Real books are not what parents want;Comment;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
I did a double take when I read (TESS, April 18) an assessment by academics of an experimental reading scheme at my child's school. I am concerned that schools reading this report, which highlighted a staff development package of a video and booklet, might innocently send away for it and consider introducing this real books approach to their own pupils.

Parents were up in arms at our school - Wardie in Edinburgh - and many went to complain about this real reading scheme. Several, if they could afford it, even withdrew their children because they were making such slow progress and put them into an independent school. I stress that I am not a trained primary school teacher but I teach in secondary (geography). I can say that in the wider school community the majority felt the scheme had its problems and the ones who are involved in education felt it most strongly.

It was my impression that the teachers at Wardie realised this was not the ideal way to teach reading, but they are loyal to the school and never openly criticised the methods. I would like to emphasise in the strongest possible terms that the scheme's mixed success was not in any way the fault of the teachers. They bent over backwards to try to make it work. It put enormous pressure on them.

My daughter's teacher was a highly dedicated, professional woman and I know she worked through her lunch hour so that she could read effectively with each child individually.

The philosophy is fine. Ask a child to pick up the book that appeals to them, and hope their interest and enthusiasm in it will just carry them forward. It is a romantic, impractical notion. Some children, perhaps those who are naturally gifted at reading, did come through this system successfully but significant numbers were set back.

It was intensely parent orientated. As a teacher myself, I have no problem with that. I took my daughter home and did her homework with her faithfully every night. But Wardie is not just a middle-class school. The scheme put at a disadvantage the children who had not been exposed to books before, who came from families where reading is not that important. The majority of children need some kind of structure when they learn to read. There seemed to be no support system within the system if children were not coming on.

My impression was that the system left them hanging. Rachel was among many children who lost confidence. When other parents told me they were worried, I tried to reassure them. My daughter was well into primary 3 before I realised their worries were justified. The "plateau" they told us about in a parents' workshop was going on for an extraordinary amount of time.

By the end of primary 4, you expect most of the children to have reached level B. For significant numbers this didn't happen until primary 5. Their language was even ahead of their reading in primary 5. A child who transferred to a school on the south side of the city found that she was well behind in reading.

A supply teacher who came into Wardie found it very difficult to pick up the strings. I went in to help with reading and it was a rewarding experience. The children were enthusiastic about the books and could tell you about the illustrations and who the author was. The older pupils engaged in paired reading with the younger ones.

But the report produced by members of the primary education department at Jordanhill seems to me to gloss over the very real problems of the scheme, especially for children already disadvantaged. It also glosses over the fact that the school, which has a new management team, has significantly amended the scheme.

Although the children still take a book of their choice home, they read the Longman Book Project in the classroom and take that home with them too. My second daughter was taught this way and it has been much more successful. There is great parental satisfaction to the point that demand for places at the school is taking off again.

The high boredom factor in traditional reading schemes which was the factor in favour of real books is no longer valid since the structured schemes have improved. I would urge other schools to stick with this type of system and take a large pinch of salt with whatever information they digest about the alternative of real reading.

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