Bitter pill;Book of the week;Books
Never mind the national literacy strategy - a US psychologist has a patent cure for reading ills. Sue Palmer finds it hard to swallow
Here's some advice for parents to send shivers down the spine. If your child says something like: "Mrs Bowers doesn't do it this way," you reply: "Never mind what Mrs Bowers is doing, we are going to learn to read the proper way."
Diane McGuinness, an American psychologist, knows the proper way to teach reading. In her book, originally published in the United States and revised this year for the British market, she explains that it's based on "the alphabet code". This is her own system of analysis of English orthography, and involves teaching sound-symbol correspondences in a highly structured sequence. It also involves keeping well away from distracting influences such as alphabet letter-games, "sight-words", rhyming activities and picture books.
So most of what poor old Mrs Bowers does is wrong. In fact, even though Dr McGuinness's own children were educated in England, and seem to have fared well, she seems to believe almost everything about the English education system is wrong. As can be seen from her comments on teacher training (below), she is not a woman to mince words. Her book went to press before she could give a verdict on the national literacy strategy, but it's similar to a United States programme called Success for All, which she dismisses as sadly misguided, so I think we can assume she wouldn't like it.
Her system is, though, apparently utterly reliable. Dr McGuinness has developed a programme called Phono-Graphix while working with students who have failed to learn to read in the American school system. She has found this so successful in helping her students "crack the alphabet code" that she can assert "there is no such thing as dyslexia" - just bad teachers and teaching methods. If her system were used from the start, she argues, no child would ever fail.
This is a familiar argument in literacy-teaching circles. Over the years, many people have discovered foolproof systems through doing remedial work and are anxious to apply them wholesale. But it doesn't take long to work out that materials developed for one-to-one use with older failing readers are likely to be highly unsuitable for teaching 30 four and five-year-olds in a mixed ability class. And doling out powerful prophylactics, which only a small proportion of children need, could do more harm than good.
Dr McGuinness quotes a small-scale study with younger children (conducted by her daughter-in-law) which has shown encouraging results. This is sadly familiar too: the world is littered with small-scale studies by dedicated disciples - and they almost always show encouraging results. There is nothing here or in any of the other highly selective research evidence quoted to suggest we should heed Dr McGuinness's more extravagant claims. But there is much in the recent history of literacy teaching to suggest we should steer well clear of extremist solutions and messianic fervour.
Education systems on both sides of the Atlantic are emerging from a period of doubtful practice, caused by widespread acceptance of extreme theories. The legacy - poor literacy standards, low teacher morale and loss of public confidence in the system - will take time to repair. The Government is taking brave action, instituting a national literacy strategy, which will be kicked off in 1998-99 by a "year of reading".
Why Children Can't Read hits the bookstalls in good time to take advantage of media interest in the year of reading. A controversial book from a publisher well-established in the field of children's reading, it could well make a splash among parents. It also has an enthusiastic foreword by a popular academic (Stephen Pinker, author of The Language Instinct). Dr McGuinness's Amazing Patent Miracle Cure could catch on. And if so, this may indeed be a highly influential book - not because it helps a generation of children to read, but because it undermines the work of Mrs Bowers as she tries to do something sensible about raising literacy standards in her school.
Over the next few terms, Mrs Bowers - along with every other primary teacher in England - will be retrained in teaching literacy skills. The training package addresses key issues highlighted in Dr McGuinness's book, especially the structured teaching of phonics and the raising of teachers' and pupils'
expectations. But it also acknowledges that phonics alone is an inadequate basis for mainstream literacy education - alphabet letter-names, "sight words", rhyming activities, picture books and many other elements have a part to play.
The Government's strategy is based on wide-ranging and well-accredited research, notably drawn from the work of another American academic, Marilyn Jager Adams. It has been enthusiastically received by teachers on the national literacy project who have piloted it over the past two years. It's not perfect - nothing is - but it's the best hope we've got and there is a real chance that it will significantly raise pupils' reading standards and teachers'
An American psychologist telling parents that Mrs Bowers doesn't teach reading properly will be no help at all.