Elaine Williams talks to Nicholas Bielby about his book 'How to Teach Reading'
Perhaps it takes a qualified welder to write a book called How to Teach Reading. Binding together disparate bits of practice and research, making connections between previously conflicting methods is tricky but necessary, especially when you are selling your wares as a "balanced approach".
Outside Nicholas Bielby's Bradford home are the partly-assembled frames of a sailing boat. Boat-building, a hobby which has taken him through his career as a lecturer in education, requires fairly sophisticated welding skills to make a proper job - hence the City and Guilds.
When he was asked to teach trainee teachers how to teach reading he applied the same methodology - building a framework out of the strengths of different approaches and binding the whole thing together in a book.
Nicholas Bielby is one of those rare creatures - a Cambridge graduate (in English and moral sciences) whose interests lay in teaching primary children. After some years teaching at a junior school in Huddersfield he was snapped up by Bradford and Ilkley College to teach English and psychology to BEd students. It was 17 years later, when he moved to the School of Education at Leeds University to teach on the MEd course, that he came up against the problem of teaching reading.
In order to do the best job possible he felt he had to make sense of the often venomous reading debate which tended to divide teachers into two camps: those who took the view that words were recognised as visual wholes and "patterns" embedded in a text, that children came to reading through meaning; and those who went for the alphabetic or phonics approach in which a word like "rat" is read by sounding out and blending its constituent letters into pronunciation. This camp believed that children had to get phonics under their belt before moving on to books.
But while reviewing the literature, Bielby also became increasingly aware of research coming out of university psychology departments which showed that young children have spontaneous phonological awareness, they play naturally with word sounds and are alert to onsets and rimes (the sound chunks before and after the vowel in a word).
Looking at print in terms of onsets and rimes matches the way spoken words are spontaneously encoded for children. Therefore, instead of imposing mechanical procedures, this "new phonics" works with the "grain" of children's spontaneous development, and advances their natural abilities through introducing nursery rhyme and other texts. This research, Bielby believed, cut across the sectarianism of practitioners and therefore needed to be made available. In 1994 he put his work together in the book: Making Sense of Reading: the new phonics and its practical implications.
He said: "What happens in education is often 20 years behind research. All this stuff was in psychology departments but not yet in education and I thought I should try to short-circuit this by 10 years, try to translate what I was reading in psychology for teachers."
That book was well-received by practising teachers, though the emphasis was theoretical. This month sees the publication of How to Teach Reading: a balanced approach which concentrates on how the theory can be applied in practice. It is a timely publication, not only because of the Year of Reading, but because it should interest teachers who want to evolve their practice under the National Literacy Strategy, which also claims a balanced approach, from a firm grasp of its theoretical underpinning.
Teachers, says Bielby, who rely wholly on meaning-centred approaches, or conversely, those who insist on phonics first "before children can be allowed to encounter the very books that might motivate them to learn", have been selling their pupils short.
"A balanced approach means having a flexible array of strategies available to tackle texts and using these strategies in concert." He hopes his book will become a source of advice for primary teachers seeking to make sense of the literacy hour.
Bielby is naturally attracted to the formal structures of language and regards their teaching as important. For example, he believes that the alphabetic principle, "which children do not spontaneously invent for themselves" has to be explicitly taught. At Bradford and Ilkley he was regarded as a reactionary, a stickler for grammatical correctness. But he is also a poet, an award-winner in the Arvon International poetry contest and a published member of the Pennine Poets.
He now makes his living as a full-time writer. For him the formal structures of teaching children how to read cannot be set apart from the business of stimulating them with creative, rich and exciting texts.
'How to Teach Reading: a balanced approach', by Nicholas Bielby, Scholastic pound;11.99