Reading Ability (1950)

This pamphlet was a response to concerns that reading standards had fallen as a result of the second world war.

The complete document is shown in this single web page. You can scroll through it or use the following links to go to the various sections.

I The problem of illiteracy and its setting (page 7)
II An investigation and its results (10)
III The effects of the war (13)
IV Backwardness in reading (14)
V Learning to read (15)
VI Remedial measures with older pupils (21)
VII The illiterate adult (26)

Appendix An investigation into post-war reading ability (31)

The text of Reading Ability was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 2 April 2022.

Reading Ability (1950)
Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 18

London: His Majesty's Stationery Office 1950
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.


[title page]





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IS ILLITERACY increasing in this country? The question in this general form is not easy to answer because illiteracy is not an exact term and reading ability has not in past years been measured by any standard scale. Two years ago a small committee of experts set out, at my request, to discover how far children's ability to read had been affected by the war. Their findings are reported in an appendix to this pamphlet. It is to be noted that the committee were dealing with only one aspect of illiteracy and that the results of their investigations are expressed in statistical terms. They decided for their purposes to describe as illiterate anybody who could not, at the time of their investigation, read as well as an average child of 7 in the year 1938. Of the 15-year-olds examined in 1948 1.4 per cent were found by this standard to be illiterate and 4.3 per cent semi-literate. The ability to read of pupils of 11 years and 15 years old was found, on the average, to be behind that of their fellows of 10 years earlier by 12 and 22 months respectively.

Nearly six years of war might well have produced a greater set-back but for the vitality and devotion of the education service. Some set-back was clearly inevitable. I therefore asked the committee to consider, in the light of the results of their investiga:tion, whether they could make any suggestions which would be likely to be of help to teachers in recovering the lost ground.

This pamphlet is their answer. The fact that it is addressed primarily to teachers does not imply that the drop in the standard of reading ability is a consequence of poor teaching. On the contrary, I believe that it was only the unremitting efforts made by teachers during and after the war to offset its consequences that prevented a serious collapse of standards. I hope the suggestions here made will prove helpful to all those - whether teachers, parents, managers, or members of education committees - who recognise that the ability to read, write and figure and the development of personality are not competing ideals, but that the first is an indispensable minister to the second.

November, 1950.

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I The Problem of Illiteracy and its Setting7
II An Investigation and its Results10
III The Effects of the War13
IV Backwardness in Reading14
V Learning to Read15
VI Remedial Measures with Older Pupils21
VII The Illiterate Adult26

APPENDIX An Investigation into Post-War Reading Ability

[page 7]



Illiteracy and Public Concern

Those who have been closely concerned with school education have always known that, in spite of the efforts of teachers, a few of the children leaving school each year are unable to read or write, while a number can do so only haltingly. Occasional cases, brought to light in reports in the press, produce little effect on the public mind: but when large numbers of men and women were brought together in the Armed Forces, the number of illiterates found, though small in proportion to the whole, was sufficient to pose a problem which could not be ignored. Not unnaturally the amount of illiteracy among young people has become in recent years a matter of growing concern, and various personal estimates of its extent have been made.


A short review may help to provide the background of the problem. In earlier times, when illiteracy was widespread, the inability to read or write may have been for many people no more than an occasional inconvenience, but as industries developed and life became more complex, society demanded more knowledge in the individual worker. Illiteracy was seen to be a national problem, for in the nineteenth century, in spite of great effort by voluntary agencies and a little help from the State, the proportion of the population which could neither read nor write was considerable.

The Education Act of 1870, passed in those circumstances, was intended to secure a minimum standard of literacy in a large number of pupils. The curriculum of state-aided schools was heavily weighed with reading, writing and arithmetic. Grants were payable according to the number of pupils who had reached a certain standard of knowledge, and due regard was not paid to variation in the ability of individual children to reach that standard. Large numbers of teachers were untrained. Classes in urban areas of fewer than 60 were for many years after 1870 a rarity. Mass methods of instruction, which included much meaningless drill in oral reading, were the order of the day. Necessarily, in spite of the very large amount of time spent in attempting to teach pupils to read, a number of them acquired little or no useful skill.

In education the 1870s were times of ferment. Many public men of great ability sought to broaden its scope. Proposals to introduce a wider curriculum were, however, conceived almost automatically in terms of "subjects" in which the pupil should

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receive "instruction", and the unspoken assumption was that all pupils would be capable of reaching a certain standard of attainment in any subject however varied their aptitude and however varied their innate ability, provided that they received enough of the right kind of instruction. This assumption was implied in such terms as "woodwork instructor", "instructress in cookery" and "practical instruction", and has not been completely eliminated from the public mind even today.

But from about 1900 onwards developments in psychology and child-study have had far-reaching effects on the principles and practice of education. Attention has been focussed on children rather than subjects and there is an increased recognition of individual differences of innate ability among children of the same age-group. Indeed there is a danger that the many tests brought to the measurement of such variations may be tending ultimately to exaggerate comparatively small differences and to obscure what children have in common. Nevertheless mental measurements, though not as exact as those of physics, show beyond all reasonable doubt that innate differences of ability between individual children of comparable ages can be neglected only to the detriment of the children themselves.

Administrative modifications of the general requirements of public education have also helped to bring the range of Individual differences of ability to more general notice. Grants for the three R's were abolished in 1890, and in 1902 and 1918 new Acts of Parliament reshaped large parts of the educational system. But it was perhaps the re-organisation which took place in many areas following the *Hadow Report in 1926 that had the most striking effect. Thereafter the whole tendency of school organisation was in the direction of classifying pupils in their age-groups. Pupils were sent to senior schools at the age of about 11, and it ceased to be the practice to hold back in younger classes pupils who failed from native lack of ability to make enough progress in learning to go on up the junior departments to the senior schools. (Previously it had been not unknown for a backward pupil of 14 to be taught in a class whose average age was 9). As a result, many backward children went into senior schools, some indeed unable to read text-books at all. The range of attainment in senior classes was wider than it had ever been, and backward pupils faced many teachers of older classes with a problem which was new to them, and, incidentally, virtually unsuspected by large numbers of the general public.

The war and the Education Act of 1944 quickened public interest in education. It is now laid down that children are to be educated according to their ages, abilities and aptitudes. The lingering effects of the nineteenth century system of "payment by results" are now fading away in the schools. In the past,

*The Education of the Adolescent. Report of the Consultative Committee, 1926. His Majesty's Stationery Office, 2s.

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many children were offered more learning than they were able to take in, and may through a sense of failure have lost ground as a result, instead of gaining. Some say on the other hand that if less is offered, less will be learned. These statements may be equally true but, if they are, they are not true of the same children. It is as easy to underestimate the powers of the able children as to overload those of the less able, and as necessary to avoid both, and it is part of the teacher's job to know what to demand of each child at each stage of his development, so that all may reap the greatest possible benefit from their schooling. Thus when all has been done that can be done by administration and through increases in knowledge, the teacher will still play the crucial part in the educational process.

The Experience of H.M. Forces

Since the influx into H.M. Forces early in the war was very large, comprising indeed a considerable proportion of the population, it is not surprising that the total number of illiterates among them was large, though not as large as some critics have assumed. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have special technical requirements and, in consequence, a selective procedure. As a result these two Services have no illiterates and only a small proportion of men who are handicapped by poor ability. The Army, therefore, has had to assume the main burden of the problem.

The new situations created for them by army life constituted a threat to the morale of recruits who could neither read nor write. Doubtless many of them had found means to get along well enough without reading or writing in civil life, and had thus lived down the frustrating failures of their schooldays, but these failures were now brought to light once more, and the men's feelings of inferiority were reinforced because they could not write to their relations at home, so that their personal ties appeared to them to have been almost destroyed. Different individuals reacted differently to their circumstances: though some wanted positively to learn to read and write, some became emotionally disturbed, and some indeed became miserable and frustrated. Furthermore, apart from the question of morale, there was also the matter of technical efficiency, and indeed of safety, to be considered, for inability to read instructions might make a man dangerous to himself and to others.

The Army has organised courses for men of very low educational attainment since 1925, when the first book specially designed for teaching recruits to read was prepared. The incidence of illiteracy at the beginning of the war led the War Office to arrange basic education courses of six weeks' duration in each Home Command. These courses are still held. Here the non-readers are taught by specially adapted methods which are described later. There are no exact figures of the successes

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achieved by the courses, but it is certain that many men have been enabled to read and write; they have learned both to take their places with increased self-respect as soldiers and to get more satisfaction out of life as ordinary human beings.


There has always been some illiteracy in the country, though its extent has not hitherto been reliably assessed, and often exaggerated. It has forced itself on public attention once again in recent years and the time is opportune for making some attempt to estimate its extent, so that any progress which may later be made in its reduction can be measured. Though techniques for such inquiries have been improved, it will be seen from later pages on how narrow a front it has been possible to come to conclusions which, although they may be claimed to be more exact that any hitherto drawn, are still somewhat tentative. Nevertheless, since more is known now than formerly about the abilities of children and about successful methods of teaching slower learners, it may be useful to discuss not merely the extent of the problem but also ways of solving it.


Appointment of a Committee

In September, 1947, a committee consisting of representatives appointed by the Ministry of Education, the Defence Departments, the Prison Commission and the Home Office was set up at the instance of the Minister of Education with the following terms of reference:

"To consider the nature and extent of the illiteracy alleged to exist among school leavers and young people and, if necessary, to make recommendations."
After reviewing the extent of their task, and after considering earlier investigations, the committee decided to carry out an independent inquiry. In the first instance they limited themselves to a specific part of the field, and what follows resulted from these initial investigations.

The Definition of Illiteracy

The word "illiterate", which originally meant "un-lettered", has, over several hundred years, acquired so many shades of meaning that it has ceased to be immediately usable for exact thought. The purposes for which written or printed words are used are so varied that it is quite easy to be fully competent in one situation and not in another. Thus it has been said that "it is common knowledge that our professional students and

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candidates for the Ph.D. are illiterate". No doubt these students and candidates may sometimes have difficulty in presenting an account of a complicated piece of research, but they would certainly be able to make out a washing list for the laundry. Or, again, the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that "In the more restricted and technical sense of the term an illiterate is one who is unable to read and write his own language. The tests of this ability vary greatly, but all are so simple that a person could easily pass them and yet be illiterate in the wider sense." But even "to read and write one's own language" is not a clear definition - to read an erudite work of literary criticism is quite a different occupation from reading an account of a football match. In truth most definitions of illiteracy amount to this - "that he is illiterate who is not as literate as someone else thinks he ought to be".

Clearly a specific definition of the word "illiteracy" suitable for the committee's purposes was needed, and some standard of educational attainment had to be adopted. Such a procedure involves an unavoidable element of arbitrariness, but it enables all to follow the argument in the same terms and to be aware at which points and to what extent the arbitrariness is introduced.

