LITERACY AND PRIMARY SCHOOLS
New think tank report champions synthetic phonics but not more centrally driven interventions
A Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet out this week, commissioned by London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson , ‘ So Why Can’t They Read?, insists that traditional, structured methods such as synthetic phonics – in which children learn to “decode” words by combining individual letters and sounds – are the most effective, and attacks teachers for refusing to adopt them, despite government attempts to encourage their use. According to the report over a third of all children who leave London’s state primary schools at the age of 11 still have difficulties with reading (even though they have passed national tests) and about 5% can hardly read at all. About 20% of pupils leave secondary schools without being able to read or write with confidence. Nick Gibb, the schools Minister has been an almost evangelical supporter of the teaching of synthetic phonics in schools. Although the Literacy Strategy due to end at the beginning of next year incorporates elements of phonics teaching Gibb believes that it doesn’t focus sufficiently on synthetic phonics. The reports author Miriam Gross says child illiteracy is made worse because many teachers have a weak grasp of spelling and syntax, and argues that the problem cannot be blamed on the large number of immigrant pupils in city schools.
“There is in fact a great deal of evidence … to show that it is white working-class children who have the most intractable reading difficulties,” she writes. “Unlike most immigrant parents, who are very keen on their children receiving a good education even if they themselves speak very little English, white working-class parents often seem to be indifferent to their children’s education.” Gross, said schools were not repeating phonics “over and over again” but allowing a child-led approach to hold sway. She also suggests that Primary school teachers are breeding illiteracy among children by letting them speak “street” in the classroom. In other European states, ‘slang is not allowed in the classroom’ Misplaced fear of interfering with self-expression has led to a damaging failure to correct pupils who communicate in an argot mixing linguistic influences from Cockney to Indian, Boris Johnson writing in the Daily Telegraph on 19 July says Miriam ‘takes aim at some familiar targets of conservative wrath: child-centred learning, by which children are invited to “discover” the meaning of the printed page before them, rather than being taught; the hostility to academic selection that has bedevilled the teaching establishment; the lack of discipline in some schools; the time wasted in considering the “emotional well-being” of the child, rather than good old instruction in reading and writing.’ He endorses the synthetic phonics method. And rejects the view, espoused by some educationalist, who argue that phonics is too dogmatic, too authoritarian and too demoralising for children who couldn’t spell out every word in their heads. They hold the view that ‘Perhaps they should be encouraged just to recognise the words – and so was born the system of “whole word recognition”, intended partly to bolster those who found phonics a strain.’ An approach which, according to Johnson ,explains ‘why literacy has declined in the past 50 years, they claim, and that is why we face a skills shortage caused very largely by the inability of one million working Londoners to read and write.’
But, significantly what Gross does not recommend ,and it is something that Gibb has been leaning towards, is centrally driven intervention. She suggests, instead, an annual contest among primary schools to prove that phonics produces more literate children than whole-word recognition, in which pupils memorise words by looking at their shapes and sizes alongside pictures. “The teaching methods of the successful schools – as well as the conduct and enthusiasm of children – would be analysed, so that teachers and parents alike can see which approach works best … It could be sponsored by one of the large corporations which have been so vehement in complaining about the poor skills of school leavers.” Significantly, Johnson concedes that he has met London children on Reading Recovery programmes who are obviously benefiting hugely from a mixture of phonics and word recognition and forms up behind the idea of a competition. What many experts seem not to understand is how the jargon used in this debate just doesn’t help bring the debate to a wider audience. The word ‘synthetic’ and the word ‘phonics’ are both off-putting. They make what is in fact a simple and straightforward way of learning to read sound very complicated, when it really isn’t.