as a logogram (a
meaning picture).
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Later in the book, in the History of Writing chapter, I will show how
that approach is completely at odds with the aim of any text that is
constructed with an alphabet.
The very basis of our text is that it is a code representing the
sounds of the spoken word on paper. So, for the auditory cortex to
be bypassed is a negation of the fundamental design of an alphabet
Letter and Word Flipping
It is well known that many people viewed as dyslexic have a
tendency to flip letters and words. b switches with d and was
switches with saw.
The pattern I have described above is the explanation of that.
Left and right are surprisingly hard concepts for the brain. We all
know people who always confuse them, even as adults. It is
something worth knowing about if you are taking directions from
It seems that you need asymmetry within the brain in order to give
some differentiation to left and right.
The very asymmetric processing pattern, with the auditory cortex
purely in the left hemisphere of the conventional reader, helps to
develop the directional stability of the reading process.
By contrast, the child with an auditory deficit does not have that.
They process each image of the text symmetrically across the two
The empirical proof of this theory is that, as we develop the
auditory engagement of the child, we usually see this flipping
syndrome disappear.
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How the Auditory Deficit is Misunderstood
Nothing I have said so far is news. The literacy world has long
been aware of this situation.
But here I am going to diverge sharply from conventional wisdom.
Auditory deficit has always been viewed as a major cause of
reading difficulty. There is a belief that it is a neurological problem
with the auditory cortex. It is a natural conclusion to make, given
the evidence.
However, in most cases we have found that to be not true.
We have found that the auditory deficit is usually a symptom of the
reading difficulty, not the root cause. That is a fundamental and
crucial difference. It is that misunderstanding that has held back
reading intervention.
These children have nothing substantially wrong with their auditory
ability if they can hear and speak normally. They are just not using
their auditory cortex when reading. There is usually no
corroborating evidence to make one think that they have a
problem with their auditory cortex. And that is because they
Once you understand the real cause, I think you will see that the
solution becomes obvious.
Step Forward The Real Villain…
So here we have our Poirot moment…
Everyone is gathered in the salon to hear the answer to the riddle.
If the obvious suspect is innocent, who is looking shifty?
It is always the most unlikely person, of course.
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Poirot turns slowly to point his highly manicured finger at the
child’s High Visual Intelligence, stood quietly in the corner of the
You may be familiar with visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and digital
learning styles. If so, skip this next paragraph.
The brain has different functions within it and we each vary in our
strengths and weaknesses relating to those functions. If your
hearing perception and processing is acute, you will tend to use it
more and further strengthen it through increased use. Of course
you can still see and feel and calculate. But, generally you will use
your auditory processing by choice. The same goes with someone
who is visual. Kinaesthetic means that you process things more
physically through touch and manipulation. And finally, there is
digital, for those of us who construct things in a mathematical way.
Actually you could go on designating different intelligences all day,
but these four are the important ones for this debate.
The key point is that a small initial difference in your natural
abilities will become more and more pronounced as you repeatedly
use your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
You can see that mechanism in operation around you all the time.
Visual Learner Syndrome
We have discovered that visual learners are most at risk of
displaying an auditory deficit when reading. They seem to do OK
at first, but slowly struggle more and more as the text gets more
complicated. They often reach a reading plateau between 6 and 9.
Here’s why.
In a child’s early years we need to hope that the parents and
nursery teacher will be playing with sounds through rhymes and
alliteration. This is actually the beginning of reading.
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Text is a code to record the sequence of sounds we make when we
are speaking. It is an innovation that was developed about 4000
years ago, although some languages like Chinese do not use an
So playing with the sounds in words is good preparation for
reading. It is by far the most important activity you can engage in
with a preschool child.
We recommend a game we call Easyread I Spy. It is exactly the
same as conventional I Spy except you use the initial sound of the
word instead of the initial letter. So you look around the room and
see a rug and say, “I spy with my little eye something beginning
with rrrr…” It is amazing how much children like playing it.
Anyhow, whether or not that sort of thing is happening, children
start formal literacy with the alphabet.
We use letters derived from an alphabet developed by the
Phoenicians. The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet
because the letters are so elegant and sparse. However, they were
also very abstract.
The human brain always struggles to remember abstract shapes. It
remembers things by association with existing memories.
Something abstract is difficult to make connections to.
So, conventionally, you are forced to just memorise the shape.
We have changed that now in Easyread, as I will explain, but in a
conventional school curriculum the alphabet is normally introduced
over 6 months. Even after all that time, many children will struggle
to remember all the letters.
However, visual learners do well at this task. They are good at
visual memorisation.
So all will seem to be OK.
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Meanwhile, the visual child’s understanding of the related sounds
will be much less secure. It is almost impossible to say the actual
sound of many letters in isolation. Try saying the letter l sound
without saying /luh/. And the hard g sound is even worse. So it is
hard to create strong links between the letters and the exact sound
of the letter.
The sound chanting sessions of a conventional phonics class are
very dangerous because they can actually connect a series of
incorrect sounds to the letters, which then have to be forgotten
again for successful blending.
For instance, the chanted sounds for d and a can lead to dad being
pronounced like duradder
The visual child with a relatively weak auditory facility will also tend
to find these little sounds very hard to hear in speech. And so
none of it will make much sense.
I was having dinner with some friends the other day and a pianist
amongst the group was listening to the music playing. He picked
out the notes being used in a rather unusual chord and could
instantly play the tune on the piano behind him. For most of us it
was astonishing (and yes, vaguely annoying!) because we were
completely unable to differentiate the notes in the chords. Our
ears had not been trained to do that.
In the same way, the visual child will not be naturally hearing the
sounds within a word. So letter-sound relationships will be a
baffling concept and the letter names will be much more
comfortable for the child.
During this early reading instruction simple Consonant-VowelConsonant (CVC) words are introduced. In the early stages a small
vocabulary will be used, drawn from the words with just short
vowel sounds. So bed, bad, hid, him and rod are all fine. And ball,
same, line and rule will be avoided as being later concepts.
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You will be amazed how limiting that is for your vocabulary.
In this whole paragraph only 5 words use these initially taught
sounds for every letter. So the same words will appear again and
again. With this small number of words, the highly visual child will
just memorise them all visually, like pictures.
In the “real books” and “whole word” reading systems, this is
actually taught as the fundamental reading process.
So, for a bright visual learner it is definitely possible to pick up a
little vocabulary of simple words quite quickly. Then they can
apparently “read” them rather proficiently. They will even be a bit
quicker than a child who is struggling to decode each word.
So all will still seem well at this stage. In fact the child will be
Next, he or she will start taking home “early reader books”.
It is natural and apparently logical for these books to start with
simple text and a clear picture relating to the text. Logically…what
else would you do? More on that in a while, but the vocabulary
will often be recycled through each page as well, because that
makes it “easier” for the child to seem to read.
But now you will be able to see what I am about to say.
This is feeding into the same strategy for the children. They can
quickly memorise these words and, for bright children particularly,
it is easy to guess the ones they don’t know. The context of the
sentence and the picture make it obvious most of the time. They
will often use the first letter of the word as a cue as well.
So, all will seem well. However it is usually now apparent that a
new word is always a challenge for the child.
Do you see what is happening?
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The child has set off down an alternative path, that seems easier
than all the phonics and decoding that is being explained at school.
That is laborious and hard work in comparison to recalling a word
from memory or guessing.
Those are both instantaneous. Decoding a word can take several
seconds when you are learning.
If you go to help with reading practice in a primary school, you will
often find the same book being presented again and again by a
I can remember reading with a very bright boy when my oldest son
was in reception class. He was sent over to read to me and set off
through the book, making the odd mistake but generally doing well.
However, on about the fifth page he made no sense at all. It took a
few moments to work out what was going on. He was reciting the
sixth page not the fifth... He knew the entire book by heart!
Anyhow, in less extreme cases, the child is just reading in what
seems the easiest way. The child is unaware that this nifty
shortcut usually leads to a dead end.
During phonics teaching sessions the child will happily ignore what
is going on, as incomprehensible and unnecessary, when there is an
easier approach.
It will be very hard for the teacher to pick up on this because the
child will often be able to answer a question when asked.
In a class of 30 you can go through a lesson without being asked
anything at all. And the average teacher manages only around 10
minutes one-on-one with each child in the class each week. And
that is for everything, not just reading.
It may not sound much, but it adds up to 5 hours straight, without a
coffee break.
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So the teacher and parents will seem fairly at ease with things
when the child is 4 and 5 years old.
The first serious indications of problems will appear somewhere
between 6 and 7. This is when the text starts to get a bit more
complex. The relationship between the picture and the text gets
less clear. And the extent of the vocabulary starts to increase
Now the child will be forced to guess more and more.
Because it is getting harder to guess accurately, there will be more
mistakes. Often the guess will be quite wild, with only the first
letter in common with the word on the page.
You may have seen that happening.
The child is baffled by how much harder it is becoming, rather than
easier. After two or three years of effort a negative psychology
begins to creep in, aided by the evident frustration of parents and
teachers. It is only natural. Having worked hard it seems unfair
and bewildering to find reading just getting more difficult rather
than easier.
The child has also now become aware that many friends have
moved onto higher-level books. Children are intensely aware of
these things, as you know.
So the child heads onto a plateau of glacial progress with increasing
stress levels and no clear path to follow out of this predicament.
Sometimes they will actually go into reverse as their confidence
So, it’s ironic isn’t it? A sharp mind and a high intelligence in one
area can lead to such pain, frustration and low self-esteem.
Once you see it, the evidence is all around you.
Go into an art school and you will find huge numbers of dyslexics
who never read. Go into the music school down the road and you
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will all find them reading books over a cup of tea. In fact, savvy
book marketers have always used mailing lists of music buyers!
Proof of the Visual Learner Syndrome Process
I am going to try to show you the process I have described, by
teaching you to read again. I hope that I will be able to entice you
to use the same strategies that the visual learner uses.
Of course you can fight it if you wish and buck the experiment. But
if you let yourself flow with the process, I think you will see what I
Here is the Greek alphabet:
αβχδεφγηιϕκλµνοπθρστυϖ ωξψζ
Some of the letters are familiar and others are less easy. So it is
close to the situation of a 5-year-old who has been recently
introduced to the alphabet in English.
Let’s now do some reading in Greek symbols:
Τηε δογ ηασ α βαλλ (the dog has a ball)
Ηε ηασ α βαλλ (he has a ball)
Τηε χατ ισ ον τηε µατ (the cat is on the mat)
Τηε χατ ισ σοφτ (the cat is soft)
Τηε βαλλ ισ σοφτ (the ball is soft)
Τηε δογ κιχκσ τηε βαλλ (the dog kicks the ball)
Τηε χατ κιχκσ τηε σοφτ βαλλ (the cat kicks the soft ball)
Now have a quick glance at this sentence, without working it all
Τηε δογ σιτσ ον τηε µατ ανδ χατχηεσ τηε
σοφτ, ψελλοω βαλλ
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Could you feel yourself visually drawn to the words you knew?
They stand out to you as a pattern, even through the rest of the
sentence is using letters that you also know. Pattern recognition is
a very strongly developed visual strength of the brain.
That is exactly what these children are doing too. They are
naturally good at spotting familiar patterns. So the words
δογ, σοφτ, βαλλ and µατ were probably quite clear.
OK. Now have a look at this picture:
Now read the sentence again looking at all the familiar words and
then focus on the first letters of the unfamiliar words (χα=ca,
ψε=ye and σι=si):
Τηε δογ σιτσ ον τηε µατ ανδ χατχηεσ τηε σοφτ, ψελλοω βαλλ
Could you feel the next process starting to operate? You knew the
context and you knew your initial letters and so it was easy to guess
the words you didn’t know. You had:
The dog si__ on the mat and ca______ the soft, ye___ ball
Amazing! You just read the tricky word catches, without seeing it
before... Or maybe you said “caught”, which is the sort of guess
you will often hear from a child with visual learner syndrome.
Before we move on I want to give you a feeling of the emotional
impact of text on the struggling learner. This is what it looks like:
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Τηε δογσ ωερε ρυσηινγ αφτερ τηε σοφτ βαλλ λικε µαδ τηινγσ,
βαρκινγ αλλ τηε ωαψ. Τηε βαλλ γοτ χοϖερεδ ιν σλιµψ γοο αν
δ εϖεντυαλλψ τηεψ πυνχτυρεδ ιτ. Σο ωε γοτ α λογ ανδ υσεδ τ
ηατ ινστεαδ. Τηερε ωασ α χατ ωατχηινγ φροµ ηισ µατ. Ηε ε
ϖιδεντλψ τηουγητ τηεψ ωερε χραζψ.
What is your emotion as you look at that? For me it is like a
drowning man looking for any strategy that will make it easier to
survive! Can you feel the urge to look for familiar words and
doesn’t guessing seem like a good option?
It is possible for children to have actual auditory difficulties.
However you will be aware of those because their speech and
hearing will be affected. Learning to read is very hard for deaf
children. It is far harder for them than it is for blind children, for
However, if the child has no known auditory difficulties and yet
displays an auditory deficit when reading, it is almost certainly due
to visual learner syndrome and can be fixed easily.
Dyspraxia & Neuro-Developmental Delay
We think of the main part of the brain as being the grey matter in
our cerebrum. And that is where we do all our thinking.
However, low down at the back of the brain is the cerebellum.
Even though it is only the size of two small squashed tangerines,
and you can function without it, the cerebellum has half the
neurones of the entire brain.
It accepts all the sensory input (except the olfactory nerves of the
nose), it decides what is important and filters out what can be
ignored. It also channels all the motor neurones to our muscles.
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So virtually nothing gets in or out, without being processed to a
degree in the cerebellum.
Dyspraxia is caused by the poor functioning of the cerebellum.
You will see a child with severe dyspraxia very easily distracted by
noises, movement and itches. The child will also seem poorly
coordinated, consistently dropping plates and knocking things over.
Please note that all children do go through periods of poor
coordination anyhow as they grow.
This can also be linked to neuro-developmental delay. As you
develop from a newborn baby to an adult various programmed
responses change. As a baby for instance you will grip anything
put into your hand. As an adult, that should stop.
Equally, as a baby you have no ability to stand or sit unsupported.
As an adult you have automatic responses, which allow you to hold
your posture without thinking about it.
There are various factors that can affect this development of
neuro-responses during the growth of the child.
However you may be completely unaware of any of this and yet see
it affecting a child’s reading. Even mild dyspraxia can disrupt your
reading ability.
The reason is that the eyes do a series of little jumps along the line
of text, called saccades. So you need good control of your eyeballs
to do this. We find around 15% of the children we work with
display some dyspraxia.
Astronauts are often unable to read on their return from space as
well, for this reason. The pull of gravity messes up their balance
and eye coordination. They have to go through a period of daily
exercises to fix the problem.
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The DORE Story
There is an interesting story related to dyspraxia. A man called
Winfred Dore had a child who was apparently so frustrated by her
dyslexia that she kept trying to kill herself. He was a successful
businessman who had made a fortune selling industrial coatings
(paint). So he decided to make it his life mission to find a solution
to his child’s reading difficulty.
Eventually he found someone with an explanation and a series of
exercises that he was told would help. And sure enough they did.
His daughter learnt to read.
So, with the best intentions I am sure, Dore decided to bring this
“miracle dyslexia cure” to the world.
He developed a diagnostic process and series of exercises to cure
people and was extremely good at creating PR to support his
project under the name DORE.
His initial consultation cost £500 (for later comparison the current
price of a Mars Bar roughly 50 pence and so he was selling his
consultation for 1000 Mars Bars). And a year of exercises cost
£2000 (ie 4000 Mars Bars).
Tens of thousands of people took his course and some had great
They were the ones who had dyspraxia. Unfortunately the
exercises were irrelevant for anybody without dyspraxia. Of
course the rest did the exercises and presumably had no
improvement at all. We don’t know because DORE always refused
to show their statistics.
Literacy academics began to question Dore’s claims and ask to see
his figures. They were never published and the negative stories
began to build and build. People have said that it was difficult to
claim on his guarantee because you had to prove that you had
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been doing the exercises prescribed every day – an impossible
In the end the DORE reading organisation went bust in 2008.
The organisation has been refinanced by one of their happy
customers. And they now have much more limited claims on their
website about what they can achieve for people and no suggestion
of a guarantee.
Irlen syndrome
Helen Irlen noticed in the 1980s that some children are particularly
sensitive to the contrast of black text on a white background. You
know how difficult it is to read red text on a blue background?
For children with Irlen syndrome black on white is like that. The
text shimmers.
You will hear the child say that the text is “moving around”. It
makes it very difficult to focus on and read.
The visual cortex is programmed to emphasise changes of contrast,
to pick out patterns. The tiger’s face in the long grass was very
useful to be able to spot! Irlen syndrome seems to be an overapplication of this facility.
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Low Short-Term Memory Capacity
Reading makes tremendous requirements on our working memory,
especially when you are learning to read. If your working memory
capacity is small, reading will seem much harder.
Your short-term memory has very defined limits. For instance, I
can remember 6 digits in a sequence pretty much every time, but
not 7. With 7 I just get confused. I don’t remember the first 6 and
not the last one, I get lost after 2 or 3.
You can have a go yourself.
Cover up the column of numbers below and then reveal the top
one for long enough to read it. Then cover it again and write down
what the number was. Reveal it again and see if you got it right.
Then reveal the next number and do the same thing:
How did you get on? Could you feel your limit arrive with quite
sharp definition? One moment you have it under control, the next
you have lost it.
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Well, the same can effectively happen with the reading process. If
there is too much trying to go on in the child’s working memory it
easily turns to chaos.
What you will observe is the child struggling with decoding each
word and then being unable to remember anything of the
sentence, once it has been read. That inevitably makes the whole
procedure pretty boring.
Once the child’s reading is more advanced, you will continue to see
them struggle with longer words and the more complex sentences.
This all combines to make reading a drag for them. So they do as
little as possible and with a heavy heart.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is an extraordinary
phenomenon that I would love to understand better.
When I was at school there was nobody that I knew of who
suffered from ADHD. Now some schools have 10% of their
children on medication and it is growing at 12% per annum! Those
are huge figures. In another ten years they indicate one in five
children being on ADHD medication.
That means that there must be some sort of environmental factor
leading to this growth. The obvious places to look are nutrition,
nurture patterns during early life, sleep patterns, exercise patterns
and major activities like television.
The nature of the drugs used is very interesting. I always imagined
that they were suppressants. In reality they are stimulants, very
similar in formulation to cocaine.
The reason is that the frontal lobe of a child with ADHD is not
applying sufficient control over the rest of the cerebrum to
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maintain focus. Once the medication is absorbed, the activity in
the frontal lobe increases which then brings order to the rest of the
cerebral cortex.
ADHD clearly makes learning to read difficult because reading
requires a steady focus over a period of minutes. It is virtually
impossible to learn to read successfully without that. And learning
to read is a particularly hard activity for children with ADHD
because the gratification (from progress) is so long delayed.
Word Meaning Blindness
You will find some children are able to read text out quite
proficiently, but are unable to understand what they have read out.
By that I mean that they understand nothing at all, even at the
simplest level.
So this is different from short-term memory issues. The child can
read out “point to the red box” and be unable to follow the
The reason for this is that the language creation cortex (Broca’s
area) is being engaged, but not the language comprehension cortex
(Wernicke’s area). So it is normally an added symptom of visual
reading strategies.
There are cases of adults who have had a stroke and sustained
damage to Wernicke’s area. This has left them able to speak and
write, but quite unable to understand the spoken word or read. So
they can write something down and be unable to read it back to
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Stress Spirals
The brain has very fixed responses to stress. In an evolutionary
sense, stress was usually related to fear, which was related to
danger from large animals and people.
The best responses to danger are fight, flight or immobility and the
higher thinking areas of the frontal lobe tend to get shut down
during moments of stress so that the brain stem can control these
three possible responses.
For reading, that is bad news.
The stress that children feel when getting something wrong, can
then reduce their ability to read the next word. This is often
increased by the reaction of the person they are reading with.
Eventually their stress spirals out of control and you end up with a
complete shutdown of higher mental processes and a purely
emotional response. You may have seen that in action.
And I can prove the process to you right here and now.
I would like you to add up the following four numbers: 4+3+3+7.
How hard was that? How many seconds did it take you? Around
4-5 seconds is comfortable.
OK, well done.
Now I want you to imagine yourself cooped up in a windowless
basement with a deranged mathematics teacher who believes that
mental arithmetic has been woefully sidelined since the advent of
the calculator.
For your own benefit he has abducted you and he is now going to
make you learn to add, whatever it takes.
He is sweating slightly and you are now strapped to a chair with
electrodes connected to the mains electricity supply. He is a DIY
interrogation specialist as well.
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Are you there? Can you feel the sweat on your palms?
Now he is shouting at you “You have FIVE seconds! WHAT IS 3
PLUS 5 PLUS 4 PLUS 2?” His spit is all over your face. Quick, quick,
what is the answer… He bangs the table shouting “FOUR…
Can you feel your brain scrambling?
Anyhow, stress can be a very significant factor in the ability to read
in the early stages. And the more a child feels inadequate to the
task, the higher the level of stress developed and the harder the
task becomes.
I know that as a parent it can be VERY hard not to contribute to
this. I definitely did with my two boys in the 1990’s.
So it may seem exaggerated but I would place the role and
influence of psychology within Easyread at 50% of the course. If
we have not got an enthusiastic and relaxed child then our task
becomes almost impossible.
I have another interesting personal example of this. My first son
was finding maths very hard when he was about 9. He was doing
badly and his maths teacher had taken to shrieking at the bottom
quarter of her class that they were lazy no-goods who were going
to ruin her career. As you can tell, stress was taking its toll on her
performance too! And she was right about her career.
Anyhow, he did badly and hated every minute of it. The following
year he had a different teacher and at tea towards the end of the
first week he said to us (and I quote virtually verbatim) “I don’t
know why I found maths so hard… it’s really pretty easy”.
We had to pick our jaws up off the floor.
Now this new teacher (who was an ace teacher all-round) had not
really done any teaching that week.
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All he had done was make them feel good about how much they
knew and how well they were doing. For him, that was obviously
the basis to work from. And he got great results with all of them.
The previous year still had its costs. My son never really
understood fractions and algebra until taking his physics exams at
17. It looked as if this missing part of his knowledge might wreck
his whole result. So he finally got to grips with what the scary mad
woman had failed to elucidate for him.
Your mental state is critical for all learning and especially with a
highly demanding task like early reading.
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Cures and Solutions for the 7
Main Causes of Reading Difficulty
Now that we know the enemy, let’s have a look at the ways we can
defeat each of these causes of dismay and failure.
How to Cure Visual Learner Syndrome
OK, we can now see the most common cause of the auditory
deficit. The solution becomes quite obvious. We need to reengineer the reading process for the child so that it follows the
conventional path through the auditory cortex.
The difficulty is that the visual to auditory link is normally quite
weak and the visual to frontal link is always very strong.
In addition, by the time people become aware of a problem, the
child has been working on reading for several years and has wellestablished habits that do get some results with minimum effort.
So existing habits have to be made unattractive and the new
approach has to be made easy. A half-hearted attempt will not
deliver the result needed.
I believe the solution to Visual Learner Syndrome has three main
Use the visual memory properly
Give the right tools for success during short, daily lessons
Force the new neuron patterns
Let’s look at each of those in more detail.
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How to Use The Visual Memory
It is one of our greatest facilities; the human brain can remember
an almost limitless amount of visual data. Almost every child has a
good visual memory and the children of our main target group all
have excellent visual memories.
So this is a strength that we can leverage. We can play right into
the visual child’s comfort zone.
We have always had imagery used in phonics teaching, but you
have to do it the right way. Apple, banana, carrot… just doesn’t
work. It is too boring.
To remember an image easily it needs to be bright, active, unusual
and engaging.
A picture of an apple beside an “a” isn’t any of those things. A
picture of the Ants in Pink Pants clambering over the “a”, roped
together as mountaineers, with one falling off is bright, active,
unusual and engaging.
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The ants in pink pants on the letter a
What happens is that the letter now becomes a location where this
strange event or scene took place. It becomes the memory hook
to it. As soon as the child sees the letter there is an instant recall
of those crazy little ants.
And crucially, that instantly gives the child the phoneme for the
letter effortlessly.
In a moment we will also come onto what we do when the letter
actually represents a quite different phoneme, in words like waste,
was, said and saw.
One of the processes that the brain is terribly good at is recognising
landmarks on a route somewhere. If you have driven a road to a
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friend’s house, a series of landmarks will get lodged in your mind
(eg, the big white house where you turn left) so that you can
retrace the route a second time. We are using the same facility
With this approach we can teach the average child most of the
alphabet in around 6 sessions. Conventionally it takes 6 months.
So there is a quantum leap in performance (2,500%).
Isn’t that exiting? I love quantum leaps! Imagine what school
would be like if you could make all of it 25 times easier.
That is what is sometimes possible when you understand and
harness the child’s internal strengths and work with them.
We also get around the unpronounceable nature of the individual
phonemes. We almost never try to voice them.
You will hear classes of children chanting the sounds of letters in
conventional phonics classes. It is actually very hard to get right.
