The Phonics Blog

A commentary on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy. By the author of 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading'

The Literacy Club

This post is an extract from my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading available in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon.

Within a few miles of each other, seeded through the most affluent parts of town, stand the prestigious clubs of London – the Athenaeum, the Carlton, the Reform, Boodles and so on – of which membership is, for many, still an avidly sought mark of status. These clubs are aloof, mysterious and, above everything else, exclusive.

Anthony Samson, that legendary anatomist of the British establishment, wrote of these places: “The point of a club is not who it lets in, but who it keeps out”.

In the nineteenth century it was evidently quite socially acceptable to argue explicitly and openly that literacy should be treated as an exclusive club with membership reserved for the social elite. Speaking in the House of Lords in 1839 the Bishop of Exeter declared “looking to the poor as a class, they could not expect that those who were consigned by Providence to the laborious occupations of life, should be able largely to cultivate their intellect.”

Such a view would, of course, be inexpressible today. But in its place has developed a body of opinion that instead of arguing against mass literacy argues against the only practical means of bringing it about. This shift in position is not demonstrably a significant moral or social advance.

It is perhaps understandable that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some people still prize their literacy as though it were membership of an exclusive club. Their easy access to reading and writing gives them a privileged advantage in life that self-interest suggests should only be shared sparingly. Their literacy makes them part of an elite and they have no interest in devaluing their membership by supporting universal admission – they want others kept out of the literacy club, just as members of, say, the Athenaeum, close ranks to exclude those who are, to adapt Margaret Thatcher’s coded language, “not one of us”.

Of course some of those who strive to keep the literacy club exclusive do so without being consciously aware of their bias. In fact some have convinced themselves that the outsiders have not been kept out at all, but simply remain on the outside because some innate handicap makes it inevitable that they are unfitted to climb the entrance steps. Teachers who think like that often explain children’s exclusion from the ‘literacy club’ in this way: “What can you expect when children have these problems?”

For these teachers, and others like them, the idea of universal literacy is simply impossible. They believe that the world as it is – in which about one in five cannot read well – is, if not pre-ordained, certainly inevitable.

A varied range of ‘problems’ is used to explain why so many children make so little progress in reading. Favourite scapegoats include social and economic circumstances, home language and ethnicity, home culture and unspecified ‘special needs’. These issues are sometimes referred to as ‘barriers to literacy’. But the way in which these circumstances and situations are used to justify limited expectations suggests that these ‘barriers’ might be more accurately depicted as ‘barricades’, used to keep the disadvantaged safely on the outside.

No wonder anti-phonics propaganda keeps going, in the face of all the evidence and despite the innumerable times that its arguments have been shown to be false. The ‘debate’ is perhaps not really an argument about teaching methods at all. What seems to touch the nerve is the explicit determination to raise standards – and perhaps most controversially of all not just to raise standards for those who are safely on the road to becoming readers but also to raise standards for those who are currently left behind. To open the doors of the literacy ‘club’ to all.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 25 March 2014