Reading isn't simple

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Jeni Riley invites a cool consideration of the evidence and calls for a balanced, systematic and direct teaching of literacy.

Indignation and alarm swept both the educational world and the general public when the Office for Standards in Education published The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools a few months ago. Indignation because the report implied that the teaching of reading was poor and that standards were low. However, the data that provided this evidence were gathered in schools which serve some of the most materially disadvantaged pupils in the country - areas where between 5 per cent and 98 per cent of the pupils have English as an additional language. In some sample schools there is an above average turnover of both staff and children.

The alarm was generated by a concern that, despite the context of the research, conclusions were drawn such as "weaknesses in teaching hampered pupils' progress and attainment in reading in one in three lessons in Year 2 and nearly half of the lessons in Year 6". The recent analysis of the results of the key stage 2 national curriculum tests would seem to justify that concern.

The path forward from this de-pressing situation, the report suggests, is that "teachers themselves have to be more knowledgeable and skilled about reading in order to teach it successfully".

I would strongly agree with this statement, speaking as someone who has been passionately interested in the teaching of reading for more than 25 years as a class teacher, a researcher and an initial teacher educator. However, the report does not acknowledge that literacy is an extremely complex and multifaceted process requiring a balance of approaches in order to develop uniformly the interrelated skills that are required for fluent reading and writing. Robust research evidence exists to inform teaching methods and approaches, particularly in the early stages of reading.

The interrelatedness of the different and essential facets that interconnect to enable the individual to read fluently, is now more clear. Readers use the context of text (known as "top-down" processing skills) to inform and feed into comprehension (meaning). This, in turn, is supported by the mutually inter-dependent orthographic (print) and phonological (sound) processing ("bottom-up" decoding skills) of print and speech.

Recent research into cognitive functioning supports the assertion in the OFSTED report that "learning the letter-sound system of English comprises a set of knowledge and skills which is basic to learning to read and write an alphabetic script". Indeed, after the fundamental realisation concerning the communicative function and conventions of print, the crucial intellectual leap that each young child has to make is the understanding that the letters of the alphabet are symbolic and represent the sounds of speech that comprise words.

The next essential skill is the ability to recognise the constituent sounds in words (phonemic segmentation) and then to map them on to letters and groups of letters. This is complicated by a further layer, namely the irregularities of the English language system, which has 44 phonemes but only 26 letters in the alphabet to represent them. This is not overcome by phonics teaching alone but these essential understandings can be developed by appropriate and systematic phonological and orthographic awareness work throughout the primary school.

The process of literacy is both flexible and complex and therefore requires teaching approaches that are informed by a comprehensive model of literacy that supports the development of both "top-down" and "bottom-up" processing skills. It would be counter-productive if the profession's reaction to this report is to focus exclusively on or to over-emphasise the instruction of decoding skills in isolation. Children show different patterns of learning and bring individual styles and experience to the reading task. To rely on a single method to teach reading will not guarantee success for all.

Four basic features need to be present in all primary school policies to ensure a balanced approach to the teaching of English in order for children to rapidly become independent and successful readers.

One, the purpose of reading has to be positively reinforced with meaningful and engaging encounters with print. Children need to enjoy reading books. Children need opportunities to engage with continuous text in order to develop both comprehension and decoding skills. The former Department for Education and Science advised teachers in 1989 about the use of appealing books which have exciting story lines and interesting content and are appropriate for today's visually sophisticated children; such books will include some modern published reading schemes.

Two, the teaching of reading and writing should complement and support each other, particularly in the early years of school, with activities such as the making of books by and for children. Some primary teachers are still not capitalising enough on their young pupils' own writing in order to develop their reading. It is when the writers struggle to encode the sounds of spoken language into permanent marks on paper that they learn to operate within the alphabetic coding system, and by so doing their decoding is informed.

Three, the frequent monitoring of reading progress has long been advocated by experts such as Marie Clay. Systematic scrutiny of reading, through miscue analysis or running reading records, provides the teacher with opportunities to analyse the cues (semantic, syntactic, phonological and visual) that the child is using. This insight enables effective teaching to occur so that the weaker cueing strategies can be developed and fluent reading promoted. This careful monitoring of progress will ensure that children are grouped appropriately for teaching purposes and allows for groups to be frequently changed in line with the differing rates of progress.

Four, the systematic and direct teaching of both the "top down" (use of context, syntax and prediction cues) and "bottom up" (the use of graphemephoneme cues through developed orthographic and phonological awareness) skills of reading. A few minutes a day of focused skills teaching in order to promote soundsymbol awareness reaps impressive rewards. Activities such as breaking down words into their constituent sounds, identification of rhyme, exploring aural and visual patterns in words are helpful.

Five, the time, expertise and enthusiasm of all adults must be devoted to the teaching of literacy throughout the primary years. Support for reading will be more effective if parents and helpers are given guidance on how to encourage readers to look closely at the print, on the value of waiting for a child to puzzle out words and on the sustaining of interest and enjoyment with praise.

The crucial issue is how these proposals for school policies leading to a balanced view of the teaching of literacy are to reach the whole primary teaching force. The OFSTED report says: "Many of the teachers were strongly critical of their initial training to teach reading. Despite the wide range of provision made by the local education authorities, relatively few teachers had experienced systematic in-service training in reading since their appointment. "

In fact, the interactive and comprehensive model of literacy has been promoted on some primary courses of initial teacher education for several years now. Clearly, a national curriculum for teacher training will ensure that all primary courses do address the need to link the recent research findings with classroom practice. There is research evidence, also, on the very positive effect that an informed and enthusiastic teacher of literacy - whose understanding has been enhanced by a theoretically comprehensive in-service course - can have on pupils' achievement. This finding supports one of the main recommendations of the report for the need to update many experienced primary heads and class teachers.

The statutory requirement for the formal partnership between schools and higher education in order to train primary teachers, provides the opportunity for both partners to have immense potential to influence and inform each other to great mutual benefit and for the more effective teaching of literacy.

Jeni Riley is head of primary education at the University of London Institute of Education and course leader of the primary PGCE which was awarded the highest grades when inspected by OFSTED in June 1996. Her latest book, The Teaching of Reading: The Development of Literacy in the Early Years (ISBN 183963070), is published this month at Pounds 13.95 by Paul Chapman Publishing. Tel: 0171-609-53156. It de-scribes the recent research findings referred to in this article and the implications for classroom practice.

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