Signpost to literacy

THE ROAD TO READING. By T H MacDonald. Aurum Press Pounds 12.95

The title plays on the wording of a sign the author saw on the road to the Berkshire town. The book aims to provide a road along which children can travel towards literacy. Following an introduction that bewails teachers' lack of phonic knowledge, Professor MacDonald asks parents to spend 30 minutes a day with their child following his "road".

This begins with the learning of sound blends. After 20 lessons these are placed in words and, being phonic based, the extensive word lists involve an uninspiring repetition of a sound, such as "gun", "gut", "cud", and "dud", or "oo" sounds ("crew", "blue"). Assuming that children get through a lesson a day and never get stuck, these phonic-based word lists build into contrived sentences and stories. The restricted vocabulary leads to bizarre stories about, for example, Jewish crews with stars that are blue.

Parents aiming to provide a daily input of 30 minutes reading with their child should, with the right material, see them grow in their enjoyment and understanding of stories. But books don't feature for months in this programme.

To urge parents to work with their children is commendable: the problem here lies with the material MacDonald recommends. He rightly asserts that any tasks that develop a child's reading are meaningful for the child, but an approach so shackled to phonics impoverishes language and omits enjoyable stretches of the journey towards literacy.

There is a lack of research cited in support of this approach. This shows in MacDonald's complaint that whole-word learning encourages pupils to guess at unfamiliar words. Research has shown these guesses are not pointless, but are a way of using varied reading strategies, an insight that underpinned the success of the Reading Recovery programme.

Success in literacy requires work on phonics within the context of an experience of sentences and inspiring texts. Without these, the road to reading can become a dispiriting journey - perhaps a tedious drive on the M4 corridor.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield

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