Kieran McCann

Struggling to read: different causes, same effect

Struggling readers have some big challenges to cope with at every stage in their lives. Few of us relish being labelled as an underachiever, or even just ‘different’. So it’s no surprise that the embarrassment of being forced to read aloud in front of teachers and classmates has a lifelong impact on a child’s self-esteem, as well as their academic attainment.

That anxiety and stress can become a recurring theme in the workplace, as well as in social situations and interpersonal relationships. From filling in job applications to commonplace tasks like understanding signs, instructions, letters, utility bills, voting cards or recipes – the dice are loaded against struggling readers.
Throughout their adult lives, individuals with reading difficulties often adopt diversionary strategies to avoid being picked out by colleagues and friends. After all, who wants a reminder of the victimisation and ridicule they endured at school?
Aside from feelings of ‘failure’ and personal inadequacy, poor literacy can have other damaging consequences. A patient who’s unable to read the instructions on a medicine bottle can place themselves at risk by taking the wrong dosage – or simply deciding not to take their medication at all. Misunderstanding safety instructions at work puts individuals and their co-workers in potentially hazardous situations.
Struggling readers have an enormous spectrum of everyday life challenges to cope with. But let’s not forget that underlying reasons for the difficulties they face are numerous, too.
Around 10% of the UK population are dyslexic, 4% severely so (source: BDA). Quite separately there are other reported cognitive processing disorders like Meares-Irlen syndrome (also referred to as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome), manifested in visual stress and reading difficulties for young people and adults alike.
In the UK we’re fortunate to enjoy relatively better literacy standards than many other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the National Literacy Trust describes around 16% of England’s adult population as being functionally illiterate, with literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. And for these 5.2 million individuals, struggling to read presents exactly the same social and economic barriers, whether it’s caused by poor schooling, dyslexia or other impairments.
So let’s not lump all ‘struggling readers’ together in the same basket. Their needs and aspirations are as diverse – and deserving – as everybody else’s.



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