As a result, you get a word like lad pronounced luh-a-duh, which is
closer to luradder than lad.
With Easyread the child has an image and the name of the image to
work with. So that problem goes away.
This means that highly visual children can quickly become more
comfortable with using phonics and start to develop an
understanding of the structure of words.
This engagement with the internal structure of the words has a
secondary benefit and that is it helps a child to become a
reasonable speller.
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We have quite a few parents come to us saying, “my child can read
OK, but her spelling is atrocious. She can do a spelling test fine, but
a week later it has all gone.”
The problem here is with the girl’s reading. She is a visual reader,
memorising words. What is fairly easy for her to recognise is far
harder for her to reproduce.
There are all sorts of things we can recognise with ease but would
be hard pushed to reproduce on paper from memory with much
accuracy in the detail.
The reason she can pass a spelling test is that she has a semiphotographic memory for the words overnight, but that then fades
over the following days.
Once we get her reading going the right way, spelling becomes
much easier. The child becomes engaged and familiar with the
internal structure of the words and is then able to rebuild them.
2 – The Right Tools
How should a child learn to read? By reading?
No, we have found that to be counterproductive initially, although
we do switch to daily reading practice after our foundation is built.
Getting a learner to read before building the foundation tends to
over face the child and leads to serial failure.
Each time a child gets stuck on a word while reading with you, it is a
moment of failure in their eyes. That is why they are not usually
keen on reading practice. Their pride and self-esteem takes a
constant bashing.
However, if you give them a series of tasks that they can do, they
love it.
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So the key is to break the reading process down, so that you can
exercise the components of it. Then give the child the tools
needed to be able to succeed.
Easyread TrainerText is the key for us in this process.
TrainerText shows the text with the phonetic images floating above
the words. Here is an example:
Easyread TrainerText
The word gas has a regular pronunciation. So we have the goat in
a boat, the ant in pink pants and the snake with a shake above the
three letters.
You would expect has to rhyme with gas. But it doesn’t. So when
the child reads it and it doesn’t make sense, the Zuto from Pluto is
floating above the “s” to indicate what the right pronunciation is.
And was is even stranger. Now you have the octopus who
knocked a puss above the “a”.
This simple device revolutionises the reading experience for the
children. It empowers them to be able to read without help. It
allows them to practise decoding even unfamiliar words.
Subdivide The Process
We get the child to practise initially with exercises that are less
demanding than straight reading. It is a bit like doing your scales
on a piano.
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For instance, in our Easyread Mushroom Picker game we read a
word out and ask the child to pick the right one when it appears on
the screen (that is the mushroom and the rest are toadstools).
They have to read the words, but it is not as taxing as having to
read them from scratch.
There is something that always amazes me when I am climbing a
mountain, or even a hill. You keep taking these little steps. And
after an hour you look back down this big drop to the valley floor as
if you have leapt up there like a giant.
Learning stuff should be the same. If each step is small and easy,
then you can learn almost anything.
I believe great teachers have two key abilities:
To be able to inspire
To be able to break difficult concepts into easily
understood elements.
One of the conundrums of teaching is that the more easily you
understand a subject yourself, the harder the second part is. We
should all teach the subjects we find hardest really.
The Right Learning Rhythm
It is crucial to keep any literacy lessons short and regular.
We recommend a daily lesson of around 5-15 minutes.
If you try to teach a child reading for too long, the child’s
concentration will drop. And if you don’t do a lesson every day, it
is very difficult to build momentum.
Repetition with sleep between each repetition is one of the pillars
of good learning practice.
People are often doubtful that we can achieve much with such a
short lesson. Many of us have a puritan feeling that we must do
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more work in order to progress faster. With early reading practice
that is definitely counterproductive.
3 - Force the New Synaptic Connections
When we are helping children with their reading we are usually
rewiring the reading process in their heads.
The “Evil Twins” (Memorisation and Guessing) tempt children off
into the wild woods of reading. They make the process seem
easier and so divert bright kids with masses of potential down a
path that slowly gets harder and harder to follow. Eventually they
leave the children tired, lost and sad in a dark place.
All we are doing is leading them back onto the main track, around
the outside of the wood.
So we need to put some fencing in place to keep the children out of
the woods. This is the third element of a successful system.
In Easyread we do that through the structure of our games.
For instance, in the mushroom picking game that I mentioned, we
present toadstools that look very similar to the mushrooms (a bit
like real mushroom picking!).
So, if the child snaps to a guess because the word looks roughly
right, they will certainly lose eventually. And we are harsh on
mistakes. They have to go back to the beginning of the game.
Somehow you have to make decoding words the easiest and most
immediately successful approach.
Eventually, we present text to the child and this sort of fencing
becomes impossible. So, our final strategy is to set it up as a
challenge “Can you read this without guessing?” It is amazing how
energised most children are by a challenge.
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With these policies in place, we find that very nearly every child has
the capability of developing phonetic decoding. They then drop
their guessing and start building confidence.
How long that takes to establish varies, but is generally between 1
and 6 months.
Helping Dyspraxia
Dyspraxia is caused by the weak processing of the motor control of
muscles by the cerebellum.
So we are not re-engineering the process, but we are exercising
neural connections in order to lift the performance of the particular
circuits we need for reading.
There are plenty of more global treatments for dyspraxia, but we
confine ourselves to just getting the eyeball control heightened
sufficiently to let reading progress smoothly.
Dore was right that the cerebellum does improve with exercise, like
almost any part of the brain.
We use a simple exercise to improve a child’s eye tracking control:
Sit with a pen held vertically at arm’s length.
Move the pen back and forth from left to right while
tracking it with your eyes.
Keep your head still.
Once this becomes easy, do the same thing standing on
one foot.
This will exercise the neurone pathways to the muscles controlling
the movement of the eyes. That will then help them navigate the
lines of text as well.
It is simple but effective.
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In order to get the best results, you should aim to do this 10-15
times a day, for around 60 seconds each time. It does not have to
be anything formal. Being sat on the lavatory is an obvious
That is one of the advantages of keeping it so simple. Many of the
apparently more technical treatments for dyspraxia and neurodevelopmental delay are ten-minute sessions that it is only
practical to do once or twice a day.
I find that our very simple routine gets far quicker results because it
can be done once or twice an hour rather than daily.
We also have software built into Easyread that exercises the child’s
eye tracking skills in a more entertaining way.
Working with Irlen Syndrome
Irlen syndrome is caused by sensitivity to the contrast between
black text and a white background.
The normal solution to Irlen Syndrome is to change the contrast of
the black on white in some way. That can be achieved with
coloured paper or coloured transparent film placed over the paper
or coloured reading glasses.
If you think that your child is suffering from Irlen syndrome get
some sheets of coloured acetate and lay them over the page.
Different colours will have varying impacts on it.
If you find any of them help, then you can go to the next stage and
find an optician who specialises in Irlen syndrome. They can test
different colours more scientifically and potentially make reading
glasses with the optimum colour for your child.
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Dealing with a Limited Short-Term Memory
I have a poor short-term memory and after years of working it, it is
still poor! So there is no magic bullet to this, but I do have two bits
of good news.
First, your brain is very plastic. If you use a facility in it, it will
usually strengthen at least a bit. If I got you to do that number
sequence exercise every day, you would get better at it, up to a
Reading itself is a very good exercise for developing your working
memory. So perseverance will lead to some improvement.
And there is a second, rather brighter light at the end of the tunnel.
The decoding process will become automatic with practice.
There are two types of memory; declarative and procedural.
Declarative is the “thinking” memory that you have voluntary
control over and procedural is your automatic memory for running
routine responses.
Most everyday tasks are run in your procedural memory.
That is why you can constantly do things without thinking about
them. As you read this you are not thinking about how to read. It
is like riding a bicycle or driving a car.
The reason sports players and musicians practise so much is that
they are pushing all of the procedures of the activity into their
procedural memory.
It is sometimes referred to in this context as “muscle memory”,
although the muscles are actually totally memory-free. All of these
automated responses are run from the central nervous system,
which is made up of the brain, the spinal chord and the eyes.
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The spinal chord actually does quite a lot of clever stuff. For
instance, when you trip on something with your right leg it
automatically starts to lift, the left leg starts to press down and
your arms start to stretch out to save you, before the brain is even
aware of the problem.
If you are a cat lover, skip this paragraph… but you can put a cat
with no brain at all on a treadmill and it will match its walking or
running to the pace of the mill, entirely as an automatic response
to the sensations in its paws and muscles linking to circuits in the
spinal chord.
This is also the explanation of why the English football team players
often perform so badly, even though we know they are all talented.
Playing for their clubs they are relaxed and are depending on their
procedural memory for each pass and shot at goal. However, as
they run out onto the field in an England shirt their whole
psychology changes and they start to try too hard.
They are worried about the panning they are going to get in the
press for being overpaid and lazy. So they start to think about their
play. That makes them end up looking like a bunch of schoolboys.
Their errors may look like sloppy, lazy play, but it is actually quite
the reverse.
In fact the key to almost all ball sports at the top levels is being able
to remain in the procedural memory zone, whatever the external
tensions of the moment.
Managing that is one of the most important roles of a good coach
or team captain. It is easily measured in tennis. Often the weaker
player will have equally good strokes, but will tend to lose more of
the break points.
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Anyhow, our aim is for reading to move from a declarative memory
task to a procedural memory task. That then frees the declarative
memory for concentration on the semantic meaning of the text.
It is good daily practice that will achieve this. In Easyread we give
the child the tools to be able to practice reading successfully and
therefore start pushing it into procedural memory.
In addition, our Guided Phonetic Reading process places a lower
demand on the child’s memory than reading conventional text. So
it frees up declarative memory during the early stages too.
However, it is important to know that improvement is very
incremental. Each day there will be some small progress. And the
final level achieved, in terms of fluency, will vary from child to child
and by how much the child keeps up a daily programme of reading
Solutions to ADHD
With ADHD we know that the lack of activity in the frontal lobe is
the root of the problem. Medication is one option, of course. But I
am always against medication unless it is absolutely necessary.
Where possible I think it is always better to get the body to deal
with its own difficulties.
The real key to ADHD is to train up the frontal lobe to do its job.
That can be done by engaging it and exercising it. Many of the
activities of the modern world, and television in particular do the
reverse. They deliver stimulation to all of the brain except the
frontal lobe.
Did you know that you expend more energy in your brain staring at
a blank wall than you do watching low quality television?
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We have found ADHD is not a serious problem when we are
working with children, because we are engaging their focus with
entertainment. That achieves the same aim as the drugs.
Good motivation and the stimulation of the prefrontal cortex will
get it to apply sufficient control over the rest of the brain for a
period for daily reading practice to take place successfully. Once a
child can read it becomes good brain exercise and I would imagine
is an aid to reducing ADHD.
The Solution to Word Meaning Blindness
We know that word meaning blindness is caused by the reader not
engaging Wernicke’s area, of the linguistic cortex, when reading.
The solution to this situation is to engage the auditory cortex in the
process, which then connects naturally to Wernicke’s area. In
Easyread we do that by delivering exercises that force the visual
cortex to link through to the primary auditory cortex, through the
Angular Gyrus.
This does effectively require a re-engineering of the reading
process in the same was as with the auditory deficit.
That can seem hard when the child is apparently fluent with their
current reading strategy. But if a positive result is the aim, I do not
think that there is a real alternative.
Solution to Stress Spirals
To stop stress getting out of control there are two options. You can
either train the child to deal with stress or remove the source of
the stress.
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We aim for a combination of the two. We make the process easier,
we explain that it is normal for there to be moments when it is still
hard and we switch the focus from reading failure to game failure,
which is a more familiar scenario for the child.
We also aim to switch the relationship from child-textparent/teacher, to child-TrainerText with the parent and teacher as
an assistant on the side.
The TrainerText acts as a private coach and delivers solutions for
the child without the child having to announce a difficulty. With
the help of the TrainerText each decoding of a new or tricky word
becomes a moment of achievement, rather than failure.
So we aim to build a success spiral leading to ever increasing
confidence, rather than a stress spiral into failure and unhappiness.
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There is probably no single term that is more contentious in
education than dyslexia. I am not going to try to resolve that here.
I will only give you the situation and my personal view of the use of
the term, for what it is worth.
It first came into general use in the 1970s and quickly became a
battleground in the public sphere, with some people taking the
view that it did not exist. Professor Meredith of the University of
Leeds referred to it as “The unidentified flying object of
psychology”. Many have been very publicly on his side across the
spectrum of society. Meanwhile, others have made a series of
detailed studies of the variation in reading ability of different
children and reported unexplained differences. These are
normally put down to the often equally unexplained phenomenon
of dyslexia.
The more common technical term is “specific learning
difficulties”(SPLD). And predating that was the term “word
blindness”, which was first reported by James Kerr in 1896.
Many of the telltale patterns relating to reading difficulties were
soon logged by researchers, such as Hinshelwood (1900, 1902,
1904 and 1907), Rutherford (1909), Orton (1925, 1937), Hallgren
(1950), Miles (1961), Bakker and Satz (1970), Naidoo (1972).
In the UK local dyslexia associations were set up in the late 60s and
the British Dyslexia Association was formed in 1972 and held their
first conference in 1989.
Despite all of this, there is still little agreement on even what the
term dyslexia means.
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The Compact Oxford English Dictionary states it as meaning “A
disorder involving difficulty in learning to read or interpret words,
letters, and other symbols”.
At the other end of the scale, the Dyslexia Handbook 2008/9,
published by the British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the
development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be
present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. It is characterised
by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working
memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills
that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. It
tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its
effects can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention,
including the application of information technology and supportive
In their view this is a “scientific” definition rather than a dictionary
definition as used by the layman.
You will know by now that I cannot agree with the nature of this
use of the word. You will know that I view reading difficulty as
being caused by a number of specific problems with the reading
process. These problems are quite distinct and unrelated.
If we are to have an umbrella term (and that is evidently useful as
shorthand), then it must remain relevant to what is under the
umbrella. The specific patterns of the different forms of reading
difficulty that we see are exactly that; specific to the individual
cause of reading difficulty. To draw them into the definition of the
umbrella term can be deeply misleading and confusing.
I am also very unhappy with the rather defeatist nature of the
BDA’s definition. Right there in the definition they are talking
about “mitigation” with IT and counselling.
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What that means is that you give the child a computer that reads
text out loud and you tell the child it is OK not to be able to read
and that people lead very happy lives in that position. That is a
sticking-plaster solution to a gunshot wound.
So I personally prefer the definition “Specific difficulty with reading
relative to the person’s broader cognitive abilities”. The term has
use in distinguishing specific reading difficulty from general
learning difficulties. It also distinguishes it from straight illiteracy,
which can be caused by environmental factors such as a lack of
Here is the definition used by the American Dyslexia Association:
“A dyslexic person of good or average intelligence perceives his
environment in a different way, and his attention diminishes when
confronted by letters or numbers. Due to a deficiency in his partial
performances, his perception of these symbols differs from that by
non-dyslexic people. This results in difficulties when learning to
read, write and do arithmetic.“
That means that we are in a situation where a child can learn to
read well and yet still be defined as dyslexic by some people. On
that score, I might easily be assessed as dyslexic.
That is fine, but personally I think we need a different word for that
because it is such a qualitative assessment, whereas reader/nonreader is binary and is of massively greater significance to the
It is a bit like having the same word for a boat that does not sail
that well as one that sinks when placed in the water. Taking the
sailing simile further, many of the design details of a poor sailing
boat are taken as symptoms of the problem.
For instance, artistic ability is often linked to dyslexia. I think you
can now see that artistic ability is linked to strong visual skills,
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which can lead to what we call visual learner syndrome. If that is
fixed, there is no intrinsic reason why an artist should not be as
literate as Shakespeare.
In the same way, tub-like sailing boats tend to sail badly. So you
could say a large living area is a sign of poor sailing ability. But that
is not true. Nelson’s flagship the Victory has a huge salon, but
sailed very well.
In the UK the government commissioned a report by Jim Rose on
the whole subject. This is his definition of dyslexia, which I like:
“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills
involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.”
He also notes:
“ Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological
awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.
It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and
there are no clear cut-off points.
Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor
co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal
organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.
A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic
difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds
or has responded to well-founded intervention.”
The Symptoms of Dyslexia
The patterns that I have described relating to the causes of reading
difficulty tend to be quoted as the symptoms of dyslexia.
For instance, an auditory deficit will coexist with phonological
difficulties. It will also often be seen in the very visual “rightPre-publication Manuscript
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brained”, left-handed, artistic and creative people that are so
famously associated with dyslexia.
Low short-term declarative memory capacity will be linked to other
difficulties with working memory and organisational ability. But
they will not necessarily show any of the symptoms listed in the
two paragraphs above.
This is why hunting for any general set of symptoms of “dyslexia” is
very dangerous and confusing, to my mind.
All you can do is hunt for the patterns of specific causes of reading
I believe that this has led to a lot of confusion with parents and
teachers. Even some literacy specialists do not seem to be clear on
it. They want dyslexia to be just one thing when there are really
several quite distinct forms of dyslexia.
We help a surprising number of children who are felt to be reading
OK, but have great difficulty spelling. But poor spelling is often a
clear indication of poor reading technique and dyslexia.
Usually they can do well in a spelling test, but are unable to spell
the same words a week later.
This is almost always a reflection of an auditory deficit. If they are
visual readers, they have the ability to remember the rough layout
of a word, but they are not truly engaged at all with the detailed
interior structure of the word.
So, for a spelling test they will use a virtually photographic memory
to exactly reproduce the words. However, with time that breaks
down. In an attempt to recreate the word they will often build it
using the most basic phonetic use of the letters. For instance a
word like aunt might be written rnt. And they will write words that
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are almost right, but not quite, like corect or carrect for the word
However, once we get them decoding words, analysing the
structure to the words and activating their auditory cortex, this
begins to change. There is a lag between the two, but there is a
clear link. The brain maps letter patterns to sounds in a surprisingly
sophisticated way.
I can give you a couple of examples of this.
First, if I mix up the leterts in thsee wrods you wlil still be able to
cmpohreend waht I am witring qiute elsiay.
The reason is that you are mapping individual letter patterns to
sounds and assembling the word from them. Your brain is not
looking to “recognise” the words.
My second example of this effect is the following paragraph. I
would like you to read it through once and count how many times
you see the letter “f”:
“France is a delightful country full of beautiful countryside, great
wine and delicious food. You will find it full of around 60 million
people with a wide variety of origins. They are united in their great
love of the country and are full of passion for all things French”.
How many did you count? Ten or eleven perhaps? Well there are
in fact fifteen, but don’t feel bad… we all do the same thing! If you
got the right number you are quite unusual.
Have another go and see if you can spot them.
It’s still hard, isn’t it?
The task I set was essentially an auditory one, even though you
were looking at visual symbols. You were looking for fs which your
brain mapped to the sound /f/ as in fish. When you saw the word
of you mapped the sound /v/ which is a more unusual form of the
letter and did not count it.
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The only way to learn to spell English successfully is to combine a
mapping of different letter patterns to sounds and then overlay a
visual memory of different words. One or other on its own is
insufficient for full accuracy.
For me the mass of homophonic words are the hardest to deal
with. You can write out their and there switched around with no
internal mechanism to spot the mistake. Of course you know how
to spell both words, but as you pile through the text it is easy to
make the switch and a spell checker does not even help!
The Dyslexia Diagnosis
If the underlying cause of reading difficulty is not dealt with, most
parents will be getting worried by the age of 7 or 8. And they are
right to, given that one in five children fails to learn to read.
The most worried are the ones who have seen another child learn
to read without mishap. So they know that the new pattern is not
Almost no parents have the technical knowledge needed to
intervene. So they find themselves in a bind.
The teacher of a 7-year-old child is often fairly unconcerned on the
basis that “we all learn at different rates”. These teachers have
often been given surprisingly little technical training in literacy
themselves. They will usually just advise the parent to “do more
reading”. But that is just more of what has already failed.
So, at this moment there is an emotional volcano building up
pressure within the parent.
This often leads to a need for the child to be diagnosed “dyslexic”.
That will then satisfy the parent that the child is bright, but has a
“reason” for not being able to read that cannot be dealt with. It
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frees them from this impasse of feeling they should be doing
something with no knowledge of what to do.
In this way, we end up with another child heading for life with a
massive disadvantage.
Yes, there are successful dyslexic people. That is because they are
often highly intelligent and gifted, as I have described. But just try
to find me one of them that says “Oh yes, I am so glad reading was
hard for me and I have been far better off without it!”
And how many frustrated, angry, underpaid and undervalued
dyslexics are there for each success? It will certainly be hundreds
and probably tens of thousands.
And for me, the dyslexia diagnosis is very worrying.
It is like going to your garage with your shiny car that isn’t working
to be told, “Yes sir, your car is dysmotive. It is a beautiful car, the
leather trim is excellent, I love the stereo and you have evidently
paid quite a bit for it. It just isn’t running. Here is a bus timetable”.
Would you walk away satisfied with that? No way! You would say
“But why isn’t it running? And how we are going to sort it out!?”
When I speak to parents of children who have been given a
diagnosis of dyslexia, almost none have been given any serious
information on why the child is struggling.
And what happens then towards fixing the problem…? Usually
virtually nothing. The focus moves to gaining work-around support
like text-reading software, voice-input typing software, extra time
in exams and having questions read out to them.
There is a belief in much of the literacy world that dyslexia is
incurable and that you can only work around it. Friends have said
to me “Don’t talk about a cure for dyslexia. People won’t take you
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So I hate it when a parent talks about getting a diagnosis of dyslexia
for their child. It is often followed by an acceptance of “the
The End of This Road – The Life of a Dyslexic
What happens next?
They will struggle through, with the risk of humiliation sat hovering
around them every day of their school career. Some will get the
support of workaround solutions like laptops with voice-input
systems and text readers. All of that has to be fought for or paid
for by the parents, since councils are not keen to deliver.
Many will start focusing on the sciences or the visual arts,
presuming they can read enough to understand the questions.
Others will just fail completely and join the group who get “no
useful qualification” from their entire school career.
Of that group, my estimate is that around a third will do time in
prison, which isn’t good for them or the people they have
committed offences against.
Myelination – Time is Important
There is an important process called myelination that is relevant to
mention at this moment.
Myelin is a fatty covering of the neurone that improves its speed
and strength of signal. A newborn baby has a brain with no
myelin. This slows the performance but makes it much easier for
new branches and connections to be made. So your baby’s brain is
very “plastic” and able to adapt to stimuli.
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The myelination process begins at the back of the brain with the
vocal cortex and sweeps forward from the age of around 2 to the
mid twenties. As this happens the brain matures but becomes less
plastic. That is why it is much harder, for instance, to generate
new speech sounds after the age of 2, but your peak brain speed
and creativity is in your early adulthood.
The relevance of this is that a child at 7, who has Visual Learner
Syndrome affecting their reading, has been using their habit of
memorisation and guessing for 2-3 years and the myelination of
their brain has only recently begun.
Children at 11 have been using their memorisation and guessing
habit for 6 years and the myelination has been progressing for an
extra 4 years.
With each year that goes by, it is noticeably harder to help them
change direction with their reading. It isn’t impossible in any
way... far from it. But it does take more work and dedication from
the child.
So there you have it. In our experience around 98% of dyslexic
children can learn to read. They may not become the next Tolstoy,
but they can read confidently and that is the key. Anybody who
suggests workaround solutions like read-aloud software on
computers and extra time in exams are an equal solution is failing
the child.
We find that 75% of the children on our Easyread home user course
are in the middle or top of their class after 5 months. And almost
all of the remaining 25% are still behind but catching up steadily.
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In school we see an average of over 7 days of reading age progress
for each Easyread lesson that a child does. That leads to children
advancing over twice as fast as the rate of an average child with
conventional tuition, even though they were going nowhere before
On occasion we fail to see that sort of progress and I always know
that it is us who have failed, not the child. I don’t know of a single
child who I have felt was beyond help. If it goes badly it is because
we got it wrong for that child and we need to address why that
So, while some people may doubt what I am saying, the results we
see every day suggest that their theorising does not equate with
practical reality. And I am happy to show the data to prove that to
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The Neurology Of Reading
“Some things just ain’t as simple as they seem”
Reading is an activity that involves almost every major area of your
brain. It is a wonder of integrated processing.
As a result, a weakness in any of the processing areas involved can
cause reading difficulty. This can be very specific, as we have
already seen. For instance, a person with damage to Wernicke’s
area in their parietal lobe will be unable to read, while potentially
quite able to write. They will be able to write something down and
then be unable to read it. I know that sounds bizarre, but it is
quite possible.
With a suitable cranial drill and scalpel a good brain surgeon could
mess up any one of the many processes involved, while leaving
most of your brain function intact.
So this chapter is a detailed audit of this process and the ways it
can go wrong, including the actual neurology of the main causes of
difficulty that we have already discussed.
There are two things to note:
First, problems other than the ones I have already described are
very unusual.
Second, any book you read about the brain involves simplification,
generalisation and many unknowns.
