'People see me as the phonics lady and have lost sight of why I'm doing it'

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Ruth Miskin, pioneering education hero or entrepreneur with undue influence over Government thinking?

It is 10 years since I last saw Ruth Miskin. Back then she ruled a tiny empire of calm behind the high iron gates and heavily shuttered shops of one of the poorest parts of London.

She was the headteacher of Kobi Nazrul, a primary in Tower Hamlets where more than 90 per cent of the children spoke another language at home. She believed in a smart dress code - it shows respect for children and their parents - and had connections in Whitehall through her then partner, Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools.

She had also, to her horror, become something of an education bogeyman because of her insistence on teaching children at her school to read by what was then seen as "old fashioned" phonics.

This time we meet in a cafe at St James's Park Underground station, chosen for its convenience. Over the past decade she has quit the headteacher post, broken up with Woodhead and, after 34 years of primary teaching and three headships, now runs her own business training teachers to use Read Write Inc, her own version of synthetic phonics. About 2,000 schools use the scheme and a further 2,000 have bought at least some of her materials.

Ms Miskin is early, already perched on a bar stool. "I decided to get a taxi," she says apologetically. "I know I can afford it but I still feel guilty. I couldn't help watching the meter."

Yes, she has done "quite well" financially out of teaching children to read - she has been able to keep her elegant flat in Notting Hill and shares a house in Sussex with her new partner, a bookseller working with independent book shops. But she says money is not her motivation.

Ms Miskin is passionate about teaching all children to read, but especially those from homes where they get little encouragement - the "Inc" in the title stands for inclusive. She is convinced that through synthetic phonics she has found the way to get rid of the tail of non- readers and make every child successful, and she wants to share it with as many people as possible.

Which brings us to her part in the Channel 4 documentary Last Chance Kids, screened in October 2007. The tear-jerking mini series was set in Monteagle Primary, a school in a poor part of Dagenham where a quarter of the children could not read and half were behind for their ages. The producers brought in Ms Miskin to train the staff in the use of synthetic phonics.

The children made stupendous progress in three months and parents were in tears of relief. The producers said it showed that failure to read had more to do with poor teaching methods than children's lack of ability. But eight months later, in June 2008, the head of Monteagle Primary stepped down after a visit from Ofsted that put the school into special measures, where it stayed until March last year.

"It was a huge management problem," she says. The inspectors identified poor leadership and the failure to tailor lessons to the ability and attainment of pupils. Their report criticised poor standards in maths and science, not literacy.

She wanted to show what could be achieved with even the most hard to reach children, but she found being cast in a predetermined role difficult. "The producers told me I must always say things seriously, not with a smile. In the end I just came over as cross," she says. "But the teachers and classroom assistants worked hard and the results were real. We had eight and nine-year-olds reading books for the first time," she says.

The debate about the best way to teach early reading rumbles on. Tory education ministers support phonics and the Government plans to approve certain schemes - such as those using synthetic phonics - and to give extra money for reading to schools that use them.

It will also introduce a phonics "screening check" for six-year-olds from June 2012 that will contain non-words. Critics claim it will be unfair to children to use nonsense words. Ms Miskin was a member of Lord Bew's inquiry into testing and assessment and believes there should be "levers" in the system to make sure children are on their way to learning to read. If the check is composed solely of words children have seen before it would be impossible to see whether they have the de-coding skills to tackle new ones, she says.

"Every word is a nonsense word until you can read it."

And that is the key to synthetic phonics. It teaches children quickly to identify the letters or groups of letters that represent sounds. They then sound them out and blend them into words. Once children know the alphabet and the sound represented by "ar", for example, they can read car, bar, mar, tar and far.

Critics complain that it is "sterile decoding" and Ms Miskin says she often feels misunderstood. "People see me as the phonics lady and have lost sight of why I am doing it," she says. "People say if you teach phonics you don't care about children understanding what they are reading - but you can only understand what you are reading if you can read it in the first place."

Ms Miskin, 55, is from a family of teachers. Both her parents taught in primary schools and her sister Helen, her identical twin, teaches sociology at a school in north-west London. The girls were born in Wigan and attended the local primary where their father was the headteacher. When he moved headship, they went to his school in Bishop's Stortford.

By the time she was 11 he was back in the North, and she attended Ripon Grammar School. Her father then became a primary adviser in Shropshire and made friends with the English adviser, Chris Woodhead. Miskin went on to have a 13-year relationship with Woodhead, 10 years her senior, until they split in 1999.

