Another voice: Let the teachers in on secrets of reading

10th July 1998 at 01:00
A 1997 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmen t revealed that the United Kingdom and Ireland have the highest functional illiteracy rates in the English-speaking world: 52 per cent of people aged 16 to 65 are poor or non-readers compared with 42 per cent in Canada. There is an answer, but no one seems to want to face it.

When we began our research on reading, primary teachers complained bitterly about their poor training in how to teach reading. Some children miraculously learned to read, but they had no idea why. Teachers did not know how children should be reading, when they should be able to read, or how to help those falling behind.

I questioned lecturers and reviewed textbooks and found that teacher training is completely divorced from nearly 30 years of research on reading instruction.

By the mid-1980s there was an avalanche of data to show that "phoneme awareness" - the ability to manipulate, segment and blend individual consonants and vowels - was a strong predictor of reading success. Analysis of larger sound units (words, syllables, syllable fragments) turned out to be counterproductive. Methods that emphasised larger soundbites, such as "look and say", "real books" and "word families" focused the child's attention on the wrong sound units for our writing system.

Reading instruction that misleads the child about how our alphabet code works can nudge him or her into adopting an ineffective strategy. Teachers never learned that when this happened, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fix unless you knew exactly what you were doing.

On the basis of these scientific discoveries and our research in the classroom and the clinic, we were able to devise teaching approaches that worked for everyone, regardless of age and reading ability. Classroom teachers were witness to seeing little Johnny go from being the worst reader in the class to the best in a short space of time. They wanted in on the secret. They spoke to their colleagues. They urged the head to let them train or to sponsor a workshop at the school. More often than not these requests fell on deaf ears.

To convey what we knew to teachers and parents I wrote Why Children Can't Read. Nevertheless, reaching out to them one by one is slow. Shouldn't we be doing something else? The Government's literacy strategy is a step in the right direction, but the answer is to fix the teacher training system.

For more than 120 years those in charge (mostly men) have held to a paradoxical set of attitudes about primary teachers (mostly women). Subject matter is equated with the difficulty of teaching it, therefore primary teaching should be "easy". But "easy" was conflated to "menial", so teachers, like factory workers, needed supervision. Fleets of supervisors and inspectors were hired to monitor teachers, instead of ensuring that they got the appropriate training to make them true professionals.

I suggest that something like a national examination be instituted for teaching. This solves two problems. First, it would force teacher trainers to ensure students become masters of what they need to teach in the classroom. Second, it ensures that teachers are sufficiently well trained to be "experts" and no longer in need of supervision. The exam could contain:

1. Reading instruction: understanding the phonological structure of the English language, knowing how an alphabetic writing system works, and the structure and organisation of our spelling code. Knowing which methods produce consistent gains and how to implement them in class.

2. Expertise in critical analysis of the scientific educational research.

3. Knowledge of how children learn, develop memory, language, and logic and that a child's ability is not "fixed".

4. Knowledge of how expectations biases and prejudices, can affect student outcome.

The success of this approach should be measured by the children's performance, monitored by well-designed standardised tests.

If we help teachers to become the experts they want to be, the profession's image changes.

Heads could then take responsibility for what they should be doing: monitoring standards, mentoring new teachers, sharing expertise and creating a safe, innovative educational experience for pupils. The money wasted on inspectors and curriculum supervisors could be diverted to the classroom.

Diane McGuinness is professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. 'Why Children Can't Read' is published by Penguin at #163;8.99.

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