While we know a lot about how the individual neurons of the brain
work, we know a lot about how they are connected and we know a
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lot about how damage to any specific area will affect you, we know
almost nothing about how it really all works together!
Neuroscience is an empirical body of knowledge, developed
through observation. Nobody can tell you what a thought or a
memory really is.
Books on neuroscience are very strong on the wiring of the brain
and naming all the bits. But you will often get towards the end of a
long chapter on some area of cortex to be told, “We have no clear
idea as to what the function of this area of the brain is”.
To give you an idea of the complexity of the brain, have a look at
the two images below:
Schematic diagram of a neuron
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Image of an actual neuron
One you will recognise as a diagram of a neuron, with the dendrites
receiving synapses and the axon travelling to other neurons or a
muscle to deliver a signal.
The image on the right is reality. That is a typical neuron with
hundreds of dendrites and an axon that has split into hundreds of
synaptic endings.
Of course this is just one example. Neurons come in an utterly
amazing range of sizes and shapes.
Examples of different neuron types
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So the brain is a wondrous enigma, processing countless forms of
sensory input from every tissue in your body, controlling the
thousands of glands, muscles and functions around your body and,
in its spare time, letting you feel alive with conscious thought.
We do not, and probably never will, fully understand it. But that
does not mean we cannot get some understanding, particularly
with the new scanning technologies. At last we can actually see a
brain in action, or at least the movement of blood or some other
indicator of which areas are active.
Once you start reading neuroscience you quickly get engulfed in
terminology. I have tried to simplify it, but there are still certain
terms that are unavoidable.
Here is a collection of the most essential. Don’t try to understand
them all now. Just read through them. They are more here for
Action Potential
A large signal that travels down the full
length of the axon. It contrasts with a low
energy spreading potential that decays as it
Part of the brain stem involved in
procedural memory and emotion
Angular Gyrus
A gyrus is one of the folds in the surface of
the brain cortex. A sulcus is the fissure
between two gyri. The Angular Gyrus is a
key part of the Parietal Lobe on the left side
of the brain that controls language
comprehension. The lobes of the brain are
the main visible lumps (frontal, temporal,
parietal, occipital).
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The part of the neuron that carries signals
to other neurons and muscles.
Basal Ganglia
Neurons tend to collect in concentrations
known as nuclei. A ganglia is a group of
nuclei and the Basal Ganglia is a key area of
the brain stem that coordinates and
modulates the cerebral cortex.
Broca’s Area
A part of the parietal lobe controlling the
production of language
A dense area of cortex at the base of the
brain behind the brain stem that has a
modulating effect on the sensory
perception and muscular control. It is also
intimately involved in memory
Cerebral Cortex
The top and outer surfaces of the main
lobes of the brain. Different areas of the
cerebral cortex are involved in different
types of processing of the senses, motor
control of muscles and thoughts.
Corpus Callosum
The connection between the two cerebral
cortex hemispheres
Declarative Memory
The memory that you have voluntary
control over
The extensions of the neuron cell body that
receive most of the synaptic inputs from
Episodic Memory
Memory of sequential events
Equilibrium Potential
The electric charge across the membrane of
a neuron that is at rest.
Extra ocular Muscles
The six muscles that control the position of
each eye
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The part of the cerebellum that controls eye
The point of the eye with the greatest
concentration of retinal cones and the
lowest degree of grouping of cones by
ganglion cells. This gives the most accurate
part of the vision of each eye.
Frontal Eye Field
Part of the cortex controlling the tracking
and saccade movement of the eyes
Ganglion Cells
The cells that collect inputs from a group of
retinal rods and cones.
Inferior Frontal Gyrus
Contains Broca’s area
Inferior Parietal Lobe
Contains Wernicke’s area and the angular
The structures of the inner ear that
measure head movement and help control
Long-term Potentiation
The increased synaptic efficacy and
sensitivity that seems to be involved in
memory formation
A ganglion cell that receives input from a
large number of axons from a wide spatial
area. As opposed to Parvocellular which
relates to a ganglion cell that receives
inputs from just a few axons. Some of the
ganglion cells of the retina are
magnocellular and some are parvocellular.
Motor Cortex
Part of the cerebral cortex involved in the
initiation of muscle contraction
Occipital Lobe
The rear part of the cerebral hemispheres,
containing much of the visual cortex
Optic Chiasm
Where the optic nerves meet and split
again, with the neurons being regrouped as
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the left and right field from each eye and
then travelling to the contra-lateral cerebral
Ganglion cell receiving just a few axon
inputs from a limited spatial area.
Prefrontal Cortex
Part of the frontal lobe involved in the
processing of memory, planning and
responses to live situations.
Semantic Memory
The memory of facts and information
The lobes of the brain
The Reading Process
Step 1 - Sitting still and maintaining attention
It almost goes without saying that to read you have to be stationary
and you need to focus your mind on the task in hand, in order to
learn to read.
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So Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is clearly a cause of
reading difficulty.
There are millions and millions of neurons pouring information into
the brain with signals relating to touch, vision, hearing, smell,
muscle tension, muscle position, balance, movement and an array
of chemical states of different organs. It is no mean feat to bring
order to this cacophony of information. It is like every blog in the
world arriving on your screen at the same time.
And with any number of conscious areas of cortex wanting to have
their say, the ability to shut out all the options except one takes
effort and practice.
Focusing on the text
The next issue is equally obvious. Text is a visual medium and you
need to be able to see it clearly to use it.
At the most elementary level, every child should visit the optician
on a regular basis, to check that there are no basic problems. As
you grow your body is changing size and shape. It is quite possible
for eye problems to develop without being noticed.
However, it goes a bit further than that.
Most of us find reading red print on a blue background very hard.
It tends to shimmer. Some people see the same effect with black
text on white paper.
And it is possible to have complete blind spots in your vision,
without you being aware of it.
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How The Eyes Work
These are all neurological issues and so we need to delve into
neurology in order to begin to understand them.
We all know that there are rods and cones in your retina. The
cones can detect colour in strong light and the rods can work at
very low levels of illumination, but see no colour differentiation.
However, did you know that there are around 100 million rods and
cones in each eye and just 1 million neurons coming out of the eye
down the optic nerve?
So our eyes are not working like a digital camera, which has a fixed
number of pixels and an equal number of spots of colour on the
picture created. The eyes are a lot subtler than that.
I say “just 1 million neurons” in the optic nerve, but that is pretty
amazing isn’t it? Our neurons are perhaps the greatest
evolutionary development of the vertebrate evolutionary tree.
Perhaps they are more important than bones, for me.
You see the very best invertebrate neurons are 10,000 times bigger
than your optic neurons and a quarter as fast. If you were an
invertebrate, the nerve coming out of your eye would be the size of
your neck.
To achieve this our great invention was myelin. There are cells in
your brain and all through your nervous system that wrap
themselves around each neuron to insulate it. That increases the
speed of transmission of the signal and reduces the diameter
Myelin is a white fatty substance. The “white matter” in your brain
is made up of myelin-covered axons, whereas the “grey matter” is
unmyelinated cortex.
So all the connections along the spinal chord and between areas of
cortex are white matter because they need to transmit fast.
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The processing cortex is grey matter because the neurons are all far
shorter and so maximum speed of transmission is not so critical.
The ability to branch and form new synapses is the key to your grey
matter. So the neurons there do not want the hindrance of a
myelin covering.
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So those omega oils genuinely are critical to your brain function.
You do need to make sure you have a decent supply of oils in your
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There is a theory, which I like, but has been rejected by most
anthropologists, but only because there is no archaeological
evidence for it. Anyhow, it is based on the idea that we had an
aquatic phase and built our oversized brain capacity on a high fish
Our brain needs lots of energy (provided by the protein) and oils
(provided by the fish oils) in order to work. There are also other
indicators of a significant aquatic phase (such as the shape of our
nose, subcutaneous fat and our hair patterns). It would also be an
explanation of our linguistic skill, because to tell someone about
what you have seen under water, you have to describe it. You
can’t just point and grunt!
It is true that there is no archaeological evidence to support any of
this. But then the sea level is very high at the moment (because
we are in an interglacial age) and so any evidence that there is will
be under 20m of seawater off the African coastline. If we go into
another ice age, perhaps we will find all the villages of our
forebears. Or maybe I will spend my retirement scuba diving for
Getting back to our visionary system, since there are 100 million
rods and cones and just 1 million neurons in the optic nerve from
each eye, something very interesting is going on actually in the eye.
The processing of the image is beginning right inside it.
In fact the eyes are part of what is called the Central Nervous
System (CNS), as opposed to the Peripheral Nervous System that
makes up all of the other nerves outside of your skull and
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Our Neural Structure
Understanding a little bit of the development of the nervous
system is helpful here.
When you are developing during your first month in the womb, a
tube of cells form, which will become your CNS. Even now your
brain shows the vestiges of that tube and all of your cerebral cortex
is effectively a thickened tube, which has been folded in order to
increase the surface area to around 2 square feet, if flattened out.
That is about four times the area of a chimpanzee’s cerebral cortex.
Your cerebellum is even more amazing. The cerebellar cortex
would cover about 6 square feet, despite only being the size of two
small tangerines.
The thickness of the cortex varies considerably, but probably the
thinnest areas are the retinas of your eyes.
Each eye is effectively part of your brain extruded out through the
skull. The walls of your eyeballs are contiguous with the outer wall
of the rest of your brain.
A bit freaky!
Anyhow, the retina has four layers of neurons:
Rods and cones
Horizontal cells
Bipolar cells
Ganglion Cells
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Schematic View of the Retina
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Views of an actual retina
So the rods and cones each connect to several horizontal cells,
which spread laterally and to several bipolar cells, which connect
through to the ganglion cells.
The bipolar cells have two possible reactions to a signal; there are
ones that depolarize and others that hyperpolarize. They do not
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produce an action potential (ie a strong unitary signal) but rather a
low intensity post-synaptic potential.
Each ganglion cell collects information from an area of rods and
cones. The information collected is from a network of bipolar cells,
which are also connected in a mesh of horizontal cells. And every
area of each eye is covered by more than one ganglion cell.
This is important because your eyes are doing much more than just
detecting the light in the way a camera records a map of the image.
They are processing that signal as well and looking to react to
patterns within it.
The ganglion cells take a census of the rods and cones and look for
differences between the signals coming from them. In particular,
they look for the difference between the peripheral rods and cones
and the central rods and cones of their area. How they respond to
a difference between the centre and the periphery will depend on
what types of bipolar cells they are connected to.
The eyes are looking to detect variation in intensity, rather than
just the overall brightness.
If you have ever been in an eclipse of the sun, you will have
experienced this. The moon can cover 95% of the sun before you
begin to notice any difference in light intensity. Even then,
everything looks fairly normal, but just feels a bit weird. Your
eyesight adjusts to the dropping level of illumination so well that
you do not even notice that it is getting darker (to a 1/20 of the
original daylight).
Your eyes can see effectively in anything from good starlight
through to midday sunlight, which is roughly a millionfold increase
in intensity. It is an astonishing feat.
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Indeed, your rods can detect a single photon of light, although the
aggregation that I have described above means that you will not
actually “see” that single photon.
And your visual system is constantly adjusting what you see to
present what it thinks is there, rather than the raw information
received. Here are a couple of illustrations of that.
Colour Cube Effects
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How would you describe the centre cube of each face of the top
right image?
Well, you may be surprised to read that they are the same colour.
I doubt you will believe me. In order to confirm it you will have to
get some paper, make a couple of holes and lay it over the page.
They are both a mid-brown colour.
The reason you are fooled by the picture is the your eyes are
constantly calculating what you are looking at and adjusting your
perceived vision as a result.
For instance, if someone is wearing a red dress, it looks more or
less equally red whether you are outside on a bright day or inside in
artificial light. In reality, the actual colour you are seeing will be
quite different in the two situations.
This process begins right in the eye because the ganglion cells are
looking for differentiation of colour and brightness. Some ganglion
cells look for increased brightness in the centre of their area of
collection and others look for a decreased brightness. In either
case, they send no signal if they detect no difference.
What this does is help the visual cortex pick up patterns. It is one
of the features of our vision. We are good at picking up pattern,
even if it is not there. Here is an example of that.
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Kanizsa’s triangle
Patterns in nature have always been important to us. They make
sense of our surroundings.
For instance, look at this next image:
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Downlit Circles
Why is it that some of the circles pop out at you like 3-dimensional
balls and the others look flat? The images are identical but flipped
The reason is that the circles with the darker lower halves match
the reality of a ball in sunlight. So the visual cortex presumes they
are balls in sunlight. If you turn the book upside down, it will be
the other circles that pop out at you. When the book is on its side,
they all look flat.
For this reason most wildlife has a dark top and a light lower side to
break this effect. Impala for instance, have a pale belly and a very
dark back in order to break up this effect in the lion’s vision.
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And thinking of lions and tigers, how important was it for us to spot
the telltale patterns of a lion’s face in the long grass? Yes, very! So
our cortex was madly trying to spot the patterns and tiger facial
patterns are trying to break them up.
So we see patterns well. And letters are patterns.
Linked to this is one of the causes of dyslexia that we have already
discussed; Irlen Syndrome.
If the break between light and dark is over-emphasised, it leads to
funny effects and makes the patterns hard to focus on. That is
what happens when people with Irlen Syndrome look at black
lettering on white paper. The text appears to shimmer and move
If you reduce the contrast with a coloured film, the effect can be
This probably links into another clever process that is going on as
you focus on a spot on the page. Your eyes are not completely
steady. There is movement of the image on your retina and your
cortex has to compensate for this, to give you the impression of a
static image.
One other possible problem with your ability to focus on the text is
actual damage to the retina. You may be quite unaware of there
being any damage, because the brain is exceptional at filling in gaps
in your vision.
I can demonstrate this to you because we all have a blind spot,
where the axons from the ganglion cells collect and pass through
the retina into the optic nerve.
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Blind Spot Demonstration
Cover your left eye and stare at the spot above A. Now move the
book to around 12 inches from your face, you will find the head of
the renaisance fellow disappears.
With the book the same distance from your eyes move your focus
to the point above the letter A. Now you will find that the gap in
the grid gets filled in. The brain has just guessed what is there and
hidden the fact that you cannot actually see that point.
In the same way, you can have substantial damage to your retina
without being aware of it
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Our retinas have a small area of very high acuity vision, called the
fovea. The area of collection of each ganglion cell is very small and
the fovea is entirely filled with cone receptors.
If you have damage to your fovea, where you would normally be
focusing on the text, it will make it very hard to see it clearly.
It is critical that your child knows not to watch very bright lights,
and particularly the arc of a welder and the sun.
Once a blind spot is burnt in the fovea the brain will adjust the
positioning of the eye to bring the bright spot back into vision
(knowing that it is there and is perhaps important) and so the area
of damage will steadily spread until the whole fovea is destroyed.
A few minutes watching a welder can do that.
That would be a pity since your foveas are probably the two most
critical square millimetres of tissue in your body.
We will come back to the ganglion cells in due course, but let’s
follow the signals coming from them back through the optic nerves.
The two nerves pass through the skull wall and then cross. It is
one of those things we have no explanation for, but generally the
left hemisphere of the brain deals with the right hand side of the
body and world.
This is an example of the latter, because the two optic nerves
actually split themselves and recombine left with left and right with
right at the optic chiasm (the crossing point). What happens is
that the neurons from the left vision of both eyes combine and
travel to the visual cortex of the right hemisphere. And the
neurons from the right vision of both eyes travel together to the
left cortex.
They pass through the thalamus, because everything seems to go
through the thalamus, and then to the primary visual cortex right at
the back of your head, in the occipital lobe.
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This has six layers and different types of neuron from around the
eyes travels to each of the six layers. If you drill down through
them, the same bit of vision (ie a particular bit of the outside world)
is being processed through each layer in a column. So any part of
the “view” created is a collation of these six layers.
Three layers take neurons from the left eye and three layers take
neurons from the right eye. The biggest difference between the
three layers of each eye is the size of ganglion cell generating the
axon. We will come back to that too.
One handy effect of this Scoobie-Snack sandwich style visual cortex
is that differences between the view from the left and right eyes
can be easily measured. This is what delivers part of that 3dimensional feel we get to the image we see.
Of course some of it is also computed, as we saw with the shaded
images earlier. The world still seems 3-dimentional, even if you
close one eye.
Anyhow, this is your primary visual cortex, but around a third of
your brain is involved in visual processing. Much of the occipital
lobe and lower parietal lobe is taken up. We have the best colour
vision of all mammals.
So, as you scan a word your visual system is looking for patterns,
particularly patterns it recognises. And this leads to probably the
most common form of dyslexia, which we have already discussed
as the auditory deficit and the visual learner syndrome.
It is possible for the reader to recognise the shape of a word and
match it against one in memory, just as you match the
characteristics of a rhino against the shape characteristics stored in
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When you recognise the shape of a rhino in a picture, the image
match is made in your visual memory cortex and that then links
with your semantic memory of the fact that the image is a rhino.
During this process the centre of processing moves from your visual
cortex in the occipital lobe to your pre-frontal cortex in your frontal
lobe, where the semantic knowledge of the rhino is stored.
As we each move around our personal space in the world, those
two bits of cortex are constantly engaged with one another,
observing and processing the visual information around us.
As you walk towards a door, your hand moves towards the handle,
your muscles pull, the door opens, you step forward through it, you
pull the handle behind you, you step on into the room… There is a
constant flow of incoming information being received, processed
and reacted to.
These visual-to-frontal links are very strong through constant
exercise. As you do all of that, you are not processing it
linguistically (unless you are showing signs of dementia!). The
linguistic cortex is unengaged. In fact, you can be simultaneously
processing auditory thoughts while doing all of this spacial
management. That will be happening between your auditory
cortex and your pre-frontal cortex.
By contrast, our direct visual to audio/linguistic links are naturally
much less strong (at least until you learn to read or play music).
It is not a direction of linkage that we naturally have great need of.
So it is quite normal for a new reader to learn to sight-memorise
early words and process them in the pre-frontal cortex directly
from the visual cortex.
It gets quick and gratifying results. I have already written about it
in length and so we won’t go over it again here. But of all reading
difficulty, this accounts for around 80% of it. Most of what we do
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in Easyread is to break this link and develop the visual-to-auditory
cortex links.
I have mentioned that the audio-linguistic processing cortex has
two distinct areas. Broca’s area deals with the production of
language and Wernicke’s area deals with comprehension of
language. So it is quite possible for someone with damage to
Wernicke’s area to be able to write and not read. They cannot
even read what they have just written.
This leads to a possible explanation of another, very unusual, form
of dyslexia. There is a small number of children who develop
considerable fluency in reading out loud, but are unable to
comprehend what they have read. If you repeat back to them
what they have said, they will understand it perfectly.
This is different from children who are so busy working on the
decoding that they find it hard to follow the meaning. These
children are fluent readers but cannot follow the meaning at all.
For instance, you could hold up a card saying “red” and ask them to
read it, which they will do with ease. You can then say “point to
the correct colour” and they will be unable to choose between a
blue box and red box, even though they have just read it out.
If you say “point to the red box” they will do so without hesitation.
It is bizarre to behold, but you can see how this might arise, by
using Broca’s area to read, while bypassing Wernicke’s area.
Our approach to this in Easyread is to build the links to the auditory
cortex and also to encourage very explicit comprehension of words
from very early in the course.
For instance, we present words in the shooting gallery, which need
to be comprehended for the right target to be shot. By adding
time pressure (the gallery doors start to shut) we are trying to force
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the most direct link between the visual processing and Wernicke’s
As we will see, almost every link in the brain can be made if there is
sufficient stimulus to make it happen. It is what Pavlov found with
his dogs. The brain is very adabtable. So I almost never feel that
despair is an appropriate reaction to a problem. Indeed the brain is
often able to wire up completely new areas to deal with a process,
if the original cortex for that process has been damaged.
Auditory Processing Begins
Anyhow, a conventional reader will process the image of the letters
in the visual cortex and then link through to the auditory cortex to
convert the visual images into sounds. The very inconsistent
nature of English spelling and pronunciation makes this mapping
process harder than it might be. But the process can be seen in
brain scans nonetheless.
The visual data travels from the visual cortex in both hemispheres
to the auditory cortex, which is usually in the left hemisphere. The
data from the visual cortex in the right hemisphere has to pass
through the Corpus Callosum, the neuron bridge between the two
cerebral hemispheres.
This leads to an interesting situation if the corpus callosum is
severed, as is sometimes done surgically for people with severe
The patient retains full vision in both eyes, but if they look at text in
the left half of their field of vision, it gets processed in their right
visual cortex and cannot then connect with the auditory cortex in
the left hemisphere. So they will be unable to read it.
If they move the same text to their right field of vision they can
read it without a problem.
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Anyhow, the letters and graphemes (the letter patterns relating to
a single phoneme) have to be mapped in some way to the related
phoneme. In order for that to happen, the reader needs to have
an awareness of the sounds that build our words.
This is usually in our procedural (ie non-voluntary) memory. Most
of us are unable to list the sounds in words without training or a
considerable amount of time to think about it. So, through
childhood we build up a subconscious awareness of them. This is
heightened by the interactions we have with our parents and
nursery staff.
All those nursery rhymes and word games are actually critical
preparation for reading. The mother who over-emphasises the
sounds in words as she speaks to even a baby in the cot is
performing a critical role.
Anyhow, if there is a lack of phonemic awareness (the awareness of
the phonemes in the language), then it is essential to build this
before reading is attempted. Without it the child will always
struggle to develop good decoding skills because there is no
parallel auditory map with which to map the visual images to.
Sometimes a lack of phonemic awareness is viewed as untreatable.
I think this is extremely unlikely (although I would rate nothing
relating to the brain as impossible).
The brain, even in adulthood, is astonishingly good at adapting to
stimuli. Good phonetic training will lead to at least a basic
phonemic awareness, unless there is a physiological problem with
the hearing.
Hearing difficulty is a regular problem that we see with children
doing Easyread. They have often gone through a period of poor
hearing at some stage (usually through glue ear) and that has led to
a reduced phonemic awareness.
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However, if you actually destroy an area of the brain you will still
find it deploying other areas to try and recover the function lost.
I have personal experience of this since my aunt Pauline was struck
down with polio as a teenager, which destroyed her motor neurons
and paralysed her. She slowly regained her limbs as the nervous
system began to deploy some of her sensory nerves as motor
neurons instead.
There are lots of examples of this sort of plasticity, particularly after
strokes. The damaged brain tissue never recovers after a stroke.
All stroke recovery is due to redeployment of surrounding cortex.
So, you can see why I am not in favour of any fatalistic “dyslexia is
untreatable” views. They are mostly wrong.
Anyhow, the raw auditory data, that has been mapped from the
visual data, is held briefly in the auditory sensory memory while
being processed in Wernicke’s area to make sense of it in
combination with your frontal lobe.
The meaning derived for the word is then stored in your working
memory. Several parts of the brain seem to be involved in
delivering the facility we regard as our working memory.
The memory is one of the most amazing parts of our brains. What
is a memory? To even begin to understand that, we need to look
at how a neuron works and how they interconnect.
How Neurons Work and Form Memory
We know that the neuron receives signals on its dendrites and
passes them down the axon towards other neurons. Each neuron
may have hundreds or thousands of axons forming synapses on its
dendrites all delivering signals to it.
So what is a neuron signal? We had better have a look at neuron
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The membrane of the neuron forms a barrier to potassium and
sodium ions (amongst others, but we will keep this simple). The
neuron has a high concentration of potassium and low
concentration of sodium within it.
Potassium gates in the membrane wall allow some potassium ions
to leak out. Osmosis (diffusion from a high concentration to a low
concentration) encourages them to leak out, which creates a
negative charge within the neuron. This process reaches
equilibrium when the voltage created is pulling the potassium ions
back through gates in the membrane as much as the osmosis is
encouraging them out.
This small negative voltage (65mV) across the neuron membrane
encourages the sodium ions in the fluid surrounding the neuron to
be drawn to the neuron wall. The concentration of sodium ions in
the neuron is very low because it gets pumped out of the neuron
through the membrane.
When an axon forming a synapse on a dendrite of the neuron
discharges, chemicals from the axon float across the synaptic gap
and cause sodium gates to open in the dendrite membrane. As a
result sodium will flow across the membrane by osmosis. This will
shift the voltage across that part of the neuron membrane from
negative towards positive. This triggers the opening of more
sodium gates in the neighbouring membrane and so you will get a
gentle wave of positive charge running along the dendrite of the
This spreading wave will decay with time and distance travelled,
unless it is strong enough to reach what is called the action
potential of the neuron. The action potential is the level of
positive charge within the dendrite or neuron cell body, which will
trigger the firing of the neuron. When this voltage is reached all
the sodium gates open in that part of the neuron membrane and a
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flood of sodium momentarily rushes into the neuron creating a
spike of positive voltage.
The spike will now travel down the axon of the neuron with
virtually no decay and at speeds of around 100m/sec. So a signal
will travel the length of one of your 1m neurons in around 10
While we are mentioning that, a 1 metre long cell is quite an
achiement. It is a logistical nightmare to maintain a cell that long
from a neucleus at one end. As a result all sorts of clever
mechanisms are built into your long neurons to rush chemicals
around them in special high-speed tubules. When I say “high
speed”, I mean centimetres an hour rather than millimetres a day,
as would be the case without this help.