To define illiteracy in terms of the standards reached in 1948 would have been misleading, since it was not to be expected that the schools of the nation would go through the war without some loss. It was therefore thought best to base the definition on the attainments of average children in 1938. A person having a reading ability less than that of an average 7 year old in 1938 was taken to be illiterate - in technical terms the standard was a 1938 reading age of under 7 years. In addition, it was thought useful to define a state of semi-literacy, and for this a 1938 reading age of between 7 and 9 years was taken. One further point must be made clear. The committee limited itself to one aspect of reading only: the ability to read silently with understanding, in so far as this can be assessed by reading tests.

*The Form of the Investigation

A new test** for assessing ability to read silently for comprehension was constructed and given to a number of pupils of various ages. These same pupils were also given certain pre-war reading tests. By comparing the results it was possible to say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, what score on the new test would have been made by an average pupil of a particular age in 1938. That is, it was possible from a person's score on the test to asses his reading age by the 1938 standard.

*This account is given in very general terms for the reader who does not wish to go into the technical details of the enquiry. An extended account is given in an appendix to this pamphlet.

**This was designed by Dr. A. F. Watts and Professor P. E. Vernon and has been called the Watts-Vernon Reading test.

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When this preliminary work had been done, the test was given in 1948 to some 3,400 pupils aged 15 and to 2,800 pupils aged 10 to 11 years. It was also given to 3,000 men and women recruits to the Forces to discover If there was any evidence that skill in reading fades after pupils leave school.

The Results

As far as illiteracy, semi-literacy and fading of reading were concerned the following conclusions emerged:

(a) About 1.4 per cent of the pupils of age 15 years could be classified as illiterate according to the committee's standard.

(b) For semi-literacy the figure was 4.3 per cent.

(c) Contrary to general belief, there appeared to be no fading of skill in the interval between leaving school and enlistment, always providing that the stage of semi-literacy had been reached.

Caution is necessary in interpreting the figures; but it is probable that many people would have expected those under (a) and (b) to be higher. It is instructive to look further into the results and compare the average standard with that in 1938.

Some general fall in reading ability was expected, and the committee wished to make some estimate of the extent both of the fall and of any recovery which might be taking place. As far as this kind of test can indicate, the lag behind 1938 standards varied from school to school, but for pupils of average ability it was about one year ten months for the 15 year old group taken as a whole. On the very rough assumption used by psychologists - that such a lag is proportioned to age - this would be equivalent to one year four months at the age of 11 years. In fact, for the 10 to 11 year old group the corresponding figure was one year, which suggests that the schools had by 1948 begun to make headway against the difficulties of the war and post-war years.

It should be emphasised that the results relate to a skill which was defined within fairly narrow limits. Such a skill, however important in itself, does not embrace the whole of education. It may be tempting to draw conclusions from the test results about the general state of education in England; but to do so would be like trying to judge a man's character from a short examination of a small and routine part of his whole life. Equally it would be unjustifiable to fall into the error of complacency and to assume that, because things may be getting better, all will be well if they are left to recover themselves.

One further question must be considered. Was the test of the right type? Would a different test on different principles, or using a different vocabulary, have produced a sensibly different result? The answer is that the results under (a) and (b) above might change a good deal if the test were varied; but it is

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unlikely that a different test would have given a materially different result for the fall in reading ability of the average child. It is fair to say that the results provide prima facie evidence that the schools are faced with a problem of which all will wish to take stock.


FEW COULD have foreseen the full effect on education of the war. Evacuation separated children from their homes and often produced deep emotional disturbances in the process. Nor were the stresses and strains solely confined to those who were evacuated; reception had its personal problems as well. In very many homes the father was away in H.M. Forces, or the mother was out at work - or both - so that children sometimes had to fend for themselves. It may be truly said that the schools provided a security of background which did much to offset these disturbing factors.

These same schools had, perforce, to carry on their more difficult task under conditions which were a hindrance to progress in school work. There was a constantly changing school population, among the staff as well as the pupils, and not only as a result of evacuation. For the call-up affected the teaching staffs and many individual families moved house. Inevitably there was a considerable loss of school time for many children, and when they were actually in school, classes were often too large. The fundamental material aids to learning, books and paper, were scarce, and the sheer physical and nervous strain on teachers was very heavy. To remember that pupils who were 15 years old in 1948 received their primary schooling in the years 1938 to 1944 is to have some measure of the disturbance they suffered.

For the 10 to 11 year olds the period at the end of the war and the following years was not much better. There was still great interference with continuity of schooling, since many schools faced a home-coming to bombed areas where classrooms were crowded and school buildings were in bad repair. There was still, in many cases, disturbance of home life. Abnormal numbers of families were on the move, schools continued to suffer from many changes of staff, and the strain on teachers was still heavy.

It would seem that a considerable part of the effect of the war on children's schooling can be summed up in the word "discontinuity". Discontinuity arose from many causes but, from the child's point of view, the effect was always the same. He was continually having one more adjustment to make, continually needing time to come to terms with new circumstances.

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Backwardness and Retardation

Quite apart from war conditions, there are general causes of backwardness. Obviously there will always be some who, simply from lack of ability, will be backward in reading, even to the point of illiteracy, however well they have been taught and however favourable other external conditions may be. Nothing is gained, indeed much may be lost, by turning a blind eye to the wide difference in ability between different people.

But backwardness may also occur because a pupil has not reached the standard which his mental ability would suggest. If the discrepancy between his attainment and mental ability, as assessed by a test of intelligence, is too large to be just an accident of the moment, then he is retarded in the technical sense of the term. If we accept the implication of the inquiry, it follows that there is a considerable problem of retardation to add to the backwardness which would normally be expected.

The Main Causes of Retardation

Retardation may arise from any one of a number of causes which are often confused, and at the risk of a little repetition of the last chapter it will be convenient to list the more important of them here.

(a) Personal Handicaps. Deafness, defects of vision or speech, emotional instability, or other handicaps may occur in particular cases. Sometimes they may not be immediately obvious, but they may always be looked for where progress at school is slow.

(b) Home Conditions. The simple, indeed trite statement that a child's life should have a unity of its own is not always appreciated at its full value. There are many children from broken or unhappy homes who are at a very real disadvantage compared with others from homes where personal relations are good. But when there is unity in the home, there is sometimes insufficient co-operation with the purposes of the school - perhaps indicated by a lack of books or other cultural influences, or by unsuitable recreations - so that home and school fail to reinforce one another. Other more material disadvantages occur: overcrowding with its attendant impoverishment of the whole background of family life, lack of sleep, and inadequate nourishment are still, unfortunately, the lot of some children.

(c) School Conditions. Some classes are so large that it is difficult to give enough individual attention to children who fall behind. Too frequent staffing changes, poor buildings, lack of equipment and of suitable books, or lack of suitably qualified teachers can all contribute to the result.

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(d) Interrupted Schooling. This may be due to ill-health, too frequent change of school, or simply to irregular attendance. Discontinuity has already been mentioned in connection with the effects of the war; but there are of course discontinuities in the school system itself. The change from infants' to junior school or from junior to secondary school, which is a stimulus to many children, may occur at a critical stage in the progress of a backward child; and even a change from one teacher to another within the same school may cause him considerable difficulty.

(e) Timing and Teaching Methods. These are dealt with in the following chapters. It is sufficient to note here that a premature introduction to printed matter, or the use of unsuitable methods, particularly in the early stages, can have harmful effects.

The Part of the School

The causes of poor attainment in reading have, therefore, various origins and the remedies may frequently lie outside the province of the school, even though teachers know and sympathise with the difficulties which confront individual children. In any case, the easing of handicaps due to natural defects or home conditions is in general a long-term process. But where there is the permanent handicap of lack of native intelligence the teacher has a difficult but important part to play; to reduce the effects of the handicap to a minimum. Increased knowledge and interest in this problem enables more to be done now than formerly. In addition, teachers in their own proper function can help to deal with the problems of timing, teaching methods and some of the forms of discontinuity. But if the immediate incidence and effects of backwardness are to be reduced, more teachers than ever before will be involved, including a considerable number of teachers of older children.

This pamphlet is intended particularly for practising teachers and those in training. In the following pages teaching methods are discussed, not because they are necessarily the most important causes of backwardness, but solely because they are within the teacher's control.


The Nature of the Following Observations

It should be said at once that what follows is intended to be taken merely as food for thought and not as an official text on the teaching of reading. It is important that nothing should reduce the initiative and responsibility of the teacher. Nor should teachers use methods without a personal conviction of their value. Nevertheless, there is value in thinking afresh about familiar methods and in trying the unfamiliar.

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A few general points are worth emphasising, Even for backward pupils, the place of reading in the primary school is much larger than the field covered in this pamphlet, and in concentrating on backwardness, the tendency must be resisted of seeing the education of all children from the view point of what is best for the slowest. While there will always be slow learners there will always be quick ones too, and many children of 10 years old can use books as well as others who are 14. For the more able child reading soon becomes not a difficulty but an opportunity.

It is well continually to bear in mind the pitfalls of thinking about one part of the educational process, in this case reading, apart from the whole of education. Reading is only one aspect of the ability to handle language, and this ability is itself brought into play by wider needs. Speech is important to reading, for it brings with it an increase of vocabulary and increased power to use words. Hence the importance of interesting things to do, so that children may have varied occasions for speech and varied matters for conversation among themselves and with the teacher. Similarly, listening and, at the appropriate stage, writing can add their quota to the child's experience of language, and can be made to contribute not only to the mere power to read, but to the more important power of comprehending what is read.

Correct Timing

Of the main causes of backwardness in reading which are within the teacher's control, faulty timing is of such general importance that it is given first consideration here. There is now much evidence to show that most children are not ready for specific instruction in reading before a certain state of maturity has been reached. This maturity will depend on home conditions and social environment, facility in spoken language, emotional stability, and upon the level of innate ability. Though it is possible objectively to assess, in some of its aspects, the stage of maturity reached, nothing can replace the understanding and knowledge of a teacher who is a sympathetic observer of the children under her care.

If formal work is begun before the children have had the experiences that provide a background of spoken language, the result for many will be that reading will lack meaning and purpose. It may not be easy at the earlier stages to detect much general improvement in reading when the start of formal work is delayed. No one who has been long in schools will doubt that an early start may produce in some children a certain spurious forwardness which might help to raise the reading age on tests. Such misleading gains would certainly be lost by delaying the start, but one could reasonably expect gains to balance the losses, and from the human point of view great gains. Indeed, because of the children's greater maturity and their surer grasp of the purposes of reading

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one could reasonably expect those who start late to make faster progress when more formal methods do begin, and to reach a higher standard in the end. Those boys and girls who show signs of being ready to learn to read early can still be encouraged; what is of prime importance is that, as far as teaching conditions permit, the individual child should proceed at his own uninterrupted pace.

Learning to read is part of the process of growth and as such it is uneven in the sense that no two people grow at the same rate; but for each individual person it is continuous process. It follows that teachers at all stages, but in the junior school particularly, have to deal with children of widely differing reading attainment. They need therefore to be acquainted with techniques of preparing and teaching children to read both in the infants' school and subsequently.

