Thursday, June 02, 2011

Reading and writing as Standard

Two days ago the Evening Standard underscored exactly how serious the problem of illiteracy is in London. Its report, which confined itself to the situation in the capital, claimed that:
  •  one in four children is ‘practically illiterate when they leave school’;
  • that there are ‘one million adults in the capital who cannot read with confidence’;
  • and, that ‘40 per cent of 11-year-olds from inner-city primary schools have a reading age of between six and nine when they start secondary school’.
This is a well-trodden path and, as the exposé rather obviously states, being unable to read and write effectively is not only a tragedy for the individual thus afflicted, it is also a blight on our whole society.
As I have reported a number of times previously, heads of major companies, of the armed forces, as well as successive director generals of the CBI have, in the past, made exactly the same complaint.
It is about time that the depth of the problem was honestly acknowledged and the Standard is to be applauded for drawing attention to the seriousness of the problem. However, we also need to think carefully about the kinds of solutions they offer and, as is so often the case, people who are not experts in the field they are discussing are likely to go astray.
To begin with, they claim that the ‘battle to get phonics accepted as the best way of teaching children to read in primary schools is now more or less won’. This is a huge distortion of what is actually going on in schools. Many teachers are still not teaching phonics. What's more, there are lots of phonics programmes available to schools, not all of them effective. 
If teaching practitioners are to be expected to teach phonics well, they need to be properly trained. The last government decided to push a programme called Letters and Sounds, which was sent out to schools with the expectation that teachers would just 'get on with it'! Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that and, as teachers were not given adequate training in how to use the programme, it's a fair bet that it isn't working very well. Anyway, that's the word we have from teachers attending our Sounds-Write trainings.
What we have always argued is that the way in which the spoken sounds of the language relate to the writing system is woefully misunderstood, as are the skills needed in order to use such a system. Hence the need for rigorous training!
Sadly, the Standard’s call for everyone to join together in promoting a love of reading is, wonderful though it sounds, yet another hollow clarion call. To enjoy reading, one must first learn how to do it! Ask anyone to do anything they are not good at and what do they do? They avoid it like the plague.
Of course, it is a truism to maintain that children who are not read to at home and who have no opportunity to gain easy access to books are unlikely to regard reading as having any value. Similarly, if, during the first three years, children are not engaged in everyday talk to a considerable degree, they are not going to develop the linguistic skills and knowledge of vocabulary that will enable them to understand what they read. 
But always we come back to the same thing: if a child is not taught to read (decode), they will never be able to understand what they read, much less enjoy it. What is more, later, when the time comes, they won't be able to read or fill in an application form or perform the everyday functional tasks the rest of the population take for granted.

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