England is in the grip of another moral panic about the teaching of reading. And perhaps we should be. While the Key Stage 2 SAT scores stubbornly refuse to rise, our ten-year-olds have been sliding down the international reading rankings, overtaken by Russia and Germany among others. So what’s going wrong? In her pamphlet So Why Can’t They Read? Miriam Gross argues for systematic synthetic phonics. Professor Henrietta Dombey disagrees…
Our children’s attitudes to reading have been declining faster than their competence. And before you blame electronic toys and the internet, take note that other countries such as Sweden and Finland, where homes are awash with the latest entertainment devices, have encountered no such problems.
Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that for over a decade, our children have been constantly tested as they are marshalled through a heavily controlled National Strategy, by teachers expected to impose a one-size-fits-all approach, in which technical aspects take precedence over making satisfying meaning. Reading as a pleasurable and rewarding experience has got lost in the chase for higher SATs grades. The tragic paradox is that unless you engage children in the act of making satisfying meaning, they seem to lose the will to learn those important technical lessons.
‘Uncaring teachers wilfully fail’
But that’s not what Miriam Gross thinks. She paints a dismal picture of lackadaisical London schools where uncaring teachers wilfully fail to impart the knowledge that children need if they are to become readers. Through a series of anecdotes, rather than examination of reputable research, she makes the case that there is a grave problem that can be overcome only by the thorough application of systematic synthetic phonics.
She has no inclination to examine the serious criticisms that have been levelled at the one research study she does dwell on – Johnston and Watson’s Clackmannanshire study (1). She makes no mention of the fact that since this intervention, Scotland’s HMI consider Clackmannanshire schools to be operating much less successfully than schools in socio-economically similar authorities.
Meanwhile, a series of large studies in the US have shown that the most successful schools
* use a balanced approach, matching attention to word identification skills with attention to comprehension (2);
* attend to individual children’s literacy progress through high quality interaction and close monitoring of individual progress (3);
* work to ensure high levels of engagement in reading activities (4).
Gross’s booklet concludes with a list of the features that she considers mark a good school. Comprehension is only mentioned to keep it apart from phonics, while pleasure, commitment and engagement get no mention at all.
Sadly it looks as if this booklet, with its foreword by Boris Johnson, is echoed in the thinking of the Coalition Government (or at least its decision-making part). The White Paper on Education includes a heavy insistence that all primary schools adopt a rigorous (rigid?) programme of synthetic phonics. Next June or July, towards the end of Year 1 children will be tested on their phonic learning, probably through a ‘Non-Word Reading Test’. Your six-year-old may come home puzzled by being asked to ‘read’ ‘words’ such as fip, pleck or stulk and unsure of the purpose of books in school.
The chances are that this will be just as unsuccessful as the Reading First programme was in the US, where billions of dollars were spent on direct instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics taught as separate skills from vocabulary fluency and comprehension. The official evaluation found that it brought no significant improvement to children’s achievement, and it has been quietly dropped (5).
It’s time that government looked directly at the research on this complex and crucially important issue rather than through the misted lenses of their own prejudices. Miriam Gross’s ‘remedy’ is bound to fail. The writing is on the wall.
So Why Can’t They Read? by Miriam Gross, Centre for Policy Studies (2010), £5.00 and free at at www.cps.org.uk
(1) Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (2005) The effects of synthetic phonics on reading and spelling attainment. A seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh. www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/sptrs-00.asp
(2) Taylor, B.M. and Pearson, P.D. (2002) (Eds.) Teaching Reading: Effective schools, accomplished teachers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
(3) Pressley, M., Wharton-McDonald, R., Allington, R., Block, C.C., Morrow, L., Tracey, D., Baker, K., Brooks, G., Cronin, J., Nelson, E. and Woo, D. (2001) A study of effective first grade literacy instruction. Scientific Studies of Reading 5, 1, 35-58
(4) Guthrie, J.T., Van Meter, P., Dacey-McCann, A., Wigfield, A., Bennett, L., Poundstone, C. C., Rice, M.E., Fairbisch, F.M., Hunt, B. and Mitchell, A.M. (1996) Growth in literacy engagement: changes in motivations and strategies during concept-oriented reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly 31, 3, pp. 306-332
(5) Gamse, B.C., Bloom, H.S., Kemple, J.J., Jacob, R.T., (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report (NCEE 2008-4016). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education
Henrietta Dombey is Professor Emeritus of Literacy in Primary Education, University of Brighton. See also Professor Dombey’s article, ‘How Should We Teach Children to Read?’, in BfK No. 156 (Jan 2006).