Bring on the reading wars

17th April 2015 at 01:00

I love Twitter. At any moment of the day I can get a quick fix of kitten pictures, see what Justin Bieber is up to or eavesdrop on arguments about education - all in one handy place. The best disputes are often to do with the teaching of reading, as these are the ones that can get hot and dirty pretty quickly.

Do a quick search for "phonics" or "fonix" on Twitter and you'll see that the reading wars are alive and well. On closer inspection, though, these virtual sparrings seem only to involve teachers in England. No one in Scotland appears overly concerned about our reading methodology and practice, probably because we're all too busy getting on with it in the classroom. And to be fair, unlike teachers in England, we don't have too much to get angry about - we don't have politicians imposing pedagogy or tests on our six-year-olds. If we did, I'm sure Twitter would go into meltdown.

When the new national curriculum was introduced in England last year, it became a statutory requirement that all schools must use systematic synthetic phonics as the only method for reading instruction. This means no guessing at words, no looking at the picture to decide what a particular word might be - and definitely no learning words purely by sight (remember having a word tin, anyone?)

This is quite at odds with how we operate in Scotland, and quite different from how we approach the teaching of early reading. We have the professional freedom to choose our own methods of instruction - to adapt them to suit our local contexts and learners. We prefer to have what we consider to be a more sensible approach, providing a balanced menu of reading activities with some phonics on the side.

But should we be relieved that no one is mandating methodologies or forcing phonics checks on us in Scotland? Or should we be worried about it?

Our nearest neighbour is beginning to make inroads into the attainment gap by emphasising phonics "first, fast and only". This approach has certainly put the C-A-T among the pigeons. However, it has also led to practitioners reviewing current research, reflecting on classroom practice and, crucially, engaging in debates (yes, even sometimes arguments) about what is truly most effective when it comes to teaching children to read.

Maybe it's time to take stock and consider whether or not our emphasis on "local context" solutions is appropriate when it concerns issues such as learning to read, which affect all our learners regardless of where they go to school. Before we fall to the bottom of the class, it is time to have those conversations. Let's engage in the reading wars, before it's too late.

Anne Glennie is a former primary teacher who works as a literacy consultant through her organisation The Learning Zoo

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