Gary Thomas assesses a manual of materials for helping primary strugglers. Given the general acknowledgement of the serious problems which reading difficulties create for any child at school, it's surprising there are so few good books to help the teacher overcome them. There are certainly frequent attempts, but unfortunately many of these are based on barmy, untested ideas. Barminess is, of course, no obstacle to success in educational publishing.
Here, though, is probably one of the best books on helping children with reading and spelling. It's so simple that it's surprising no one has written it before. It has chapters on the importance of meaning, working with parents, miscue analysis, assessment, developing fluency, phonics, spelling and handwriting. Each is discussed straightforwardly and with clarity.
It's a manual of materials, teaching plans, case studies and some (minimal) theory on reading, all stirred together with great skill by the authors to provide a truly practical resource.
The book bulges with suggestions on helping children who are struggling with reading. Its advice on assessment is consistent with the recent Code of Practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs and teachers who use the manual will be following the school-based stages of intervention recommended by the Code.
If anything, too much time is spent on phonics (41 pages) at the expense of strategies for helping the child to employ meaning, and perhaps too little time is spent discussing the contexts in which, say, paired reading - and not phonics - might be the teacher's central strategy. Phonics provide an obvious and all-too-beguiling avenue to follow when children fail to read and too little is done here to caution against over-reliance on them. More on the vitally important topic of helping children to be relaxed and confident about reading would also have been welcome: anxiety is after all a key factor - perhaps the key factor - in reading failure.
However, the error (if there is one) is of balance rather than omission. The other elements (about using meaning, apprenticeship, involving parents) are present. It's just that the weight given to phonics makes it look as though the authors believe that phonics provides a really important ingredient in helping with reading difficulties. Perhaps the second edition - there is sure to be one - will redress the balance.
Pictograms conform to the law passed in 1936 which prevented the letter i being represented by anything other than an inkpot. How many children in 1995 have seen an inkpot?
The book is in A4 format with plenty of photocopiable pages and much use of illustrative case study material. In this format, written as accessibly as it is, it is sure to become an essential part of SEN co-ordinators' resource books. As is the case with much good SEN material, it simply represents a rationalisation of good practice for all children and as such it will be of value for all primary school teachers and in teacher education.
Gary Thomas is Reader in Education, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University.