This spike of voltage across the membrane also closes the sodium
gates again and locks them shut for a short period. This means that
a single high-voltage wave rolls down the neuron.
So, each neuron is working like a transistor or semi-conductor in a
radio. What this means is that the output of the neuron is not
linear with the input. It can receive thousands of inputs without
responding at all. Then, when the aggregate level of incoming
synapse action reaches a critical threshold level, the neuron fires.
So it is acting as a filter. Low inputs get no reaction and then when
it reaches a certain level it heavily over reacts in a non-linear way.
It also leads to huge subtlety in how or why it fires. There are
dozens of different synaptic chemicals which increase or decrease
the response of the dendrite. The sensitivity of the dendrite is
affected by these and also the history of previous firing.
The process also takes energy (provided by mitochondria in the
neuron) and eventually a neuron that is over exercised will begin to
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lose its ability to fire, until it has replenished itself. Your nerves
deaden for a while after excess stimulation.
So the whole system can adapt to usage and changes in its
responsiveness over time.
To try to illustrate this, imagine someone sat in a room surrounded
by little speakers on desks all around him. Our Buzzerman is
instructed to press his buzzer when he feels he is getting an
important message from the array of incoming speakers.
So he sits there, listening to little buzzes in the different speakers.
If some speakers seem to be buzzing more frequently than others,
he is instructed to pull those a bit nearer to him, to listen to those
ones more carefully.
Now if one of the speakers were to start shrieking, then the
Buzzerman would instantly hit his buzzer (to send his own signal
out to other similar rooms that have his speakers sat in them).
However that is unlikely. What happens more is a group of
speakers all buzz together and that triggers the Buzzerman to press
his buzzer.
He can only press his buzzer once a second. And after about 10
buzzes his buzzer battery begins to get low and he has to rest it.
This is somewhat similar to what is going on as you read this.
Millions and millions of neurons are connected in this way, trying to
determine whether signals are relevant or not.
In parallel to that, there are all sorts of other factors affecting the
attendant. How much he is paid to buzz, how long it is since he
has buzzed, how encouraging his buzz system manager is, what the
quality of the air in his relay room is like, how long he has been at
work, what brand of batteries are in his buzzer… All of this will
affect his buzz responsiveness.
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Regular signals get stronger and stronger because the buzzermen
pull those speakers towards themselves. That seems to be the
nature of a memory. It is a signal that transmits more easily than
expected because it has been processed several times before.
Your neuron synapses are rather more elegant, but essentially
How all of that ends up in the sense of reality we all know, nobody
has a clue.
But the state of your neurons, how well connected they are, the
chemicals within them, the supply of nutrients to them, how long
they have been operating without a rest… all of these things will
affect how they operate.
In particular, if they are not used, they will be weakly connected,
have poor blood supply, poor nutrient levels and be ineffective.
That spirals into reduced usage. Giving them a good exercise can
reverse that and reading is one of the most neuron exercising
activities we have.
So, all of this leads us to another of the common causes of dyslexia
that we have already discussed; poor working memory capacity.
If you don’t have access to a good capacity to hold information in
working memory, reading is hard since it is very demanding of
working memory.
There are several broad types of memory that can be seen
operating separately.
The shortest form of memory is the sensory memory. In the
milliseconds after you have perceived something, a map of it exists
in your neurons. But this fades very quickly since you generally
have a flow of new incoming sensory information.
This raw sensory information is generally processed and passed
into what we term as working memory. That includes short-term
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memory. Short-term memory is mainly visually based but can
relate to any of the senses and semantic short-term memory,
holding a store of meaning.
This working memory can usually hold between 5 and 9 individual
and random pieces of information. I have a slightly below average
working memory and so I find I can remember a sequence of 6
digits without difficulty, but if you give me 7 I am lost. It is not that
I remember the first six and forget the last one. I just get
Someone with a good working memory can hold nine digits in
Of course with specialist techniques it is possible to cheat this by
quickly passing the information into other forms of memory such as
episodic, or by chunking it into groups. I can remember my entire
credit card details for instance. A bad sign I know, but quite
different to being given a new sequence to remember.
So, you can see that someone with only five slots has a problem on
their hands when processing a flow of letters, graphemes,
phonemes, words and meanings. I have already discussed this as
one of the seven main causes of reading difficulty. Strictly speaking
it is not specific to reading, since it will affect any form of learning,
and therefore is not dyslexia. But who really cares?
What we have found is that incremental improvement can be
achieved in three ways.
First, if the learner is relaxed and happy, access to the
working memory will be easier.
Second, working at reading will in itself develop the
working memory to its maximum potential.
And third, with regular daily practice, the reading process
moves steadily into procedural memory, which reduces
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the load on the declarative elements of the working
While we are talking about memory we had better look at the
other forms that we have at our disposal.
Your working memory is a bit like a buffer. As new stuff pours into
it, the old will get shoved out. That is why, when you have just
been told a telephone number you don’t want someone to start
talking to you before you write it down.
From the working memory information moves into a variety of
longer term memories.
The strongest of these is your visual memory, which has a startling
capacity for remembering at least sufficient data to recall an image
when seen again. It is a miraculous ability.
There is an almost infinite number of locations and faces that I
could show you, each of which can be recalled from a variety of
different viewpoints, which you may not have even had as a view
So the brain is able to map the salient features and also a model of
them in 3 dimensions so as to be able to recognise them from
different angles. Even the strongest computer is still unable to
compete with us in that facility.
This feat occupies at least a third of your cerebral cortex and
involves billions of neurons networking and resonating when a
familiar pattern is detected.
Many of these visual patterns are linked to semantic memories
located more in the frontal lobe, which give meaning to them. And
you have a far smaller auditory equivalent doing the same thing.
This is all in your declarative memory, which is in your conscious
awareness. You can actively hunt for a declarative memory until
you get that moment of resonance when you “find” it. You can
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imagine all the buzzer operators suddenly buzzing away in harmony
when you get the pattern right for the memory you are searching
Working in parallel with this is your procedural memory, which you
have no conscious control over.
All of your skills lie in this form of memory. Most activities are run
in your declarative memory initially, but migrate to procedural
memory as they become ingrained. Once that process has
happened, it becomes very dangerous to try to run the operation in
declarative memory. Your performance will almost certainly
As you read this, your reading process is happening entirely in
procedural memory. The whole process flows from shapes on
page to meaning understood, without conscious thought on your
A big element of the later phases of Easyread is designed to move
the process from declarative to procedural memory.
Long-term memory is something else again.
A long-term memory goes through various phases of development.
It initially gets layed down during your experience of the day, as a
copy of each fleeting short-term memory.
It is sometimes said that everything you have experienced exists as
a memory for you somewhere in your brain. But if we remembered
everything we heard and saw throughout our lives, it would be very
There are people who more or less have that ability and it is
generally a curse. A good memory is a great asset, a faultless
memory is a disaster. So an important part of our memory
processes is to forget stuff. That means that we have a filter at
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The emotional areas of the brain stem have a critical role to play in
operating the filter. One of the key roles of emotion is to reinforce
memory. Emotions trigger the release of chemicals around the
brain, which then affect how the synapses work. So high emotion
can help lock a memory in place by enhancing the permanence of
those synapse connections.
For instance, we have all had that experience of seeing the events
of an accident play back to us like a video recording. As soon as it
has become apparent that something serious is happening, an
alarm runs through our cortex and our visual memory is switched
into full record mode.
A period of just a couple of seconds can be recalled in great detail,
frame by frame. Very happy moments and very sad moments are
also imprinted in far higher clarity than normal.
The classic for this used to be “where were you when you heard
President Kennedy had been shot?” The modern equivalent is now
the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. I can tell you the nature of the light
that day (a soft, warm Indian Summer afternoon in Oxford), exactly
who told me to turn on the television (my old next door
neighbour), my children arriving back into the house (it was
happening mid afternoon UK time and they arrived back from
school at about the time the towers actually collapsed), the voice
of the commentary and, of course, the images being portrayed.
We had the bizarre experience of seeing the towers apparently
standing with the commentary saying they had collapsed. I
presume heavy copyright negotiations were taking place.
That is not normal! I can tell you nothing about the 11 of
September last year, even though I experienced it in essentially the
same way. My senses were just as active, but my emotions were
unengaged and the memory is lost entirely as far as I know.
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So, if you are unengaged emotionally during an experience, the
memories of it will almost certainly not be retained.
Boredom is death to learning. How important a statement is that
to education? To my mind it is fundamental.
In past centuries the solution was often to instill fear as the
predominant emotion. Fear is certainly a powerful force in
memory retention. Now that has been removed as a favoured
option, there is an absolute requirement for educators to engage,
inspire and entertain in other ways.
My own belief is that there is absolutely no reason to bore, if you
can entertain.
In Easyread we try whatever we can do to entertain, encourage and
inspire. Psychology is half what we do and once positive emotions
are in play, the job gets a lot easier.
One of the huge problems with conventional phonics teaching is
that it is fundamentally very boring. Have a look through a phonics
textbook to see what I mean. That is partly why such a significant
number of children are unengaged by them and do not learn to
read in a phonetic way.
Anyhow, as I was saying, we happily forget most of what we see
and hear. It is only when the brain stem is activated with emotion
that we begin to take a serious note of things and log them in
At this stage the memory laid down is very raw and will not last
long without reinforcement. So there are three mechanisms that
are critical to long-term memory retention.
First is the emotional state of the brain at the time of perception of
the sensory input, as discussed.
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Second is repeated exposure to the sensory input. This will
reinforce the strenthening of the synapses involved. And the more
actively that is done with all the senses the better.
Hearing something is good, but seeing something as well is better.
And hearing, seeing and actively repeating something is best.
This is the basis to revision before an exam.
The last element of memory fixing is your sleep. While we are
asleep we work through much of what we have experienced and
this seems to have a big effect on our understanding of it and
memory of it.
It has been shown in studies that if a sound is linked to an
experience during the day and that same sound is played to you
when you are asleep, it will trigger processing of the memory while
you sleep and improved retention the next day.
When you have a big knock to the head your most recent
memories are often lost. With a little bit of concussion that might
be just a few minutes. But with more serious amnesia everything
from that day will be gone. However, there will usually be a time
in the fairly recent past from which everything backwards can be
What this indicates is that your memories are going through a
process over 24-48 hours to convert them from something that can
be disabled in this way, to something more permanent.
Sleep is clearly a critical element of this process. That can be
measured in the laboratory. Do not revise on the day of an exam.
The night before is far more valuable.
Anyhow, with Easyread we build sleep into the system by limiting
the amount of new material the children can be exposed to in a
single day. After doing a lesson the next one only becomes
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available 12 hours later. That means that they are forced to sleep
between lessons.
Children have a tendency to gorge themselves on a new
experience. That means that much of it is not retained well and
that they get satiated very quickly.
So we constantly hold stuff back to reverse both effects.
Eye Control
At this stage you need to look at the next word. This is a critical
moment in the reading process because your eyes need to do a
little jump to the right.
The eyes are usually highly trained at this because they are always
doing it. If you ask someone to look around the room and watch
their eyes carefully, you will see that they do not sweep their vision
about at all. Their head turns in a steady sweep but their eyes
fixate on a spot and then jump to the next.
These little jumps are called saccades.
We cannot process a moving image. When your eyes are in
motion you are blind, although your brain gives you the impression
that you aren’t. It fills in an impression of the image, even though
it is quite incapable of interpreting the mass of data coming from
the actual moving image.
The whole system of control of your eye position is a beautiful
thing. You have a map of your vision within your head and
matching that map are the motor controls needed to move the
focus of your eyes to a particular point in your current vision.
So, say you are staring at a rabbit in the long grass and there is a
movement in the hedge to your left, your visual cortex will log the
point in your vision where the movement occurred (the peripheral
vision is particularly good at seeing movement as we will see), map
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that to the parallel motor cortex map for the control of your extraoccular muscles to achieve the right movement to carry the fovea
to that point and apply the movement.
It is entirely automatic.
If your head needs to swivel the brain can deal with that too,
because the channels in the labyrinth of your inner ear are also
linked directly to your eye control.
I can demonstrate that to you.
Hold your finger in front of your face, about 12 inches from your
nose. Now move it from side to side in front of you as fast as is
comfortable for your eyes to track the finger and keep focussed on
the first joint in the finger.
As you do that count the passages back and forth up to six.
Now hold the finger stationary and turn your head left and right
instead, to get the same relative movement and count how quickly
you can turn your head while keeping focus on the stationary
Unless something strange is going on, or I have not explained
myself properly, you will have been able to do the second exercise
about twice as fast as the first.
Why is that? The eyes have to do the same amount of movement.
The reason is that the two mechanisms are entirely different. In
the first, the visual cortex is tracking the finger, calculating the
movement and instructing the extra-occular muscles appropriately.
In the second the inner ear is calculating the rotation of the head
and moving the eyes to counter the movement.
Is it not beautiful…? Perhaps I am turning into a neurology geek.
Anyhow, this saccade movement control is critical for reading and
can cause problems if it is not running smoothly.
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Around 15% of the struggling readers that we help are unable to
control their eyes sufficiently well to navigate each line of text in
this way.
There are different possible reasons for this. You will remember
that the ganglion cells in the eyes are a mix of magnocellular and
parvocellular designs.
The parvocellular neurons are gathering information from a fairly
small group of rods and cones and are used for detailed analysis
around the fovea. The magnocellular neurones tend to be more
towards the periphery of the vision and gather information from a
much larger area of rods and cones. This means that they are
more sensitive to shape and movement. This also helps with the
integration of the vision from the two eyes and the positional
stability of the eyes. The two different types of cell get processed
in different layers of the primary visual cortex.
Here is a pair of pictures that demonstrate the two types of neural
structure at work:
High Pass vs Low Pass images
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Look at the two pictures and then start to move away from the
page. Somewhere between 6 and 12 feet from the pictures you
will see them change.
How has that happened?
The creators of the pictures took three shots; smiling, neutral and
frowning. They then passed them through a filter to split them
into either fine detail or coarse detail. And then then combined
neutral fine detail with smiling coarse detail into the left picture,
and frowning fine detail with neutral coarse detail in the right
When you are close to the pictures your parvocellular pathsways
can pick up the fine detail and that is the picture you see. When
you move away you lose the ability to see the fine detail and only
the coarse detail is picked up, this time by your magnocellular
pathways. That is then the picture you see.
The two systems normally work in harmony, helping you pick up
both the larger shapes and patterns and the fine detail in parallel.
There is evidence that some dyslexic readers struggle because the
magnocellular cortex is less strong.
This can have a variety of effects.
First it may contribute to Irlen syndrome, where the learner finds
the text appearing to move around on the page.
It certainly means that the reader will find locking onto a word in a
line of words harder. The magnocellular element is heavily
involved in the positional stability of the eye and adjusting for the
small movements that are always happening.
And it may make phonemic analysis harder in the auditory system.
However, it may not be the magnocellular structures themselves
that are at fault but where their signals get processed.
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The cerebellum seems to do a lot of processing of magnocellular
neuron activity and integrates that with the activity in the cerebral
cortex areas as a form of moderation and refinement of the motor
neuron cortex.
There is an area of the cerebellum called the flocculus that is
particularly involved in the motor control of the extraocular
Most often the difficulty with the control of the eyes seems to be
due to a weakness in the control of the eye motor neurone cortex
by the flocculus.
We find that this condition often responds well to exercise of the
circuitry. So we include a simple exercise for children to do while
developing their reading that improves their eye navigation control.
If there is particular difficulty due to this issue it is very obvious
when the children move from decoding single words to decoding
We then push the child to use this exercise for 10-15 short sessions
through the day. Generally that seems to get good results.
You will find a whole range of “dyslexia cures” focusing on this
issue. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have found most of
them to be over-complex, over-priced and over-sold, when the
solution seems to be really quite simple.
However, I am sure that they do get a good result if this is the
learner’s difficulty. It is just that you don’t need to spend a lot of
money on it and most reading difficulty does not originate in the
flocculus. So for most children coordination exercises will have
absolutely no impact on their reading.
OK, so the eyes have now moved to the next word and the process
repeats itself.
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Comprehension from Perception
As the words in a sentence are decoded they get processed into
working memory, the meaning of the phrases are then analysed in
Wernicke’s area and the prefrontal cortex to build a
comprehension of it.
I have already mentioned that this can be an issue. It is possible
for text to be read and not understood at all. However, in all the
children going through Easyread we do not know of a single
example of this phenomenon continuing once the reading process
has been successfully re-engineered through the auditory cortex.
What we do encounter is learners struggling with the decoding so
much that they do not keep track of the words as they decode
them. However, as the process moves into procedural memory,
this slowly goes away.
But that can take months.
So, there you have it: the reading process, step by step.
I hope you will now agree that any search for “the single cause” of
reading difficulty and dyslexia is absurd. People have this great
urge to fine The Answer, but it is the equivalent of trying to find the
single cause of car breakdowns. There isn’t one!
There are many possible causes of reading difficulty and we have to
be alert to the patterns of symptoms of those causes, to know the
best possible solution for each individual learner. The efficacy of a
solution is only relevant in relation to the individual.
For instance, coloured film is probably useful in around 5% of cases
(sufferers of Irlen syndrome). That does not mean it is 5%
effective or fails 95% of the time. It is perhaps 80% effective for
that 5% of individuals and so a very important resource for them.
But you have to know who needs it.
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Summary of Reading Difficulty
Symptoms, Causes and Solutions
“Know your enemy”
So here is a table of symptoms, the underlying problem causing
each symptom and the best solution:
Lack of concentration,
fidgeting, impulsive
behaviour, difficulty
sitting still
ADHD, which is a lack
of focus and control
eminating from the
frontal cortex.
Good sleep patterns,
low sugar and caffeine
consumption, high
omega oil
stimulating and
entertaining reading
Unable to focus on the
Eye focus problems
Visit the optician for
Finds the text
appearing to “move
around” on the page
Irlen syndrome
Visit a specialist
optician for coloured
films or lenses
Tends to guess words,
progressed initially but
now on a plateau of
little or no progress
and collapsing selfconfidence, finds long
words easier than
short words, good with
familiar books but
Text being processed
visually without using
the auditory cortex
Use exercises designed
to engage the auditory
cortex and prevent
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cannot read words in
Has difficulty blending
the individual sounds
into words
Lack of familiarity
with the phonemic
structure of words
and difficulty with the
blending process
Exercise the separation
and recombination of
the phonemes in
Can blend short words
but not longer words
Either due to brain
immaturity due to
age (3-5 years old)
Leave reading until the
child has matured
Or due to limited
working memory
Work through
exercises that move
the process from
declarative memory to
procedural memory
Tends to switch letters
and words laterally (eg
b/d and was/saw)
Text being processed
visually without using
the auditory cortex
Use exercises designed
to engage the auditory
cortex and prevent
Decodes words very
slowly and struggles to
follow the meaning of
a sentence
Limited working
memory capacity
Work through
exercises that move
the process from
declarative memory to
procedural memory
Can read a single word
competently but not
sentences or
Poor eye control due
to weakness in the
Exercises to improve
eye tracking and
movement control
Can read fluently but
cannot follow the
meaning of the text at
Engagement of
Broca’s area but not
Wernicke’s area,
probably as a result of
visual reading
Engage the auditory
cortex and Wernicke’s
area more actively in
the reading process
through suitable
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The History of Writing
“The Foundation of Modern Civilisation”
Isaac Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants to be
able to see further, in the development of his theories. What he
was really stood on was their books.
Text has been the critical tool for the development of human
society and technology over the past 5000 years. Without it, such
progress would have been impossible.
Socrates was a vehement opponent to the development of literacy,
believing that it impoverished the mind and limited people’s depth
of understanding.
What he could not imagine was the globalisation and accumulation
of knowledge through text. He lived in a city-state where every
intellectual knew every other and where progress was glacially
Since then the specialisation of expertise has become
I was talking to a Nobel Laureate the other day (as you do). He is a
specialist in genetics and the mechanisms of cell division. It is an
area of interest for me because I have a doubt about the molecular
structure of DNA as presented by Crick and Watson. Strange as
that may sound, I had gone along to his talk partly to get the
answer to my unusual question.
The conundrum is this. In a length of DNA there are thousands of
turns of the helix. And the molecular structure presented by Crick
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and Watson does not offer the possibility of reverses of direction.
During cell division the nucleus opens up the DNA strands, to split
and recombine them to form a new duplicate set. It all happens in
a matter of minutes. If you have ever split a twisted-pair rope, you
will know this suggests a considerable physical problem. As
depicted in textbooks, it is impossible. The end of the DNA would
be spinning so fast that the fluid in the cell would boil.
There are theories about the DNA strand being cut into thousands
of bits and recombined. But it is difficult to imagine a system
working so accurately with such a messy process.
One would imagine this was of concern to anyone involved in cell
division mechanics and DNA. Here was a world expert... but I am
still none the wiser. Despite a lifetime in the field, his
specialisation was such that he was unable to answer me. In his
words, it was just “not exactly his patch”.
How could Socrates have imagined that?
What would society look like now if we took literacy away from the
human story?
Vastly different, it is certain.
Some may feel it would be better. But I dare say they have never
attempted survival in a feudal, agrarian society. Perhaps they can
only imagine themselves in the lord’s manor, rather than struggling
for survival in the lowly masses! But very few of the lords died
peacefully in their beds either. Those that live by the sword, tend
to die by it too.
Anyhow, apart from being a rather good story and totally central to
our civilisation as we know it, the story of the development of
writing is critical to understanding the reading process and how it
should be learnt.
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The Relevance to How Children Read Now
What I will show you is how the memorisation approach of the
visual learner, that I have already described, is the way many
people have learnt to read in other languages. Many scripts have
been designed to be memorised. And a scribe with a good visual
memory can recall around 10,000 words in these languages.
The problem is that English script, using our 26-letter alphabet has
not been designed to be read in that way. You are using the wrong
tool for the job. And, as any craftsman will tell you, that leads to
heartache. It is impossible to recall our 1 million plus words from
sight memory.
Here is the story.
Early Writing – Pictograms and Logograms
They say that sex and money drive the development of the world.
In this case it is at least half true.
Back in the early stages of civilisation people started to trade
goods, sometimes over great distances. This meant that they
needed to record their transactions.
To do that they took little shaped stones and made marks on them.
These were used as tokens to record stocks. The first accountants
had arrived in 8000BC!
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Clay Tokens
The tokens would be collected in a clay envelope, which would be
sealed shut. You would mark the envelope in a recognisable way
so that the recipient knew it was from you.
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Clay envelopes
You could then send someone off with a wagon full of goods and
the recipient would be able to tell what should have arrived by
breaking open the envelope. The same technique could be used
when depositing goods into a communal or royal storehouse. The
manager of the store could effectively give you a receipt for your
To avoid having to break open the envelope, they started to mark
the contents of the envelope on the outside.
In around 3300BC the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who lived in
what is now southern Iraq, realised that the tokens were no longer
needed, because everything was recorded on the surface of the
envelope. Why bother with the tokens inside? So they moved to a
simple tablet of clay.
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Early clay tablet
The marks were basic pictures of the goods being traded with
simple annotations for quantity.
In the early stages the designs were easily recognised as
representations of the goods. We call them pictograms.
Of course you can present far more than just farms goods in this
way. They developed pictures for almost anything that could be
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They used a sharp stick to make the impressions on the soft clay.
Over the next thousand years they switched to using a wedge to
indent the clay and so this form of writing is known as cuneiform
(from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge).
Cuneiform Tablet
So they could now write on a flat piece of clay and “sign it” with
their personal design.
To achieve a signature the sender would roll a personal design
across the tablet using a carved cylinder. It was an early form of
the signet ring that people used for centuries to seal envelopes,
using wax. In some countries it is still the way people sign a
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In time the designs on these cylinder seals became quite stunningly
beautiful. They usually combined some exquisite relief artwork
with the name of the owner in cuneiform. They formed a very
effective security device.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX cylinder seal and design
This type of writing is known as a logographic. That is derived from
the Greek Logo=meaning and Graph=picture. Almost every time a
writing system has been independently developed (Sumerian,
Egyptian, Mayan, Chinese, Indus Valley) this has been the starting
The main exception is the Inca Quipu system that used knots in
strings. Apparently they could write whole histories in this way.
The missionaries burnt every Quipu they could find, in order to
suppress the ancient history of the Incas and convert them to
Catholicism. So now we don’t know how it worked.
The Early Logosyllabary
Logograms are quite handy for representing physical things and
quantities. But one naturally develops a desire to represent other
words too. So the next step was the Logosyllabary.
To create a logosyllabary you use the rebus principle. That means
that any logogram can also represent the first syllable of the word
it represents.
For instance, you might want to create a representation of the
word treaty. One way to do that would be to use your logograms
for tree and tea and combine them. You now have a new image
representing tree-tea. That could either be a tree of tea or a treaty.
And hey presto! You have created a new word in your writing
system. This allowed for a huge growth in what could be written.
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Indeed, it became limitless. In time they began to write stories,
how-to manuals and legal systems in this way.