Preparation for Reading

It is not for a moment suggested that premature formal teaching should be replaced by a complete vacuum. Just as very young children learn to speak by being as it were immersed in the spoken language, so slightly older children can grow up at school in an atmosphere in which the written word is accepted as one of the natural and necessary accompaniments of living. Such children can be making acquaintance with words in visual form long before they realise why they do so. The skilful teacher will contrive many occasions on which everyday happenings may be associated with the printed word, so that the child comes to accept this as a necessary and proper part of his daily life.

It has already been implied that the first step to literacy is through speech, and that children need to build up a stock of ideas and a vocabulary sufficiently large to enable a beginning in reading to be made. To this end, more active ways of learning, in which a child takes a positive part in his own education instead of being passively taught, are becoming more common in schools; but "activity" in itself is not enough. It needs to be carefully planned, and to be accompanied by a deliberate intention on the part of the teacher to use every appropriate opportunity for enriching the children's experience of the mother tongue and for practising them in its use. While all this is going forward, children can be discovering the pleasure to be found in books by listening to the teacher reading stories and by handling attractive picture books; or poetry may be used to give sheer pleasure in words and their sounds.

The forms which the preparatory period may take will vary with the circumstances of each particular school. To some extent this more or less extended preparation is an act of faith, for no measuring device can accurately assess the amount of learning which has taken place. But perhaps the grounds for faith are as

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simple as this: before organised skill can come, there must first be something to organise.

Formal Teaching

It is only for convenience of thought that a distinction is made between formal and informal learning. The two are inseparable and the time never comes when we cease to learn informally. But at some point or other - and here nothing can replace the teacher's judgment - the printed book will be introduced. For convenience, this point may be regarded as marking the beginning of formal work. Drawing, painting, making, playing, writing and talking will continue and can, as the occasion arises, relate to and supplement the work with books.

Skill in reading consists in making sense out of printed matter, and skill in teaching reading naturally requires that the meaning of what is being read should not be obscured by an over-emphasis on symbols. There are some children who will quickly appear to be able to read a passage aloud when in fact they are merely reacting to the symbols of the printed word by making appropriate sounds. It was precisely this point which Matthew Arnold made when complaining bitterly of the effect of "payment by results" on the reading of children in schools some 80 years ago. A too exclusive use, therefore, of reading aloud has the specific danger that of the three things involved - word pattern, sound and meaning - the last, which is the most important, may go by the board. This draws attention to the value of silent reading. Moreover silent reading techniques allow children more readily to move forward at their own pace.

It is useful to distinguish between the linking up of words with meaning, which is universally recognised as obligatory, and the detailed methods by which children can be helped to read new words. There are many competing detailed methods each with its own supporters and detractors; but it is now generally recognised that no single method is applicable to all children or to all occasions. Sometimes a word will be "spotted" from its context. Other words may be built up phonetically from the sounds of the separate letters or syllables; though it is worth noting in passing that many of a child's common stock of words do not come under this heading. The phonic method may therefore confuse dull children, if used at too early a stage. Again, in spite of the dangers of establishing mere association of sounds with print, the look-and-say method can be a valuable aid, particularly towards establishing fluency.

This brief and designedly incomplete discussion will suffice for present purposes. These and other methods are more fully treated in books on the teaching of reading. The final aim is that children should grow into literate adults. able to see whole words or phrases and to know what they mean immediately. This

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is no mean skill and it requires constant practice, not in the sense of isolated drill with separate words, but rather through constant experience of reading combined with understanding.

The School Library

It is becoming generally recognised that a school library can be one of the central agencies in the educational economy of infants' and junior schools as well as of secondary schools. For the younger children the library may take the form of book corners or display shelves or tables in the several classrooms - some schools use part of the school hall - but the essential points are that the books should be available from the very beginning and that they should be of the right kind. Just as pupils whose reading ability is unusually high should have access to the books they need, so there should also be enough books covering a wide range of interest and within the compass of the slower pupils - some 9 year-old books for 11 year-old children for instance, since it is much better for a child to read an easy book with fluency than to struggle with one which is much too hard to read with pleasure. Again, it is always wise to consider whether it would not be better to buy more books for the library rather than one more set of class readers. There is also a case for the acquisition of small sets of interesting books (five to eight copies in a set) for group work. Reference books are in every way as important as story books. It is above all essential that books acquired should be attractive. A school in which such books are a recognised and much enjoyed part of the background of life is likely to take far more pride in good reading than a school in which the only contact with books is with class readers; it will be far more easy to attend in class to the actual technique of reading if those boys and girls who can read are already accustomed to read widely because they like it. Finally, all books, including those in the library, should be replaced when they become obsolete or worn-out; however carefully books are handled they do wear out. To inflict a collection of obsolete and tattered books upon children will not help the cause of literacy or the children's general development.

Schools receive much help from the school library service of local authorities, and two further sources of information about suitable books are the School Library Association and the librarians of the local public libraries. The local public library may be able to help in many ways. The teacher should, of course, be aware of the books that are available, and librarians are always glad to receive suggestions for further additions. The establishment of friendly personal contacts should enable visits to be paid to the public library whenever appropriate. Some schools have found it useful to introduce children at quite an early age to the librarian, who has talked to them about the children's section and allowed them to handle and look through any of the books which attract

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them. If children are in some way encouraged to borrow books for reading at home, then reading becomes much more than something learned at school. and the first steps may have been taken by many children towards a full appreciation of what books can give.


A child may suffer a very considerable set-back when his parents move house and he has to change school; but it is easy to overlook similar dangers which may be inherent in the school system. The word "confusion" has been used previously, and on more than one occasion in this pamphlet, and a surprisingly small change can produce confusion in the mind of a dull child.

If confusion is a dull child's great enemy, deliberate steps are needed to minimise the effects of the unavoidable changes which his schooling will suffer. However well these changes may correspond to the development of children in general as they pass from one phase of childhood to the next, it is always possible that for particular children changes may come at an unfortunate time. Perhaps the possibility of sudden change is most likely to occur when the transfer from infants' to junior school or department takes place. A dull or backward child may be just at the point of breaking through his difficulties when the whole familiar background of his school life disappears. It is obvious that teachers of lower classes in junior schools or departments should be familiar with the methods used, not only in infants' schools in general, but in the particular infants' schools from which the junior school draws its children. Familiarity will, of course, not be enough; it is important that the junior school should consciously overlap the infants' school in methods used, in general atmosphere and in attitude to children. Record cards will help to bridge gaps, but no machinery can replace the personal knowledge and understanding which are recommended here.

It may well happen that within the school itself there are considerable differences between one teacher's methods and another's, and however conscientiously members of a staff co-operate in working out agreed policy some difference is quite unavoidable. But certain precautions can be taken; it is, for instance, important for dull children that they should find on transfer from class to class that there is continuity in the vocabulary used as well as in methods.

Some Special Problems of the Less Able and Other Handicapped Pupils

Duller children are liable to discouragements in any kind of school where they are in the company of those who are much more able, even though in other ways and in the right atmosphere they often profit greatly from such contacts. When the brighter children

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show eagerness to investigate books and are ready to begin reading there may be a danger of a sense of inferiority arising in the minds of those who are less well endowed. This difficulty is inherent in the nature of things and cannot easily be solved; much depends on a child's general happiness and confidence, and that in turn depends on the school's atmosphere and on the extent of its success in giving him a sense of belonging to the community. In the last resort only confidence between teacher and child will help those who need it most. Nevertheless the simple practical expedients of making sure that the slower learners have plenty of significant things to do, and of providing opportunities for social, practical or artistic satisfaction, will help greatly. As for reading itself, perhaps the two most important principles to keep in mind are the use of a controlled initial vocabulary and progress along a very easy gradient; both are touched on in other parts of this pamphlet.

The use of objective tests, introduced incidentally in the course of normal work, may provide useful information. In addition it is always advisable to observe carefully those who do not take easily to reading, in case there should be some hitherto unnoticed defect of hearing, sight, health or emotional adjustment. The difficulties caused by emotional disturbance in particular, which may arise out of an earlier failure, can act as a serious bar to progress. There will be children who have difficulties arising from some personal idiosyncrasy the cause of which is hard to trace; possibly left-handedness or weak visual discrimination. In many cases advice from a doctor or an educational psychologist will be sought. Some of these children have been found to benefit from a writing and tracing method rather than from one based on visual patterns. With very dull children, look-and-say methods may put a load on the memory which they cannot sustain, or may lead to guessing from insufficient clues and so to repeated failure; occasionally a child may find a pure phonic method best of all.


The Pupil

This chapter is concerned with the pupil who on entry to a secondary school is backward in reading to such an extent that he is handicapped from the moment he enters his new school. He may, indeed, be unable to read at all. Having had little or no success after six years of schooling he would be either very courageous, or very insensitive, if he did not bring with him a sense of frustration and defeat. Such a pupil will tend to regard reading merely as something difficult which he fails to do at school, and to this may be added a sense of all-round failure in school

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work. It is, therefore, not surprising that, being aware that he is different from most of his fellows, he may show lack of confidence and perhaps sullenness, boredom, resistance to teaching, lack of co-operation or temper.

If he is to believe that his new school does not once again hold failure in store for him, his first need is to achieve success in something, however small that success may be. It may come through some simple piece of social service, through some kind of physical prowess, or in practical or artistic work. Or it may be possible for him to do something in connection with some personal interest, perhaps a very narrow one; food or football; rabbits or railways; whatever the interest may be, if it is the pupil's own, the wise teacher may be able to use it. Whatever success he has, it is important that the pupil should win it by his own individual effort. It may appear very small to the adult; but it will give an opportunity for praise and should arouse a desire for further success and a willingness to put out further effort - especially if the success is as satisfying to the teacher as to the pupil.

The next step is to replace the pupil's belief that learning to read is difficult - too difficult for him - by a belief that there are new ways of learning which are relevant and interesting without being infantile. Given suitable methods, he may derive satisfaction .and a sense of achievement from the first step, and his confidence will grow as his progress increases. But if he is to have the necessary faith the teacher will need faith too. The teacher's faith can rest partly on the knowledge that the older pupil, however backward he may be, has yet one great asset. He has a degree of maturity which, once he is under way, makes it possible for him to progress at an accelerated rate. Very many older pupils with low reading attainment, or even with none, have made the equivalent of two, three, or even four years' progress in a single year when they have been taught by suitable methods, and when the backwardness has not been entirely due to low mental ability.

Materials and Methods

Readers and reading material generally for older backward pupils are difficult to find. Sometimes the most backward are given infants' readers which are too simple in content, or they may struggle with books of more mature interest with too difficult a vocabulary for success to be possible. Five main requirements should be taken into account if readers for older pupils are to be really effective. They should have

(a) subject matter suitable to the maturity and interests of older pupils, and likely to stimulate their curiosity;

(b) an approach through whole words and sentences, with stress on meaning;

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(c) a light vocabulary to begin with and a gradual introduction of new words so that the gradient is easy;

(d) many repetitions of the same material in different guises, the words always being used purposefully so that pure routine drill is avoided;

(e) illustrations which are simple. but not childish, and which help the pupil to understand the text.

