Views of the gurus
This compilation of 18 articles, published in Support for Learning, helpfully collates a range of important theoretical views and practical advice on reading.
It begins with two juxtaposed articles from Martin Turner and David Wray, centred on Turner's now famous assertion that reading standards are dropping. Part of Turner's thesis is that teachers really think that what he calls "the new orthodoxy" about real books is wrong but that they have somehow been forced into pretending to accept it by "a small clique". He claims that the silencing of class teachers has reached "almost Cuban proportions". How this Marxist "clique" (complete, no doubt, with Guevara hairstyles, Castro beards and cigarillos) achieved this feat of mass subjugation on half a million teachers is left to the imagination.
Wray's forensic reply is exemplary in tone and content. Not for a moment is he sarcastic. Neither does he invite readers to spot how many of Robert Thouless's "dishonest tricks in argument" they can find in Turner's piece. He simply lays out the facts with ample references.
Since almost all skills correlate with skill in reading (even, remarkably, skill in playing football) it is unsurprising that there should be so many controversies surrounding the teaching of it. Anyone can come up with a variable and say "Look! Children who do (or don't do) x, do well (don't do well) in reading; this is the answer!" A brief study of human learning reveals that its plasticity means that the situation is far messier than this and that imputation of causation from correlation is always dangerous and usually way off-the-mark, as Wray indicates. Given that this is the case, it is odd that so many otherwise hardened psychological scientists should invest so much in their pet variables. Usha Goswami's assertive advocacy of "a good phonological foundation" is somewhat at variance with the more measured conclusions which she and Bryant come to on page 46 of their excellent book on the same subject.
The last two articles are about Marie Clay's Reading Recovery programme. Katy Simmons helpfully sketches out how it is used, summarises international research evidence, and raises some questions about the programme. Anna Wright and Jean Prance chronicle the programme's use in Surrey, showing that children improve significantly when it is used. A criticism of the full evaluation of the Surrey results is that there were no control groups - and one would expect children to make progress if they receive as much help as the Reading Recovery children receive. In other words, is the programme per se responsible for progress, or would any sensibly-devised help be as good? A programme such as this, though, at least provides a point around which interest and funding can crystallise and the authors provide a very helpful summary of the Surrey experience.
Overall, the book is an invaluable resource for teaching reading.
Gary Thomas is Reader in Education at Oxford Brookes University