R is for enjoying

13th November 1998 at 00:00
Tom is eight. He finds reading difficult. He can just read the early texts of a reading scheme on his own. He recognises a few words, but cannot work out new ones. His favourite book is Not now Bernard, because he knows it off by heart. He reads less than 8,000 words a year.

Abdul, who is also eight, learnt to read quickly. He reads four million words. As the years go by the gap between these two boys will widen. Abdul will go to university. Tom may scrape a few GCSEs. In education, as in life, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

We all know this. We know that learning to read is a crucial skill. Is it though such a complex skill? Is it really so difficult for children to learn to read?

I feel deeply frustrated that too many teachers are still confused about what is involved.

A child who is learning to read has first to work out what the black marks "say". Then, having decoded the hieroglyphics, he has to understand what the words mean in the context of the passage as a whole.

The child who can translate the symbols on the page quickly into spoken words will understand the text more quickly than the child who cannot. Children like Tom who stumble through the text, grasping at first letter cues, searching the illustrations for clues, staring at the teacher's face for clues constantly having to re-read sentences in case the meaning is lost, understandably enough are going to find reading laborious. Is it surprising that they give up searching for the meaning, even before they've started?

What, given these obvious truths, needs to be done to ensure that all children learn to read? So that they don't need the support of a reading scheme after the end of Year 1? So that they can spend their time in Year 2 reading quality children's literature that stretches their imagination. So they want to read unfamiliar as well as familiar books on their own at home.

It is very simple. Forget literary criticism with five-year-olds. Forget the desperate struggle to find ideas to keep children busy. Avoid diversions and complications. Suppose, for example, you want to teach the letter-sound "b". Is it really necessary to arrange a drape on which to put the objects beginning with "b", print and double mount labels for the display? To organise activities so that children can paint pictures and make mobiles beginning with "b"? To cut out pictures from magazines, colour worksheets beginning with "b", trace over dotted b's, make masks, head dresses? All to teach "b". No teacher should waste their time on any of this. Their lives after school are too precious.

Children need to be taught the alphabetic code so that they can work out words from cat to catastrophe from dog to doggerel.

Teach reception and Year 1 children intensively and systematically for 25 to 30 minutes a day and in a maximum of eight weeks every child will be able to identify dominant sounds in words, to identify letters and some basic digraphs by their corresponding common phoneme, and to write the letter in response to the sound (even if the writing is a little shaky!) Our children learn to do all of this before they even start in the reception class and they're learning English as a second language.

Given half an hour's teaching a day it takes at most a term to teach every child to work out any consonant, vowel, consonant word in our language eg cat, man, dog. It should take no more than four weeks to teach children to read words containing consonant clusters eg splash, best, string, flop. They can quickly learn to read words with alternative vowel spellings eg train, day, made, door, paw, walk.

They can progress onto working out multi-syllabic words, exploring words with a range of suffixes and prefixes. By this time they will be able to read all the words in the National Literacy Strategy's high-frequency word lists without having wasted any time using the "look and stare" approach!

Even the slowest children in the class can achieve all this early in Year 2 (unless of course they have attended school irregularly or have a severe speech delay or hearing loss).

In our school everyone, teachers and teaching assistants alike, uses exactly the same system. We use the same set of teaching activities because they have been tried and tested until they work.

No work sheets are used, no "busy" work. Just intensive, interactive, lively teaching. During "shared reading" times in Years R and 1 we read one of three reading schemes (that have lively stories) systematically, with an emphasis placed upon practising and applying knowledge and skills. We do not even use a scheme book to teach new phonic skills.

Outside the literacy hour (while children are in the early stages of reading) we read a range of books at children's intellectual level to them.So that they can sit back and enter the world of literature without interruptions to consider this point or that point. We kill these books with teaching phonics. Books are for reading and enjoying.

Ruth Miskin is the author of "Best Practice Phonics" and head of Kobi Nazrul school, Tower Hamlets

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