In addition to readers, and for many pupils, before readers are introduced, other carefully graded material will need to be supplied. Printed instructions or questions may be devised using a graded vocabulary and requiring the pupil to carry out certain tasks.

It is useful to set questions in printed form on the subject matter which the pupil may be reading. Such questions are in fact comprehension exercises, and if they are interspersed with the reading of the text the pupil should have a better chance of grasping the meaning and therefore more easily maintaining his effort. What is in mind is emphatically not a "test"; the essential nature of the suggestion is that here is one more means of getting the necessary repetitions of a limited vocabulary, so that skill can be "built in" before the child gets bored.

The technique of using printed questions can be applied over a wide field. Everything that happens in school can be drawn upon, and though duller pupils have a somewhat narrow range of interests, some connection can usually be made with their experience of everyday life in the home and family, with their friends and with their recreations. Of words themselves, even the dullest pupils will generally have some experience on which the teacher can rely. For instance, it is rare for older non-readers to be unable to recognise the word ice-cream and most of them will recognise apple and orange.

Two important principles are implicit in all that has been said so far in this section. The first is that the direct link between word pattern and meaning should be rigorously preserved - a great part of the reading done by the pupil is silent reading, and many of the responses, whether they require action or writing or drawing, are silent responses. The avoidance of reading aloud can be overdone, but it is generally true that dull children find added difficulty in reading with understanding if they have first to translate word patterns into sound and then sound into meaning. The second principle is one which though not always easy to carry out in practice has come to be accepted as essential: the necessity for the pupil to shoulder the final responsibility for his own learning. By the use of suitably graded and suitably prepared materials he should be enabled to work independently and at his own rate in a situation most likely to yield success.

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Moreover, where the pupil goes under his own steam, he acquires a personal sense of progress made and of powers increased. He receives encouragement from within himself and school becomes to him a place where self-respect can grow.

While there are many similarities between these suggested methods and those suitable for younger pupils, it will generally be found that, once the first inertia has been overcome, the greater maturity of the older pupil will bring him more quickly to the threshold of formal work. When the time comes the older slow learners will be helped by some look-and-say word drill and by some phonic work with words which have already been experienced. Such drill, done in moderation, helps to establish quick recognition and, by reducing the sheer mechanical difficulty, assists reading for comprehension in its turn.

The School in General

It is important that the whole work of the school should take deliberate account of the reading attainments of the pupils. In schools where some degree of specialisation takes place there is a danger, not always easy to avoid, that the slower learners may be faced with books, say, in history or geography, which are far beyond their powers. As with younger children, the books and periodicals in the school library should correspond to the range of ability of the pupils, and a section of the library may well be kept in form rooms where there are backward pupils. Similarly books should always be on display, attractive to look at and readily available for use.

While reading helps other school work it is equally true that the general work of the school can help with reading. The pupil who reads in order to sing or to act, to write a letter, construct a model or bake a cake is engaging more of his interest than when he is just reading in order to learn to read.

Though a pupil's practical* ability is often far in advance of his ability to deal with words, there is of course no automatic natural compensation of this kind. As a rule a child who is backward in one thing tends to be backward in most. Yet the place of practical activities in the school life of backward children is crucial, for, of necessity, until they can read and write with some degree of fluency most of their work must be practical. But what is a matter of necessity for the backward is also coming more and more to be valued as a medium of education for all children, and it no longer follows that to recommend practical activities for backward pupils is to mark them off from their fellows. Above all, while the activities may be useful experience in themselves, it is the total learning that results from them that matters. For backward pupils, practical work can provide many opportunities for reading; but its most important function lies in the general

*For want of a better word "practical" is used here in the sense of "having to do with making things or carrying out physical operations".

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education of the pupil himself. With care, work can be so arranged that some self-expression is possible and that in itself should lead to satisfaction in achievement. It is easy for practical work to degenerate into the rote following of oral instructions; but again with care, it can be so associated with reading that some real thought is involved, even for very dull pupils. The thinking is likely to be essential to the doing of the actual work, and it should not lightly be assumed that, because a pupil has difficulty in giving a coherent explanation of his experience, nothing has been added to his stock of learning.

There is a constant interplay between all the skills used by a fully literate person, and for the abler pupils the skills should to a great extent link up with each other of their own accord. But for the duller ones the teacher will need to make a more conscious provision if any appreciable interplay of skills is to take place. Though boys and girls may not read well, they can speak, and many who can hardly write a readable piece of prose may be quite good at spoken explanation. Speech may involve a degree of oral composition and, accordingly, it enforces some clarification of ideas. It is self-evident that every possible opportunity should be made (or taken) to get pupils to talk about what they are doing. The teacher may set the ball rolling but thereafter his part will generally be that of the interested listener. Essentially he is assisting the pupil to give shape to his ideas. The more a pupil is accustomed to having explicit thoughts the more likely he will be to come to write them down; this in turn should exercise him in the use of words and make it easier for him to discover for himself the ideas contained in printed books. Nor should the function of listening be overlooked, for the teacher should certainly read aloud books or stories which the pupils are not yet capable of reading for themselves. Reading aloud may lead to discussion, discussion to new ideas and so on - there is no need to labour the point. For many the spark of interest in books has been kindled by hearing something read aloud by someone who could read well.

Some Suggestions for Action

In some schools for older children where suitable teachers and means are available, it may be helpful to form a special class for the more backward children; but where this is done great care should be taken that no attempt is made to teach reading in isolation and to the exclusion of other interests. Where a special class may not be justified, or not advisable, a great deal can sometimes be done by having small tuition groups which meet at frequent intervals for those who are badly handicapped. This would mean that one or two teachers in each of the schools concerned would need to make themselves conversant with the appropriate teaching

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methods, and over the country as a whole a large number of teachers would be involved. Where neither of these arrangements is possible a considerable proportion of the staff may feel the need of some general knowledge of the methods of teaching reading and of dealing with reading disabilities. It is not only those who teach English who will be concerned. It has already been indicated that the best subject matter for an individual boy's or girl's reading may be found in such special studies as homecrafts, handicrafts, rural studies or music. In fact every subject can help, given some imaginative understanding of the needs of backward pupils and a certain amount of insight into the appropriate kinds of method to use.

Some of those engaged in the teaching of backward boys and girls may wish to refresh their general knowledge of the techniques of teaching reading. Apart from books on the subject and short courses, nothing is likely to be quite so helpful as personal contact with others who are doing the same work. Teachers of senior pupils can make a few short visits to infants' or junior schools where good methods are used, and where they can see the actual apparatus in its proper setting. Or an infants' school teacher may be invited for a few sessions, or for parts of sessions, to advise and help with the work for older pupils. Whatever action is taken, it need not necessarily be elaborate or time-consuming. There is much to be said for considering not merely the techniques of teaching reading, but also the atmosphere in which reading is taught. This is not likely to be the same in different types of school, but the very dissimilarity between, say, the atmosphere of an infants' school and that of a secondary modern school, may be exceedingly suggestive to an intelligent observer; while it may be a help to teachers of older children to realise the successive stages through which their children have passed.

There is an important corollary for the training of teachers. It is suggested that all who will be likely to teach in junior or in secondary modern schools should have some acquaintance with methods used for teaching the beginnings of reading, and with the kind of modification necessary for adapting the methods for older pupils.


The Present State of Knowledge of the Problem

There is no sovereign method of teaching younger people to read; but a great deal is known about the ways in which various methods work out in practice: much has been written on the subject and a great deal of research has been carried out. On the other hand, the specific problem of teaching reading to the

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illiterate adult of limited ability has very little literature behind it, nor has it more than a rudimentary fund of traditional experience to help in its solution. Some interesting results have come out of the work of the Royal Army Educational Corps; and a very little experience has been gained of teaching civilian illiterates in evening institutes and in *prisons and Borstal institutions. What is said here, therefore, must be regarded as a statement of tentative and interim conclusions.

The Preliminary Education Course in the Army

On entering the Army every recruit is given tests, and the resulting assessment determines what course he shall follow during the first few months of his career. If a man is found to be either completely illiterate, or in the lower fringes of semi-literacy, he is sent to a Preliminary Education Centre within a fortnight of call-up and before any basic military training is begun.

At the Preliminary Education Centre interviews are carried out in order to obtain more information about each man, and only when a case-history has been built up is any attempt made to diagnose the causes of the deficiency. The rule is "first understand your man", and here lies one of the great difficulties of the problem. The older a person is the more likely is the remedy to be an individual one - if a remedy exists at all - since, with increasing maturity, a man's interests become more specific, and hindrances to success may be more deeply rooted in his personality. In almost all cases there appears to be more than one contributory cause of illiteracy, and only a continuous sympathetic study of the man and his case-history can give sufficient understanding for remedies to be tried with more than a small chance of success.

Not only must each man be met with understanding, but also he must bring an attitude of co-operation to the purposes of the course. This co-operativeness may be much more difficult to establish than it is with children. In some cases there may be positive resentment against what is felt to be an intrusion into a personal and private affair. Even when this does not happen, many start with an attitude of defeat, most have feelings of inferiority, and some have lost most of their self-respect. A degree of confidence in themselves has to be re-created in their own minds before real learning can begin.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the attitude of the teacher towards the learner. He must believe in each man's power to succeed, and the belief must be made manifest by personal interest and encouragement at every point. Success in any field must be recognised and praised, so that a willingness to put out further effort is kept constantly alive.

*In prisons and Borstal institutions there are special classes for illiterates and every effort is being made, with the co-operation of the local education authorities, to deal with the problem. In Borstal institutions these classes are compulsory and held in working hours. Methods similar to those described in this chapter have been found useful.

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Provision of educational opportunity is, therefore, made over a wide field and must be of such a kind that each man may achieve a quick success. A great variety of methods is tried of developing co-ordination of hands and eyes, and confidence is given a chance to grow through self-expression and creative work of many kinds. As with younger persons, success at something is needed at as early a stage as possible.

The knowledge gained from teaching reading to backward older pupils in schools has been applied to the particular circumstances of men in the Army. A special reading book, "English Parade" has been written to replace the earlier "Nobby Clark" which told the life of the recruit in simple language. Games have been re-designed such as Word Rummy, Word Dominoes, Word Housey-Housey, Sentence Darts, and Treasure Hunts in which instructions are given in writing. The reading material links up with current mature interests, and with the kind of reading and writing which life in the Army makes necessary.

