“Please teach my daughter to read”

In the midst of the open day crowd, a young father taps me on the shoulder. He carries a toddler in one arm and pulls a pushchair along behind him. He’s sporting a sweatshirt covered in splotches of white paint, a pair of old, grey Nike’s, and large dark circles under his eyes. His other daughter, who looks about secondary school age, trails behind him, transfixed by her phone.


“Excuse me, Miss,” he says.


“How can I help?” I beam. “Are you interested in sending your daughter to Michaela this September, Sir?”


“Yes, Miss,” he replies. “They said you was the one who I can speak to about special needs, Miss.”


I nod, smile, introduce myself. He glares at me for a moment as he gathers his thoughts. Shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot, his eyes scan the floor briefly before returning to mine.


“The thing is, right,” he begins, “my daughter, yeah, she’s got special needs, innit, Miss,”


“Okay, well you’ve come to the right person! What is the nature of your daughter’s needs?” I reply.


“Well, she can’t read, Miss. She hate reading. She don’t like it and I can’t never get her to do no reading ever.”


“Right. I understand. Lots of parents struggle to get their kids to read. It’s not unusual. There’s a lot we can do to help. I’m really glad you came to speak to me, Mr…?”


“Daniels. My name is Shaun. My daughter here is Georgia. Come here, Georgia, and say ‘hi’ to this lady what’s gonna be your teacher next year at Michaela.”


Georgia lifts her head momentarily from her iPhone and throws me a brief smile. Her eyes dart back to Whatsapp.


“The thing is, right, she’s got special needs. So I’m not sure if there’s anything you can do because it’s her special needs what stops her from learning to read. Me and my wife are so…. frustrated because we really want her to do well at school but she don’t do no reading ever and we knows its important, you hear me?


“I didn’t do so well at school myself, you know, and I don’t want that for my daughter, Miss. You understand? I am desperate for her to learn reading, Miss. Can you help? Please teach my daughter to read. Do whatever you can. Honestly, I am really meaning this right now.”


His speech is passionate. I sense that he’s delivered it before. There is an air of desperation behind his words.


I ask him, “Does Georgia have any other needs, other than her difficulties with reading?”


He looks baffled. “No. She can’t read. That’s it, Miss.”


The conversation continues and I try to reassure him. The reality is that I can’t make promises. I can’t say that his daughter will definitely learn to read in the next few years. I simply don’t know what her needs are. I tell him what we do, how we teach reading, the programmes we use, the number of hours of support she’ll receive each week, the homework requirements, and so on. I tell him what I think will happen, but I avoid making any concrete predictions at this stage.


And yet, looking at Georgia and her father, I have a hunch. I’ve met a number of children with all sorts of special needs in the past, and I am yet to meet a child who can’t be taught to read. I’ve never met a child in mainstream education whose needs are so profound that they cannot be taught to decode the 120 or so graphemes of the English language with proper instruction. Whilst Georgia may have another special need that presents her with various challenges, I cannot shake the thought that perhaps she has been labelled as ‘SEN’ because she hasn’t been taught to read properly. I know I’m making assumptions, but I think of all the people on Twitter who stand by their whole word approaches to teaching reading, and all the primary schools I have visited where mixed methods are still the norm, despite vast swathes of evidence to the contrary, and I wonder whether Georgia is yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes. I wonder how many of the 1.3million ‘SEN’ children in the country have no genuine cognitive disability, but have simply been let down by poor reading instruction over the years. I wonder how many fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents and carers have trusted schools to do their job and have been catastrophically let down.


And it is catastrophic. I don’t have to convince you of the consequences of a child not learning to read, but here’s an interesting article that I found particularly enlightening on the subject.


18 months later, and Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousands of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress. I’m not suggesting that we are superheroes who have a unique ability to cure the illiterate. Rather, I’m trying to point out that it is incredibly easy to teach a child to read if you use the correct methods. It’s a downright disgrace that kids like Georgia are let down in primary schools, and whilst I know lots of primary teachers who do teach reading properly, many still don’t.


38 thoughts on ““Please teach my daughter to read”

    • I assure you, Michael Rosen has no hesitation in putting words in the mouth of phonics proponents, and he persists in doing so despite having been corrected many times. See his egregious misrepresentation of the meaning of “first, fast and only” as just one example.

  1. A very Interesting piece..
    Just wondering was any contact was made with Georgia’s primary school to see which interventions had been tried and what they felt were the main issues? I do not teach in the UK, but here in Ireland there is very little contact between secondary and primary schools and I feel this is a weakness in our system.