The Developed Logosyllabary
Fairly quickly the early Sumerian logograms began to morph into
symbols that were quicker and easier to create.
This was a slow evolution over the centuries
XXXXXXXimage of stages of cuneiform
The result of all this was huge complexity. When you are reading
a logosyllabary you have to switch back and forth between actual
logograms and syllabic representations using the rebus principle, all
the time. And the number of logograms increased steadily until
there were thousands.
Of course, it is a workable system of writing. The Chinese and
Japanese use logosyllabaries and they manage large and complex
societies with them.
But a logosyllabary contains an intrinsic problem.
In order to be a proficient reader, you have to memorise thousands
of logograms.
Whatever way you look at that, it involves a lot of time-consuming
and tedious rote learning. For me that is quite close to Hell on
Earth, without the heat and physical pain, presuming your
schoolmaster has had his cane confiscated. Sumerian masters
running the schools for scribes seem to have been particularly keen
on the benefits of a good beating.
The Sumerians would spend 7 years learning to read and write in
“tablet houses”. The students would copy and copy and copy, until
it was drummed into them, or rather caned into them. The
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students used to write subversive comic tablets that made regular
use of the phrase “…and then he caned me”.
Sometimes people view time spent studying as intrinsically good.
More study is therefore “better”.
I see it differently. Time spent studying one thing is time not spent
studying another. There is always an opportunity cost. Efficient
use of time, combined with a balanced curriculum, is the key in my
That is why I now object to the thousands of hours I had to spend
on Latin (and a horrific bit of Greek). I am not disputing its benefits.
I would just rather have been studying, with those same hours,
French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic…
or any of the languages that I could now be using.
So a child who spends thousands of hours perfecting Chinese
literacy is limited in other directions.
There is another issue that has never been solved with the
logosyllabary; how do you organise a dictionary?
An English dictionary is ordered by our abecedary, the order we all
agree on for our letters. There is no equivalent in Chinese. They
usually try to gather words semantically, in groups of related types
of meaning. But that is inevitably very loose. The grouping is very
subjective and at least 10% end up in the miscellaneous group.
Anyhow, we know that there is an alternative, with which you are
very familiar. We will get to that soon...
Sumerian Cuneiform appeared in roughly 3300BC and was last
written in around 100AD.
The Sumerian civilisation had long before fallen, replaced by the
Akkadians. Sumerian has not been spoken since around 1600BC.
The Akkadians maintained the “ancient script” for long after that,
to maintain a link to the past.
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We do the same when we plaster lintels with Latin script. There is
no reason to do that except to give the writing some form of added
gravitas, aesthetic value or poetry. Or perhaps it is just for
intellectual snob value. In every other sense it is a negative
because 99% of the people looking at your words are untouched by
their meaning.
The Akkadians had developed their own script, which was also
written in cuneiform, but was a straight syllabary and so easier to
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Akkadian cuneiform syllabary
They kept a few of the old logograms, for old time’s sake, but they
were now writing works on tablets and papyrus, designed for
general consumption. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Advice of a Father to
his Son and Dialogue of a Man with his God were a long way from
the early accounting of 2000 years before:
He who has seen everything, I will make known (?) to the
I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things,
... alike,
Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all.
He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.
He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,
but then was brought to peace.
He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,
and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,
the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.
Look at its wall which gleams like copper(?),
inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!
Take hold of the threshold stone--it dates from ancient
Go close to the Eanna Temple, the residence of Ishtar,
such as no later king or man ever equaled!
Extract from the Epic of Gilgamesh
Writing had become very human and cultural. Complex
information was being shared, laws were being written and
explained and stories were being told. The sum of human
knowledge was beginning to accelerate through each generation.
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The green shoots of what would become modern civilisation were
As you read the words of some author who lived 3000 years ago,
you can actually feel that you know them as a person. Their
personality shines through. We can see so clearly how similar they
were in their worries, delights, fears and joys.
By contrast, we can stare at the detritus pit of some Neanderthal
village and know a lot about their lives, but we will never know
their thoughts. We will never know in any detail how they felt
about life and its challenges. That is forever a frustration with all
of archaeology.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs
At almost the same moment as the development of early
pictographic tablets in Sumeria, the Egyptians began to develop
their system of hieroglyphs. We know that there was extensive
trading going on and so it is inconceivable to me that the one was
not inspired by the other. There is some debate as to who the first
writers were, but generally it is thought to be the Sumerians by a
couple of hundred years.
Egyptian society was quite different to the Mesopotamian
civilisation. The latter was based on city-states ruled by kings.
Egypt was a single entity, ruled by a pharaoh. This structural
difference was reflected in their writing as well.
Cuneiform developed as a practical mechanism for running a
system of trade within and between cities. From that base it
spread into religious, legal and ceremonial roles as well.
Hieroglyphs were foremost a royal and religious tool. There is
much less evidence of it being used through the rest of society.
Having said that, the Egyptians wrote on papyrus rather than clay
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and so perhaps that is just a reflection of the different media,
rather than the different use of the text.
While cuneiform became very abstract, hieroglyphs remained
gloriously pictorial. The rebus principle was still used and they
could create words from combinations of pictograms.
The story of the decoding of hieroglyphs is interesting. It shows
how difficult it is for people to throw off the yoke of conventional
wisdom in their thinking.
The Renaissance was a time of renewed interest in all things
classical. And Rome had more Egyptian obelisks than Egypt, thanks
to the Roman taste for them in classical times. In 1419 a
manuscript from the 4 century AD was discovered in Greece,
giving translations of hieroglyphs. It was by an Egyptian, called
Horapollo, and a copy was put into print in 1505. It was very
popular and went through 30 editions, spawning an entire
academic discipline of hieroglyph decipherment.
Here is an example of translation by Athanasius Kircher, one of the
leading academics of the field in 1666:
“The protection of Osiris against the violence of the Typho must be
elicited according to the proper rites and ceremonies by sacrifices
and by appeal to the tutelary Genii of the triple world order to
ensure the enjoyment of the prosperity customarily given the Nile
against the violence of the enemy Typho.”
This was his learned view of the meaning of a cartouche on an
obelisk just being erected at the time in Rome. A cartouche is a set
of hieroglyphs placed in an oval within the line of the text. It was
called a cartouche because it resembled the cartridges used in the
rifles of French soldiers of the time.
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Example Cartouche of Ramesses II
Current knowledge of the same cartouche would give the
translation as “Hahibre of the 26 Dynasty”. It was just the name
of a pharaoh.
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Haropollo had written pure fantasy and an entire academic
discipline had followed him down the path he created for 300
years. It can happen!
The key to the accurate decipherment of hieroglyphs was the
Rosetta Stone. It was dug up in 1799 by a French team and is now
in the British Museum. Like the Mona Lisa, it is surprisingly small.
It is about 3ft high and 2ft wide and has text in hieroglyphs, Greek
and a previously unseen cursive form of hieroglyphs, now known as
Here was a word for word translation in the three scripts. You
would imagine it was child’s play to now break the code properly.
In fact it took 24 years.
There was this strong academic train of thought running, with
power and prestige. It required a maverick to jump free of that and
the world had to wait 24 years for it to happen. Interestingly that
is also the same average time that it takes a new invention to
become accepted as a mainstream product.
A man demonstrated a steam engine, giving rides around Berkeley
Square in London, two decades before Stephenson’s Rocket. And
some poor chap was wandering around trying to get investment in
his functioning MP3 player in the 1980s, over two decades before
the ipod. They were absolutely typical inventors.
Anyhow, it was quickly evident that some of the demotic script was
phonetic. The immediate suppositions were that the demotic
script was based on an alphabet and the hieroglyphs were entirely
non-phonetic, as conventional wisdom stated. Both were wrong.
The first person to start to break free of this thinking was an
Englishman called Thomas Young. He had realised that the
conventional thinking must be wrong and published his thinking.
However it was Jean-Francois Champollion who finally cracked the
code in 1823 and is given the credit for it.
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Hieroglyphs are a mix of logograms, representing whole words, and
phonetic signs using the rebus principle... just like cuneiform.
The Arrival of the Alphabet
In around 1500BC there was one of those huge moments in history
that arrive with a whisper rather than a thunderclap.
The very first evidence of a possible alphabet was found in a
remote mine in Sinai. A Semitic group, working for the Egyptians
seem to have taken a set of 30 hieroglyphs and created the first
consonantal alphabet script. It is referred to as Proto-Sinaitic.
There is only a tiny amount of it, but it seems that they had
analysed the sounds in their language and had taken one
hieroglyph for each consonant.
They were not the first to have this idea. The Egyptians had also
effectively developed an alphabet around a 1000 years before. In
order to write a foreign name, for instance, they would spell it out.
However, rather than use this innovation, they had gone the other
way and developed more and more logograms with fewer and
fewer scribes fully literate in them.
It would be interesting to see how that happened. The scribes
evidently did all the hard work of analysing their language and
producing an alphabet, but then chose not to use it.
I have a suspicion that they soon noticed how quickly a new
apprentice could pick up the alphabet system, realised anyone
would be able to learn to read fairly easily and began to shelve the
project quicker than you can say “jobs for the boys”!
The scribes were in a very privileged position in Egyptian society,
standing just behind royalty and the priests. For them it made a
lot of sense to stick with the old ways.
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Alphabet Power
The alphabet soon proved to be an extraordinary invention. It had
three massive advantages over the earlier systems:
It was possible to become literate in months rather than
The brain found it easier to process
It was very adaptable and plastic
These are all very critical issues.
The first meant that literacy became a mass activity, rather than
the preserve of a few.
The second meant that there was more time for the reader to
actively consider what was being read, rather than just decoding it.
The third meant that any new word could be encoded and decoded
in any language with the same set of characters.
This was a genuine revolution.
There was soon a general spread of the use of alphabets all around
the region, with experimentation in all sorts of directions. There
was inevitably a lot of borrowing of designs between them.
By 1400 a Kingdom called Ugarit had developed an alphabet using
cuneiform characters
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Ugaritic alphabet
They were based in what is now northern Syria. We have
thousands of Ugarit tablets, covering all the functions of a trading
society, including religious texts with similarities to some of the Old
Testament of the Bible. This is the earliest body of tablets that we
have written with an alphabet script.
The people from the area around modern Tunis were called the
Phoenicians. They were famous traders. The name Phoenician
means “dealer in purple” in Greek. One of their products was a
purple dye.
They had developed a particularly attractive and sparse alphabet in
around 1100BC, which was copied by the Greeks in around 900BC.
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Phoenician and Greek Alphabets
The Greeks now made the final innovation in the development of
the full alphabet.
Semitic languages can easily be written without vowels. Mny Nglsh
wrds r rdbl wtht vwls s wll, but it isn’t easy! The Greeks added a
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set of characters representing vowels to their alphabet, because it
suits the Greek language better.
This was both the first complete alphabet and also the entry of the
alphabet into the European continent.
It is a hard life as an innovator, as I have mentioned, and the scribes
that developed the Ancient Greek alphabet must have died a little
disappointed. It was 400 years before there was a mass switch to
their new innovation.
The Greeks had an oral culture and there was great resistance to
changing that. Oratory was viewed as the highest intellectual
endeavour by all ancient Greeks. Homer and Socrates probably
never wrote a word. All we have is the transfer of their words from
oral history to written history, by later writers.
There is a new view that literacy actually took hold amongst much
of the population much earlier. Apparently you can find rocks in
the interior covered in graffiti by bored shepherds. However, I
have to confess that was told to me by a local expert, late in the
evening here in Oxford. I haven’t a clue whether it is true or not.
Anyhow, literacy eventually became a Greek obsession. They
wrote and wrote. We only have a fraction of what they generated.
Study of the “Classics” and theology were for many centuries
viewed as the only serious forms of academic endeavour.
It is only in the last 100 years that the study of English writing has
begun to be taken seriously. Most English universities had no
department of English literature until around 1900.
The arriviste Romans always viewed the Greeks as their more
highly cultured neighbours. Initially the Etruscans and then the
Romans adopted and adapted the Greek script to their own
language. Of course there were many languages and dialects
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across Italy and then throughout the Roman Empire, but it was
administrated in Latin, using the Roman script.
This touches on a very interesting area of language development.
Until recently most people were partly bilingual. You always had a
ruling elite speaking and writing one language and a population
almost always speaking another language. Generally only the
former is recorded, but both have an influence on the other. That
has had a huge impact on English, as we will see.
The Romans ran their western empire for around 600 years. So
their influence on almost all the European languages since has been
massive. Even after the fall of the empire every intellectual could
read, write and speak Latin for another 1200 years.
The Western Roman Empire collapsed around 400AD and Europe
went through a thousand years of turbulence. Through the second
millennium there was a gradual development of the nation state
and a coalescing of national languages. The idea of a whole nation
speaking the same language is a relatively new one.
For instance, the Languedoc is the area where people spoke
Occitan in southern France. Basques is still spoken in southwest
France and northwest Spain. Catalan is still spoken around
Barcelona. Three languages are spoken in Switzerland. Localised
language or dialect has generally been the norm in most
populations throughout history.
The Formation of Tricky Old English
Some languages such as Spanish have a considerable uniformity to
their structure and pronunciation. Others, such as English, do not.
English is a summer pudding of influences and origins. It is
stamped with our history.
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In pre-Roman times England was largely inhabited by native tribes
and ruled by Celts. The Celts were a majority in the population on
the west coast of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and by the
last century BC they were the overlords of all of the British Isles.
I know that we are generally taught that the Celts have been
“driven off” to the western extremes of the British Isles, but the
evidence is the reverse. They seem to have settled originally in the
west, overrun the country as the ruling elite and then got pushed
back out of that role by the Romans.
The evidence for that is the English language itself. It has Celtic,
Roman, Danish, Anglo-Saxon and French influences. But at the
core of all of that is a language, sometimes referred to as Anglian.
Where does it come from, if not the native population of the
Being an overlord of a native population is always a tricky situation
when another invader appears. For instance, Cortes was able to
take control of the whole of the Aztec empire with just a handful of
Spaniards because everyone hated the Aztecs. So the local
population backed the new invaders and helped overthrow their
former masters.
The Celts were fighting the invading Romans mainly with the local
population. The Romans were evidently pretty good at what they
did and were successfully administering most of the continent.
The native Brits would have been well aware of that and I think
that probably explains why Caesar was able to take over so easily.
He actually seemed a better bet than those wild, woad-covered,
ginger-haired Celts! After all, they generally ran a pretty good
show, the Romans. Everything in life is relative.
So the Romans now slid into position as the ruling class. The Brits
still spoke mainly their own language, with Celtic influences and
now Latin influences working their way in.
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This is again a disputed subject, but in my view, there were a
number of local dialects spoken in ancient Britain. They are
sometimes referred to as Anglian. That is a little confusing
because it is so similar to Anglo-Saxon, which was the language of
the Saxon overlords after the departure of the Romans.
Anyhow, neither Celtic nor Anglian were written languages at this
The western Roman Empire fell in the 5 Century AD and the
Roman legions were withdrawn in the preceding years. Any native
with a tendency to military life was a Roman legionary by this time.
So the islands were left virtually defenceless, both in personnel and
military knowledge.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so very warlike Scandinavians began
arriving on our shores to fill the gap. Some of that was just your
average daytrip plunder-and-move-on style tourism. Others
settled in quite large numbers down the east coast. So now a
whole new set of vocabulary began to work its way into the local
To counter the threat from the Vikings, the leaders of southern
Britain invited over some Saxon mercenaries. It did not take long
for the mercenaries to work out that ruling was more fun.
So, the north and east of the country had strong Viking
settlements, the south had Saxon settlements and the west was
largely Celt.
This was how things stood until 1066, when William the Conqueror
arrived. He was a Norman speaking French, with a bunch of
Norman barons. They quickly settled the country under their rule
and for the next 100 years the ruling elite all spoke French.
Even to this day, the French words in our language are viewed as
being less attractive and real than the native equivalents. If you
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want to write “attractive” English to the ordinary Englishman,
exclude all those high-fallutin French imports, because at some
subconscious level, they don’t go down well! It is a measurable
All of this makes English by far the hardest of all Indo-European
languages to learn to read.
It is due to our history, not any defect in our school system.
We were crossed by waves of invaders until 1066. The Celts, the
Romans, the Danes, the Vikings, the Angles, the Saxons and the
Normans all came by and each one has deposited some of their
Then in the last 300 years we have gone out around the world and
collected a whole new lexicon from our colonial period. Bungalow
(Hindi), coffee (Turkish), guru (Sanskrit), orangutan (Malaysian),
paparazzi (Italian), pyjamas (Persian), safari (Swahili), shampoo
(Hindi) and yoghurt (Turkish) are all imports for instance.
All of this mixing has made English a rich language, but tricky to
learn to read.
It is termed morphophonemic, because some of the spelling is
derived from the original meaning root of the word, while it is also
phonetic in the use of the letters.
For instance, the English word muscular is derived from the Latin
word musculus. The c in muscular is phonetic, to give the hard /c/
sound. In the word muscle the c is only present in order to link the
word back to its root, and therefore its meaning, through its
Until Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary in 1755 there was not
even a generally agreed spelling to many of the words in the
language. Sometimes there were half a dozen different spellings
of each word. This was increased by the way printers would adjust
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the length of words to achieve justification of the text, rather than
adjusting the spacing between them.
It was linguistic chaos!
Dr Johnson effectively set the rules that we live by now. But it has
led to much heartache ever since. There have always been calls
for the redesign of English spelling around a set of fixed rules. So
far they have been ignored and probably always will be, unless
some dictator takes control and enforces it as part of his legacy.
English Today
We have 26 letters, but there are around 44 individual phonemes
(sounds) in English and over 70 if you count all the little variations
in these 44. These 70+ sounds can be represented by over 200
letter patterns (graphemes).
By contrast, Spanish has 34 phonemes and 40 graphemes.
You can guess which is the easier to learn to read!
This constant cycle of failure has led to huge disagreements on the
best way to teach reading.
So we need to have a look at the history of the Reading Wars to
understand what has been going on.
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The History of Teaching Literacy
“The 400-Years War”
Most people think that the Reading Wars are quite a recent
phenomenon and that the systems being proposed are new. So, it
is interesting to look back and see just how new they are.
Synthetic phonics was first presented as the best way to teach
reading by John Hart, in his book A Methode or comfortable
beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read
English in a very short time, with pleasure, published in 1570. It is
funny to see reading systems being oversold even 400 years ago!
Whole word approaches to reading were viewed as very trendy in
the 20 century. But the first recorded proponent of that
approach was Jan Amos Comenius in the early 1600s.
Those two main beliefs in the right way to teach reading have been
battling it out ever since, with the tide of opinion swinging back and
forth over roughly a 40-year cycle.
There have been other interventions tried, like the ITA (Initial
Teaching Alphabet).
So this section of the book will have a look in more detail at this
history, to give us some perspective on the current situation.
The Oral Tradition
All languages start purely oral. Writing is always a secondary
development, if it is recording a spoken language. That may seem
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obvious, but it is critical to an understanding of how reading was
learnt in the past.
An essential part of an oral culture is the ability to memorise,
because all knowledge is held in memory.
Nowadays, that facility is much reduced for most of us. Most
exams are now based around the interpretation of knowledge and
very little emphasis is put on pure memorisation of knowledge.
Literacy weakens the oral memory because it is less exercised.
In an information rich environment like today, that makes sense as
an approach. All information is available, in various recorded
forms, and is so vast as to be beyond the possible scope of a single
human being. Therefore, accessing, manipulating, interpreting and
judging information have become far more important skills.
But the human brain is still exceptionally good at memorising.
Even today, it is not thought extraordinary that a professional actor
should be able to recall most of the plays of Shakespeare verbatim.
It is also thought a standard measure of the devotion of a Muslim
to be able to recite the Koran. People can recite the value of pi to
many thousands of digits. And memory specialists can store whole
telephone directories, even if their reason for doing so is less clear.
But in any society with limited literacy memorisation is a central
measure of intelligence and is widely practised.
All early forms of literacy teaching were based on that premise.
First and foremost a child would be learning most of their
knowledge through memorisation.
So, the most basic form of literacy teaching was to get a child to
copy a text that was already familiar. In the days of cuneiform, this
was done with tablets that had been inscribed by the teacher on
one side and were then copied on the reverse by the student.
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It was clearly a slow and tedious process. For Chinese school
children it still is.
The written language is effectively learnt by pure repetition, which
is famous for its dullness.
In recent times, writing lines was viewed as an excellent
punishment, for this very reason. I was trying to improve my own
poor writing style a few years ago and I was advised to develop it
by copying the texts of good authors. I am sure it would be
effective as a technique, but I know that it is beyond my limited
capabilities to stick with such an essentially dull task.
Children, in particular, do not naturally apply themselves to dull
tasks, except under duress.
The result was that teaching writing and reading was connected
with a corporeal punishment regimes. Sumerian apprentice
scribes were routinely beaten. And that has happened very
recently too.
Until around 1900 elementary school teachers were largely paid by
results. Any child who did not learn to read was not paid for. So
you can well imagine the power of this incentive on the already
low-paid teachers. School was a harsh and bitter experience for
most children.
As we know, writing had changed substantially between early
Sumerian and the first writing of English in around 1200. The
alphabet had been invented and English is written using the Roman
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So, when we pick up the story in the 16 century, the alphabet was
recognised as a key element of our language. Children were then
learning to read by the ABC method.
To achieve this, a child had an abceebook, which was an early
English reading primer. The abceebook was a wooden paddle. It
had a printed sheet attached to it and often had a thin sheet of
horn covering it as protection. They were often known as
In the hands of children, these hornbooks inevitably got used as
bats for playing ballgames and so were also known as battledores.
On the printed sheet were the alphabet, the 9 digits and some
familiar religious texts such as the Lord’s Prayer.
The most fundamental aim of education, at this time, was for the
child to be able to read the Bible.
So, the children would be orally very familiar with the text on the
abceebook. They would learn the alphabet and then study the text
printed on it, already knowing it by heart.
Part of this process was to stand and read the text out. This was
done by saying the letters of the word (ie spelling it out) and then
saying the word.
It may seem amazing that anybody could learn to read in this way.
But the brain is actually very good at making connections through
familiarity. By using this rather laborious process, the child was
becoming familiar with the interior structure of the word, albeit
using the letter names.
One has to remember that the idea of entertaining a child to help
the learning process was still a long way off becoming mainstream.
Once a child could read, writing might be introduced. Writing was
a considerable and messy task in those days, with knives, quills,
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inkpots, blotters and parchment. It was really viewed as a craft,
more than the obvious and inevitable extension of reading.
In 1746 Benjamin Collins invented a cardboard booklet form of the
abceebook, which replaced the hornbooks. He still called it a
battledore, even through it was now useless for actually playing
battledores and shuttlecocks.
The alphabet also used to appear in biscuits, loaves of bread,
needlework tapestries and other designs. And even today, a
plastic alphabet set is one of the earliest educational toys a child
will receive.
The First Phonics System
While we can see the main approach being used, within this I am
sure that many teachers were aware of the more complex phonetic
structure of the words and were guiding their students through it.
The first to record this by publishing a book about it was John Hart,
who wrote A Methode or comfortable beginning for all unlearned,
whereby they may bee taught to read English in a very short time,
with pleasur.
He was the founding father of the entire phonics teaching
movement. Here are some pages from his groundbreaking book:
XXXXXXXXImages of A Methode..XXXXXXX
You can see just how close he was to the current phonics reading
systems. He had analysed all the different sounds and graphemes
and developed a system of presentation of the text to make it
easier for the child to see the phonetic structure of the words.
He was building on the existing approach of using a familiar text,
but tried to break it open for the child.
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Since 1570 there have been many dozens of similar attempts to do
the same thing. But they all struggle with the same conundrum.
The Phonics Conundrum
John Hart developed his system because he could see that some
children were not engaging with the phonetic structure of the
word. As they worked through the primer, they knew the words of
the text. So they had no need to try to relate the structure of the
word to the sounds in it. They just saw the words as pictures.
And this is the phonic dilemma. If a child naturally takes to
phonics, all is well. If a child does not take to phonics, they tend to
memorise words instead. So, you can teach them phonics, but
when they are faced by an unfamiliar word, they can either read it
or not. If they can’t then they have almost no route to decoding it.
They are just stuck.
English is by far the worst language for this, because it is so
phonetically irregular.
This is the conundrum that we have addressed with Guided
Phonetic Reading and Easyread TrainerText.
The First Whole Word Warrior
As I have described, school was a pretty dismal experience in the
16 Century. Even an enormously gifted student like Shakespeare
wrote about hating it.
But some people could see that it was far easier to teach a happy
and engaged child than a battered and frightened one. The first to
write about this was Jan Amos Comenius. He is often referred to
as the “father of modern education”.
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Comenius was born in 1592 in Moravia. He lived through the
horrors of the 30 Years War and as a Protestant ended up as a
migrant exile much of his life, having fled his homeland in 1628.
He believed in universal education of men and women and that the
experience was more efficient if it was a pleasant one. He also
believed in education following the principles of nature, which
were themselves, after all, created by God.
