Skip to main content

Between the lines of debate;Litaracy;Interview;Marilyn Jager

A decade ago, teaching children to read was a battlefield, with primary teachers stuck in the middle of two opposing camps. Then, into the fray stepped Marilyn Jager Adams, with a practical approach to learning that combined the best theory from both sides. Sue Palmer met the United States expert on a rare visit to the UK.

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, British primary teachers were beset by rival groups of theorists, urging them to take sides in the reading wars. At one extreme, phonics diehards bayed for a return to old-fashioned methods of skills-and-drills teaching. At the other, the "whole-language movement" claimed literacy skills would develop naturally through reading for meaning, and that explicit teaching (especially phonics) could actually damage children's ability to learn.

Throughout the century, fashions in literacy teaching have swung between attention to phonics and attention to meaning. By 1989, whole language had been in the ascendant for a while (remember the Real Books movement?) and the phonics brigade was rallying for a backlash.

Then into the madness broke a small, calm voice. Beginning to Read: thinking and learning about print, published in 1990, was a review of research into the teaching of reading commissioned by the United States government and written by educational psychologist Marilyn Jager Adams.

It was a massive tome, full of the usual statistics and references, but in two ways it shone like a light in the darkness. First, it was actually readable - indeed, in some places it was funny. Second, it argued for a balanced approach to literacy, an acknowledgement that children needed not just "whole language", not just phonics, but a mixture of the two. And the phonics it spoke of was not mechanistic drill but child-friendly, focused teaching - activities that would, in fact, help children think and learn about print.

As one who was so worried about the state of literacy education in Britain that I'd spent a year organising a campaign for "balance", I remember feeling deep gratitude to Adams, who had thrown herself at the insane pendulum of literacy theory and dragged it back towards the centre. I was glad she looked so young in her photograph on the book fly-leaf - if she was going to stick to her guns, she'd have to be fit.

Much of what has happened in British literacy education in the past few years has its roots in Beginning to Read. John Stannard, director of the National Literacy Strategy, read and admired the book. His "searchlight" model of reading - based on the reader's orchestrated attention to word, sentence and text level - incorporates its conclusions.

The strategy's thorough coverage of phonics, the methods of teaching recommended in NLS in-service materials and the latest NLS teaching pack, Progression in Phonics, are very much in line with Adams's "thinking and learning" activities. There are similar broad commitments to balanced literacy teaching in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish curricular documents.

The problem of extremism has not gone away, of course. As the legacy of literacy problems left by exclusive whole-language teaching has become apparent, there are inevitable calls for a return to mechanistic back-to-basics teaching. And although whole-language purists are, for the time being, quiet in the United Kingdom, they are active elsewhere and will doubtless pop up here again soon. But now, with any luck, the best do not lack conviction: the centre can hold.

The woman who prophesied - and provided the basis for - a balanced approach in the UK has not always had an easy ride in her own. Adams knew when she was approached to write Beginning to Read that it would mean stepping into a minefield. She agonised over whether to take it on. Her main reason for accepting the commission was to clarify the debate for teachers who, in the US as in the UK, were bewildered by the mass of conflicting evidence and theories.

Once she'd started writing, she received sinister phone calls from activists on both sides of the debate, along the lines of: "We don't care what you actually find in the literature, you know what you must say, don't you?" It was a stressful couple of years, not least because she juggled the work with caring for her children, aged two and four at the time. She'd write and research all day, come home to feed and put John and Jocie to bed, then sit up till 3am eating sweets, with reading theory spinning around in her head.

Since publication, Adams has been subjected to more attacks from both sides, but particularly from whole-language zealots who cannot accept her finding that structured phonics teaching should be an essential part of literacy education. Her opponents have tried to marginalise her as an extremist - at one academic party, she found herself surrounded by smart-suited gentlemen. "Well?" they asked. "Is it true you're a right-wing religious fanatic?" Adams has been accused of fiddling statistics to make money from educational publishing - she is the major author of Open Court, a reading scheme incorporating the teaching methods suggested by her research review. But then, she believes many of the attacks on her methods are orchestrated by rival publishers. "I fear the issue isn't really phonics," she sighs. "It's capitalism at its healthiest."

One area of early literacy education into which capitalism is not allowed to intrude is public service broadcasting, and Adams was for many years literacy adviser for Sesame Street. Now she is working on another TV show for four to eight-year-olds, Between the Lions (a reference to the famous twin statues outside the New York public library), and aims to use humour and animation to engage children's interest, foster their spoken language and encourage thinking and learning about print.

This summer, John and Jocie were old enough to go to camp, so Adams was able to deliver a paper at the United Kingdom Reading Association conference on preventing reading failure. Her approach is still one of balance, and she continues to argue that meaning, context, vocabulary and recognition of letter-shapes are all important in helping children make sense of print.

But the research evidence of the past 10 years has left her even more convinced that to read fluently, children need a deep, instantaneous working knowledge of phonics. "If they haven't got that, the process of reading unknown text is so laborious there is no space left in their heads to think about its meaning."

The buzzwords today, she says, are "phonemic awareness" - the insight that every spoken word can be conceived as a sequence of phonemes. This awareness doesn't come naturally,and it is not connected to IQ. Teachers will recognise the children who don't have it - they're the ones who can sound words out ("b-a-g") but not blend them into a recognisable word, the ones who learn to read and spell one day then forget it the next.

Still strongly opposed to drills-and-skills teaching, Adams believes phonemic awareness can be developed in the earliest stages of education through games that help children attend to the sounds of speech. "These are little people," she explains. "They don't take to lectures that well." So she uses a puppet called Ralph, whose problems with pronunciation encourage children's attention to the individual sounds of which a word is composed. Once phonemic awareness is established - and for most children in the US, this happens in the kindergarten year, when they're around five years old - they need phonics teaching, embedded within a range of teaching strategies: daily shared reading with the teacher, daily independent reading and writing (using invented spelling based on their phonic knowledge), focused instruction and practice in conventional spelling.

She believes children's early independent reading material should be easily decodable, so they can exercise their newly-acquired phonemic knowledge. "But we're not talking long-term here. Just a few weeks'-worth of decodable books will help a child think 'Ho! I can do this'. Decodable texts are the reading equivalent of invented spelling."

Most British reading schemes include early reading texts of the kind she describes, and she was pleasantly surprised when she visited UKRA's publishers' exhibition. Back home, there are still many states where children are given what Adams calls look-at-the-picture-and-guess-the-meaning books. There's even a widely-held belief that children should not read aloud, with the result that many teachers don't even know which pupils can't read till it is too late.

"Things seem muchmore stable over here," Adams says wistfully. "Clearly there are stillsome disagreements and, by andlarge, the rhetoric is the same as ours. That's all you can tell from acrossthe ocean. But what I found on my visit in the summer was far greater readiness to compromise. The arguments areat the margins of the debate - more about "how" than "whether". It seems you've picked up the spirit of Beginning to Read beautifully - the progressyou're making with your Literacy Strategy is real. And it's wonderful."

'Beginning to Read' by Marilyn Jager Adams is published by MIT Press, distributed by John Wiley, at pound;17.50. A summary is published by Heinemann at pound;9.99

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you