So far as the Army is concerned the main purpose of sending men to Preliminary Education Centres is to enable them to write simple letters, to read and understand instructions, and to make such elementary calculations as are necessary in essential money transactions. Experience has shown that it is frequently possible to effect considerable improvement in reading ability by careful and sympathetic teaching, but no claim is made that in the short space of six weeks a complete remedy can be supplied. While a man is in the Army, therefore, he is encouraged in every way to benefit from the wide scheme of general education which is provided, and arrangements are made for individual "follow-up" syllabuses, based on the personal needs of each recruit.

Teaching Illiterate Adults in Civil Life

The civilian adult who comes to a class in reading attends of his own free will. He has made a difficult personal decision. and brings to the teacher an attitude of co-operation ready made. Voluntary attendance can, however, easily give place to voluntary absence. Difficult decisions are sometimes precariously maintained, and if, for instance, the class is held in an evening institute, it should be given a tactful and encouraging name in the time-table and the whole staff of the institute should have a sympathetic understanding of the work, so that the student may suffer the minimum of the embarrassment that he has risked by revealing his deficiency so publicly.

There are very few classes for illiterate adults in civilian education. This reflects the fact that no adult illiterate comes to a class in reading without a strong personal motive. His purpose may be quite simple and direct; to be able to read a trade journal, a book of instructions, or the latest football news; to share in his children's interests or, perhaps, to be able to write a letter of application for some post. Whatever the purpose may be, it is the key

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to the whole situation and, the teacher should take a personal interest in it and should build his teaching round it.

It is not unknown for inexperienced teachers to use infants' readers with adults, but there is no place for the infants' reader at all. The procedure of matching words, phrases and sentences with pictures or objects is sometimes useful, and games similar to those used in the Army will help. The choice of material will obviously be influenced by the special interest or purpose which brought the student to the class.

The need for more continuous reading material will soon arise, and as in the case of older pupils at school, it is difficult to find books of sufficiently mature interest which have a simple enough vocabulary and sentence structure. Books which are suitable for older pupils can be successfully used with adults; but the teacher may do better to prepare his own material, again along the lines of the specific interests of his students. Extracts from a manual on motor-cycles, instructions for building a wireless set, or recipes from a cookery book may be translated into a language with a more controlled vocabulary and sentence-structure. Possibly the student may, with help, keep a diary in which he copies sentences about his home or his work. Experience in the Army suggests that adults will often make good progress in reading technical manuals in which they are interested. They first need to learn to read the key technical words and will then worry a great deal of the meaning out for themselves. A small collection of books should always be at hand to tempt the learner to try his skill as it grows.

All that has been said in this section would, in practice, tend to lead to that early success and sense of personal progress that has been so often mentioned in this pamphlet. When some success has been attained in the direction of the student's personal interest, it should be possible to encourage him to go further afield and tackle material not so specifically related to his immediate purpose. To be able to do so, he may need first to develop a speaking vocabulary somewhat greater than that which he normally uses. This will again be a matter for skilful help from the teacher; the whole social atmosphere of the class may well help the student towards this end, and, indeed, it may be the instrument of some general personal education as well as a help towards acquiring elementary reading skill.


There is a mystery at the centre of the whole process of learning: the learner says "Yes, I see now"; but exactly what happens when the flash of understanding comes is not known and probably never will be known. Scientific observation has taught us a good deal about the conditions under which learning can take place, and, strictly speaking, methods of teaching amount to

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arranging these conditions. Much has still to be discovered about methods of teaching reading, as the gaps in this pamphlet abundantly show. Some of the suggestions may help the provision of adequate materials, but two things only the teacher can supply: the first is that sympathy and understanding which enables him to help while leaving the learner himself to bear some part of the burden; the second is a personal interest in language, so that the teacher is adding to his own insight as he teaches. Perhaps nothing encourages a learner more than to be taught by one who is manifestly learning himself, and who is inevitably gaining thereby some of the artist's intuitive understanding of his materials. Each in his own measure can have some of this understanding. But the range of human ability, the changes and chances of life, and the wide differences in emotional make-up ensure that the teacher's success will never be complete, even in teaching reading which is the basis of so much of our modern way of life. Nevertheless, the gain to each person who is rescued from illiteracy is so great that much labour can justifiably be expended on the problem. The proportion of illiterates in the population as a whole is small, and the smaller it becomes the more difficult it will be to reduce it still further. Some interesting research, however, remains to be done, and it is reasonable to hope that further progress will be made.

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An Investigation into Post-War Reading Ability



I Introduction: Previous Surveys of Reading Attainment

II Definition and Measurement of Literacy

III Calibration of the New Reading Test

IV Distributions of Reading Ability

V Discussion of Results

(a) General Extent of Illiteracy
(b) Differences at Different Ages
(c) School Differences
(d) Sex Differences
(e) Service Differences
VI Summary and Conclusions


A Reading test distributions in 1948-9 for 18-year adult males, 15.0 and 11.0 year pupils

B Corrected standards on Burt, Vernon and Schonell Graded Word Reading Tests

C Numbers of 15.0 year pupils tested in some 150 schools, and median reading test scores

D The factorial content of the Watts-Vernon Reading Test.

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THE REPORT that follows is based on the work of a committee appointed by the Minister of Education. The main responsibility for planning and carrying out the investigation and for recording its results rests with Professor P. E. Vernon who at the time the work was done was a member of the Senior Psychologist's Department of the Admiralty. To Professor Vernon must also be accorded proportionate credit for the smooth and successful completion of a complex investigation. It could not however have been done without the careful work of the many teachers who assisted the committee in the testing of some six thousand children in over two hundred schools in many parts of England and Wales, and of the staffs of the personnel selection departments in the three Services who arranged and carried out the testing of over three thousand recruits.


On the basis of reading tests given to 256 boys and girls and 227 adults, Professor Sir Cyril Burt (1) estimates that 1 per cent of 16-year-olds and 1½ to 2 per cent of 20-25-year-old adults are illiterate, having reading ages below 6½ years; and in addition that 10 per cent and 15-20 per cent respectively are semi-literate, having reading ages below 9 years. Though these samples are small he states that their results are confirmed by researches in the Services and elsewhere. They are accepted as correct by another authority on reading, Professor F. J. Schonell (2). His colleague, Dr. W. D. Wall (3), quotes 20 per cent and 1 per cent as the proportions of adult males with reading ages below 10 and 7½ years respectively, but does not mention the samples tested. (If Burt's border lines are substituted the figures would drop to approximately 12 per cent and ½ per cent.) By applying individual tests of reading comprehension and mechanical reading to backward Army recruits, he shows that the deficit is far more marked on the former than the latter.

One extensive investigation of primary school children is that of Miss Hammond (4), who arranged the testing of practically the whole of the school population of Brighton between the ages of 6 years 6 months and 11 years 11 months, numbering 8292 children, with Burt's Graded Word Reading Test. Her tabulations suggest that the average amount

(1) Burt, C., The Education of Illiterate Adults. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1945, 15, 20-27.

(2) Schonell, F. J., Problems of Illiteracy. Times Educational Supplement, February 23rd, 1946.

(3) Wall, W. D., Reading Backwardness Among Men in the Army. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1945, 15, 28-40.

(4) Hammond, D., Attainment in Reading. Times Educational Supplement, Aug. 14, 1948.

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of backwardness in 1948 is small; thus the median reading age of all 7:0-11 children is 7.0, and of 10:0-11 children 10.9; boys are slightly poorer than girls. She claims that the proportion of backward readers increases with age, but this appears to be due merely to the inability of the test to measure very backward reading in 6 year pupils, and to measure very advanced reading in 11 year pupils. Unfortunately the test, first published in 1921, is almost certainly too lenient for 1939 standards. Vernon (5) has issued new norms for Scottish children, and if these hold for English children (6), it may be deduced that the median performances of 7-plus and 10-plus children in Brighton are equivalent to reading ages of 6.7 and 9.8 respectively. In other words the average amount of retardation in the primary schools is between two-thirds and three-quarters of a year at all ages. If we define backwardness as the possession of a reading quotient below 80, then some 32 per cent of the 10 and 11-plus children are backward, as contrasted with the accepted pre-war figure of about 10 per cent. It should also be pointed out that Brighton is likely to be superior to the country as a whole. If rural and slum areas were investigated the amount of backwardness might be considerably greater.

In September 1947 the London Head Teachers Research Committee, using the Holborn Reading Test (7), tested 1972 pupils of average age 11½ entering London secondary modern schools mainly in poor areas. As many as 15.9 per cent failed to reach a reading age higher than 7½ years; that is their reading quotients were 65 or below. This would suggest that the median reading age is little greater than 9.0 and that nearly 50 per cent are backward, having reading quotients below 80. The figures are worse than those just quoted for Brighton, but the difference is probably due not merely to the larger proportion of slum areas in London, but to the exclusion of the brightest third of London pupils who go to secondary schools other than modern ones.

The London results are confirmed by an investigation of some 2500 pupils aged 14-plus in Birmingham secondary modern schools by Dr. Wall and Miss Lampard (8). Details have not yet been published, but here too some 50 per cent fall in the backward grade, and it is found that approximately 10 per cent have reading ages below 8½ years. We may reasonably deduce that, when they leave school at 15.0, much the same proportion will have reading ages below Burt's borderline of 9, i.e. that 10 per cent represents the figure for semi-literacy and illiteracy in such schools.

In any discussion of backwardness and illiteracy it is essential to realise how great the extent of these phenomena depends upon the

(5) Vernon, P. E., The Standardisation of a Graded Word Reading Test, University of London Press, 1938.

(6) This assumption might be challenged. However it is shown later in the Report that Vernon's Scottish standards do coincide with English ones as measured by Schonell's Graded Reading Vocabulary test, at least over the 8.0-12.0 range. A conversion table for all three tests is given in Appendix B.

(7) Watts, A. F. The Holborn Reading Scale. Harrap. 1948.

(8) Lampard, D. M., The Relationship Between Levels of Reading Comprehension and Word Recognition in Secondary Modern Pupils. Paper read to Section J, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sept. 1948.

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criterion adopted. For example, Vernon (9) found that roughly half of a large group of Ordinary Seamen in 1943, who were fairly representative of young male adults, were "clearly incapable of writing an intelligible and reasonably grammatical, even if simple, sentence", when answering a short examination paper. On the other hand the Army personnel selection staff defines as illiterates those recruits who cannot produce legible answers to the questionnaire or Qualification Form filled up on entry to the Service; and such recruits have consistently numbered between 1 and 2 per cent. Similarly it was stated in the House of Commons (Feb. 15, 1949) that some 2 per cent of National Service recruits are illiterate or of extremely low literacy. This refers to the number who fail an examination set by the Education Officers, and are sent to Preliminary Education Centres for basic schooling.

These are extreme instances of divergent estimates. But we shall see below that quite considerable variations occur even between the results of different standardised reading tests. In addition, since backwardness is a matter of degree, the proportions of backward or illiterate individuals will naturally depend on just where the dividing lines are drawn. Hence an attempt has been made in this, and later, sections to adhere to a few uniform divisions, as follows:

Backward readers are those whose reading ages are more than 20 per cent below their chronological ages, in the case of children, i.e. those whose reading quotients are below 80. In the case of adults, the expected average reading age may be taken as 15.0 years, hence backward readers are those with reading ages below 12.0 years.

