Watch the swing of primary pendulum

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Anyone who was around in the mid l960s will remember the opening of Roger Miller's immortal song "England swings like a pendulum do".

If they subsequently pursued a career in primary education they would have had the exciting experience of watching that pendulum-swing in action, as methods of teaching reading swung away from skills-based approaches (phonics, look-and-say) towards a meaning-driven model - what is sometimes called a whole language approach.

Throughout the land during this period teachers were urged to stop "bottoming up" (teaching the skills so that children would learn to read) and start "topping down" (letting children read so that they would learn the skills). The pendulum-swing culminated in the late 80s in the mass hysteria of the real books movement.

It's difficult now to remember how crazy this period was, but it worried the developmental psychologist Professor Margaret Donaldson so much that she wrote a pamphlet, which began "the notion has recently gained some currency that reading scarcely needs to be taught at all I And some people have come to believe that what has traditionally been known as 'teaching' is seriously damaging in its effects". People really did think that, she wasn't making it up. Shortly afterwards, thankfully, we all began to realise how daft it was, and the pendulum changed direction.

My scientific education was pretty basic, but I do remember something about every action resulting in an equal and opposite reaction, and I have done pendulum experiments with children. This is why I've been watching the trends in reading teaching very carefully over the past few years. Any country in which a learned professor had to write the sentences above needs careful watching. And over the past few weeks my palms have been getting a bit sweaty - I greatly fear that England might be on the turn.

First came the National Literacy Project draft proposals, in the main a model of balance and good sense . . . but with a lot of prescriptive detail about phonics. It's all very good phonics - informed by research in psychology and linguistics - but I feel that the vast majority of children could get away with less detailed teaching. And I really don't see how teachers are going to fit it all in to an overcrowded curriculum without jettisoning something else.

Then there was another salvo from Martin Turner, the man who blew the whistle on real books in l990 with his pamphlet Sponsored Reading Failure and subsequently had quite a lot of Government influence. He and a colleague now argue that "a balanced approach is not acceptable . . . The use of reading schemes and real books should be encouraged only when basic phonetic skills are established and when reading for practice is desired". Is this the shape of things to come?

Then today I attended a one-day conference on THRASS, a system of teaching phonics, spelling and handwriting which has recently been well-received in a number of English local authorities. It's a clever system, it's been enthusiastically reviewed in The TES. Its originator, Alan Davies, is an excellent speaker. I'd recommend his talk to any teacher or trainee-teacher wanting to know about the sound system of English and the most common ways of representing these sounds. I also suspect that, taught well, THRASS would work as a remedial system for children aged 9 to 14.

But Alan Davies is promoting it as a way of teaching reading from the earliest stages. He's suggesting that we should teach little children 121 ways of representing individual sounds, plus about 30 blends. And people are listening with great interest. It's not far off what the National Literacy Project is recommending.

As a primary teacher particularly interested in teaching literacy skills, I have been banging on about the importance of phonics for the past eight years. I believe it's essential to the teaching of reading, along with many other cueing systems, notably sight words and the use of context. But now I find myself wanting to scream: "Hold on, let's not get carried away! Phonics can help but it's not the Holy Grail, not any more than real books was." Teaching reading isn't easy; there are no completely right answers.

I have this horrible feeling that in the teaching of reading England is just about to swing again. On behalf of all those children and teachers who, goodness knows, have suffered enough, I sincerely hope not.

Sue Palmer is editor of the Longman Book Project

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