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Fictional debates on reading skills

Many people are raging about what is loosely called "literacy". Sadly, the raging is often itself illiterate, using terms misleadingly.

Little research is available on what is actually taught at certain periods. For instance, many grammar and public schools did not teach the reading of non-narrative texts well, but took reading for granted. Few specifically taught intermediate and higher reading skills. It was sometimes presumed that if you could not read a textbook adequately by secondary age you should not be in the school. It is simply not true that "traditional" schools were great teachers of reading beyond the basic phonics.

My first teaching job was in Germany in 1958, where difficult English texts were used - indeed specifically taught. I rarely found English pupils using such difficult English texts. The English grammar school I then taught in was marvellous in many ways, but it was made clear to me that the third stream was to be regarded as virtually unteachable.

Reading skills were rarely taught in British grammar schools. The non-narrative language of exposition and argument was rarely taught. The Office for Standards in Education analysis of the lack of the specific teaching of reading in inner-London primary schools could have been written 40 years ago - and about grammar schools as well.

Indeed, the OFSTED report was seriously misunderstood in most press reports. It was presented as if the main criticism was of the early teaching of phonics. Far from it: the serious criticisms were the lack in many schools of a continuing reading curriculum beyond the early stages. OFSTED found that: "There were few schemes of work for reading." The reading was primarily narrative. For instance, of the regular end-of day reading sessions, "narrative prose in various forms was the norm". So is it in the main part of the diet of pupils from five to fifteen. Factual accounts, or information books, did not feature frequently in these sessions.

OFSTED echoed the findings of Bullock 20 years ago, judging: "A few schools taught higher order and research skills, but in the majority of schools, pupils' acquaintance with these and with information, research and library skills was more ad hoc and incomplete." The British love affair with "the project" is weird given that we have only a fraction of the specific teaching of information-handling skills as would be found in US schools.

Vocabulary building is one of the great challenges to schools. The English vocabulary is vast and many UK adults do not know more than a fraction of the words in the language. The casual use of the term "long words" masks what is really difficult: the significant vocabulary derived from the classical languages has a stress-pattern shift and variety of vowel lengths across the compounds which are unknown in Saxon or Germanic-derived words. Why do we not specifically teach these affixes?

In our anxiety not to make the child from a home with a limited vocabulary feel put-down, we have actually kept him down by purging our teaching language and not explaining the method of vocabulary-building in English. What OFSTED says of the inner-London primary school is true of the secondary school also: "It was rare for explicit attention to be given to the structure, vocabulary and grammar of standard English."

Punctuation is oddly regarded by many as beyond normal concern. Some people talk about correct punctuation as if it were merely a form of outward politeness. In fact, punctuation is mostly concerned with the relationships between units of sense and it thus facilitates thinking. There should be much more specific teaching of the relationship between punctuation and meaning. One of the most common errors made by mid-adolescents is the same as that for most adults: confusion between the defining and the non-defining relative clause.

The real polarity is not "traditional" and "progressive" but "contextual" and "specific". We need both in a properly planned complementary sequence. The specific teaching needs to be a through-planned sequence in vocabulary-building, punctuation, reading skills, and information-handling skills from five all the way up to 16.

Michael Marland is general editor of the Heinemann School Management series, author of The Craft of the Classroom, and headteacher of North Westminster Community School

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