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The code breakers

An activist is trying to explain to his fellow Americans why English spelling is so hard to learn. Diane Hofkins spoke to him

David Boulton lives on the little Hawaiian island of Kaua'i where the problems of the inner-city children across mainland America struggling to read could seem faraway.

Despite the unlikely setting, he has made it his mission to get his country to focus on "stewarding the health of our children's learning". He is producing a series for American public television called "Children of the Code", to be broadcast next autumn. The series is tied in with workshops, DVDs, and his own organisation, Implicity, which describes itself as "a vision for how learning to learn can learn to happen".

The "code" of the series title is English spelling. Mr Boulton looks into its history in an attempt to explain why it is so unnatural and hard to learn. This leads him to look at how to teach it better and even at alternatives (George Bernard Shaw was one among many to advocate a phonetic alphabet). To air these issues, he and his team are interviewing a long list of education gurus, thinkers and policy-makers, and the transcripts are being posted on their website.

He points out that early alphabetic writing in Ancient Greece had a clear letter-sound correlation (as it still does in many languages). When Roman writing collided with the Old English speech system, and especially when French was liberally stirred in, "no one was minding the store". We have ended up with a "mindless tumbling of letter-sound pairings". For instance, the "th" sound has no letter of its own.

The human brain evolved for speech, but reading and writing are unnatural processes requiring highly sophisticated technological mental feats.

Reading the English spelling code is a "pretty unique processing challenge", says Mr Boulton. In languages such as Welsh, or Russian, you have to see the letter and say the sound. "In English, you have to see the letter and basically suspend it" - placing it in a temporal buffer zone, thinking about previous information and looking ahead to what's coming up, putting it all in context, in order to figure out how the letters fit together and what they mean.

We throw all this at children at a sensitive time in their development, and forget how hard it is. Children, unsurprisingly struggle to learn to read, blame themselves for their difficulties and develop a sense of shame, says Mr Boulton. The first step forward is simply to recognise this syndrome and try to avoid it. "The time it takes to work out the ambiguities has a direct correspondence to the stutters, stops and starts of beginning readers". If teachers tune in to these hesitations they will be able to focus on that child's needs.

In a way, Mr Boulton is talking about child-centred learning, but following the way individual children's brains work, rather than just following their interests.

"How do you move away from trying to find a one-size-fits-all map of how children learn, and say children learn lots of different ways?" he asks.

"How do you develop an environment that's sensitive to them?" These questions tie in with the ones being asked by the Primary National Strategy, as it tries to focus on learning skills.

Literacy extends our thinking in many ways. Not only does the content of books add to the sorts of things we think about, but the series will show that the very act of reading develops the brain. Researchers have found that "native oral languages don't have the degree of generalisations and abstractions that we take for granted. It's extended into the abstract our capacity for reflection," Mr Boulton says. But although the code has affected human development and the history of the planet in ways we don't even understand, children are having their lives "misshapen" by how they come through the process of learning it.

"Most children begin learning to read during a profoundly formative phase in their development... they're also learning to think abstractly - they're learning to learn, they're becoming critically self-reflexive, and they're experiencing emotionally-charged feelings about who they are and how well they are learning," says the Children of the Code website. "Most children who struggle with reading blame themselves. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, the process of learning to read teaches these children to feel ashamed of themselves - ashamed of their minds - ashamed of how they learn."

This leads to a sheep-and-goats divide, in which children's capacity to perform the unnatural technological act of breaking the code helps some to go on to every type of success, while others carry on failing.

It all relates to what is seen as a crisis in literacy among American schoolchildren, and the view of interviewees such as Russ Whitehurst, US assistant secretary of education, that better methodology could make a substantial difference. Struggling children in many American classrooms are given books that are too hard for them, and should be given texts with a limited number of de-coding problems to solve at once, they argue.

British literacy specialist Sue Palmer, whose current work looks at ways to prepare young children to start reading, says: "Internationally, everyone's going down the same routes. Everyone's discovering pedagogy."

If literacy shapes thought, and if most Americans can't read at a higher level when they leave school, according to US statistics, how can they think clearly and creatively? It's an economic issue for the 21st century.

"The literacy requirements for proficiency, cultural proficiency, 50 years ago, were substantially lower than ... in the 21st century," says Dr Whitehurst. "We can't rest on success defined in 1950 terms, it won't get the job done."

But it's also a personal issue, he says. "The ability to think about what you're doing and think about what other people are doing and conceptualise what that means for you personally or for your family members is very much a product of literacy and the ability to read."

For more information visit Interview transcripts for the series will be posted regularly, and can be reached via a link on the TES website


"Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child"

John Steinbeck

"Education happens from the outside-in. Learning happens from the inside-out...In the name of teaching children about 'things', we are unintentionally but nonetheless pervasively and insidiously, teaching children that their 'presence' and inside-out participation is not important to their learning"

Implicity website

"We have a genuine national crisis. More and more, we are divided into two nations. One that reads, and one that doesn't. One that dreams, and one that doesn't"

George W Bush

Quotes from Children of the Code

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