Most children who toil with reading experience the struggle as a reflection of something wrong with themselves – something of which they should be ashamed. The myth that reading ability is a test of intelligence is pernicious.

Children don’t know that reading troubles might be due to a normal difference in their genes and brains analogous to being tall or short. They don’t realise the contibution of engagement from the very earliest months of life in stimulating conversations and positive, focused, active learning experiences in the early years to success in literacy. Equally, they don’t see that their failed attempts to crack the archaic and artificially complex code are not their fault.

No, they blame themselves. We all search for strategies to protect ourselves from the shame of failing to achieve something, especially something as central as reading and writing. We come up with very complex ways to escape and avoid and channel that shame, most of which aren’t healthy for us or the people around us. We handle shame by avoidance (and yes, I still pay my dues to the gym but haven’t been since March), aggression. (‘What on earth is the point of quadratic equations? I never got them, and it never did me any harm’) or being destructive so as not to look inadequate (‘The alternative voting system is downright stupid’). Children learn very quickly that it’s more socially acceptable to be ‘bad’ than to be ‘dumb’.

And of course when we feel ashamed we are caught in a ‘learning-disabled downward spiral’. The humiliation children feel if they struggle with literacy motivates them to avoid reading but, most poignantly, it affects their very sense of self. And this undermines the cognitive capacities they need to learn to read in the first place.

I knew a 14 year old who told her parents she was in the ‘5th bottom set’ for maths. There were only 6 sets and she – according to her teacher – was in the 2nd set and achieving highly. It’s all about perceptions.

Not only are these learners in danger of continuing to be poor readers, they are also likely to develop aversions to other learning situations that trigger (or which they think might trigger and thus they avoid) similar shameful feelings. Such mind-shame is hugely disabling and it can have an immensely powerful negative effect throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Reading failure can result in a host of social pathologies: delinquency, drug and alcohol problems, and – not least – great loss to human potential because of negative life options. It is not that they think literacy is unimportant: quite the contrary. The defence mechanisms are so powerful because they acknowledge the centrality of reading and writing.

I can’t cite this source but I have read that the prison building programme in some states of the US is based on literacy rates in 3rd Grade. They can, and do, predict how many prisoners will be arriving in 20 years time on the basis of the numbers of children with reading difficulties at age 9. Now that’s scary.

We need to re-frame our thinking about reading, not tinker with the mechanics.

I’m as happy as anyone to engage in lengthy debate about the merits or otherwise of phonics as opposed to ‘real books’. But that is not addressing the real concerns about reading failure. We need to understand the challenges involved in learning to read from the learner’s perspective.

The majority of difficulties in acquiring literacy are learned, not neurological. If chronic shame is the abiding emotion felt by many children who struggle with reading, then we must not ignore the psychological damage that is being wrought in our schools.

All of us want to learn: think of the toddler stumbling and falling, pulling herself upright, trying again. That drive to make progress, to improve, to find out and explore is innate. We just need to harness it – easy to write here, harder to accomplish I know.

A lot of children are read to and have loved ones to listen to their emergent reading abilities at home. But for those who don’t come from a rich language background, where there’s not a lot of reading material around, or the television is on all the time, those kids don’t come to school with the same kind of expectations, or the same level of readiness: readiness to learn to read.

We don’t always differentiate what we do enough for those children. We wait until they experience some pretty significant failure, either academic or behavioural failure, and then we try some interventions and wait to see how they work. By this time the shame and the avoidance has magnified.

Psychologists tell us that the moment that shame triggers, when children become aware of their perceived inadequacy, it distracts and depletes the cognitive capability necessary to do the work. So some children are in a confusing environment. The context perpetuates their perception that there’s something wrong with them, and they’re mortified. And that’s the downward spiral that so many youngsters are caught in.

Shame is the greatest learning disability. Not so much because of the emotional attributions we make to it from outside, but because of the utter cognitive disruption that goes with it. We just don’t function well cognitively. This shame mechanism is not at all useful in relation to an unconscious faster-than-thought, virtual-artificial process like reading. It clouds the effective processing of information.

Confusion creates a self-consciousness which depletes the brain’s capacity to work out the confusion at the core, underneath at the cognitive processing level. Many children are just developmentally in varying places on the readiness spectrum. Awareness of falling behind their peers damages self esteem and ultimately puts them at risk of continuing failure and low self image and self efficacy. This makes them vulnerable to so many negative influences.

It’s just not the lack of the skills, it’s how they feel about the lack of the skills that creates so much unhappiness and dysfunction.

It’s our job – all of us – to ensure that all our young people view themselves as capable learners.

Thanks to the Children of the Code  site for stimulating this.

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