Illiterate readers are those whose reading age (regardless of chronological age) is less than 7.0 years. (This figure differs from Burt's 6½ years merely because the reading test described below did not readily measure the 6½ year level.)

Semi-literate readers are those whose reading age is 7.0 or greater, but less than 9.0 years.


In order to obtain really reliable estimates of the extent of illiteracy, four conditions must be fulfilled. First we must decide what we mean by literacy-illiteracy; secondly we need valid tests for measuring this quality. Thirdly, if we are to gauge any change in the amount of illiteracy since 1939, the tests must be standardised or calibrated in terms of pre-war norms. Fourthly the tests must be applied to adequately representative samples.

Many and varied definitions of literacy have been given, but present-day conceptions normally imply both competent reading and intelligible self-expression on paper. It seemed better in the first place to keep to reading, since if a test involved a mixture of reading, handwriting, spelling and composition, there would be no means of deciding which ability was up to standard or retarded. A separate investigation of writing ability is being planned. The definition of reading ability also raises many problems, and there is an extraordinary

(9) Vernon, P. E., An Experiment on the Value of the Film and Film-strip in the Instruction of Adults. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1946, 16, 149.

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lack of conclusive research. We know that the ability is not a single unitary entity which can be adequately measured by a conventional graded word (mechanical) test or a paragraph comprehension test, but there is no agreement as to what distinctive factors are involved.

Batteries of tests for measuring different aspects of reading have been published by several educational psychologists including Burt (10, Schonell (11), Watts (12), Gates (13), Triggs (14), and others, but their lists of tests show little concordance (15). In other words, each author analyses the total complex of reading skills into different components. Considerable doubt is cast on all a priori analyses by recent American investigations at the college level, using the technique of factor analysis. Davis (16) described nine components of adult reading ability, and on devising tests to measure these and analysing their inter-correlations, he claimed to find two independent factors in reading corresponding to word knowledge and verbal reasoning, together with several smaller factors. But Thurstone (17) re-analysed his data and concluded that all the correlations could be well accounted for by a single general factor - a blend of knowledge of word meanings and comprehension of sentences and paragraphs. Clearly it is most desirable that similar investigations should be carried out in this country, at several age levels, with a variety of reading and other literacy tests, in order to establish both the underlying essence or general factor in literacy, and any distinguishable group-factors or sub-types of ability (cf. Appendix D).

In default of such information it was decided that the test employed for surveying literacy should aim to measure the general factor described by Thurstone, by means of silent-reading sentences, probably this vocabulary plus comprehension ability overlaps with, but is relatively distinct from, mechanical word-pronouncing ability. It is more difficult to differentiate it from general intelligence, for several intelligence test batteries have actually included both vocabulary and

(10) Burt, C. L., Mental and Scholastic Tests. King, 1921.

(11) Schonell, F. J., Backwardness in the Basic Subjects. Oliver and Boyd, 1942. The Psychology and Teaching of Reading. Oliver and Boyd, 1945.

(12) Watts, A. F., The Language and Mental Development of Children. Harrap, 1944.

(13) Gates, A. I., Silent Reading Tests, Grades 3 to 8. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1935.

(14) Triggs, F. O., Description of the Purposes and Functions of the Diagnostic Reading Tests. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 1948, 8, 3-14.

(15) Burt and Schonell agree in providing tests of Graded Word Pronunciation, Continuous Prose Pronunciation, Speed and Comprehension. Gates's tests for Grades 3 to 8 claim to measure Reading to Appreciate General Significance, to Predict the Outcome of Given Events, to Understand Precise Directions, and to Note Details. Triggs's series for Grades 7 to 12 includes Vocabulary, Visual and Auditory Comprehension, Rate of Reading three types of material, and two tests of Word Attack.

(16) Davis, F. B., Fundamental Factors of Comprehension in Reading. Psychometrika, 1944, 9, 185-197.

(17) Thurstone, L. L., Note on a Re-analysis of Davis's Reading Tests. Psychometrika, 1946, 11, 185-188.

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sentence-comprehension items. Nevertheless it was thought that sentences could be devised which would be sufficiently straight-forward not to involve much reasoning capacity or g-factor, and which would also avoid specialised literary or technical terms. The content of the test should be based on concrete, everyday life situations, familiar to 15 year children and adults. To ensure objectivity of scoring it should have multiple-choice or selective responses, though there is much to be said in favour of creative-response items among backward children and adults. Two examples follow of the kind of questions which, it was hoped, would give a fair indication of the effectiveness of a child's or adult's reading ability, that is of his literacy for practical purposes of daily life.

1. We hope to see my favourite film-star tonight at the local (pub, cafe, review, station, cinema).

2. The passengers injured in the railway accident were taken by ambulance to the General (Omnibus, Canteen, Hospital, Terminus, Post Office).

Several early versions were devised mainly by Dr. A. F. Watts, and were tried out by him on classes of 14-plus pupils in London schools. Surprisingly, in view of the large extent of backwardness and illiteracy that had been expected, many of the initial items were too easy. Thus all but 2 per cent of London secondary modern pupils could manage the above sentences. Some more difficult items were contributed by the experienced test-constructing staff of the Civil Service Commission's Research Unit. Inevitably these were more abstract and involved than had originally been planned. Two examples of items needed to cover the average and superior levels are:
3. The delegates to the conference committed themselves enthusiastically to a far-reaching programme of economic planning, ranging from abolition of obstacles in the way of trade to joint plans for agricultural (areas, subsidies, Labour, development, co-operation).

4. It is difficult to make him see reason. The most convincing arguments fail to influence his (omnipotent, obtuse, obsequious, obverted, obdurate) character.

A 60-item test was now applied to 485 children aged around 15 years, 11 years and 8 years, and to 200 R.A.F. recruits. A thorough item analysis was carried out. Each of these four groups was split into top, middle and bottom thirds on the test as a whole, and the responses of each group to each item were tabulated. Thirty-five items were selected for the final test, which fulfilled the following, requirements:
(i) The difficulty level of the items in the 15 year and adult groups should be such that the test would discriminate over almost the whole range of reading ability.

(ii) There should be a large rise in the pass-rate for each item from 8 year to adult readers.

(iii) Within each age group there should be a large rise in pass-rates from the bottom to the top third.

(iv) There should be a good distribution of wrong responses, no one alternative being too popular. For example:

5. Halt, Major Road Ahead means (turn back, turn right, drive faster, stop, drive slowly).
was rejected because almost all children who got it wrong chose 'drive

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slowly' as their answer. The four examples already quoted were also rejected because they failed to meet one or other of these requirements.
The Watts-Vernon 35-item Silent Reading Test occupies front and back of a foolscap sheet, so that its paper consumption is not large. The time limit is 10 minutes: It can be applied and scored by teachers not specially trained in psychological testing. It measures reading ages from approximately 7 year to 18 or 19 year (pre-war) levels, that is up to the highest levels encountered in secondary modern and technical schools, though it is not difficult enough for the best grammar school pupils or for university-educated adults. The reliability or internal consistency co-efficients were 0.89 both in the R.A.F. and the 15 year secondary modern groups (18). A higher co-efficient would be expected in a complete age group. Thus although the test was intended only for comparing groups of children or adults, it also gives fairly trustworthy reading ages for individuals. It is not to be published meanwhile, but copies and instructions may be obtained from the Secretary of the Sub-Panel on Illiteracy, Ministry of Education, Curzon Street, London, W.1., by qualified research workers.


In order to find what would have been the performance of children in 1938 on the new test, it was applied to groups of pupils in 1948 along with other reading tests for which pre-war norms (believed to be accurate) were available. An investigation was planned with the assistance of Dr. Watts, and visits were paid to six secondary and three primary schools in London or the Home Counties, chosen to be fairly representative of all types. Three, four, or five of the following tests (depending on level of ability of the pupils) were given to 432 children with ages of about 14:9 to just over 15:0, and to 358 pupils in 11-plus or 8-plus classes. The numbers of boys and girls were approximately equal.

1. A Number and Letter Series, or an Abstraction, test of general intelligence (both unpublished); 15 mins.

2. Watts-Vernon Silent Reading Test; 10 mins.

3. Schonell Silent ReadingTest B; 15 mins.

4. Vernon Spelling Test (re-writing a mis-spelt word in each of 30 sentences, unpublished); 10 mins.

5. Cattell Midland Attainment Test No. 2 (Comprehension): 10 mins.

6. Vernon Graded Arithmetic-Mathematics Test; 20 mins.

The order of application of the tests was varied to offset practice or fatigue effects. All the group testing was done by one person, Sergeant John Lewis, an experienced tester lent by the War Office Directorate for Selection of Personnel. In addition 284 children picked

(18) The co-efficients were obtained by the Kuder-Richardson Formula 20.

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at random in each class were given two individual tests, in alternating order, by Mrs. D. A. F. Vernon or by Professor Vernon:

7. SchoneIl's Graded Reading Vocabulary Test.

8. Vernon Graded Word Reading Test.

Analysis of the individual test results showed that there was no significant difference between the two testers when testing comparable groups of children. A graph was drawn of Schonell vs.Vernon reading ages, and these were found to be, on the average, identical over the 8.0 to 12.0 years range. Inter-correlations in the 11-plus and 8-plus groups were .95 to .96, and the (arithmetical) median discrepancy was 0.4 years. Below 8.0 years the Vernon test is probably a little too difficult, having been standardised originally on Scottish children, who tend to make an earlier start on reading than English children. Incidentally the order of difficulty of the words was also less appropriate in the Vernon test; a considerably larger range of words had to be attempted between the first failed word and the last successful word. Above 12.0 years, the Schonell test probably becomes too difficult. It only claims to measure up to a reading age of 15.0, but comparison with the Vernon test (which goes up to an arbitrary reading age of 21.0) suggested that Schonell's last ten words actually correspond to the 15½ to 19½ year levels. A correction table was therefore built up for converting Vernon scores at the bottom end of the scale, and Schonell scores at the top end, into what are considered to be correct reading ages (cf. Appendix B). The two tests were then averaged to give an individual reading age for each pupil.