      • A few of us here in Dublin are very interested in Michaela and the approach being adopted there. Is there a primary school operating a similar approach?

      • There are some excellent primary schools doing great things. You might want to look into the Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust, and Floreat Education. I’m sure there are lots of others but these spring immediately spring to mind.

  2. Brilliant post and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s such a shame though that many would see this sort of logical, sensible post as somehow indicating that the author does not care about children with SEN. Cue all sorts of accusations.

  3. “Many primary teachers still do not” – *sighs*
    While I applaud your success with these children, can I urge the following: that you get in touch with every feeder primary you have an invite them to CPD at your school, because if many of the children you get are taught badly, this is the only solution. It’s clear that this is not the case nationally, as OFSTED and exam data for Y6 SATS will tell you.
    Good luck.

  4. ” I am yet to meet a child who can’t be taught to read.”

    I would be very careful about making statements like this. You may well eventually encounter a child whose difficulties persist despite excellent instruction.
    I once asked a well known programme developer, who had had a long career in the classroom, if she had encountered any child who she couldn’t teach to read. ‘Well, there was one’ she said.

    Even if you never encounter it that will be the one child who comes back to bite you. Every SPsceptic will have an example of that child to hand and, ignoring the hundreds of supposedly ‘unteachable’ children you have suceeded with, will use it as triumphant proof that you are Wrong, your words cannot be trusted and that there is No Silver Bullet.

    With regard to Rosen’s assertion that learning to read with SP cannot possibly lead to enjoyment of reading I do think that successful SP schools would do well to emphasise the qualitative results of their teaching as well as quantative data.

    • Totally agree. Hence my use of the word ‘yet’. I completely accept that I may meet a child one day who, for whatever reason, cannot learn to read through SSP. But I expect that figure nationally would be less than 1%.

      • But if the figure is ‘less than 1%’ surely you’d expect to have met at least one child with serious cognitive problems with learning to read in your time as an educator? Unless you mean the figure is more like ‘less than 0.01%’…?

      • Very late reply, jhc, sorry for that. It’s actually difficult to respond without falling into the trap of polemical bipolarity myself, which is what I’m commenting on. (Not using the term bipolarity in its clinical sense!) I’m reluctant to encourage the idea that ‘There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think people can be divided into two kinds, and those who don’t!
        The author appears only to respond to comments that agree with the argument of the blog.

  5. A couple of comments:

    “I’ve never met a child in mainstream education whose needs are so profound that they cannot be taught to decode the 120 or so graphemes of the English language with proper instruction.”

    Several teachers have told me this. The children they refer to have invariably been of secondary age. Often they have learned to decode following intensive individual/small group tuition. It’s not safe to imply that it’s simply poor teaching that has resulted in a previous difficulty with reading. Children develop. There are several reasons why a child might struggle with reading at 5, however good the tuition, but might not struggle with it at 11.

    “1.3 million ‘SEN’ children in the country have no genuine cognitive disability, but have simply been let down by poor reading instruction over the years.”

    SEN is not defined in terms of cognitive disability. It’s defined in terms of the provision generally made in mainstream schools. If a kid needs extra educational provision for whatever reason, including the quality of teacher training or the level of government funding, they’d qualify as having special educational needs.

    • I have yet to see this excuse trotted out so one more to add to the list of ‘why primary teachers fail to teach children to read’. Some children are ready at 11 and not 5? Would you like to qualify this? Which children? Why? Since when has 5 been too young when some children are reading at 3/4? One of the few things we have to get right is teaching children to read at primary level. The fact that mixed methods and old wives tales (old and, in your case, freshly made up ones) are trotted out instead of training with a quality phonics programme.

      • This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but each child is unique. The younger the children the more their development varies. Some children might be reading at 3/4. It doesn’t follow that all children can. You have to ask why, if a class of 5 year-olds are taught in the same way by the same teacher some learn to read in no time and others don’t.

        Can you point me to evidence showing that all children taught using SP read at age-norm levels by 7, or even by 11? I have yet to see it.

        And incidentally, I’m not defending ‘mixed methods’ or ‘old wives tales’, I’m asking for evidence for some of the claims made for SP.

      • Not having this – I asked you some specific questions about the remarks you have made. Trotting out ‘each child is unique’ is not an answer just a cliche. You said there were several good reasons for why a child might struggle at 5 and not 11. What are they?