One element of this was his belief in children learning to read text
through familiarity with whole words, rather than the rote learning
of the conventional abceebooks.
Comenius has also been the inspiration for the movement towards
the modern “primary school ethos”. It is the aim of most primary
schools nowadays that the experience should be, first and
foremost, a pleasant one for every child. If the children are not
enjoying school, then the potential for successful education is much
The logical extension of this has been a belief that the stresses of
winning and losing, being better or worse, should be removed as
far as possible.
This feeds into gestalt psychology, which views the whole of a
person as being more than the collection of the person’s parts and
every part of the person having an influence on the whole.
The education of the child begins with the holistic aim of general
happiness, which then feeds into maximum progress in each of the
parts of their education.
When you are not familiar with all of this, it can catch you out. I
can remember an incident when I was first helping in our local
primary school as a parent. It illustrates the fundamental contrast
in this approach to how life works outside the primary school
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I had gone on a residential trip to the south coast with the 9 yearolds of the school and we were gathered outside the building
before the next activity. The children were in a gang of about 50
and were all chatting volubly. The teacher needed to brief them
and started saying “quiet please” in a voice barely louder than I
would use to pass a comment to my neighbour in the pew of a
church, mid-sermon. After about 20 seconds of this, my army
training got the better of me and so I shouted, as pleasantly as I
could, “OK… shut up and listen to Mrs White”. It certainly
worked… but I don’t know who was more shocked; the children or
Mrs White.
The whole word approach to literacy fits extremely well with this
First, it gets very quick results. The human brain is very good at
memorising images and so a child can often learn a few sight-words
quite quickly.
So, that is very good for their psychology.
Then you are also straight into reading real text. Comenius actually
wrote books for children, which was evidently a huge step forward
to going over the Lord’s Prayer for the hundredth time, beautiful as
it may be.
By contrast, the phonics approach to reading has become more and
more focused on the development of awareness of the individual
phonemes and the letter patterns that can represent them.
Reading text is kept back as a potentially dangerous activity in the
early stages.
So, phonics tends to be a very mechanistic teaching approach,
which is very uncomfortable for many primary school teachers,
who are often more naturally comfortable with a whole word
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The Whole Word Conundrum
Early progress normally goes well with the whole word approach.
However, as the complexity of the text increases, reading by whole
word recognition gets proportionately more difficult. By contrast,
once a child can decode words phonetically, reading gets easier in
proportion to the experience of text accumulated.
Our text is not designed for this type of sight memorisation. As a
result, most children will reach a plateau, beyond which their
reading cannot progress, unless they make the leap to phonetic
decoding themselves.
You will find many adults who have been taught by this method
skip through the text, picking up words they are familiar with,
working out others from various cues (such as the context and first
letter) and jumping others completely.
It is a hugely inefficient process, which leaves them effectively just
partially literate.
The Camps Form on the Battlefield
From these early beginnings in the late 16 and early 17
centuries, the camps for the future Reading Wars began to form.
Comenius was joined in the whole word camp by major luminaries
such as Rousseau, Herbart, Froebel and Parker, who encouraged
greater attention to meaning in all education and especially
reading. Through the 18 and 19 centuries, this overarching aim
led to the development to more and more sophistication around
the word approach to reading. Here is a quote from a specialist
writing in The Common School Journal in 1842:
“My theory is that words can be more easily remembered than
letters, for two reasons. In the first place they are not such minute
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objects, and the faculty by which the forms are distinguished can
therefore more readily perceive them; in the second place, every
word that a child learns, will (if judiciously selected) convey a
distinct image of a thing, or an act, to his mind, and can be more
easily remembered than the name of a letter with which he can
have no natural associations.
What is invaluable in this method is, that the children are always
happy to learn thus… it is altogether an unnatural one to learn
writing signs to which nothing already known can be attached.
Until I was convinced that this was the best method, I always found
myself instinctively helping innocent children along, through their
first steps, by means which, at the time, I half thought were tricks
and pernicious indulgences. I feared I was depriving them of some
wholesome and desirable discipline… but will never again force
helpless children of three and four years, to learn the alphabet and
the abc, until reading is so charming to them that every letter is
interesting from its position and its association with the word it
helps to form. When letters are learned in the ordinary manner,
they are often associated artificially with some image as a stands
for apple, b for boy etc; and these associations are so many
hindrances to the next step in the process, because they must all be
unlearned before the letters can be applied to other words… I
frequently tell little children who know the alphabet to look at the
word, rather than spell it over with the lips, and then tell me,
without the book, what the letters are, assisting them by saying,
“Observe what two letters are in the middle, or what two are at the
end, or in the beginning.
I therefore say to those who make the objection, that this mode of
teaching to read leaves spelling out of the question, that it only
defers spelling a little, and that the first words spelled should be
those which are already perfectly familiar to the eye.
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It is desirable that in the first book there should be many repetitions
of the same words, and experience has convinced me that nothing
can be learned easily or remembered well that is not so arranged as
to have some natural sequence. For this reason I would arrange
the first words in natural groups. (In a story of a bird, for instance,
after some of the principal names of this, such as bird, tree, wings,
feathers, bill, etc have been mentioned, several actions may be
introduced. These are the things the birds do; - build, fly, sing, etc.
Then the names of the colours are easily associated, and even the
words the, which, and and.)
After learning a few groups of words often repeated on a page, let
these be combined in short sentences. These sentences children will
learn with great ease, and they will remember the particles that
necessarily connect the names of things and the actions. They will
of their own accord, turn back to the pages where they first became
familiar with the words; and when this process of comparison has
gone on a little while, if no pain is associated with it, the
improvement will be rapid.
Children of six, who begin to read thus by learning words instead of
letters, will be able in three months to read simple stories very
easily… One or two instances have quite astonished me, however…
My present class of that age are beginning to emerge from all their
puzzles, and their desires to read are perfectly insatiable. One boy
of seven, who has been much neglected is still on the Slough of
Despond, and cannot yet read better than little L., who began three
of four months ago. His knowledge of letters does not help him
forward; but light is dawning upon him since he has been made to
spell only the words he knows…
I would have the stories in the first book attractive to the
imagination, that they may be frequently recurred to with pleasure,
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- and the first words well impressed before the vocabulary is much
enlarged. Repetition is a great secret of real progress..;
After the process of spelling has become familiar, classes of words
of similar pronunciation and appearance should be given; as boy,
toy, joy. It is also an admirable exercise to let children spell over
their reading lesson from the book after reading, pronouncing each
word distinctly before they read the letters. The good effect of this
mode of drilling will soon be perceived both in oral spelling and
Let me impress it upon all teachers, if I have not already made it
sufficiently clear, that spelling is only to be deferred a little while, till
it can be begun with advantage; and then there cannot be too
much of it. A quick ear for music will assist some children, a good
organ of form will aid others, and frequent repetition of the sight
and sound of letters, in their various combinations, will help all.
Above all, let the whole process be made agreeable, and there is no
fear of want of cooperation on the part of the little people.”
That is a pretty succinct description of the whole word teaching
method. It was little changed in the 1940s and 1980s, the two
high-water marks of whole word and real books theory in the last
100 years, except that the spelling drills have been much reduced.
Interestingly it was only signed “M”. I guess the Reading Wars
were already raging. No teachers have been burnt at the stake
over this issue, but many have feared losing their jobs.
Through the middle of the 18 Century, there was a growing body
of materials designed for this approach. For instance, J. Russell
Webb published “A New Method Of Teaching Children To Read:
Founded on Nature and Reason” in 1850, with new editions in 1856
and 1874.
Here is an extract from the “Directions for Teaching” from part 1 of
Webb’s system:
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“It is a lamentable fact, and one which the community is beginning
to understand, that children have been wrongly taught their first
lessons in reading…
It may be asked by some, why we have commenced with words
instead of letters. We answer, a word can as easily be learned as a
letter; and, in addition, a word has some meaning – a letter none.
A word conveys to the mind an idea, the mind acts to receive it; the
letter has no such effect. The former necessarily teaches a child to
think; the latter teaches - nothing.
The child, in this part, is not to be taught a letter, or to spell a word,
but is simply to learn the words by their forms, the same as he
learns to the names of animals, by looking at them as a whole as an
animal – associating the name with the form. The child reads this
naturally, by sight, the same as all persons read, and understanding
the meaning of every word, of course, reads with ease and
In part 2 Webb goes on to “Teaching New Words, Reading, Spelling,
the Alphabet, and the Sounds of the Letters.” So, in exactly the
same way as XXXM, he believed that the essential difference
between the two approaches was not what was being taught, but
the order of teaching.
For them, the first stage was to get the child reading and then start
to explore the internal structure of the words. That is known as a
“top-down” approach. A phonics teacher will view it the other
way. In phonics teaching the internal structure of the word is
taught first and an ability to deal with the whole word emanates
from that.
The same arguments are heard again and again.
The disciples of phonics have always said:
English text is based on an alphabet, not logographs
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It is impossible for most children to accurately memorise
more than a few words
If the child becomes familiar with the phonetic structure of
the text then decoding any word becomes possible
The disciple of whole words and real books have always replied:
English has a very irregular phonetic structure with over
two hundred letter patterns representing the 44
The letters of the alphabet, the phonemes and the various
grapheme-phoneme relationships are very abstract and
therefore dull to a child. It is a form of child abuse to
make them wade through hours of phonics instruction.
Even when a child does learn to read through phonics it is
a mechanistic process with little joy or benefit derived,
because the attention to meaning in the text has been
pushed into a subsidiary position to the decoding of the
Many children struggle to follow phonics and never
develop an ability to blend the individual sounds into
Everything they say, in both camps, is true. Here is a preface from
a book published in 1870:
“In his experience as a teacher and superintendent of schools, it
became evident to the author, many years ago, that there was
something fundamentally wrong in the ordinary methods of
teaching reading, writing and spelling. Viewed from the standpoint
of economy, the result bore no just ratio to the time and effort
devoted to these branches; and viewed from the standpoint of
education, the first years of instruction seemed imperfect and
unsatisfactory. This conviction, which he shared with many
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teachers throughout the country, led to examination and
In 1858, the phonetic system was introduced into the schools of
Syracuse, N.Y., and for a time it was thought that the true method
of teaching children to read had been discovered. After a trial of
five years, however, it was seen that while pupils learned to read by
this method in much less time than usual, and attained a high state
of excellence in articulation, their reading was nearly as mechanical
as before and few of them became good spellers. The two systems
of analysis, phonic and graphic, had so little in common that
permanent confusion was produced in the mind.
The word method, next tried, was much more productive of good
results than any that had preceded it; yet by this method words
were treated as units, independent of sentences, and oral reading
almost of necessity became a series of independent pronunciations,
perpetuating the mechanical results of the old methods.”
This is taken from The Sentence Method of Teaching Reading,
Writing and Spelling, A Manual for Teachers (1881) by Farnham.
It is a good example of the madness that can grip people in their
efforts to solve the perpetual problems described by him. He
“These experiments and their results led to further investigation,
especially in the line of psychology. From a close observation of the
action of the mind, and of the relations of language to thought, it
was seen that the unit of thinking is a thought, and therefore that
the sentence ought to be made the basis of reading exercises.
In 1870 a series of experiments was instituted in the schools of
Binghampton, N.Y., to subject this theory to a practical test. The
results far exceeded expectation in the direct teaching of reading,
spelling and writing, and led to other results in awakening the mind
and in influencing conduct, which were unexpected and gratifying.
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It is safe to assume that the problem, how to teach these branches
successfully, has been solved.
Reading consists: first, in gaining the thoughts of an author from
written or printed language: - second, in giving oral expression to
these thoughts in the language of the author, so that the same
thoughts are conveyed to the hearer.
It is important that this two-fold function of reading should be fully
recognised. The first, or silent reading, is the fundamental process.
It is often called “Reading to one’s self,” a phrase significant as
indicating a wrong conception of the true end to be accomplished.
The second, oral reading, or “reading aloud,” us entirely
subordinate to silent reading. While oral expression is subject to
laws of its own, its excellence depends upon the success of the
reader in comprehending the thought of the author. The
importance of these distinctions is so great that I will consider them
in detail.
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of correct “eye
reading;” – of the ability to look over the written or printed page,
and with the least possible consciousness of the words used, to fully
comprehend the thoughts expressed.
A common process is indicated by the expression, “reading to one’s
self.” This means the translation of written into oral language. The
reader either pronounces each word so that he can actually hear it,
or he thinks of the pronunciation. In either case the thought is not
formed in his mind directly through the written language, but
indirectly after the written words have changed into oral
expression. This process is slow and laborious, it becomes painful
when long continued; and its practice will account for the antipathy
which so many persons have to reading books and articles of
considerable length.
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The object in teaching should be to make every pupil an eye reader,
- to give him the ability to look directly through the written
expression to the meaning, or to at once detect the unknown
elements that prevent the accomplishment of this object…
The child has come into possession of his powers, both of thought
and of expression, by a gradual and unconscious process. He has
simply been shaped by his surroundings. By association with those
who talk, he has acquired the power of understanding speech and
of speaking. The kind of speech, whether perfect or imperfect,
which he hears and reproduces.
This fact should be distinctly understood and realized. The powers
of speech and of understanding what is said, both come to the child
by a process so simple and natural that he is conscious of no effort
to acquire them. Speech, objectively considered, is only a
combination of sounds uttered in quick succession, having not the
slightest resemblance to the thoughts represented; but by the child
it is understood with exactness and uttered with precision. The
whole complicated process is matured without effort, and without
the intervention of teachers.
To make the eye perform the office of the ear, and the hand that of
the organs of the voice, is the problem that presents itself in
attempting to teach a child to read and write. The vital point is to
so change the function of the eye that it will look upon written or
printed characters, not as objects to be recognized for their own
sake, but as directly calling into conscious being past experiences,
and so becoming representative of thought. All the efforts of the
teacher should be directed to this end.
At this point our education has often failed. The process of
translating the written language into speech is so slow and difficult
that a large share of the pupils in our schools are condemned to
comparative ignorance. The words as they appear have no
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meaning to them. One who acquired the power of directly receiving
thought from the printed page, is endowed with a new intellectual
faculty. His eye flashes along the pages of a book, and he
comprehends whole sentences at a glance. It would not do to say
that these rapid readers do not understand what they read. The
fact is they understand much better than the slow reader. The
mental power, being relieved from the necessity of translating,
concentrates itself upon the thought, and the thought is understood
and remembered. Our endeavour should be to give pupils this
power of eye reading from the first so that they may continually
profit by it, and have no evil habits to overcome.”
It is difficult to put into the right words, what utter rubbish this is
from beginning to end.
First, he suggests that children develop the facility of understanding
words and then speaking “without effort and without the
intervention of teachers.” That will have any mother either
apoplectic with rage or laughing derisively. Hopefully we can all do
the latter rather than get cross, because the poor fool knew not of
what he wrote. Learning to understand and reproduce the spoken
word is one of the longest and most laborious processes of our
development. Without a dedicated parent or carer, it does not
He then goes on to suggest that absorbing meaning from text can
be achieved directly, without any focus on the structure of the text,
either phonic or in the form of the words. That is patently and
completely obviously incorrect. I would have loved to sit him in
front of some text converted into another script (as I did earlier in
the book for you), to see how long it took him to learn to absorb
the meaning directly.
But there is a crucial lesson to be taken from this madness; he was
not a ranting loony in the periphery of education, but a major
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player in East Coast USA. He was taken seriously; both his theories
and his “gratifying results”, right into the 20 Century. His
Sentence Method is a respected form of teaching.
Success with the approach he suggests is clearly impossible, for all
except the occasional savant. Therefore, his results must have
been a misrepresentation of what really happened.
I am afraid he was not the first or the last person to do that. It is
virtually impossible to avoid distortion of results in favour of your
theory. Mendel, the father of genetics, did it, even though his
theory was absolutely correct and his results reflected that. He
could not help tidying them up a bit.
Don’t think he is the only scientist to have done that! I think it is a
deep psychosis, because people have a great need for their
theories to be correct. Most people are actually unaware of the
selective way they are treating the information around them.
In other realms it can be even more serious. In the Second World
War, General Montgomery developed a bold plan to grab the
bridges behind the German front lines near Arnhem, so that they
couldn’t be blown up as the Germans retreated during a
coordinated assault. It was going to be a glorious venture that he
would be remembered for in the history books of the European
A few days before the operation was due to launch, an aerial
reconnaissance aircraft picked up signs of a German Panzer brigade
on furlough in a wood near one of the bridges. This was hugely
serious since paratroopers are no match for tanks. The plan was
utterly compromised.
Montgomery ignored the intelligence and went ahead anyhow. It
was clearly suicidal for the troops involved and doomed to failure.
And he had the experience and training to know that.
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But his desire for the plan to work and for his star to rise on it,
pushed him towards making this massive mistake. He certainly
made it into the history books, but not in the way he had hoped.
His decisions were driven by emotions not rationality. The results
are portrayed in the film A Bridge Too Far.
And educationalists are human too.
They desperately want to achieve a better result and sometimes
will see it when the reverse is true.
If Farnham did get good results, it was almost certainly in direct
proportion to the degree that the teachers in the classrooms
ignored his suggestions. And this leads us to one of the unstated
realities of education; most experienced teachers ignore the fad of
the day.
While the educational strategists battle each other and publish
their theories, teachers are spending the day in class, managing
groups of 30+ children. You can only appreciate the enormity of
that task by doing it. They are controlling, educating, entertaining
and supporting all these children for 7 hours a day.
So, they do that the way they know how. It may not be perfect,
but at least they know it and know the results they can get with it.
Many of the theories that are offered up are pretty complex and
difficult to apply.
Also, teachers are familiar with the realities of teaching. They
cannot give more than a few minutes of individual attention to
each child each week. Every child is different. Many children do
not follow what is going on in a group setting. It is just a tough job.
I personally think they do wonders to keep the children heading in
roughly the right direction, follow all the directives they have to
follow, deal with all their colleagues/school management/parents
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and all the while remaining sane most of the time. I know that I
couldn’t achieve that.
So, through the 19 century, while these different competing
theories were flying around, most teachers seem to have taught
reading in the way that they always had done.
That still involved a lot of use of abceebooks and the group reading
of known texts.
Children were routinely required to read out loud from a book.
When I was a child it was very common to hear people stammering,
and it is very rare nowadays. I think the stammering habit was
probably triggered by this routine of having to read aloud, while
learning to read. It is almost unheard of as a technique now.
The Development of Linguistics
During the 19 century, there was the first study of linguistics; the
study of languages as a science.
People had always studied languages, of course. Samuel Johnson’s
dictionary was based on his understanding of the roots of our
language. But the nature of this study took a new turn with
Erasmus Rask’s Investigation on the Origin of the Old Norse or
Icelandic Language, in 1818. Rask began to take the study away
from personal theory and into the field of impersonal and
cumulative knowledge, that can be independently verified by
Over the next 50 years, this academic study of linguistics led to the
publication in 1875 of Life and Growth of Languages: An outline of
Linguistic Science, by William Dwight Whitney of Yale University.
At the same time as all of this linguistic research, the first Oxford
English Dictionary was being written. They started collecting
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evidence for it in 1858. They began editing it in 1878 and published
the first part in 1884. It was not completed until 1928.
It took a fundamentally different approach to Dr Johnson’s
dictionary of 1755. That recorded the current meaning of words in
use in the mid 18 century. The aim of the Oxford English
Dictionary was to chart the use of the words through history,
ending up with the current usage.
This was only possible through the linguistic studies of the 19
century. And it gave a much deeper understanding of the phonetic
origins of each word, through analogical creation and borrowing
from other languages.
Analogical creation was the adoption of a word structure across the
language. For instance, we are all now familiar with the use of an s
at the end of a noun to indicate the plural form. This originated
with just male “-a stem” words. But has spread across the whole
language from that base.
An understanding of these transformations, and borrowings from
other languages, began to patch up the very inconsistent nature of
the understanding of the sound laws operating in the language.
This led to the idea of “phonetic laws without exceptions” for the
English language.
All of this academic activity fed new energy into the phonics camp,
leading to a new surge of reading development ideas in the late
19 century and early 20 century. This led in three directions.
The first was spelling reform, the second was the development of
special alphabets and the last was a redoubling of the efforts
behind the classic phonics approach.
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Spelling Reform and the IPA
There has always been a rumbling call to change the way we spell
English words. In fact John Hart published a “newe maner of
writing” in 1569. It is an obvious solution. He was followed over
the centuries by Sir Thomas Smith, William Bullokar, Edmund
Coote, Alexander Gill, Charles Butler, John Wilkins, Benjamin
Franklin, A J Ellis and Isaac Pitman.
They have all developed or suggested the use of different writing
systems, alphabets or spelling codes to try to simplify the
inconsistencies of English. Obviously, none of their suggestions
has been taken up. The movement is still represented even today
by mad Masha Bell, author of Learning To Read, who wrote in the
Times Education Supplement (29 August 2009) “The bottom line is
that coping with English spelling conventions requires a higher level
of basic intelligence than roughly 20 per cent of learners at the
lower end of the ability range are endowed with.” Hmmm… that is
her rationale for changing English. Nice.
Of course they are all correct that a simpler writing system would
make English easier to read. That can be seen in the far higher
literacy rates of languages with a consistent phonetic code. But it
isn’t going to happen.
However, one product of all of this is the International Phonetic
Alphabet (IPA) published in 1888.
XXXXImage of the IPA
It detailed twenty-six vowel sounds and fifty-two different
consonants, used in different languages. It is still used today in
many dictionaries to indicate the phonetic structure of the words.
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Special Alphabets
Similar, but different, to the idea of spelling reform was the idea of
special alphabets and writing systems for learners. These are
designed to be a stepping-stone for the learner to gain an ability to
read, which would then be transferred over to normal text.
All the thinking for this was done in the mid 19 century and the
most famous, the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) was designed
then. But they only came into their own a hundred years later. So
we will look at them in more detail in due course.
1875-1925 Phonics Surge
In addition to the IPA, and ITA the development of Linguistics as a
science, gave the phonics fanatics a new level of academic gloss to
their systems and strategies. In the late 19 century there was a
big surge of new systems and the mother of modern phonics
systems is Nellie Dale, who published her phonic reading
programme in 1899.
Of course, we can now see that she was basing her work on a
wealth of prior development of phonics, running all the way back to
1570. She did bring a couple of innovations to the process.
The first was to make it more multisensory. Children would learn
to engage with the letters and phonemes with ear, hand and eye.
And this was also used to judge whether a child was “phonic
ready”. It is certainly true that a certain level of maturity seems to
be needed to begin identifying and blending phonemes.
The second was that she added colour to the text to highlight
vowels (red), voiced consonants (black), unvoiced consonants
(blue) and silent letters (yellow).
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This colouring approach was also picked up by others (eg Moxon
and Gattegno in the 1960s), but has since been dropped by most
phonic systems, as a distraction.
In general however, the first two decades of the 20 century did
belong to the phonic fanatics.
Whole Wordies Get Science Too
Durng the early part of the 20 century there was a tremendous
pressure building for schooling to move away from the rather grim
practices of the past. Comenius was finally coming to the fore and
was the inspiration for a whole group of educational reformers.
In England the 1870 Elementary Education Act created the state
education of children, with free provision of education for every
child from 5 to 12 and compulsory education until 10.
The curriculum was controlled by the Revised Code, established in
1862, which also set the framework of payment by results for the
teachers. So there was tremendous focus on achievement of a
pass in the final tests, to be sure that the grants were paid. You
can imagine the psychology of the teachers.
Although the code was dropped in 1895 and the curriculum
dropped in 1902, the style of education was well ingrained and
took several decades to change.
A key force for change was the Newbolt Report in 1921. It said
that the rote learning of the past should be replaced by:
the universal need for literacy as the core of the
the developmental importance of children’s self
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a belief in the power of English Literature for moral and
social improvement
a concern for the ‘full development of the mind and
This was followed by a series of Hadow Reports (1926, 1931 and
1933) taking this line of revolutionary thinking even further:
“We are of the opinion that the curriculum of the primary school is
to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of
knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored.”
A great range of new thinking was taking hold, based on the
writings of Comenius and gestalt theory of the 19 century.
Gestalt psychology proposes that the brain operates in a holistic
way, concentrating on the form of the whole, rather than analysing
the components making up the whole.
For animals for instance, this is certainly true. A man sat on a
horse is not recognised as a human being by most animals. Tourists
sat in an open Landrover are not recognised as human beings by
lions in African reserves. However it is much less true of humans.
We are always searching for the parts of the whole. If you have
ever taken your car into the monkey enclosure of a safari park, you
will know that all primates seem interested in taking things apart.
It has now lost influence as a theory in psychology, but just as
linguistic science gave phonics an academic home to work from,
gestaltism was the new academic stronghold for the whole word
believers. It could have been written for them.
In fact, through the middle of the 20 century, the whole word
concept spread into a number of related but different approaches
and by the end of the 30s phonics was in retreat everywhere.
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Look & Say
The most basic use of gestalt theory was Look & Say. The
underlying premise of Look & Say is that the bulk of early reading is
based on a skeleton of around 100 very frequent words, many of
which are phonetically irregular. So, the most economical and
easy way for a child to get into reading is just to memorise those
words. Then, with this skeleton in place, the child’s vocabulary can
be extended through contact with interesting texts.
