Monday, 22 October 2007

Aye ken reed...

"In order for children to read, all the studies show that we need to teach children how the alphabet works..." --Jim Rose, author of the Rose Report on literacy

Makes sense, right? Not if you're the head of a teachers' union, or if you're the children's laureate.

In this country, 20% of children leave primary school at 11 incapable of reading at an 8 year old level. Ten years ago, that figure was 33% - that's ONE CHILD IN THREE. IN ONE OF THE MOST DEVELOPED COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD...AND ONE THAT BITCHES ON ABOUT IMMIGRANTS NOT BEING ABLE TO SPEAK OR READ ENGLISH.

Thank God it's a country that understands irony. Most of the time.

I'm livid. Absolutely furious that a country that claims to put children and education first has schools full of teachers who cannot - or will not - catch students falling through the literacy net.

Why, you ask? Surely, it's simple enough. Teach children what the letters and diphthongs sound like, and they'll learn to string words together- they'll have the tools to attack reading, work out words they don't know, and feel competent, right?

In other words, the way we ALL learned to read - phonics.

Oh NO, says NUT and the children's laureate, couldn't possibly do that. It's BORING. God forbid the children should actually have to do work that isn't fun.

The children's laureate was shown trying to instill a love of literature into students he's working with - and with them stumbling over their reading, with him reading parts for them and them repeating it back, he argues against phonics, claiming it will kill their love of reading.

Erm, and you would be a shining example of that, would you, Michael? Because, my dear, at your age, I'll guarantee you that you learned to read by...phonics. And funnily enough, it's older generations - those who learned by phonics - that seem to enjoy reading most.

To get to the point where you can ENJOY reading, you have to read fluently. You have to feel confident in your ability to face unfamiliar words, sound them out, go "OH! That's e-l-e-ph-a-n-t...elephant," pat yourself on the back and carry on. If you stumble across an unfamiliar word and you use 'context' or 'whole word' methods, you're f***ed. What are you going to do if you can't sound it out, if you don't know blends, dipthongs, phonemes? Guess from the word shape? "Oh, it has a long neck, it must be 'giraffe'?"

You need to understand how the parts work, what their function is, how they fit together before you can understand the whole. Just like nature builds the proteins that give creation its infinite variety from amino acids generated by a nucleic acid code, words are built from letters and sounds. To understand proteins, you need to understand the nucleic acid code, amino acid properties and how they fit together. It's the same with words. Or anything else.

You need to build your foundation on rock, and stop pretending that shifting sand will do as well.

So it takes a bit of drill - make it fun, as some of the teachers on the show did - make a song of it, give them actions to go with the sounds, help them string words together. This isn't a 'right wing agenda' - going back to basics is just common sense. How you TEACH the basics is up to you.

I'm not a phonics dictator - I strongly believe in parental involvement, reading to your child, using context to determine *meaning*, instilling kids with a love of literature. But you need to give them a solid foundation on which to build their infinite variety of houses...and that means giving them the ability to work through reading themselves by teaching them how the alphabet - which makes up their words - works.

Literacy isn't just about reading words on a page - it unlocks worlds of reality and imagination; the ability to express yourself and understand others when they choose to do the same; it gives a child confidence to face the world, because she has the tools to understand what the world is telling her. It makes it possible for her to fly.

So doesn't that make it criminal for us to clip her wings when we refuse to make literacy possible because we're afraid of 'boring' her? After all, once she learns phonics, it's a skill she'll use automatically for the rest of her life. She's not going to be going "B-u-gg-e-r" when she's 12, now, is she?

Quit kvetching because you have to learn a new way of teaching a child to read, or you have to spend a little extra time catching a child in that safety net. Or because YOU found it boring as a child. This isn't about you, it's about our children and their future.

Now let's get reading.

1 comment:

Ariel said...

Bravo, she'enedra - I'm with you all the way, and so would any other linguist be. Bill Labov, the most famous of the Penn linguistics faculty, is very active in various inner-city reading projects, all of which use phonics; Tony's wife is a reading teacher (trained, of course, in an era where people taught phonics), and when she teaches kids, she teaches them the relationships between sounds and letters and, lo and behold, it works! Moreover, Tony says, she's generally appalled by the numbers of new teachers who aren't taught any of this and therefore are incapable of teaching anyone else.

Any linguist would tell you that the phonics-based reading system works. We're not reading Chinese here (just as an aside, there is a phonetic element to Chinese characters, but not a very clear or efficient one); there's a phonemic basis to our spelling system and it makes no sense whatsoever to ignore that when it comes to teaching it. I wish the teaching powers-that-be would ask someone like Bill Labov rather than rely on their own sense of what's "fun".

Besides, you'd think that the faster one learns to read, the more fun it is. Struggling with something unnecessarily doesn't sound like much fun to me.

Thanks for posting this. Here's to phonics! *clink*