Why there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to learning to read

Some learners start school lacking the foundational skills they need to succeed – something that off-the-shelf reading schemes don’t always acknowledge, says Megan Dixon
2nd August 2022, 12:00pm
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Why there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to learning to read

https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/primary/why-theres-no-one-size-fits-all-approach-learning-read

What is it that determines how well a child can take advantage of the classroom environment and the opportunities available for them to learn?

In his 1986 paper, Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy, Canadian psychologist, Professor Keith Stanovich provides an answer.

He theorised that innate intelligence is not what leads some children to do better at school than others. Instead, it is the foundational skills they have in place that make all the difference.

Children who start school with core skills already established have everything they need to thrive; those who missed out on establishing these skills are unable to take full advantage of what is on offer.

In essence, Stanovich’s paper describes how, educationally, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is, after all, a world of difference between a child who has had a bedtime story every night and one whose parents lack the spare cash to provide a well-stocked home library.
 


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But, is the Matthew effect just a theory - and one that is only applicable to the 1980s?

Well, a newly published report by the Education Policy Institute (2022) suggests not. It revealed that, over the past 10 years, up to 2019, efforts to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable learners made little impact.

According to the EPI, the educationally successful have carried on being successful, while the gap between them and the most vulnerable is not closing. The effects of the pandemic have yet to be factored into this picture, but it seems likely that Covid will have only widened the gap.

So, what does this mean for the classroom? Teachers need to consider the latticework of factors that determine whether a child will succeed.

For example, we need to acknowledge that learning to read is not a linear process, starting with phonics and ending with disciplinary literacy. Instead, the development of reading reflects the whole child, including the social, cultural and contextual world they live in.

As American psychologist Carol McDonald Connor suggested, perhaps we need to move away from one-size-fits-all teaching methods. Every child is unique, and the more individualised the teaching, the better.

When it comes to a skill like reading, whole-class approaches tend to assume a general level of starting knowledge. Those children who fail to thrive are therefore perceived as having some kind of deficit.

But how can that be? How can we make the assumption that every child has had the same experiences in life, has the same vocabulary, and the same understanding of how texts work and what it means to read?

The more tightly controlled the scheme or product, the more children will be excluded by the assumptions made within it. How the students can access the content, how they feel about it, how they feel about themselves, and how they feel about the classroom - as well as the practicalities of whether they are fed, well-rested and clean - all matter hugely.

If we are serious about ensuring all pupils acquire a learning habit, we need to make sure we understand not just the resources we use, but the possible scenarios where they might not work, why, and what to do next.

We must also consider differences in students and, as Connor suggests, individualise or personalise their experiences where appropriate.

We need to accept that learning, in particular learning to read, is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all, scripted, off-the-shelf package - no matter how seductively simple that may seem.

Megan Dixon is a doctoral student and associate lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University

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