So, Look & Say uses flash cards to present this skeleton vocabulary.
And the child is then encouraged to engage with text in specially
written books, that slowly extend the vocabulary used.
Helen Davidson published a study in 1931 investigating how
children recognise a whole word from its shape, using the outline
of the word. While it can be clearly seen from any distance that
this would be an extraordinarily inaccurate and inefficient way to
detect words in text, it has been in use ever since and I have seen
special needs teachers using packs of cards with word shapes
printed on them, during the last 10 years.
The Kinaesthetic method
In 1921 Fernald and Keller published their Kinaesthetic method.
This, to my mind was really just a rip-off of much of Maria
Montessori’s methods, which have been in and out of favour for
over a century.
Anyhow, they got the children to physically trace their fingers over
the word while saying it.
It does clearly help the word familiarisation process and writing is
now viewed as part of the process of reading development.
However, it is not true to say that it is some panacea for all reading
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difficulties, particularly because it is a boring, laborious activity for
the children.
The Sentence Method
We have already discussed the 19 century work of Farnham in the
USA. This now got picked up by Dewey and Decroly, who reversed
the process. They got the child to create the sentence. It is not
clear to me how the child could do this, without any knowledge of
text, unless they were each coached through on an individual basis.
Having done this first step, they would build on it with whole word
methods and phonics. So, it was evidently more practical than the
quasi-spiritualist approach of Farnham!
A London school inspector called J H Jagger published The Sentence
Method of Teaching Reading in 1929.
He explains that he views the key unit in writing is the sentence,
which carries a single thought. And the essence of writing is the
communication of meaning between author and reader, very like
Farnham. This leads him to believe that the analysis of the
sentence is the essential foundation of learning to read.
So, he proposes that the children look at a picture and then suggest
sentences to describe it. These then get written in under the
picture, and the children practise reading them.
Now the picture is taken away and the child is asked to match each
written sentence with an identical sentence, presented in a group
of options below it. And finally the child reads the sentence
without the help of the picture.
What is really going on here is a format for whole word instruction.
The sentence is just a framework for that, which maximises the
sense of meaning in the words.
It gained a considerable following during the 30s and 40s.
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It does have one major advantage and that is the involvement of
the child through their own creation of the sentence. But I cannot
see the practicality of that in a class of 30. If it is done in a whole
class setting, is the sentence created by one child, John say, any
more interesting to his friend Jane than a sentence created by a
professional author? Almost certainly not.
Furthermore, Jagger refused to allow teachers to guide children
towards any particular method of word building. He believed the
children would develop the technique that suited themselves best,
of their own accord. They certainly do, but what seems the best
approach to a child is not always the best technique to be using
long term, as we have discussed.
Anyhow, all this experimentation with whole word strategies led to
a steady decline in reading standards. The literacy rate of UK
primary school leavers by the end of the 1940s was 48%. A similar
decline was happening in the USA. A backlash was waiting to
The “Why Johnny Can’t Read” Phonics Backlash
In 1955 the American Rudolf Flesch published his book “Why
Johnny Can’t Read”. This was evidently targeted at the worried
parents of children who were not progressing in literacy.
It was a very clearly stated challenge to the then prevailing
conventional wisdom on literacy teaching, and got a great
reception from the public, remaining in the bestseller lists for over
6 months. He proposed a complete return to the phonics methods
of the turn of the century. He was soon followed by other writers
such as Sibyl Terman and Charles C Walcutt. In England the
phonics banner was picked up out of the mud by J C Daniels and
Hunter Diack.
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The base material for these resurgent phonic fanatics was the work
of Leonard Bloomfield, published in the early 1940s. Bloomfield
was a linguist and questioned the top-down, meaning-first
approach of the whole word and sentence method systems. He
believed that the children should first be given instruction in the
relationship between the spoken word and the written word, using
phonetically regular words initially.
He wanted to expose the child to the alphabetical principle of our
writing system, but without the synthetic phonic approach of
conventional phonics. He believed that if the child was exposed to
regular spelling, then the alphabetical system would be discovered
by the child by default.
He was against phonic sounding out of words and the attempt to
blend sounds into words. He suggested spelling words out using
the letter names. In many ways, what he suggested was similar to
the systems used in the 16 century, before Hart.
He was the first of a series of academics proposing a linguistic
approach to reading. A leading member of that group was Charles
Fries, who wrote Linguistics and Reading. His view was that there
were three phases of learning to read; the initial “transfer” stage
when it is a process of transfer of text to auditory information, then
the “productive” stage when the decoding becomes automatic and
finally the “imaginative” phase when the text can be effectively
lived through, as a virtual experience.
All of these built structured reading texts that drew the child
through these different stages by presenting text thought to be
appropriate to their stage of reading. They did not believe in
explicit phonic instruction, but a more autodidactic approach. In
the UK this was led by Daniels and Diack, who published the Royal
Road reading scheme.
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The philosophy behind it can still be seen, even now, in the colour
coded-book systems, such as the Oxford Reading Tree, present in
most schools.
However, Flesch completely distorted the basis of Bloomfield’s
work as justification for pure phonics.
Flesch’s book evidently resonated with the wider parent
population, even if it was at odds with the beliefs of most of the
education establishment. And there was a renewed flush of
phonics systems in schools and home literacy packs through the
Special Alphabets
In a parallel development to the IPA there was a series of special
alphabets developed through the mid 19 Century, designed to
make reading easier to follow for the learner. The most famous of
these was the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet), launched in 1844.
Interest in this approach picked up through the 1960s and several
large scale experiments were undertaken.
The principle behind all of them was to have at least one symbol or
letter pattern (grapheme) for each phoneme. This can be achieved
in three possible ways:
Having a clear set of spelling rules and adjusting the
English spelling to fit them
Extending the alphabet to create sufficient letters to cover
every phoneme and then spelling the words in a
consistent way using this new alphabet
Using conventional spelling but with diacritical marks
above the letters in order to indicate what sound the
letter is representing on each occasion.
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You can see that this is very similar to the spelling reform
movement, except that these systems were designed as steppingstones towards reading normal text.
They were widely tested with the ITA by far the most common.
XXXXXXImage of ITA text and symbols (see Modern Inventions in
the teaching of reading).
XXXXXXimage of Wijk’s Regularized Inglish
The whole thing was a famous failure. It was true that the children
could learn to read more easily, but they were learning a quite
different form of text to written English. So, having learnt the
interim text, they had to unlearn it and learn conventional text
instead. Many never managed the switch and were left unable to
I met a woman at a conference last year who claimed to be
following the ITA system. It was a bit like meeting a Flat Earther (a
member of the very small club who deny the spherical nature of
the world) or someone in a time-warp. I have since gone online to
find out more, but the ITA website seemed to be non-operational.
Another current form of this was shown to me recently as well. It
is called the DISTAR Reading Program, by Siegfried Engelmann.
This is a diacritical system with lots of coded symbols to indicate
the sound of each letter.
There are certainly superficial similarities between the ideas behind
this approach and the Guided Phonetic Reading (GPR) system that
we use. There are two key differences, however.
First, in GPR the English text is left unchanged and unadulterated,
in a conventional font with normal spelling.
Second, the phonetic images we float above the text are instantly
recognisable, once the learner has been introduced to them.
There is no process of “learning the system”, which is a major
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element of most of these special alphabet approaches. And the
use of imagery as opposed to symbols, involves far less processing
on the part of the learner, leaving more mental capacity for the
actual reading.
New Rise of the Whole Word Warriors
Through the 60s a split developed between the direction of
mainstream teachers and that of child psychologists.
The former were being trained in teacher training colleges and
were generally uncomfortable with the nature of a pure phonics
approach to early reading and tended to use whole words
strategies leading into a low intensity phonic explanation of word
The child psychologists were university based and ran experiments,
which showed that the children who struggled with reading had a
very low “phonemic awareness”, meaning that they found
detecting phonemes within words very hard, in comparison to their
So the child psychologists tended to gravitate more and more
towards phonic remedial methods.
The teachers viewed phonics as a purely remedial approach and
remained with a mixed approach for mainstream class teaching.
However, in the early 70s there was a group of new standardbearers for the “meaning first” approach, led by Frank Smith and
Kenneth Goodman.
They were strongly anti-phonics and as a result of their work
phonics-first teaching became virtually banned in mainstream
classrooms through to the mid 1990’s.
The basis of their theories was that a child “learns to read by
reading”. That reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”
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where the child was using a whole range of cues to draw meaning
from the text.
Their suggestion was to purely link text with meaning and to
surround the child with really great reading materials. For this
reason, it was called the “real books” movement. Books should be
well illustrated and exciting. Phonics should be absolutely avoided,
since it was a way to permanently disincline the child to reading.
In Smith’s words:
“Readers have non-visual information about the choices available
to the author, and make full use of their knowledge to reduce their
own uncertainty about what successive words might be… In other
words, the reader knows so much for every word the author
supplies, the reader can provide the next himself, without even
And on reading unfamiliar words:
“The first alternative and preference is to skip over the puzzling
word. The second alternative is to guess what the unknown word
might be. And the final and least preferred alternative is to sound
the word out. Phonics, in other words comes last, and with good
reason, for phonics is the least efficient choice.”
The results can only be described as disastrous. It is quite possible
that individual teachers can get good results with this approach
through their particular force of personality, but nationally it
dropped millions of children into a semi-literate state.
Reading proficiency at 11 slumped back down to 48% of children,
the same level reached in the late 1940s, shortly before Flesch hit
the headlines. Given that probably a third of children would
eventually teach themselves to read with a bit of parental help and
no formal instruction, that is a pitiful result.
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The reasons are simple and I have personal experience of this
having been a father of young children through the 90s.
A primary school teacher has roughly 20 hours of teaching time
through the week. With a class of 30, ten minutes with each child
would take up 5 hours of solid teaching. So there is virtually no
time for individual coaching. And yet, with the real book method,
how in real terms is the child going to develop any ability to read?
He or she was sitting down with a book during set aside quiet
reading times, but had no strategy to be able to make sense of the
At least with a whole word strategy you can have books with
objects and the names of those objects beside them. But real
books books are just that; real books with stories.
We certainly found our children showing absolutely no progress at
all in reading during their time at school. We taught them to read
entirely at home.
While I was doing that I heard a radio programme talking about
phonics and phonemes. It was a term that was unfamiliar to me
and seemingly totally out of use in schools at the time.
The Pendulum Swings Yet Again
In 1996 Martin Turner and Tom Burkard wrote Reading Fever: why
phonics must come first. It was a swingeing attack on the
conventional wisdom of real books:
“Essentially, the tenets of the Whole Language movement have
been that language cannot be split up into pieces, that learning to
recognize words out of context offends against the wholeness of the
text, and that top-down processes moving from the comprehension
of the whole to deciding what individual words might be, placing
meaning at the centre of the enterprise, are of paramount
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importance. Such an emphasis upon hallucination rather than
evidence readily identifies itself as belonging to the intellectual
milieu of the late 1960s.”
You can see why they are called the Reading Wars!
Of course, while the debate raged again, practice in most schools
just carried on in the pragmatic way of most teachers.
It has to be remembered that the vast bulk of primary school
teachers are in the age range 22-40. So they had all been through
the real books system themselves as children. Few had had any
formal phonics training and many were using whole word reading
strategies to read themselves. So, while the education system isn’t
exactly the fabled supertanker, it is quite similar to an armada of
20,000 ships sailing along. In order to change the sailing technique
used in every ship it takes more than a signal from Whitehall.
Studies also found that, while literacy was viewed as an important
part of the education process, surprisingly little time was directly
devoted to it. And even less time was given to any systematic
process for the development of literacy in the pupils.
It seems amazing, but most teachers at that time had had little or
no literacy training while going through teacher training college.
And the knowledge of the causes of potential difficulties with
literacy was virtually non-existent and largely still are. The Special
Needs Coordinator in most schools is just that, a coordinator. They
have often received no training in support strategies. They just
know the administrative procedures.
So the main driver of literacy teaching technique was the stock of
physical materials held in each school. These normally
represented a substantial investment for the school and the
teacher had no choice but to follow the pattern of teaching
presented by the structure of the materials.
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At the same time there was virtually no formal assessment of the
state of literacy achieved by the children.
1990s UK National Literacy Strategy
In the UK a Literacy Task Force was assembled and began to review
all this, including the newly introduced national tests.
It is interesting that in 1995 the number of children achieving level
4 (basic proficiency) at 11 was 48%. Just one year later that had
leapt to 57%.
It is a good example of how tests distort the teaching process
towards passing of the test, because there is clear evidence
(reported by Tymms in 2004) that the actual growth in literacy did
not match the dramatic improvements reported over this period.
In the UK the Labour Party began governing the country in 1997
and immediately set the target of 80% of children reaching the
expected standard by 2002. This was to be achieved through the
development of a National Literacy Strategy (NLS). This set out six
major policy principles:
Education will be at the heart of government
Policies will be designed to benefit the many, not just the
Standards matter more than structures
Intervention will be in inverse proportion to success
There will be zero tolerance for under-performance
Government will work in partnership with all those
committed to raising standards
So they meant business…! And in practical terms the NLS was
based on three main pillars:
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A framework for teaching – setting out the range and
progression of literacy learning
An agreed and common repertoire of generic teaching
methodologies based on good practice and embedded in a
daily Literacy Hour
A national entitlement programme of professional
development for every primary school teacher
The National Literacy Hour was originally based on the Searchlights
model. This was founded on the idea of redundancy and used a
metaphor of searchlights being used to guide a plane in to land. If
you have several searchlights tracking an airplane, when one or
two lose track of it, the plane can still follow the path to the airfield
with the others.
So, in the case of literacy, the searchlights available were phonic
ability, context knowledge, grammatical cues and word recognition.
In other words it was a blend of all the strategies available, based
on the hope that at any particular moment one of them would see
the child through.
This aspect of the National Literacy Strategy came under strong and
consistent attack from the phonics fanatics, who felt that the mixed
approach was quite wrong. They proposed a strategy heavily
weighted on “phonics first and fast”.
At this point Jim Rose was commissioned to do the first of a series
of reviews of literacy strategy. And he recommended in 2006 a
switch to the “simple model” of reading, proposed by Morag
The simple model suggests that there are two distinct elements of
reading; word decoding and meaning comprehension. And it
claims that it is wrong to put the cart (meaning) before the horse
(decoding ability).
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The phonic fanatics are very clear about this; there should be no
reading of text unless it is already known to be decodable by the
child. However, Jim Rose was a bit more circumspect than that in
his report. He suggested that purely decodable texts might be
useful if well written… but that:
“..there is no doubt that the simple text in some recognized
favourite children’s books can fulfil much the same function … it
may be possible to use these books in parallel or in place of them.
In any event, the use of decodable books should not deny children
access to favourite books and stories at any stage and particularly
at the point when they need to read avidly to hone their skills”
The Current Situation
Phonics clearly has the upper hand in 2009. Reading levels have
risen as a result, as they always do, to roughly 80% reaching basic
proficiency at 11, with small variations between countries
(depending to a degree on where you draw the line). That leaves a
staggering one in five children failing.
Most teachers are still uncomfortable with too prescriptive an
approach and it is clear that conventional phonics still leaves some
children unable to read.
It won’t be long before the whole word warriors regain freshness to
their arguments and begin a new assault. With reading levels on a
plateau, the government of the day will want to be seen doing
something about it. The real books arguments are very beguiling.
And small-scale tests almost always get much better results,
whatever approach you use.
The trick is developing a system that supports teachers in a way
that can be successfully rolled out to an entire school system and
still achieve the aim of 98%+ literacy.
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That has been our aim with Guided Phonetic Reading.
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Guided Phonetic Reading and
“The new dawn breaks…!”
Easyread is our version of Guided Phonetic Reading (GPR). I expect
and hope there will be many copies of it over the coming decades
and centuries. I believe it is the closest we will come to a universal
solution to learning to read English.
If you are a publisher considering developing a version of GPR, do
please get in touch because I would be happy to consult and advise
you on it. We have learnt many lessons over the years, some of
which may not be obvious from our materials. In addition, we
have the opportunity to create a unified image set that will
inevitably aid the children using the different versions.
Anyhow, what the hell is Guided Phonetic Reading?
The world is dominated by two things; theories and practical
Grand theories can be things of great beauty but practical solutions
are what make things work.
What happens all around us is always more complex than any
theory. I did a degree in Mechanical Engineering and you quickly
come to realise that the purity of theory is confined to school
education, except in mathematics.
And one of the most exciting things, for me, is seeing real
mechanisms at play.
Everything is cause and effect. Everything that happens has a
mechanism. Nothing, not even the splash of a raindrop is just
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random. If you see a result, there was always a mechanism behind
Now it is always easier to respond to the result you see.
Symptoms are in your face and often scream out to be treated, like
a skin rash. But the underlying mechanism is much more
interesting. Understanding it gets far greater results.
German car engineers know this. They demonstrate highly
compulsive behaviour in their attempts to understand the
mechanisms at work in a car, so that they can control them. And
you know the result.
A good gardener will know the mechanisms of nutrition of the
different plants, so that the environment of the plant can be
optimised. Plants don’t die or thrive through chance.
And the exact mechanisms by which we learn things are the same.
The neurochemical processes in the brain are the key to learning.
Our brain is still largely a mystery, but that does not mean that
there is not an underlying mechanism for everything that goes on
in it.
At all times it has been a fundamental aim of GPR that is should be
first and foremost a practical tool for almost any child to learn to
read with. That is its most elemental concept.
As I go through the stages of GPR, it is this pragmatic utility that we
are always aiming for and any grand theory is subordinated to it.
Phonemic Awareness
English is constructed around an alphabet. So, despite the fact that
it has very inconsistent spelling patterns, it is essential to approach
any alphabet-based text in the way it has been designed to be read.
I can show you any number of examples of how children and adults
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who are restricted to pure sight-reading remain at a considerable
disadvantage to those who can decode text phonetically.
Any reading system that does not aid the child in developing
phonemic awareness is fundamentally flawed and will leave at least
30-40% of children poor readers.
So, the first task of GPR is to develop a phonemic awareness in the
learner. Indeed, the aim in any phonic instruction should be to
build direct links between the visual cortex and the auditory cortex.
That is not a natural pathway and requires some hard work to
However, at no stage does any child doing GPR chant letter sounds.
Voicing individual phonemes is an almost impossible task anyhow.
It can cause considerable confusion for the child and is about as
dull an activity as you can imagine.
Nor is there ever a spelling or pronunciation rule to learn.
Entertain First
It is one of the critical flaws of conventional phonics systems is that
they are incredibly dull. It doesn’t matter whether you call a
system “jolly”, or whatever else, that does not really make it fun.
Boredom is the death of education, at the primary level
particularly. Every cart needs a horse and the driving force of
primary education is interest.
So Rule No 1 of GPR is “no boring stuff”.
We give the child access to phonemic awareness in two ways.
First, the child should be playing games with the sounds of words.
This is something that any preschool or reception class should be
doing anyhow, with rhymes and alliterations. We have a particular
game called “Easyread I Spy”. It is exactly the same as I spy with
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my little eye, except that you use the initial sound of the word,
rather than the initial letter name. This may sound simple, but
actually it is a powerful little tool. Children love playing I spy,
beyond one’s imaginings. And you can play it anywhere.
Second, we introduce imagery to link to each phoneme. Of course
we are not the first to do that. But our imagery has a quite
different aim to the conventional apple, banana, carrot images so
often used.
For one thing, it is quite crazy. We start with the ants in pink
pants, the bear with long hair, the cat having a chat and the duck
covered in muck. Then we quickly move on through eggs with
little legs all the way through to the Zuto from Pluto. In case you
were unsure, the planet Pluto is inhabited by the Zutos.
Easyread Characters
We can teach the alphabet in under a week with this imagery.
Conventional approaches often struggle with that for months.
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All the long vowels have their own Easyread images and the
digraphs as well (eg ch and sh).
The images are crazy, active and colourful for one simple reason; it
makes them far, far easier to remember. How long will it be
before you forget the image of the egg with little legs? And I
haven’t yet told you that he has bit of a problem. You see… he has
a rather embarrassing issue with eggy flatulance. Poooeee.
Part of the reason that they are easy to remember is that they
entertain. I mean genuinely entertain, at least if you are a child
(which includes me I guess).
If a child has not laughed out loud in the first 10 minutes of
Easyread, we view that as a failure. I love receiving messages from
parents saying their child has chosen to get up early to do Easyread
before going to school.
Some of the most emotional complaints that we get have been
sent by a parent having trouble logging on, with their child beside
them throwing a fit about it.
Entertainment is much under-rated in education. Too many
lessons are just crushingly dull.
You may say that some things are just not naturally entertaining.
But I refuse to accept that. I was taught double-entry bookkeeping
with a video presented by John Cleese (star of Monty Python, Life
of Brian and Fawlty Towers). I can remember almost all of it to this
day. Entertainment engages.
Some people ask me when the right time to start a child reading is.
My answer is “when the child can blend individual sounds to form a
simple word.”
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When that is varies enormously. It seems to be a part of the
maturing process in the brain. If a child cannot yet take three
sounds and blend them into a word, they cannot really start
learning to read. They should just stick to playing with sounds and
We start the child blending simple consonant-vowel-consonant
(CVC) words in the first 10 minutes of Easyread. That is what
reading is all about.
There are three tricks we bring into play at this stage.
Our first trick is a simple one. We start with nonsense words.
The key to nonsense words is that you cannot guess them. They
could be anything so trying to guess them is futile. A lot of
children will try to guess a word from the rough length, any context
they have and the first letter of the word. Nonsense words are a
key tool to blocking this habit.
The next trick is that we actually read the word out and get the
child to pick the right one from a choice of three. The child still has
to blend the words to see if they match what has been read out.
But it is evidently easier than reading a word from scratch.
Throughout Easyread we try to use the Vygotskian principle of
scaffolding. Everything is build around creating a framework that
allows the child to succeed, but without spoonfeeding.
And our third trick is our unique TrainerText.
I would love to say that I thought up TrainerText. But in truth it
was a gift from God, or something like that. I can only give thanks
because I created it by mistake.
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I accidentally created the first TrainerText just by using the imagery
from the interior of our alphabet book for the title page.
Anyhow, TrainerText has the phonetic images floating above the
conventional text. The conventional text is completely
unadulterated, but as the child decodes it, the phonetic images are
always there to help.
I cannot overemphasise the beauty of this solution. The child is
now empowered to read anything, once familiar with all the
imagery. And the images are designed to be almost instantly
When a child is learning to read with ordinary text and gets stuck
on a word, what on earth is he or she supposed to do? They end
up guessing.
So TrainerText is a truly revolutionary tool. It frees the child to
work words out without needing help and so the process of reading
can be practised.
It has a huge psychological impact as well.
Most children develop their reading by reading out loud to an
adult. Each time they get stuck and need help, they view it as a
little moment of failure. So reading practice is a serial failure
experience. No wonder they aren’t keen!
Now that moment of difficulty is turned from failure to triumph.
The child works it out and overcomes the obstacle. It pumps their
self-esteem instead of denting it.
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Most of the early stages of Easyread are built around various
Whole word warriors would say that reading should start with the
meaning of the author’s thoughts, in the form of sentences. Well
hold on there a bit, I say! Proust can wait. It is clear to me that
there is a skill to be learnt first.
In line with real book philosophy however, our games are
constantly pushing the text-meaning links in the child’s brain. We
don’t want any “dumb decoding”.
It is something that I would not believe without having seen it, but
some children can learn to decode perfectly, without being able to
understand what they have read. It sounds bizarre, but if they
read out “point at the red square” they would look at you blankly,
even if you said “OK, which square should you point at”. But if you
say to them “point at the red square” (ie what they have just read
out to you) they will do it without any problem.
So we are often switching between the two to force the child to
decode and understand the decoded word. The relationship
between text and meaning is a very important one to keep
The use of a computer and games on the computer also feed into
one of our fundamental concepts; entertain, entertain, entertain.
Even though the games work very well, we quickly move from
games into reading real text, with phonetic guidance. That is what
reading is all about and it brings its own challenges.
We are always trying to get the balance between the two right, but
essentially, we use the games to engage the children and give them
a foundation. They then move onto reading text and the
motivation comes more from their inner desire to learn to read.
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Short, Correct Practice
Reading is a skill. The test for whether something is a skill or not is
whether you can describe exactly how you are doing it.
If you do a complex mathematical calculation, you can explain how
you are doing each step. In fact you are usually made to do that as
part of the process.
When you catch a ball, ride a bike or drive a car, you have no
awareness of how you are doing them. The whole process has
moved into procedural memory.
As you read this text, the same is true. The text flows through your
brain quite seamlessly. In fact, you can’t even stop it. Try staring
at the next few words without reading them… there, what did I
tell you!
I was listening to an interview with a basketball coach a few years
ago. He had been coaching a top university team that had won the
national trophy several times during his tenure. He had then
switched to another university who were in a secondary league and
within 3 years they had won the national trophy as well.
