Means and ends

11th November 1994 at 00:00
PRIMARY PROFESSIONAL BOOKSHELF YOUNG LITERACY LEARNERS By Margaret Clark. 0 590 53310 X. Making Sense of Reading By Nicholas Bielby. 0 590 53305 3. Scholastic Pounds 9.99 each.

Barbara MacGilchrist on learning to read. How children learn to read and the role of teachers in that process continue to be contentious issues. Whenever someone puts pen to paper about a particular approach there are always those waiting in the wings to put forward an opposing view. This is unhelpful and it is not surprising that HMI have found that most primary teachers adopt mixed methods in the classroom as a means of coping with the often polarised views debated in the public arena.

The Primary Professional Bookshelf is a refreshing new series which aims to make current theory and practice accessible to both students and experienced teachers. The first two books are eminently readable and well-written and their authors offer practical advice grounded in sound, up-to-date research evidence about the wide range of strategies young readers need to acquire.

Margaret Clark's enjoyable Young Literacy Learners reminds us that "there is no magic formula whereby all children can learn to read or write" and that attitudes towards literacy are laid down for most of us very early on. Her emphasis on the importance of the early years and the role that parents play has always been a strength of her work. So too has the need for teachers to work in partnership with parents and to recognise and use the skill of listening to and observing young children when trying to meet their individual needs in the classroom.

The book aims to outline the research evidence related to children who find learning to read easy and those who don't; to analyse changes in our understanding of literacy; and to consider ways in which these insights can influence classroom practice. All these aims are very well met. Margaret Clark draws on her own careful observations of children and enables the reader to practise the skill of learning from children themselves through the examples she provides. She highlights, among other things, the role of stories in literacy development, practical strategies for instruction in phonics and the relationship between reading and writing.

Making Sense of Reading by Nicholas Bielby pays particular attention to the development of children's phonological awareness. He distinguishes between the traditional approaches to the teaching of phonics and what we now know from recent research evidence about the development of children's phonological skills.

He draws on a wide range of research literature to argue the need to combine the best elements of what he calls "bottom up" approaches to reading that focus on decoding, with "top down" approaches that have an emphasis on meaning. He uses examples of children's own attempts to make sense of texts by "reading the lines" and also "reading between the lines". There is a lovely section in which he describes how the teacher's own, often implicit theories about reading result in the use of a particular range of strategies in the classroom. This strengthens his argument for the need for teachers to develop a much more explicit theory that can underpin their every day practice.

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