  6. Well done- glad she got what she needed. Shame it wasn’t done earlier.
    I’ve been teaching primary for 27 years and for the past 19 using phonics. In that time a couple of children have attended for the first two or three years before transferring to special schools for children with profound complex needs. These children will probably never speak let alone read. I don’t know what proportion of children are similarly cognitively impaired but we shouldn’t air brush them from the statistics.
    Then there have been three other children who despite using phonics made very little progress. When I was in year 4 I spent the whole year trying to get a child to distinguish between ‘m’ and ‘s- to no avail. We eventually abandoned phonics for whole word recognition and he did learn to read a few words over his remaining time at school – maybe 10? His speech and language was fine. He didn’t have a particularly developed vocabulary but he wasn’t speech disordered in anyway.
    Then another child who was slightly better- when he left primary he knew some of his inintial sounds- He had pretty limited speech.
    The third child had all sorts of emotional and behavioural difficulties among other needs so actually getting him to attend to reading instruction was tricky- he left primary able to decode some cvc words.
    All the others could read although not all got level 4 or higher. The reading sats test doesn’t test whether you can get the words of the page ( they all could- more or less) but whether you understand and can infer from what you’ve read. A few got level 2 because of such difficulties. Some of these were new to English.
    One or two of this group weren’t as fluent as I’d have liked and I hope they got more phonics in secondary school- alongside other approaches to help them with meaning and vocabulary development.
    The school where I work is inner city with high levels of deprivation, and the usual associated social problems, and high levels of speech delay.
    So that’s 570 children who have left year 6 over the past 19 years- 3 of whom phonics didn’t really help. That’s 0.5%. Or if we include the 2 children with profound needs who left earlier but I very much doubt learnt to read, 0.8%. Obviously flawed as based on one school- but might give some indication of the likely order of magnitude. I make that 1 child every 6 1/2 years without the children with profound needs or 1 child every 4 years including them in the statistics for a 1 form entry school.

      • Far too babyish for Michaela but in case any primary colleagues are reading, Project XCode has been a massive hit this year with the yr3 & 4 kids who still haven’t got fluent phonics or who have transferred from schools where it isn’t done – the remedial reading scheme the other kids want to read too. Published by OUP – phonetically regular words with an exciting story line.
        ( well, exciting if you are 9). Obviously they also need lots of exposure to quality literature too.

  7. Pingback: Burgeoning Special Education Needs: Are Better Early Reading Methods the Ultimate Answer? | Educhatter's Blog

  8. Yes, we can learn to read at a very young age, as perfect practice makes perfect. Yet, I ask the question as to why this father believes that the school can teach what he himself as a product of the school did not learn to do himself? When will we realize that if we went to our schools and are products of this can we not realize that we are asking that which did not teach us, to teach our children?

    If we are exposed to a slow measure, we stagnate and rebalancing that takes great effort, as we understand that it takes 21 days to change a habit and 10,000 hours to master a skill .
    In all it is mathematical, which makes it simple, and removes the need to consider any person as being less capable than another.

    If we teach words like musicians learn notes, we remove all the pictures and build a more synergistic processing ability. If we know the words so well, we open up the space for comprehension and flowing critical and creative thinking skills. It is simple, when we can spell the words, we can spell successful lives.

  9. I wonder why you felt it necessary to describe, in vivid detail, the appearance of the child’s father? I wonder if you also advised the father about the perils of allowing a primary aged child unlimited access to the internet via her smart phone: the use of which appeared unaffected by her apparent inability to read. I suggest that her primary school had labelled her SEN because she was not reading at the benchmark level 4 or equivalent. A child reading at, what was, level 2 is considered to be a fluent reader but would be considered in need of intervention if still at this level in year six.

    Might I suggest you don’t just visit primary schools on fact finding missions in your role of assistant headteacher, but you actually go and teach in one or two of them for a period of days as part of your CPD.

  10. Children are so fragile and can be labeled anyway a grown up wants to label them. It is extremely easy to get into a bad school with “teachers” that can leave such deep marks on your child personality and physiological development labeling him/her all kinds of classifications. I’m a mother and I believe every child can become what we make of it. So parents, teachers, society has to get engaged and do their best.
    I found a great summer program that offers help to children with learning difficulties and I see some amazing testimonials. http://www.westendinschools.org.uk/summer-schools/ Please let me know your thoughts.

  11. Brillant post, I work with children that have special needs sometimes I have find we are quick to get a diagnosis, there must be a need there if they can’t pick it up right? Some schools are so over stretched that they can’t cope with the level of needs in the class. There is a huge education crisis that the government do not seem to take seriously.

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