What this coach said was very interesting. He made two key
First, most games are won in the last 10 minutes. So any team of
his was going to be fitter than the opposition.
That isn’t very relevant to literacy, but useful to think about if you
coach a sports team.
The second thing he said was that basketball relied on four key
skills with the ball. All of his players, no matter how naturally
brilliant, would spend at least 2 hours a day practising those four
elemental skills.
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That is relevant to us, because reading is a skill too, with a number
of discrete elements to it. All of Guided Phonetic Reading is about
honing the skill of reading and we use games to work on these
discrete elements of it.
As the basketball coach knew, the key to any skill is practice.
Practice is the mother of ability.
But what effective way has there ever been for children to practice
reading, while learning to read? We have not given them the tools
they need to do that.
Learning to catch a ball, you need some tips on good technique plus
a ball and a wall. Keep chucking the ball and eventually you will
learn to catch it.
A child starts riding with a tricycle. Then they get their first bicycle,
with trainer wheels to balance it. Then the trainer wheels get
disconnected and a parent runs around, risking permanent
disability by holding the bike upright. Meanwhile the child is
learning the sensation-response patterns for balancing the bike
until one day you seem them peddling madly off across the grass,
unaware that you are no longer holding on.
No Rules
Nobody, in the whole course of human history, ever learnt to ride a
bike by studying the engineering and forces involved, while sat in a
classroom. It is an absurd idea.
And yet, we have been teaching children English phonemegrapheme relationships.
There are over 200 potential graphemes (letter patterns) to
represent the 44 main phonemes (sounds) used in our million-plus
words. That is an average of four for each one.
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Most letters can be silent and so that creates even more options to
choose from. And many of the graphemes can represent several
phonemes. We have thousands of words that have two
pronunciations and meanings and yet more words that are spelled
differently but pronounced the same. It is chaos!
A language like German or Spanish can be taught by its spelling
rules. I have learnt to read both languages by learning their rules.
English spelling rules are a cruel joke and a misuse of the word,
since each “rule” only operates around 50% of the time, at best.
That is the reason why literacy levels are so much lower in Englishspeaking countries that the continental European countries of
similar economic wealth.
Around 80% of children do learn to read when taught with
conventional synthetic phonics. But that is because they have
taken their phonemic awareness and managed to apply it to the
code through experience. It is not because learning English
spelling rules are helpful (with the exception of the one I use, “i
before e except after c”, of course!).
However, we now have the solution to making the exercising of the
right neural processes an easy thing to do for everyone;
TrainerText is the tool the children need to actively practise reading
and we use it to build their experience and confidence day by day.
It is the key to Guided Phonetic Reading. It allows them to
genuinely practise the process of decoding.
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Correct Learning Patterns
The one thing that we try to get every parent, teacher and child
involved in Easyread to understand is that a daily rhythm is
absolutely critical.
Many people feel our lessons are too short, but that is something I
learnt from Keda Cowling, author of the ToeByToe system. She is
absolutely rigorous that the lessons should never last more than 15
minutes and that they should be as close to daily as possible. She
is absolutely right. Sometimes less is more.
The reason is that nobody can concentrate on an intense learning
task, like learning to read, for more than a few minutes.
Educational psychologists can measure this. Longer sessions will
lead to poor practice, which is potentially worse than no practice. I
have heard some music tutors say that a learner should only play
for 5 minutes, before taking a short break. As you learn a skill it is
essential to train your neurones to follow the right patterns.
If you do not practice each day, your skill level will steadily decay
between sessions and so you make progress harder for yourself.
Sleep is also an important element of this whole pattern. Your
brain sorts new information overnight and is very good at making
links between the different things that you have learnt. We force
an overnight break between each lesson.
Managed Psychology
I have touched on this before, but I would estimate psychology
management as 50% of Easyread. If a child is stressed, the frontal
lobe begins to shut down and the lizard brain of basic emotions and
fight/flight/immobility takes over. You must have seen that with a
child under stress. They either go very quiet, sullen and withdrawn
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(a form of flight) or they get aggressive. These are simple stress
Now reading is a higher brain activity. So any stress is going to
make it harder. And yet even the parents describe the intense
stress they feel during reading practice, let alone their children.
Generally we try to remove stress as much as possible. That alone
can increase the effective brain capacity of the child enough to
make handling the text easier.
Occasionally we introduce it artificially again in the games we use.
One of the reasons for that is that we want to make reading
standard text seem relatively easy, without the time pressure of
our games. And sometimes the “fun stress” of the game distracts
the child from the stress of the reading task.
Skiing and horse-riding coaches often use this principle. The
learner is stressed by the physical experience and so the coach
takes the focus away from the fundamental task by organising
games. The learner soon forgets to worry once focused on
winning the game.
The opposite of stress is a relaxed spiral of fun, success and
growing self-esteem. That is our aim and we are managing the
child’s psychology throughout the process, by presenting a
Vygotskian series of little steps. Asking a learner to take
achievable steps is the key process and we deliver regular praise
and recognition of that progress through praise, prizes and
Some people may think this is all rather woolly and touchy-feely.
That is just wrong. It is based on hard-won practical experience.
Sometimes we have fixed children’s reading just by changing their
psychology. And trying to achieve anything with a negative
psychology in place is like pushing water up hill.
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School Results
Statistics in literacy are very unreliable and statistics are often
tricky at the best of times! I would always take any statistics you
read on literacy with a good pinch of salt. I know the temptations
of number massaging as well as anybody.
However, there are two things which are useful to know about the
figures I am going to give you below.
First, they come from schools around the country. I can put you in
touch with any of them. They are purely their numbers, not mine.
We have plenty of internal results, but I am not presenting those.
Second, they ran their trials quite independently, without any
coaching or input from me. I only visited one of the schools
You will find many small-scale trials of reading systems have had a
very forceful luminary of the system in close attendance. That
creates a result that is quite irrelevant to the realities of a full-scale
rollout across thousands of schools.
The Children
The children involved were in groups of 5 in different schools.
Their average age was 8 and their average reading age was 6. So
they were substantially behind their peers and not progressing,
despite intervention using a range of the most respected
approaches available.
Range of Response
No reading system is going to resonate equally with every child and
Easyread is no different. 84% managed to accelerate to a rate of
progress equal to their peers. The results within that group varied
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from progress of one month per month of trial up to 8 months of
progress per month of trial.
Average Progress
The average for all the children was an advance of 5 days in reading
age for each Easyread lesson completed. That equated to an
advance of 2.5 months in reading age for each month of the trial.
Having been 2 years behind, around 2/3rds were on target to be in
the middle range of their peers (ie with no detectable reading
difficulty) within 12 months.
Home Results
I can’t give equivalent statistics for the children using Easyread at
home. Formal assessment is not our expertise and is not part of
the Easyread process.
However, we offer an unconditional guarantee on every
subscription to Easyread and our refund request rate in around 12%.
Most of those were children aged 10 or above who we did not
engage over the first 2-3 weeks. Their sight reading was fluent
enough for them to bypass our efforts to get them engaging their
auditory cortex.
Plans For the Future
Easyread is currently designed as an intervention programme for 611 year-olds. We are in the process of making two new versions;
for reception class children and for youths/adults.
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The three versions will be named Foundation, Accelerator and
Maximizer. The new versions are due for release in 2010.
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The Shannon Trust Story
“Changing the world, one person at a time”
The key to this whole journey for me was the Shannon Trust. It is
an organisation that I have great fondness for and which does an
amazing job.
When my father retired, in 1990, my mother was quite worried.
He had always enjoyed work and had worked hard all his life.
Now, she feared, he was going to test the old saying – “I married
you for better or worse, but not for lunch”. She was a very
resourceful woman, however, and quietly looked around for things
he could expend his energies on.
I think this was on her mind when she came across something in
the papers. It was an advertisement from the Prison Reform Trust,
inviting readers to enrol in a penfriend scheme. They were putting
outsiders in touch with long term prisoners in the hope that
corresponding would give them a window on the world outside.
As far as I know, my family has been lucky so far and no one had
seen the inside of prison, although I think my father once went to a
staff dance at Strangeways. Anyway, knowing nothing of what
might lie ahead, both my parents enrolled and in due course
received a package of instructions of a thoroughly practical kind –
what to do, how to do it and, above all, what not to do. The main
advice was to keep a polite distance, not reveal one’s address and
not show too much emotion.
So they each sent out their first letters.
My mother soon received a reply from a very got-together man
called Ray who was making the best of a bad job in prison. He was
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insistent that he hadn’t meant to kill her, but the police and the
court took the view that “he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Meanwhile, my father got no reply. By the time my mother was
reading out her third letter, my father’s vanity was coming under
stress, so he wrote again. This time he did receive a letter from a
man in for murder, called Tom Shannon.
Tom had lost his temper and hit a friend with a hammer, putting
him into hospital. Once in hospital he got MRSA and died.
The next morning, the police called on Tom’s digs. “It’s not GBH
now, Mr Shannon… it’s murder. You put him in harm’s way and
he’s died”. Nobody really believed it was murder or that any court
would say so – except for Tom. He pleaded guilty.
The whole court tried to persuade him to change his plea, but he
had made up his mind. He had done this to his best friend. Prison
would purge his sin.
He had been in prison for about six years when he first wrote to my
father. The judge had given him the lightest possible tariff, the
suggested period that a “lifer” should actually serve. But prison is
no place to shelter a violent temper. In no time he was in all sorts
of trouble. He is a small man and his crime was not one to win him
the respect of other prisoners. And prison can be a hard place.
He developed the opinion that sudden attack was his best form of
defence. He soon joined the small group of difficult prisoners,
continually on the free transfer list. This is a system for exchanging
such prisoners when they have reached the limit of a prison’s
ability to cope.
And yet, there was a certain concept of honour behind his
Once he started writing, he warmed to the project. His letters
were wildly ungrammatical but they were vivid, often rather poetic
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and perpetually entertaining. They were a real eye-opener for
someone unfamiliar with prison. We all think we have an idea of
what prison life is like. My father found that he had been quite
wrong in his imaginings.
Anyhow, it was not long before Tom was in trouble again. A knife
had gone missing, which was resolved but one thing lead to
another until, within a year, virtually every awful thing that one
could imagine had happened to him.
My father had kept his letters and even drafts of his own as a sort
of defence should any misunderstandings arise, but now he began
to wonder whether they didn’t constitute a document of interest to
the public at large. So he collected them into a book called “The
Invisible Crying Tree”, a phrase from one of Tom’s letters.
The book attracted press attention and sold quite well. I can
recommend it as an entertaining, moving and enlightening read.
The question soon arose as to what to do with the royalties.
Tom Shannon was not allowed to receive them and my father
didn’t feel he should pocket his half. So they went to form the
Shannon Trust.
My father spent some of it trying to re-establish contact between
Tom and his family but Tom wasn’t really interested. There were
still some thousands of pounds waiting for a project.
I think my father’s solution came from something in Tom’s letters.
He clearly obtained satisfaction from helping other vulnerable
prisoners – terrified youths or foreigners at sea. This led my father
to the thought of mentoring.
He was already beginning to be vaguely aware of the appalling
problems of illiteracy in our prisons. Tom had mentioned it and
there was some press comment at the time as well.
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It seemed that half our prisoners couldn’t read – a huge problem
and surely partly responsible for getting them locked up. But it
also meant that the other half could read. Maybe they could be
matched up. It was just one of those ideas that come to you
soaking in the bath, but the more he thought about it, the more
enthusiastic he became.
Luckily he had one or two contacts. He knew Sir David
Ramsbotham, who had recently become Inspector General of the
Prison Service. So Sir David knew Sir Richard Tilt, the Director
My father put his idea to the Director General, who said he thought
it was a thoroughly bad one. Prisons already had enough trouble
with the stronger prisoners “grooming” the weaker ones.
However, he said, if my father really wanted to try, he should take
his plan to Wandsworth. If he could get it to work there, it could
work anywhere. I think he was pretty sure it wouldn’t.
Again helped by Sir David, my father met a clergyman, a retired
governor, who was quite intrigued by the idea. “It’s never been
done but don’t let that stop you.” He had a friend, another
clergyman who had resigned as protest against women priests. He
was looking for useful employment.
His wife was a head teacher at a local school and he had an
ambition to teach in prisons on a freelance basis, his specialist
subject being Michelangelo’s sonnets. He believed that much
valuable wisdom could be derived from their close study.
My father was invited to join these two at a meeting already
arranged with the Governor of Wandsworth, a Mr McKnight. My
father said that the meeting was amiable, but he was evidently
puzzled by his visitors. I would love to have been there.
Anyway, my father entrusted his precious idea to the Michelangelo
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And… nothing happened.
Eventually my father decided to go it alone with his idea, and went
back into Wandsworth.
Wandsworth had a new governor by this time, a completely
different kind of man, who was determined to purge its image.
He started by removing the dogs, which meant confronting the
prison staff. He was a courageous man, but he did not seem to
have an easy natural touch with people. The BBC heard of the
confrontations going on at the prison and got permission to make a
film. This film, more than anything else, taught my father about
prison life and prison politics.
He now met the Special Educational Needs Coordinator for the
prison, a woman called Gill Gander. Gill is one of the heroines of
the story. She was very enthusiastic and advised my father to
adopt a book called ToebyToe.
ToebyToe had been produced by a retired primary school teacher
in Yorkshire, with the help of her eldest son. It was the fruit of 30
years teaching, concentrating on the 20% of the pupils in each class
that found reading difficult.
It breaks down the problems into manageable bites, which gave
baffled children a sense of progress, until they eventually realized
that, yes they could read!
It gives teachers rigid and explicit instructions as to how to handle
each exercise. For my father, who was proposing to use prisoners
as untrained teachers, it was ideal. The adoption of ToebyToe was
one of the key developments towards success. He also managed
to persuade its author, Keda Cowling, to come to Wandsworth to
talk about her method, which was a memorable day in the annals
of the prison. She is a true Yorkshire Lady, in the finest style.
But still, the idea refused to take off.
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Every quarter my father would attend a meeting in the prison with
a group of “interested” staff. Plans would be agreed, roles
allocated and my father would bicycle home, with revived hope.
Prior to the next meeting, a second copy of the minutes would be
sent to all involved so that they knew what they had promised to
All was in vain.
At the next meeting, a completely new set of staff members would
file in. My father came to wonder whether they just came because
they were most easily spared from other duties at that moment.
The whole plan had to be explained all over again
By the start of 2000, he had been trying for three years and did not
seem to be getting anywhere. Everyone was very nice about the
Plan, but noone could see how to get it going.
Early that year my father fell very ill with an unusual form of
vasculitus called Wegeners Disease. He recovered sufficiently to
go to Wandsworth for the April meeting at which he withdrew his
offer. He could not go on forever coming to meetings when
nothing happened. He had come to concede that Richard Tilt had
However, at this meeting there was a new face at the table.
This was a young officer on one of the wings called Neil Lodge.
Neil is a huge Zimbabwean, with an utterly irrepressible character.
Of every link in the chain that finally brought the Shannon Trust
Reading Plan into life, Neil’s was the most critical.
He asked if he could be allowed to have one final go at making it
work, on the Onslow Wing. This was the wing for “vulnerable”
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Many of these were relatively well-educated prisoners, inside for
failing to control their libidos. My father did not expect that there
would be a literacy problem. He was wrong.
Furthermore, a VPU (Vulnerable Prisoners Unit) offered certain
advantages. There was less churn (the constant movement of
prisoners from prison to prison). And the atmosphere on a VPU is
also more tranquil. If it requires courage to admit that one cannot
read (and it certainly does), it is less stressful on a VPU because it is
a less macho environment.
In any case, my father had no inhibitions about encouraging Neil
Lodge. He welcomed his offer and gave him all the help he could
provide. In the event, this was not great because he soon had to
return to hospital and did not emerge for many months, and then
in a much enfeebled state.
As he was driven away, he asked me to look after the Shannon
Trust for him.
It proved to be a privilege and a pleasure for me to have been in
charge during this critical moment when, at long last, someone
with vision, enthusiasm and courage had taken up the running
inside the prison. I made sure that Neil lacked nothing, but it was
his daily supervision that turned my father’s idea into something
real. As with so many things in human history, everything literally
turned on one person’s drive.
Neil had gathered a team of 5 mentors, who each took on six
students. It became their entire way of life.
The system had just three rules:
The lessons had to be daily
They had to be one-on-one
They were limited to 20 minutes
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The mentors had a leader who organized everything. In return the
mentors were given various small concessions, such as having their
cell door open through the day. And they had a fulfilling way to
spend their day.
Once recruited some of the mentors developed the same level of
energy and commitment to the project as Neil. He was now
operating as a facilitator. He kept in touch with everyone daily,
having a chat with the prisoners involved as he crossed with them
in the wing. All the heavy lifting was done by the mentor team.
In the Autumn David Ramsbotham carried out an inspection at
Wandsworth and reported that the Onslow Wing was alive with
enthusiastic mentors and mentees, teaching and learning how to
read. They were wandering round the wing proudly displaying
their bright red ToebyToe manuals.
My father’s reaction was that someone must have been taking the
piss out of Sir David. After so many barren years, he simply did not
believe it. But it was true.
Richard Tilt’s challenge, then, had been met. It was working at
We now also had a second project running near Oxford, at
Bullingdon Prison, where I had introduced it.
My father gradually resumed control as his health returned.
Sometime during 2001, he took to the road, visiting whatever
prison would receive him to tell them the good news.
They were all very friendly but only one took any action, a high
security prison in Durham called HMP Frankland. This was
surprising because life in a high security prison is very restricted,
but in late 2002, after two years on the road, my father had
another acceptance, thanks to a lady in the Frankland education
department. She is called Karen Bruce.
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But one prison in two years is not impressive. There was evidently
a problem.
My father began to wonder whether it might be that prison
governors were wary of the Prison Officers Association. The POA is
the prison officers’ trade union and it had a somewhat militant
reputation. Contemplating seeking their support, he asked Sir
David’s advice, which was “you really are crazy”. At the other end
of the scale, he also asked Neil Lodge and his advice, which was
equally negative. Neil’s view was that the project had nothing to
do with the POA. Their job was to look after their members.
However, my father had had many dealings with trades unions in
his time and felt there was nothing to lose. So he set off on the
long journey to Cronin House where he got a friendly reception.
He explained his idea to two members of their National Executive
Council, who instantly understood. By the time he was trudging
back to the station, my father was assured of the POA’s support.
Their reasoning was simple. They knew that the system was
changing the mentality of the prisoners for the better. It gave the
inmates a new sense of personal pride and hope in the future. That
made them easier to deal with for the prison officers. They knew
this from the prison officers involved. Not just Neil but all his
colleagues as well.
It had been a surprising and wonderful moment for me as well,
when a very experienced older officer said to me in a meeting
“Frankly David I thought this whole thing was a load of tosh when I
first heard about it. I certainly don’t now!”
So Neil was right about the role of the POA, but they saw that as
the very reason for supporting the project, not the reverse.
In one way or another, this was the turning point.
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It was not so much the active support of the POA members but
rather the fact that prison managements now lost their fear. They
no longer felt that if they supported the idea of ToebyToe, they
could expect a visit from the POA Branch Secretary with questions
about their officers’ job descriptions. At any rate, by the end of
the year, ToebyToe was operating in 69 prisons.
There was another factor that allowed this sudden expansion to
Back in 2000 we had had a “graduation” ceremony for a group of
prisoners who had learnt to read on the system. There were about
30 students, plus the mentors and various staff involved, all due to
be at the meeting, along with my father and me. So I phoned
around the various national papers and eventually managed to get
the Saturday Telegraph Magazine to send a journalist over for the
The journalist had come along, but his article never appeared.
Now, 18 months later and just at the right moment for us, it was
finally printed. It aroused great interest.
The Trust was soon receiving fan mail from people all up and down
the country asking to help. Oh yes, of course they could! We
welcomed them in.
Suddenly, in a couple of weeks, my father’s lonely plod around the
country was replaced by the Shannon Field Force, made up of
volunteers resolved to sell ToebyToe into their local prison. This
ragtag group were soon to be the new driving force of the Shannon
Prisons are very difficult places to run. They have to deliver so
many things over and above the safe containment of their inmates.
If they are going to experiment with something radically new, such
as what my father was proposing, they need consistent support
both in terms of materials but also in terms of encouragement.
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It was soon evident that my father’s early intuition that ToebyToe
would only work if it was voluntary and run by people who believed
in it, had been perfectly right. It was the volunteer’s job to find the
necessary enthusiast from amongst the junior staff in the prison.
There is always one key individual in every site where it runs well.
It is the Neil Lodge syndrome, replayed again and again.
Our volunteers had to find that person, quite a challenge in itself,
and then remain in regular contact, to keep the energy in the
project flowing.
The facilitator in the prison always has a tricky balancing act to
achieve. The voluntary principle does not apply to prison staff.
The prisoners who take part, either as mentors or as mentees,
need to feel that they are doing it of their own volition. Any hint
that the governor wants them to do it is a turn-off.
There was an interesting moment in Birmingham prison, early on,
when the governor discovered all these ToebyToe mentors on his
wings and proposed to pay them. After some discussion, the
mentors asked him not to. They did not want their mentees to
think they were doing it for money.
All of this makes the promotion of ToebyToe a delicate operation.
It is important not to allow it to become part of the box-ticking
system that the prisons have to play by. On the other hand, it is
important that everybody who is a link in the chain between the
Trust and the newest mentee should feel appreciated and involved
in something worthwhile. Measuring progress and achievements
is clearly part of that.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this was to achieve the support
of the Department of Education.
My father had some very disappointing meetings with staff in the
prison education system, which were only too easy to understand.
Teachers go through lengthy and rigorous training before they are
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let loose. And here was my father proposing to use untrained
criminals for the same purpose. So it was natural for them to feel
it couldn’t, or even shouldn’t, work.
However, we were delivering something that they couldn’t.
This was and still is for several reasons. The main one is that adults
who can’t read are embarrassed and will only respond if offered
private, one-to-one lessons by someone they trust. They will
almost never go into a classroom, after years of frustration and
torment at school.
Secondly, it is the sheer scale of the problem. We are talking of
over 50,000 prisoners who can’t read at any one time. Most of
these will only learn to read if given sufficient daily one-to-one
coaching. This is far beyond the capacity and resources of the
prison education departments. Using our army of inmate mentors
is the only affordable way to tackle the problem.
When my father’s experiment began to succeed, he went to see
the new Director General of the prison service, by this time Phil
Wheatley. He asked him why he would not support his efforts and
Wheatley replied that he was now much inclined to, especially as
the POA was doing so. However, he would first have to obtain the
agreement of the Department of Education.
When the Department replied, it was negative. No, they said, he
must not support ToebyToe because it diverged from the principles
laid down by the National Curriculum. Wheatley felt he had to
accept their professional opinion, but to give him his due, he
replied by saying that, as the system seemed to be working, the
Department should research it before they turned it down.
The research was approved and was conducted by an outstanding
civil servant called Liz Lawson.
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The outcome was that, while ToebyToe did indeed diverge from the
National Curriculum, it was proving an ideal medium for the
Shannon Trust. And the Trust was helping non-readers whom the
official methods had been unable to reach. The final report by the
various researchers had to be toned down by Liz, because she felt it
wouldn’t be taken seriously as delivered. The researchers had gone
native! Indeed two of them joined as volunteers for the Trust.
So the Trust was encouraged to continue and was officially
requested to help out with those non-readers who could not be
helped by the prisons’ education departments. A special manual
was commissioned to form a bridge between the national
curriculum and what we were doing with ToebyToe.
It is a funny window into how society operates that this bridging
manual cost more than our entire operating budget for that year.
And at about this time we were trying to work out how to finance
our future operations and were advised to drop “teaching people
to read” as our aim, since there was no funding for that. However
there was lots of money available for mentoring and so we should
present ourselves as a mentoring charity instead and line up in the
Anyhow, we took the green light with enthusiasm and continued to
grow our operations, focusing on just our literacy aims. We were
lucky that the money appeared when we needed it, from a variety
of very generous individuals and organizations.
The Trust has not yet reached its full potential and probably never
It is currently operating in some 130 prisons – but there are 150.
Furthermore, in so far as we can tell, it is probably teaching about
10,000 prisoners during the course of a year and there are about
50,000 in prison at any one time who effectively can’t read. There
is also the obvious international potential for the process.
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A spell in prison has proved to be a potentially unique opportunity
and turning point in people’s lives. While not all of the 10,000 will
finish the course, which takes on average 4-6 months, all will obtain
benefit and a realization that learning to read is not impossible.
The system has also delivered a secondary and equally invaluable
benefit. All those involved seem to gain in self-esteem, whether
they are mentors or mentees. As something to do in prison, it
rates very highly on the value scale. All involved learn that they
are worth something.
There is an irony, in this.
Where Sir Richard Tilt was afraid that ToebyToe would lead to
abusive practices, the opposite has happened. One of the Trust’s
standard techniques with a new site has been to hunt out the
biggest and toughest inmates as either mentors or mentees. They
are often the trend setters within the inmate community and can
open the door to success. Indeed, the Prison Service is now
seeking more ways to release the hidden talents of its inmates, not
just to benefit from their skills but also to release their impulse for
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