Failure is unheard of

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Twenty-two adorable five and six-year-old girls sit in tidy rows in the high-ceilinged Victorian classroom, all eager to volunteer to read, and eager to please. The walls are covered with images of Judaism, characters from the stories of Jewish holidays, the blessing of the week.

Beis Yaacov school, a single sex primary in Barnet, London, entered the state system only a year ago, and its pupils manage to cover literacy and the rest of the national curriculum in half a day, with Hebrew and religious studies occupying the rest of the time.

Eva Retkin, this class's secular teacher, is unashamedly old-fashioned. She uses out-of-print books, and claims she can teach 100 words to any child in a week. Learning the vowel sounds and the various ways they are written is the key to reading, says Mrs Retkin. She drills the children using printed lists, but the girls don't seem to mind - nor, says Mrs Retkin, have the hundreds of children she taught over 20 years in ordinary LEA schools.

"I have never come across a dyslexic child", she says, "and if I did I would not recognise it. In 25 years of teaching there is not one child who did not learn to read."

Her system is called "cover up", and ensures that the sounds and their letters or letter combinations, are imprinted on children's brains by reading out lists of words, first with the initial letter covered up, then the whole word: "ap, cap; ap, gap; ap,, fan; an, man... ,and later more sophisticated lists like: "aul, Paul; aud, Maud; aut, taut; aub,daub; ause; cause; auce, sauce... aught, taught; aught, caught".

For reading books, the pupils use a graded series produced in the 1970s by the redoubtable phonics expert, Dr Joyce Morris, Language in Action, which has been photocopied in school because it has been out of print for years. Mrs Retkin has sought to have it republished, but without success. But who knows, Labour's standards drive could see books such as Dr Morris's enjoying a revival. Meanwhile, Mrs Retkin has not ignored new technology, and has designed a computer game to reinforce her lessons on vowel sounds, which includes both real and made-up words.

"For many children," says Mrs Retkin, "the lack of reading success lies in their failure to acquire the skill of auditory discrimination between vowel sounds. When asked to repeat a given sound they are unable to reproduce it accurately, just as those said to have 'no ear for music' cannot sing the musical notes they hear."

To help them, she teaches vowels in terms of musical notes, sounding them high and low, drawing the sound out long, and singing them as short staccato notes. "A child's memory can also be prodded from time to time by recalling words that start with the various vowels, and the sound of the first vowel should be drawn out (like u...umbrella, e...elephant), because they cannot readily isolate the first sound", she writes in notes for her system.

She also disapproves of the method used in many schools, and advocated by "new phonics" experts, of separating the initial sound from the final one (c-at, spl-at) to teach awareness of sounds in words, believing it is confusing. The cover-up method, she feels, enables smooth pronunciation of the whole word.

"Cover-up" extends to longer words by having children use a finger from each hand to cover up all but the first vowel sound and following consonant of a word, to help them see long words as groups of short ones.

Mrs Retkin also emphasises that "at all times, children must be reminded that not all words can be 'worked out' and that there are words that must be remembered and learnt." It is reassuring for children to joke about "funny spelling" that even the teacher cannot explain, she says.

Some teachers may see this approach as boring, but Mrs Retkin insists that the children love it. Every five-year-old in the class, even those known to have potential problems, were able to read aloud with confidence from Joyce Morris's books before a visitor. Mrs Retkin believes that with widespread use, her approach could do away with the need for expensive schemes such as Reading Recovery. It can be used by parents and older children as well as teachers. She is convinced her method makes children want to read every kind of book.

Although Beis Yaacov is clearly a traditional school, Mrs Retkin's methods are not universally used. With a three-form intake, and the other Year 1 teachers applying more of a mixture of methods, headteacher Caroline Scharfer has seen the chance to conduct a bit of action research. How will Mrs Retkin's former pupils compare in Year 6 with the rest? She expects to examine this after this year's national curriculum test results come back. "We find that technically, her children are very, very competent. Even those who in another class would not be technically reading are reading very well." However, when the children move on, they are unfamiliar with the range of books and types of reading used elsewhere in the school.

But these differences may all come out in the wash. "By the end of Year 2 they're all very confident," says Mrs Scharfer.

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