Two academics are tackling child literacy problems by studying individual weaknesses. Maureen O'Connor reports. One of the main misconceptions about learning to read, says Estelle Lewin Doctor firmly, is that you don't have to attend to the words. "People think that children will simply learn to read by reading just as they learn to talk by talking. But we are not programmed biologically to learn to read in that way."
Dr Lewin Doctor speaks with the confidence of a cognitive psychologist who has studied how children learn to read. With Dr Morag Stuart, a former infants school head, she runs the Literacy Assessment and Research Centre which has just moved from Birkbeck College in London to the nearby Institute of Education.
As providers of a battery of diagnostic reading tests and in-service courses for schools, they attempt to pass on understanding of the reading process which has emerged over the past decade. And the first point they make, without apology to either side in the phonics versus real books debate, is that people use two distinct approaches when they read - the visual and the phonic - both are essential.
Five-year-olds do it painfully slowly, adults may take only milliseconds, Morag Stuart says, but everyone sounds out words phonically. She says that there is no human language whose written form can be learned without a phonic approach. It takes Japanese children the whole of their schooling to learn the 18,500 visual ideographs of the written language and a separate phonic system has had to be developed to help them read before they have mastered the traditional orthography.
But before the advocates of phonics get too excited, Morag Stuart also says that readers must also rapidly develop whole-word recognition and build up a store of words they know on sight. Reading, Dr Stuart says, would be slow and difficult without this dual approach. With irregular spelling and pronunciation, phonics has little to offer with irregular words like choir or pint, one and was.
But an extensive sight vocabulary is of little use to the reader who meets a totally unfamiliar word. The only way of tackling that is through a phonetic knowledge of letter and syllable sounds. Yet even adults, she says, run up against the limitations of phonics when they meet unfamiliar words for the first time. They tackle them phonically, showing their approach by mispronouncing them.
Dr Stuart and Dr Lewin Doctor have been developing tests which identify where a slow reader is having difficulty.
"We are concerned with children's cognitive development, not with physical problems of sight or hearing," Estelle Lewin Doctor says. "We aim to discover exactly what a child is doing when it reads words and sentences and to what extent it understands."
Essentially the Literacy Assessment Battery tests aim to tease out children's strengths and weaknesses across the dual track to fluent reading, spelling and comprehension. There are, for instance, tests to discover whether a child recognises whole words or sounds them out, whether a child knows that words can sound the same even though they look different, whether a child is splitting long words up or missing parts out because of an inability to blend segments together and more complex tests to discover whether a child understands what words mean. When a particular difficulty is uncovered practice can be concentrated on that area of weakness.
"We have never come across a child whose reading has not improved with our help," Morag Stuart says. "At best we have been able to increase a child's reading age by 18 months over a six month period, working for just two three-quarter-hour sessions a week."
That is an expensive, individualised approach and the centre also offers in-service help to schools so that teachers can improve reading standards themselves. "Ideally we need to see the whole staff because you need the whole school to accept that there is a need for change to make any long-term improvement," Morag Stuart says.
"We are sometimes told that there is a problem of comprehension but when you look in detail at what the children are doing you find there are word recognition problems."
Estelle Lewin Doctor says: "When we go into schools we spend some time dismantling what teachers already know and encourage them to focus on the crucial skills. Sometimes we give them a familiar nursery rhyme in Japanese and help them to decode it. That helps them to recognise the fact that you need to develop a sight vocabulary and the ability to decode phonetically. Then we show them how to develop those skills in the classroom."
They are convinced Britain's literacy problems can be solved with a systematic approach. Children must be ready to learn to read when they start school. This means being phonologically aware of sounds and rhymes, able to recognise letters alphabetically and at the beginning of words. "It implies either good nursery education or postponing teaching reading until the age of six, as other countries do," Estelle Lewin Doctor says.
If a child's reading age of six matches its chronological age, Morag Stuart says, then they have probably cracked reading. A reading age of nine means there is unlikely to be anything wrong which systematic practice cannot improve. She is absolutely convinced that what all schools need is a reading policy. Without that, children will fail.