These ages were compared with the Watts-Vernon test scores and an approximate set of pre-war norms was reached for the new test by the method of equivalent percentiles. A second approximation was made similarly by comparison with the Schonell B test. This had been taken by 550 children, and yields reading ages from 7 to 13½ years. Third and fourth comparisons were made with the Cattell Midland Test (157 cases, 6-14 year norms), and, the Vernon Spelling Test (all cases, 7-19 year Scottish norms). The results are given in Table I. They show fairly close concordance, except for the norms derived via the Cattell test. Clearly this is far too lenient, which is unfortunate since it is the easiest of any of the tests used to 'get across' to younger children. But the agreement between the approximations is not perfect. Thus a child with a Watts-Vernon score of 13 is likely to have a reading age of 11.0 on the Graded Word tests, a reading age of 10½ on Schonell B, and a spelling age of 9¾ on the Vernon test. Presumably the post-war English child tends to do a little better on individual word-reading than on comprehension, and he is relatively low in spelling because Scottish spelling standards are exceptionally high. The final pre-war norms for the Watts-Vernon test, given in the last column, are based on an average of the three approximations (excluding Cattell), and conform most closely to the Schonell B standards over the range which this test covers. Reading ages higher than 14-15 are, like mental ages, arbitrary units for expressing superior ability. A reading age of 21.0 would correspond roughly to the level of university arts graduates.

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The standardised test was now applied by teachers to the following school groups, through the co-operation of many local education authorities and by trained testers in the Forces:

The distributions of results are given in Table II in two ways. First the 90th, 50th and 10th percentile scores are shown, that is the scores reached by the top 10 per cent of readers, the middle or median score, and the score cutting off the bottom 10 per cent. Next the percentages are shown with pre-war reading ages of:

17.0-plus (Superior) scoring 31-35
13.8-plus (Average plus) scoring 23-30

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This dividing line was taken because the median score for aIl 15 to 18 year-olds was estimated as 22½.

12.0-plus (Average minus) scoring 18-22
9.0-plus (Backward) scoring 9-17
7.0-plus (Semi-literate) scoring 3-8
Under 7.0 (Illiterate) scoring 0-2
In the case of 11.0 pupils, the divisions are taken at reading quotients corresponding to those of 15.0 year olds, namely at reading ages of 12.5, 10.1, 8.8 and 6.6 respectively. That is, the proportions with test scores of 19.5-plus, 12.3-plus, 8.4-plus, 2.2-plus are reached by interpolation. The two bottom groups, corresponding to semi-literate and illiterate, are combined.


[click on the image for a larger version]

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It would be useless to attempt to estimate the reading test distributions for all 15 or 11 year children or for 18 year males merely by combining the results of the groups actually tested. A representative 15 year sample must, for example, include the correct proportion of grammar school pupils for the country as a whole. Synthetic samples were therefore built up as follows. From official sources (19) it was found that children approaching 15 attend the main types of schools in these proportions:

per cent
Secondary Grammar (L.E.A.)18.6
Secondary Grammar (Direct Grant)2.2
Recognised Efficient Secondary3.1
Secondary Technical3.1
Secondary Modem Urban47.3
Secondary Modern Rural3.6
Primary All-Age20:5
Other Direct Grant and Recognised Efficient0.7
Special Schools 0.9

A few types of schools are omitted from this list, but the numbers of pupils thus involved are small, and they are unlikely to upset the relative proportions shown here. It seemed fair therefore to accept the figures of 20 per cent of our grammar pupils and 7 per cent of our technical plus central pupils. The official figures for rural secondary modern schools are based on local government boundaries, not on size of schools or concentration of population. The generally accepted estimate of the rural population is about 20 per cent. Since the standards of most primary all-age schools are likely to be similar to those of rural schools, it was decided to include 47 per cent of our urban sample and 25 per cent of our rural and small-town sample. This leaves 1 per cent for pupils in special schools for the educationally retarded.

Part of the 11 year sample had already transferred to secondary schools (20). Among those in primary schools it was decided to include 5 per cent private, 65 per cent urban and 30 per cent rural and small-town schools.

Among adults, we know the approximate proportions called up by the three Services at the date of testing, namely Army 45 per cent, R.A.F. 11 per cent and Navy 4 per cent, but some 40 per cent are not called up, consisting (in roughly equal numbers) of: (1) medical rejects; (2) deferred apprentices; (3) exempted farm workers, miners and members of the mercantile marine; (4) volunteers to the regular Forces. From previous intelligence test figures there is reason to believe that medical rejects and deferred apprentices do not differ markedly from called-up recruits in intellectual and educational level; also that farm workers are of much the same level as labourers. An approximate distribution for farm workers, miners and mercantile marine was

(19) These figures are based on the number of children between 13 and 14 in January, 1948, in grant-aided and other schools recognised as efficient.

(20) It was not possible to obtain samples with median age exactly 11.0, but as the Gloucestershire and London groups averaged about one third of a year older, and the Huddersfield group one third to one half a year younger, adjustment was made by subtracting 1 mark from the scores of the former and adding one mark to the scores of the latter.

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therefore estimated from that of men actually called up who were labourers, and this was added to the Service distribution in the correct proportion.

The actual distributions of reading test scores of these three synthetic samples are given in Appendix A. These are onIy doubtfully representative of the total population, but at least an attempt has been made to eliminate possible biases in the light of the best available information. If they err, it is more likely to be on the strict than the lenient side; for the proportions of rural pupils may have been overestimated, and the educational level of men whose call-up is deferred under-estimated.



Though there is certainly an increase in backwardness compared with pre-war norms, the percentages of semi-literates and illiterates are much smaller than some of the estimates. Approximately 30 per cent of 15-year-olds, 23 per cent of 11-year-olds and 16 per cent of adults fall in the backward or lower groups, instead of the expected pre-war 10 per cent. Moreover the median reading ages of 15 and 11-year-olds are 13:2 and 10:0, that is retardations of 1:10 and 1:0 years (21). But the proportions of nearly or completely illiterate are only 3.6 per cent in adults and 5.7 per cent in 15-year-olds, and the proportion of 11-year-olds with correspondingly low reading quotients is 3.8. Why then are these figures so much smaller than some of those put forward by educational psychologists and others? Any or all of the following factors may be involved:

(i) Ascertainment in the present survey may have been incomplete; some of the most backward pupils may have been withheld because they were not in the top classes of the secondary modern or primary all-age schools. It cannot be guaranteed that this never occurred, though precautions were taken to prevent it. Another possibility is that, as most of the testing of 15-year-olds took place towards the end of the summer session of 1948, there may have been a number of absentees, and duller children who were shortly to leave school for good might be more likely to play truant.

Neither of these factors is likely to have biased the 11 year or adult samples. A further check on the Army figures (which constituted a major part of the adult sample) is provided by the proportion of men found by the Directorate of Army Education to be very low in literacy. As already mentioned, this proportion was 2 per cent in 1948-9. But the Army discharges another 2 to 2½ per cent of its intakes, and most of those men score very low on intelligence tests. Were they retained, most of them would probably qualify for Preliminary Education Centres. Thus the recruits of very low literacy in the total Army intakes probably number between 3 and 4 per cent and this agrees precisely with the proportion scoring below 9.0 years on the Watts-Vernon test.

(ii) The samples tested by other investigators may also have been unrepresentative. For example it is not generally realised that so large

(21) Had the test been given to 15.0 year olds in 1938, the average reading age might, of course, have been lower than 15.0 because so large a proportion of children then left school at 14. But it is reasonable to assume that the extra year of schooling should add one year to reading ability.

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a proportion of the 14-15-year-old population as 27 per cent is in grammar or technical schools. If we omitted them our proportions of semi-literates and illiterates among 15-year-olds would rise to 6.1 per cent and 1.7 per cent or nearly 8 per cent in all. And the backward pupils (including illiterates) would rise to 48 per cent. These figures do not fall far below those quoted in the Introduction for secondary modern schools in London and Birmingham.

(iii) The extra year at school and the present re-organisation of post-primary education may already have made some difference, though it is difficult to believe that these could have much effect on the pupils of very low literacy.

(iv) The tests used in some earlier investigations, such as Ballard's probably have unreliable norms. But Burt's Graded Word test is, if anything, too lenient; and Schonell's B test has, as we have seen, standards almost identical with those of the Watts-Vernon test.

(v) Perhaps the chief factor is the extent to which different tests spread out those tested. It is well known that some intelligence tests yield many more extreme (high or low) I.Q.s and fewer middling I.Q.s than others. Their Standard Deviations may range from about 15 to 30. The same may happen with reading tests. Two tests might be equally well standardised, and yet if the Standard Deviations of their reading quotients were 20 and 30, they would yield 2.3 per cent and 9.2 per cent of 15 year readers as having reading ages below 9.0 years (22). Schonell and Wall have repeatedly established greater amounts of backwardness on comprehension than on mechanical reading tests, showing therefore that mechanical tests spread out readers to a smaller extent. Can we show that the Watts-Vernon test has a smaller spread than other commonly used tests?

The new test, together with Schonell's B test and Vernon-Schonell graded word tests were all taken, during the calibration experiment, by 81 15-year-olds and 44 11-year-olds. The proportions of 15-year-old scoring below the 11 year medians were 30.9, 34.8 and 42 per cent respectively. Similar though smaller differences were obtained by contrasting 11-year and 8-year-olds. To provide further verification, a group of 51 very backward Army recruits in Preliminary Education Centres were given Watts-Vernon and Schonell B; they had also taken Burt's Graded Word test. The results are shown in Table III. It may be seen that 51 per cent are below the 9 year borderline on Burt's test, 66 per cent on Schonell B, and only 39 per cent on Watts-Vernon; also that the median Schonell score is 1¾ years lower than the median


(22) This calculation assumes that reading ability is normally distributed. Almost certainly it is negatively skewed, so that the correct proportions below a given reading age cannot be predicted from the standard deviation of reading quotients. It nevertheless provides a valid illustration of the differences yielded by tests possessing different spreads.

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Watts-Vernon. Clearly the difference in spreads is more marked among adults than children, but it is almost certainly large enough in children to explain any discrepancies between the results of this and of the Brighton or London surveys.

The reasons for these differences among intelligence or reading tests are obscure, but 'straight-forwardness' vs. 'unusualness' seems to have something to do with them. In other words, tests involving familiar operations give smaller spreads than those involving complicated and novel mental manœuvres. Mechanical reading of words is so well drilled in children that a test based on it yields fairly small proportions of semi-literates. But many comprehension tests, including Schonell's, may involve a good deal of what Professor Vernon has called 'test-sophistication' (23), and so prove more troublesome to the unscholastically-minded secondary pupil or adult. Such tests might therefore show larger proportions of semi-literacy. The Watts-Vernon test is not, of course, wholly familiar in type, but it calls for less complex operations than most paragraph comprehension tests. Another common difference between tests with high or low spread is that the latter tend to be more variegated, confined less to a single function. Now reading in everyday life is much more variegated than reading as measured by any single test in existence. Thus we would expect the proportions of semi-literates to decrease the more nearly our tests approximate to real-life situations. This too may explain why mechanical reading tests, which are extremely homogeneous, sometimes give larger spreads, than does the Watts-Vernon test.

