A tight rein on reading

4th July 1997 at 01:00
READING UNDER CONTROL. Edited by Judith Graham and Alison Kelly (written by the LanguageEnglish Teaching Studies Team, Roehampton Institute). David Fulton Pounds 12.99

The title of this book has a pretty harsh ring - it calls up the image of pupils barking obediently at their phonic readers under the eagle eye of a latter-day Gradgrind. But don't worry - it's all a front, perhaps a marketing ploy. The contents turn out to be much softer - indeed, sometimes to the point of squishiness.

The softening process starts in the introduction, where the editors explain that "control in any area springs from a secure understanding of processes and enabling practices; control in teaching reading is no different".

There follows a short chapter on the history of reading-teaching and the controversies surrounding it. Subsequent chapters attempt to ensure control by describing current teaching practices under four broad headings - Resources, Reading Routines, Monitoring and Assessment and Meeting Individual Needs.

The Resources chapter covers the part played in teaching reading by many types of book (big, core, series, homemade, scheme, bi-lingual). Descriptions of classroom practice and anecdotes about teaching and children enliven the text, and there are some useful checklists and teaching suggestions. Apart from a section on environmental print, though, the chapter is skimpy on non-book text, with a mere two pages' coverage of new media such as television, video, CD-Rom, the Internet, tape recorders and listening centres.

The Reading Routines chapter varies from very useful to positively misleading. It is at its best when the authors diverge from the essentially descriptive ethos of the book and become prescriptive. The structured teaching suggestions for working with a reading group, for instance, will be welcome in the present climate to students and practising teachers.

It is at its worst in the section on phonics, where systematic teaching about the phonemes of English is discounted as "bewildering" to many children, and onset and rime offered as a panacea for teaching. These are serious weaknesses. Non-structured "incidental" approaches to teaching phonics have proved inadequate in recent years and, without a firm understanding of old phonics, teachers' use of new phonics techniques such as onset and rime is seriously undermined. The authors have missed an opportunity to help students gain real control, by providing concise, accurate information about the sound system of English, and a range of teaching suggestions for systematic coverage within a balanced approach to reading.

In the final chapters they return to firmer ground, with advice on assessment techniques (such as informal reading inventories) and how to develop individual children's strategies for reading. But even here, to have reading really under control, most teachers would like to know what to do with the rest of the class while they assess andor meet these individual needs. The question is briefly mentioned, then - as all too often in books or lectures about teaching reading - carefully sidestepped.

If I were a new recruit to the profession, would reading this book leave me feeling I had reading under control? Sadly, no. Much of the "soft" stuff seems woolly, and the hard stuff is often avoided or ignored. So, with a chief inspector apparently intent on turning back the clock, and the Daily Mail breathing down my neck, what am I do? Maybe it's safest just to sit the children in rows and supervise a bit of barking at print? Oh dear.

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