Ben was a bright seven-year-old. Medical problems had disrupted his attendance and he was, not surprisingly, a bit behind in reading.
The first thing he told me was that he was dyslexic (he had been assessed privately). Despite this he read to me fluently with apparent enjoyment and understanding, sometimes decoding a tricky word. Suddenly he came to a dead stop. "What's the problem?" I asked. Ben pointed to a word on the page. "I can't read that sort of g," he said. "It's one of those old-fashioned gs with a squiggly bottom."
"Sorry," I said, "I'll find another reading book." It was Monday morning and I wasn't on top form. I was still searching for a reading book with an appropriate typeface when the penny dropped. "Hang on," I cried. "How do you know it's a g if you can't read that sort of g?" Poor Ben was pretty mixed up about reading. He knew what he couldn't do, mostly because his mother and private tutor had explained his failings to him. What he didn't appreciate was just how good he actually was. Like many struggling readers, he had lost the overview that the purpose of reading was to gain meaning and enjoyment from print, and he was focusing his attention on applying complex but unreliable phonic rules and spotting letters with archaic squiggles.
Peter Guppy and Margaret Hughes would soon have sorted Ben out. In their book, these two advisory teachers in Warwickshire emphasise how teachers and parents can enhance children's literacy skills and self-confidence as readers by stressing their abilities, rather than their disabilities, avoiding negative cliches, such as "He doesn't know all the words yet", which could just as well be, "He knows most of the words".
Becoming an independent reader is a collaboration between teacher and pupil in discovering the author's meaning through dialogue. At first, the teacher (or parent) supplies about 95 per cent of the discussion and the child supplies just 5 per cent, as comments or appreciation. When the child becomes an independent reader that ratio is reversed. The core of this book is an explanation of how this process comprises distinct stages, in which the ratio of input from the teacher and the pupil gradually changes.
Most books about teaching reading are not in themselves a good read, but this one is, particularly in the detailed guidance on teaching and assessment strategies for each stage. It shows how comprehensive phonics teaching, for example, can both arise from story reading and can be introduced into story reading in supportive and enjoyable ways. This book is what the National Literacy Strategy could have been like with some imagination. The NLS files which teachers are clutching contain jargon-filled statements, about when and in what order to teach phonics, which are not guidelines but tramlines - narrow, rigid and obsolete. Guppy and Hughes give teachers, classroom assistants and parents real guidelines to the whole process of helping children achieve independence in literacy. Read it - and rediscover why teaching children to read can be such fun.
Keith Gaines was formerly head of Wakefield Special Needs Support Service. He is co-author of Wellington Square (Nelson), and fiction editor of The Oxford Literacy Web