The above arguments may appear somewhat technical and hypothetical. But actually they have vital practical significance. For they imply that there is no one 'true' proportion of backward or illiterate readers in the population. It all depends on the type of test used, in other words on what we mean by, or use as our measure of, literacy. We have given reasons for regarding a test of the Watts-Vernon type as a better measure among adults but many teachers might justifiably regard a test of word pronunciation as more appropriate for primary-school children. It follows that the chief finding of this investigation is not that a large proportion of the population is backward in reading compared with pre-war standards, nor that the proportion is less big than some estimates that have been put forward, but that standards have been established for fairly representative groups at three age levels against which subsequent educational progress can be assessed. Investigations are already planned to show in a few years' time whether the schools have made good their losses, whether the extra year at school produces more literate recruits, and so forth.


The average retardation in years of reading age is smaller at 11 than 15, but in terms of reading quotients there is little difference. Thus the mean reading quotient of older children is 88, of the younger ones 91. A more valid comparison can perhaps be made by taking 265

(23) Vernon, P. E. Intelligence Test Sophistication. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1938, 8, 237-244.

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11-year-old children in certain all-age schools in Gloucestershire, where 125 15-year-olds were also tested. These samples should be exactly comparable. Both were slightly above average, their median reading ages being 13:8 and 10:4. Their median chronological ages were 15:0 and 11:2; thus their reading quotients are 91 and 92.

The results for the 147 children of median age 8:8 tested in the calibration experiment in two London schools are also worth quoting. Though they do not, of course, constitute a representative sample, they are probably quite close to average, since the median reading quotient of the 11-year-olds in the same schools was 88. Their median reading age was 7:4, giving them an average quotient of 85. In the Brighton Survey too the mean quotients of the 6 to 7-year-olds were distinctly lower than that of the 10 to 11-year-olds (even when Burt's norms were adjusted), though in terms of years of reading age the younger children were less retarded.

We must conclude therefore that there is no evidence that backwardness exists only among the older pupils whose education was upset by war-time conditions. It seems to be as marked throughout the primary schools as the secondary schools in 1948.

Comparing the distributions for adults and 15-year-olds, we find slightly smaller proportions in the lowest categories, but far more adults in the superior group. As more than half of these adults have not had any schooling beyond 14, it is clear that reading ability tends to improve between 14 and 18, except perhaps among the poorest readers. In a Report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1947 Professor Vernon gave evidence of a 'fanning downwards' in arithmetic and spelling abilities between 14 and 18. The superior pupils appeared to retain their level, the average ones dropped slightly, while the duller ones lost their scholastic skills quite rapidly. Here we have the reverse phenomenon - fanning upwards. Good readers increase their reading ages by about 2 years during the 3 to 4 years after leaving school. Those whose reading age was 10-12 years on leaving increase by about 1 year. Those whose reading age was under 8 do not on the average show any appreciable increase; possibly indeed many of them decline. It might be expected that, although reading and arithmetic are little used except by the well-educated after 14-15, reading would continue to be practised by all but the most incapable. We can guess also why it is that Professor Burt claims a greater proportion of illiterates at 20-25 than at 16. If his Graded Word scale was used, it is quite possible that skill in word-pronunciation drops, as do arithmetic and spelling, although ability to comprehend reading matter increases.


Differences in the 15 year groups between different types of schools are enormous, ranging from grammar schools with 37 per cent superior readers and less than 1 per cent backward or worse, to rural secondary modern and mixed schools with less than 1 per cent superior and over 50 per cent backward. While this conforms to expectations it also shows that the test is quite a good measure of educational attainment, and suggests that selection for different types of secondary education is fairly efficient. Thus only 3 per cent of all secondary modern pupils read up to the level of the average grammar school pupil.

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Differences between schools within any one main type are comparatively small, apart from chance fluctuations of sampling (24). This indicates that our sampling is fairly adequate although only limited areas of the country have been tested. The differences are shown in Appendix C, which lists the numbers in each school opposite the median score obtained by that school. Thus the best grammar schools, where 95, 93 and 32 were tested, obtain a median of 30. The poorest grammar school obtains a median of 23, but this is in a small town in a rural area. A well-known boys' public school lies just at the median for all grammar schools. Technical and selective central schools seem to occupy much the same level, and pupils in private commercial colleges are only slightly poorer; (they are almost all girls and include 12.6 per cent backward, compared with 7.2 per cent in publicly maintained schools). Secondary modern schools show a wider range, though the more extreme values occur chiefly in small groups. No consistent differences could be discerned between London and the provincial towns. Home Office school boys are only slightly poorer than rural secondary, but one special school for physically handicapped gave a median score of 14½ (10 boys), and one for the educationally sub-normal gave a median score of 8 (9 boys).

In the 11 year groups the small sample of preparatory or private school children is appreciably superior to the others, but not so much so as are 15 year grammar to secondary modern pupils.


At 15 years girls average about 1 point lower than boys. The 90th and 50th percentiles are the same for the two sexes in grammar and and technical schools, but girls range lower at the bottom end. In secondary modern and all-age schools, the 90th and 50th percentiles are lower, but the 10th percentiles score is slightly higher. In other words, very good readers among girls are as good as boys, average ones are a little poorer, and very poor readers are somewhat less frequent. It will be seen indeed that there are about twice as many boys as girls in the lowest, illiterate, grade. The lower average performance is curious, since the norms quoted by Schonell for his test B are higher for girls. The reason probably lies in the content of the tests. Schonell's consists largely of fairy and juvenile fictional stories, whereas the Watts-Vernon test draws on more realistic material such as jobs, politics, etc., which may be more interesting to boys.

In the 11 year groups, the sexes were not always distinguished. But in the large Huddersfield sample the median scores for boys and girls are identical, while girls show a smaller range, i.e, fewer very good and very poor readers. Their 90th percentiles is one point lower, and their 10th percentile one higher.


It will be seen that the Army National Service intake is closely similar to the estimated total population. The R.A.F. and Navy secure

(24) Analysis of variance did in fact yield highly significant differences between schools within any one of the four main types, but these accounted for only about 10 per cent of total variance as contrasted with 48 per cent due to differences between types, and 42 per cent due to differences between individuals within schools.

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intakes of decidedly better quality. The Navy has scarcely any backward readers and no illiterates, and the R.A.F. has only 1½ per cent of men of very low literacy. Among regular recruits (volunteers) both in the Navy and R.A.F. the average level is at least as good as that in the total population, though inferior to that of the National Service recruits to these Services. The range of ability is, however, restricted. Volunteers contain no illiterates and scarcely any semi-literates, but also fewer superior readers. These findings all accord quite well with expectations.


1. Recent investigations and public statements have suggested the existence of far more backwardness and illiteracy among schoolchildren and adults than before the 1939-45 war. The estimates vary markedly, however, and adequate attention has not always been paid to the correctness of the norms or standards of tests used, or to the representativeness of the samples tested.

2. In an attempt to survey the proportions of illiterates and semi-literates among 11.0 and 15.0 year children and young adult recruits, and to compare with pre-war standards, a new group silent reading test was devised by Dr. A. F. Watts and Professor Vernon.

3. Pre-war reading age norms from 7.0 to 19.0 years were established by comparing the test scores of some 800 secondary and primary school pupils with their scores on several other tests standardised before the war.

4. The test was applied to some 3500 children aged close to 15.0 and some 2800 aged close to 11.0 in over 200 schools in many parts of England and Wales, also by the personnel selection departments of the three Services to some 3000 recruits, mostly aged 18 years. Results were classified as Superior (Reading Age 17.0+), Average + (13.8+), Average - (12.0+), Backward (9.0+), Semi-literate (7.0+) and Illiterate (under 7.0.).

5. A synthetic sample, representative of the whole 15.0 year population, was found to contain only 1.4 per cent of illiterates and 4.3 per cent of semi-literates. In a similar sample of adult males the proportions were 1.0 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively. The much larger estimates given by other writers may be ascribed mainly to differences in the spread of the tests used.

6. Reading ability continues to improve after leaving school except among the very poorest readers.

7. The median reading age for the 15.0 year sample was 13.2, that is a drop of about 1¾ years below pre-war level. A median drop of 1.0 years in the 11.0 sample suggests that the amount of retardation is very similar in primary schools. The proportions of backward readers (including illiterates) are 30 per cent, 23 per cent and 16 per cent in the 15, 11 and adult samples.

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8. Very large differences in attainment are demonstrated between different types of school - e.g. grammar and public, technical, urban secondary modern or church schools, and rural or small-town schools. Girls are on the average slightly poorer at this test, but show almost as many superior readers as boys, and fewer illiterate ones.

9. Army National Service recruits at the beginning of 1949 are similar in reading to the total 18 year population, and naval and R.A.F. recruits are much superior. Volunteers to the two latter Services are inferior to conscripts, but are so much more homogeneous that they contain scarcely any men or women of very low literacy.

10. It may be concluded that the proportions of backward readers in English and Welsh primary and secondary modern schools are larger than they were before the war, but that the numbers of pupils leaving school and of young adults who are nearly or completely illiterate, namely about 5 per cent, is less serious than is often stated. But in view of the fact that the proportion varies considerably both with the type of test and the standards adopted, it is suggested that the question as to the amount of illiteracy is somewhat artificial, and cannot be finally answered. The main value of this investigation lies in the establishment of standards on a new and unpublished test for various samples of adults and children, against which subsequent improvements or declines can be measured.

[page 49]

Appendices to the Report on the Investigation

APPENDIX A. Reading Test Distributions in 1948-9 for 18 year Adult Males, 15.0 and 11.0 year Pupils.

APPENDIX B. Corrected Standards on Burt, Vernon and Schonell Graded Word Reading Tests.

Scores on the three tests are listed in the Table, and the corresponding corrected reading ages are given down the left-hand side (years} and along the top (tenths).

For example, a reading age of 14.6 is believed to correspond to a score of 101 words on Burt, 96 on Vernon and 86 on Schonell. These are not new norms; they are intended merely to make the tests equivalent. The Vernon test is too difficult at the bottom end, the Burt test too easy; while the Burt and Schonell tests are too difficult at the top end.

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APPENDIX C. Numbers of Pupils (15.0) Tested in some 150 Schools and Median Reading Test Scores

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APPENDIX D. The Factorial Content of the Watts-Vernon Reading Test

Two preliminary studies of the content of the new test were made by factorial analyses. In the calibration experiment, 81 secondary modern and central school 15-year-olds took five tests. Their inter-correlations are tabulated below. Two factors were extracted by the centroid method, and were rotated through an angle which gave the expected v-saturation to the Number Series intelligence test. This test is not a very reliable one for children, hence its low communality. It may be seen that the g or general intelligence loadings of the Watts-Vernon and Schonell tests are very high,

[page 51]

though both of them do to some extent measure the same verbal-educational factor as the individual (mechanical) reading and the spelling tests.

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Ten tests were inter-correlated among 994 Army recruits; (Number Series, however, was taken by 758 only, Mechanical Assembly by 701 and Abstraction by 233). Four factors were extracted by the centroid method and rotated to yield a g-factor, and verbal-educational, number and mechanical group factors. The reading test is shown here too to depend very largely on g, but its v:ed saturation is as high as that of a test of verbal fluency and of the educational standard or schooling index.

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