Cookie ways with reading

21st April 2006 at 01:00
How many biscuits can you eat in the time it takes you to read this column? Ah, that depends - on how quickly you read, and on what kind of biscuits you're eating. I can eat four Jaffa Cakes in one minute, but only one and a half fig rolls. And I'm a slow reader. Standardising every brand for BPM (biscuits per minute) would be an almost impossible task. Our reading styles and biscuit choices are as different as we are. So various, so beautiful. Why not just leave it alone? Oh, no. Reading, in particular the teaching of reading, looks like becoming yet another restricted zone.

Biscuits may be our last area of professional choice. But for how long?

Biscuits are incredibly important to teachers. Witness the soft whimper of disbelief when there aren't any left, no, not even under the sink or in lost property. Look into the teacher-gatherer's eyes. That barely sane glitter of "What, or whom, can I eat now?" can be quite unsettling.

Teachers feed the future. Biscuits feed the teachers. It was recently confirmed that when teachers are happier, their pupils' results improve.

Now, evidence suggests that teachers can go from homicidal to humming within seconds when given a cup of tea and a plate of shortbread.

Considering the huge importance of biscuits to the country's future, why have these humble yet beloved creations remained unstudied for so long? It'll happen. After all, what pupils eat looks set to stay in the spotlight. From Jamie Oliver to Bath Olivers is just a matter of time.

So, let's imagine that someone important enough to get cross on Question Time conducts a survey of staffroom biscuit choices and then compares exam results. You can just see it, can't you? Jammie Dodgers produce as many Asbos as A*s. Malted milk supports steadier improvements. The outright winners are rich tea, to the dismay of the digestive camp. What do you think the Government does next?

It passes a law forcing every teacher to eat rich tea biscuits from now on because they improve results. Only Tory support gets the hated Biscuit Bill through a second reading. Teachers caught eating pink wafers will be named and shamed with Asbos: Anti-Standard Biscuit Orders. One Garibaldi and you're on the Biscuit Offenders' list. Garibaldis, ooh, can't trust them, too radical, and suspiciously chewy.

We'll all lament the good old days when we were free to choose our own biscuits. How can you have a one-size-fits-all policy on these things? Surely we can be trusted to make these important day-to-day decisions for ourselves? I mean, we're professionals - we've been doing this for years!

The biscuit that's right for one situation will be wrong for another. If the bell's gone, you grab a Jaffa Cake. Jaffa Cakes are insanely fast: they live hard and die young. If you're an NQT in tears, you need the strong and dependable shoulders of a chocolate Hob Nob. A weary war-horse of a deputy head fighting budget cuts might want to snarl on something spartan, like ginger nuts. Wouldn't even dip them in his tea first - that's how hard you get when you've been here as long as I have, etc. Dunking is for wimps.

I wouldn't like to be told how to teach reading, any more than I'd want to be told it's fig rolls from here to retirement. Sometimes, perhaps unfairly, synthetic phonics has been seen as the boringly reliable rich tea biscuit of literacy. By contrast, real books and guesswork might be seen as a biscuit assortment: enjoyable but confusing. Why not just let the teacher suit the method to the child? All methods have their virtues. And I'm always surprised by how nice rich tea biscuits really are.

Eating biscuits and learning to read have much in common. We all have our preferences, and we all develop our tastes at different rates. Some children take years to come off rusks. Our war-horse deputy head probably never dunked his at all, not even as a toddler. Wimps, all of 'em.

Perhaps the Rose report, which came up with the idea of force-feeding phonics to five-year-olds, won't put the cookie jar completely out of reach. After all, how could it be done? I have no way of knowing how many biscuits you've eaten in the time it took you to read this column, and I'll never know what kind they were. If children learn to read and the results are good, who will either know or care what methods were used to teach them? All anyone wants from a reading lesson is that it should do what it says on the tin.

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