Reading aloud

21st March 1997 at 00:00
I attended the Conference on Literacy at the University of Greenwich. The keynote speech was by Margaret Meek Spencer.

She spoke for an hour. Apart from a slighting reference to "phonemes", she never once mentioned phonics or the findings of the massive body of recent research. On the contrary, she said that she had learned everything from her own experiences as a teacher and from colleagues in the same field. Reading for meaning seemed to be her watchword.

She denied that reading standards in the UK had been falling, but admitted that there was a long tail of underachievers. She clearly saw no reason to probe into just why this country has such a long tail. Only at the very end did she touch on the matter of how reading should be taught. She said: "If you want my advice on the best way to teach a child to read, I would say read to it."

She was ecstatically applauded by the 200 or so teachers and students present, who clearly wanted nothing more than to be reassured that the best way to teach a child to read is not to teach it at all, least of all systematically.

In the face of all this collective madness, what can the ordinary concerned individual do? Repeat the main findings of the latest research and hope for the best: * Piaget's theories about developmental stages do not apply to the process of learning to read.

* Pupils who are started off with systematic phonics are better, not only at decoding, but also at understanding the meaning of the text, than those taught by any other method.

* Encouraging children to guess at words from pictorial or contextual clues does not work.

* The most effective way to teach phonics is by direct instruction; embedding it in other processes is not nearly so effective.


Vice-Chairman Campaign for Real Education Dean Farm Singleborough Milton Keynes

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