In defence of 'Why Children Can't Read'

10th July 1998 at 01:00
I regret that Sue Palmer (TES, June 12) thought that there was "nothing here or in any of the other highly selective research evidence" in my book: Why Children Can't Read, a 420-page book with more than 400 references.

However, my main concern is the number of inaccuracies, plus the fact that her review leads the reader to believe I said the opposite to what I said.

Ms Palmer states that I advocate teaching the alphabet code via my "own system of analysis of English orthography".

There is only one system of orthography in English. The spelling code is not arbitrary. I analysed the structure of the existing orthography (the spelling probabilities for each of the 43 sounds in English) which had not been done before.

Ms Palmer writes of me: "She seems to believe that almost everything about the English education system is wrong" despite the fact that I wrote in the preface about "the contrast between my education in the California school system and my children's superb education in Hertfordshire". Nor is my book about "everything". It is about early reading instruction.

She writes: "Success for All - she dismisses as sadly misguided." Research by the authors of Success for All showed there was a 25 per cent failure rate, even with one-on-one tutoring for up to five years. The research "dismissed" it, not me.

Errors about who is the author of Phono-Graphix* and which research study is which, causes a muddle. Ms Palmer writes, vis-a-vis Phono-Graphix*, that "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."

Next, she describes a "small-scale study with younger children" which "has shown encouraging results", but neglects to mention that this classroom study on 40 mixed-ability, four and five-year-olds, used the Phono-Graphix* programme, she dismissed as "highly unsuitable" for the classroom. She also neglects to mention the large gains on standardised tests in both of these studies.

Having dismissed my arguments as "extravagant" based on "highly selective research" and labelling me as "extremist" and "messianic," Ms Palmer then argues that "recent history" (whatever that means) is a better guide than science, but fails to include even one study to support her argument for "eclectic" reading methods.

However, the most egregious subtext is Ms Palmer's attempt to create the impression that I am anti-teacher. I am profoundly pro-teacher, pro-parent, and pro-child.

"Mrs Bowers," a fictional teacher in my book, becomes Ms Palmer's vehicle for my alleged hostility to teachers. This is taken out of context which dealt with how a teacher's poor training causes problems in meshing home instruction with what is going on in the classroom. Ms Palmer writes that my book will be "highly influential not because it helps children to read, but because it undermines the classroom teacher".

A quote in bold and Ms Palmer's text suggests I used the term "bad teachers", something I never wrote.

I did write about "the thousands of teachers who are falsely blamed when a child fails to learn to read" and the "teachers of young children worry that many of their charges will fail to learn to read, and they don't know why. " On page 371, I advise parents to be co-operative and not adversarial with their child's teacher, because "the teacher is as much a victim of the system as you are".

Ms Palmer's review is a perfect example of "edu-think". Conclusions based upon real data from standardised tests are "extravagant". In edu-think, data are not required. Instead, we learn that the Government's new approach (the national literacy strategy) has been "enthusiastically received". Nowhere does Ms Palmer reveal that there are no data on it after two years of pilot trials.

Ms Palmer's review illustrates what trainee teachers have to endure, where belief is always more important than fact.

Diane McGuinness University of South Florida St Petersburg Florida United States Opinion Letters 19

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