Are we sitting too comfortably?

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Passionate and provocative. This is an unusual report, not in the Office for Standards in Education's common style. There will undoubtedly be indignation as sacred tenets of teaching reading are scrutinised and found wanting: hearing children read ("an unproductive routine exercise" in many cases); silent reading ("aimless lessons"); a story at the end of the day ("end-of-day relaxation").

In a curious way my sympathies are with the three London boroughs and the 45 schools whose work is the focus of this report, not because I think OFSTED has got it wrong, but because OFSTED has probably got it right. The practices described are not the preserve of these 45 schools or, indeed, of inner London primary schools. They are a part of a national culture of teaching reading that deserves to be challenged. Its key features are these.

First, the culture fails to distinguish between teaching reading and giving time for children to read for themselves. The report is very clear on this point.

Second, there is a failure to acknowledge that English, whilst a complex language, is also systematic. The elements of the system can - and should - be taught directly and that includes, especially, its phonological aspects.

Third, too much time is devoted to making reading a comfortable activity: silent reading, listening to stories, watching school television programmes, reading to a sympathetic adult. Learning is not always comfortable (as any child with special needs in reading will surely attest).

Fourth, what schools do should be different from what parents do at home. Teachers are professional people who, whatever this report appears to suggest, do have skills, knowledge and expertise.

Undeniably, many schools teach reading successfully. This is frequently acknowledged in OFSTED's various reports on the state of health of the English curriculum. Some of the schools in this report are teaching reading very successfully and the report gives them credit for that. The question, however, has to be this. It is not so much about what makes the difference between the effective and the ineffective schools as far as reading is concerned. The report spells this out in clear terms and the litany is by now familiar (effective leadership by the headteacher, clear policies, direct teaching and so forth). The real question is: can effective schools become even more effective? More particularly, could all children be reading better than they are at the moment? What would make a difference?

Establishing systematic teaching about the phonological aspects of the language would make a key contribution to development in reading and spelling. Making focused, diagnostic assessments would be another step, building on such assessments to provide exactly what the children need to make progress. This means spending more time with fewer children, not trying to listen to the whole class read every day.

Challenge for the already able readers is also necessary, moving them beyond what the report calls "airport fiction or holiday reading". For this to happen teachers need to know texts will make demands upon children and will interest them. They need to introduce these texts explicitly. School library services have a significant role to play here.

Increasing parents' understanding of what schools need to do when they teach reading would also be worthwhile. I suspect that schools might be more willing to change their ways, especially with regard to "hearing readers", if they felt that they would not be faced with a parent demanding to know why the teacher had not heard their child read that day.

What should headteachers, in particular, be doing? They must see reading as their curriculum priority. This means checking the progress of children for themselves: listening to them read, talking to them about their books, monitoring reading records. It means being demanding about objectives for reading, asking their teachers questions about their practice, watching them teach reading. It means supporting staff when they explain to parents why their child has not read to someone that day. It means, sometimes, arguing the case with governors when they do not want to buy in to school library services.

It means not being afraid to challenge the prevailing culture and ask questions. The most important one is: "Now that you have done that, what have the children learnt?" The report puts it like this: "Teachers must be crystal clear as to what their pupils need to know, understand and be able to do to become confident and proficient readers."

Those who think that this is a biased or political report should read the section on the reading tests conducted independently by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Its data on the most effective and ineffective schools correlated significantly with the inspectors' classroom observations.

In other words, two separate bodies with two very different methodologies came to similar conclusions. "At the heart of the problem," says the report, "is a commitment to methods and approaches to the teaching of reading that were self-evidently not working when judged by the outcomes of pupils' progress and attainment". What more is there to say?

Janet Brennan is a primary English adviser for Devon. The views expressed here are her own

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