Article Dyslexia Part 3 – What is causing mass illiteracy?


I know a few students have serious problems that can impact on their ability to learn e.g. a major weakness in the wiring between the part of the brain that recognises sounds and the part that recognises letters. That means they have trouble learning the sound/letter links – the very building blocks of written English. But large numbers of students DON’T have serious problems, and yet they still can’t read! Why???

And now we come to the crux of the matter; the reason why so many people can’t read. The major component in the dyslexia debate. The one that is consistently ignored.


In the remainder of this article, I have included information from:
Why Our Children Can’t Read, and What We Can Do About It
by Diane McGuinness, Ph.D.
[To learn more about this book, go to the Articles page, and scroll down to the Books/Reading Materials – Books for Parents and Tutors link.]



Instead, people are illiterate because they haven’t been taught how to be literate! If people are taught literacy skills correctly, they become – literate!

Your students reverse letters b and d? That’s because they haven’t been taught to recognise the letters correctly, or to write them correctly, or haven’t been given sufficient practice to automate that information.

Your students guess instead of read what’s on the page? That’s because they’ve been taught that guessing is how you read; they have been told NOT to sound out the words. (No kidding!)


There are 3 reasons why people are illiterate:
1. They have a low built-in ability in the ‘sounds and letters’ recognition and linking parts of their brain – and they were not taught in a way that helped them do the necessary re-wiring (Yes, this problem can be overcome by re-wiring properly);
2. They have not been taught literacy ‘with full phonics’ (see the Phonics article for my definition of full phonics); or
3. They have been taught the sounds and letters and phonics rules – but they were not given enough practice to be able to ‘automate’ these skills and rules, or they weren’t taught in a way that helped them really learn this information well.


Whole Word, Balanced Literacy, or any method that requires the learning of more than a few Sight Words (even some so-called Phonics methods do this!) sets students up to fail totally or read poorly. These methods fail because they teach students a false idea of how sounds and letters work.

The only way to successfully teach written English is to teach it according to the way it was designed to be read and written. (Yes, it was designed: it didn’t just magically appear from nowhere.)

Written English was designed to be read aloud from left to right, one letter at a time – with every letter (or letter team) representing a sound. And it was designed to be written down from left to right, one letter (or letter team) at a time – with every sound represented by a letter.

Yes, we’ve messed with it a bit since then, but nowhere near as much as you’ve been lead to believe. Well over 85% of words obey the sound/letter rules and a few other rules. (There are people who argue that at least 92%-ish of words obey the rules – but I haven’t looked into it that closely, so I can’t tell you if that’s so.)


Because it’s a lot easier to point and yell, “look over there!”, “It’s the student’s fault – he’s got dyslexia!”, “She could do better!”, “They come from a deprived background!, “He has ADHD!”, “His parents both work”, “She isn’t read to at home!”, and so on… rather than admit the errors of the past and work to solve the problem.

By the way, I’m not blaming the teachers. The teachers are teaching the way they were taught to teach (or facilitate). And even if teachers work out that what they were taught isn’t working and start teaching full phonics, it often happens that they receive an ultimatum, “Stop! Or find another job!” Seriously.
The people I blame are the people who trained the teachers, and the bureaucracies that insist schools use these faulty methods.
AND there is another reason – it’s much more profitable for some people if most children take years to learn to read, instead of just a few weeks!
AND it’s a lot easier to get people to do as they’re told if they don’t have access to the world of alternative points-of-view and other information out there in books and on the internet!
Do I sound cynical? Too right!


Basically, the problem stops with you. What are you going to do for your child or student? Are you going to do the teaching yourself? If so, the reading course on this website can help you do that.

Would you much prefer that your child learnt from an expert? There are several excellent online courses – you don’t have to do the teaching yourself! There is a link to them listed on the Resources page.

Will your child or student end up reading fantastically well? I don’t know, but he or she will read a lot better than they would have if you hadn’t taken action.

To be honest with you, I have come across two students I was unable to teach to read. These students were so mentally disabled that they were unable to indicate, “Yes” or “No” in any way. They could not speak* or move voluntarily. I didn’t even try to teach them to read, because I realised I would be unable to assess whether they understood what I’d taught.

*There was a student I taught to read, who could not speak. But he was perfectly able to indicate yes and no, and communicate answers to questions – he just couldn’t speak (I don’t know why). He took no longer than other children to learn to read, because he could hear the sounds perfectly well.


The thing you have to remember is that the basic idea you’re wanting students to grasp is that for every English sound they say, there is a letter (or letter team) used to represent that sound. It isn’t hard to get this idea across, as long as you teach in a sensible step-by-step way.

Remember, students are illiterate because they have not been taught the information that will enable them to be literate.

You’re in charge of your own child or student. If your child or student is in difficulty, work out what the problem is – and take appropriate, sensible action! Never delay, hoping students will ‘grow out of it’. They won’t – they’ll just get more and more behind, so it will become increasingly difficult for them to catch up.


When you teach students who have had trouble learning to read and spell, you’ll be dealing with several problems:

  • The students’ idea that they are stupid. Because of this assumption – many eventually stop trying to learn literacy. You’ll have to convince them that it’s not their fault they haven’t learnt to read; they can’t read because of the way they were taught;
  • Automating the essential information. They will complain about putting time into this, but it must be done. We only KNOW something when we can give the right answer immediately on demand every time. And automatic recall is what’s required in order to be able to read fluently – see the letter, immediately say the right sound; and
  • A big part of teaching someone who has been taught literacy the wrong way is re-wiring their brain. Processing written words like pictures (Sight Words) is the wrong way. Only processing written words as individual letters, each linked to a sound will work. And re-wiring takes time and lots of repetition. This is not because the student is stupid, it’s because building brain wiring is hard work and takes time as well as effort.


So, for these students, it’s not just a matter of learning the information; it’s a matter of re-training and re-wiring their brain. It’s hard work for a brain to have to learn to process something a different way. Breaking a bad habit is hard enough, but breaking a bad habit you have learnt through no fault of your own is heartbreaking. But it can be done with patience on your part, and patience on the part of the brain’s owner – the student.

For more information about how the brain learns, see the Brain and Literacy articles.