Alphabet soup again

24th June 2005 at 01:00
There is no such thing as an infallible way to teach children to read but that doesn't stop the fads coming, says Peter Wilby

When I covered education for a national paper, I dreaded the arrival of letters that announced an infallible method for teaching children to read.

They were not all written in green ink, but they might as well have been.

The writers had the zeal and conviction of Seventh Day Adventists and the same inability to listen to anyone else's point of view. Some thought their ideas had been suppressed by a conspiracy to keep the lower classes in a state of dumb illiteracy, and demanded to meet me in secret.

So I do not envy the task of trying to decide whether synthetic phonics is indeed a magic bullet. I hesitate to compare advocates of this method to my green-ink correspondents of yore, but I regarded one claim as a definite sign of derangement. This was that the favoured method had to be used exclusively and that any deviation from the one true path would render it useless.

You find similar claims made, not only in religious sects where rituals have to be performed in strict order, but also in diet fads or "alternative" cures for cancer: drink fresh carrot juice five times a day and nothing else.

Sure enough, supporters of synthetic phonics - or at least some of them - insist that, until children have learnt all their sound-letter correspondences, they should not try to read books. I am not sure how this is to be enforced.

Perhaps books are to be allowed in homes only when the children have been phonically trained, and treated until then as illegal substances subject to seizure in police raids.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not a dedicated advocate of look-and-say, real books, analytic phonics or any of the other methods that have also been hailed as magic solutions. I am with the late Lord Bullock who, as Sir Alan Bullock, chaired an official committee on reading in the 1970s. His report - which took two years to produce - noted that claims for a succession of panaceas which would "make everything right" had continued for four centuries and "this was reflected in much of the correspondence we received". (So he got the green-ink letters, too.) He gave his conclusion in blunt Yorkshireman's language: "There is no one method, medium, approach, device or philosophy that holds the key . . . to learning to read . . . Simple endorsements of one or another nostrum are no service to the teaching of reading."

In opposition, Labour was all for a scheme called Reading Recovery. This came from New Zealand, with results as impressive for the least able children as those that synthetic phonics are said to have achieved in Clackmannanshire.

We hear little of Reading Recovery nowadays (though it remains popular with teachers), perhaps because it turned out to be fearfully expensive. It involved intensive one-to-one tuition of those children lagging behind during the middle primary years - a device that at least sounded sensible.

Yet I still retained a sceptical corner in my mind.

The truth is that some people will always struggle to read, as others will struggle to control their weight or to avoid life-threatening diseases.

Because inadequate reading skill (I refuse to call it illiteracy, since it is usually no such thing), like excessive weight or chronic disease, is a distressing condition, both to sufferers and to their relatives, the belief in magic cures will always exist.

Perhaps one will eventually be found, an educational equivalent of vaccination or antibiotics. Perhaps synthetic phonics is the answer and Dr Rhona Johnson, the guiding light behind the Clackmannanshire study, is the Louis Pasteur of our age. But if that is what is concluded, I shall journey to Hull University, where Dr Johnson resides, and eat my copy of the Bullock report before her wondering eyes.

Peter Wilby is former editor of the New Statesman.

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