During her long teaching career Ms Miskin says she tried many methods in search of a magic bullet. "I've used real books, I've used whole words, I've used a mixture of methods, reading schemes. but there were always some children who didn't make it," she says. "It was at Kobi that I saw the simplicity of it all. Why hadn't I realised before that we have 44 sounds in our language and only 26 letters and that what you need to do first is to teach the letters that represent each of the 44 sounds? When the bottom third started to read, I knew I had cracked it."

In those days - the late 1990s - phonics was almost a dirty word, a method to be used, according to the then Labour government, as one of many strategies or "searchlights" to get children reading.

Phonic teachers were criticised for not introducing children to books in the early stages - but that was because there were no books children could read without encountering failure in terms of letter and sound relationships they had not yet learned or words with irregular spelling. Irregular words are identified as "red" and learned separately in Ms Miskin's scheme. "They didn't miss out on stories because we read to them instead," she says.

Since then she has developed books that children can read and through which they can experience success, stage by stage. Her programme also places a large emphasis on the spoken word. In a Ms Miskin classroom children are encouraged to talk as much as possible. They do not put up their hands but answer to a partner, then share with the rest.

But where is the proof that synthetic phonic schemes - and there are plenty out there - work best? Ms Miskin can point to Kobi Nazrul, where most of the children spoke a Bangladeshi dialect called Sylheti at home, but where the reading test scores at seven were way above the national average. She can point to many more contemporary examples, such as Elmhurst Primary in Newham, east London, that has had outstanding success with her programme.

"I cannot say, hand on heart, that it is completely successful in every school that has bought materials," she says. But where it is done properly, where all the teachers and classroom assistants are trained in the methods, where there is a reading manager for the whole school to ensure it is used consistently and where the teachers are passionate about teaching children to love books, the results are spectacular, she says.

She is arguably the Queen of Phonics, but Ms Miskin has yet to hear whether Read Write Inc will be included in the Government's "approved" schemes. The chances are that it will be high on the list. If it is not then she will be "devastated" - but unlikely to give up without a struggle

Ruth's ten top tips

1. Teach five grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) a week, starting with single letters before going on to the sounds represented by two or three letters (eg sh, oo air, igh). Use visual-auditory mnemonics to help children learn them quickly - eg d in the shape of the dinosaur, g in the shape of a girl. Review the sounds at least five times a day until children can read them speedily.

2. Teach letter formation alongside this using the mnemonic phrases to help, so for d: follow round the dinosaur's bottom, up his neck and down to his feet. Teach children to sit comfortably at a table and to use a correct pencil grip.

3. Teach children to understand and to speak in "Fred Talk", saying words in sounds, eg r-e-d, b-l-ue, b-a-ck, ch-ee-k.

4. Once children can read the first few sounds speedily, show them how to read words in Fred Talk and work out the word, eg m-a-t, mat.

5. Teach children to spell words using Fred Talk. Show them how to pinch a different finger as they say each sound, eg mat, m-a-t.

6. Teach "red" words for reading and spelling (common words containing unusual GPCs) Help children look for the letters that "work" and ones that are tricky.

7. Match stories closely to the sounds they can read so they can apply their word-reading skills independently. No guessing needed.

8. Teach alternative spellings for sounds once their word reading is confident.

9. Read lots of stories to children - they will soon be able to read these for themselves.

10. Put learning to read at the heart of your school and persevere with children who take longer to learn. Never give up.

www.ruthmiskinliteracy.com (training)

www.readwriteinc.com (resources)

Making the right noises

Elmhurst Primary School in Newham, east London has 1,000 pupils and not one of them leaves unable to read.

- That is the proud claim of Shahed Ahmed, the headteacher. "We don't let even one child slip through the net," he says.

- The school uses Read Write Inc and all staff have been trained. To ensure the method is not diluted, the school pays for a "health check" from one of Ms Miskin's trainers every term and has a designated "literacy manager".

- "More than 90 per cent of our pupils speak English as an additional language and we have 20 per cent mobility. At key stage 1, 92 per cent reached level two compared with 85 per cent nationally," he said.

Regular phonic screening identifies the children that need extra help before they slip too far behind.

- "But the end game is getting children to enjoy books and to enjoy speaking out and debating, and that happens here," he says.


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