Learning to read…

I love books.  Have done since I was a little girl sitting on my mother’s knee learning to read my Peter and Jane Ladybird books whilst she operated an overlocker (a sewing machine with a pretty sharp knife attached!)  When I entered school at 4 years old and read a book straight out to the class the teacher didn’t really know what to do with me.  Poor Mrs Trueman sent me to the library and I was left to my own devices.

I didn’t learn phonics and I know how to read words by breaking down the little words in them.  It didn’t do me any harm!  In fact, as a scientist, I think it did me some favours.  I can read some wonderfully, complex scientific words and I know what they mean even without having met them before, because I am using the roots, prefixes and suffixes rather than a random mish-mash of sounds.

When it comes to spelling, I tend to say the word how it is spelled in my head.  Wednesday has a ‘d’ pronounced loud and clear.  Other words I have a motor memory for, I’ve written Escherichia Coliformes so many times now, that it just flows out the end of the pen as a single shape rather than single letters.

I’ve met many children over my teaching career who have struggled with learning to read and spell, and they all have one thing in common…they were all taught using a phonic based system.  ‘S’ makes the sound ‘sssss’, like snake.  Well, yes it does, but it also makes the sound ‘zzzz’ as in buzz (usually at the end of words: e.g times, flows, sounds, letters.)  And when it is followed by an ‘h’ it makes a ‘sh’ sound as in ‘shop’.  The English language has 26 letter shapes but 44 phonic sounds and even then it doesn’t always follow its own rules.  I came into teaching around about the time of the ‘Rose report’.  This small scale piece of research looked at the use of phonics in a number of schools and praised the progress children made.  The government at the time, jumped on this idea and published programmes such as PiPs (Progress in Phonics) which was later replaced with Letters and Sounds.  

Whilst I have no doubt that for a good chunk of children the phonics approach works, when it doesn’t the solution seems to have been to throw more phonics at them.  Ruth Miskin, THRASS, No Nonsense Phonics, Jolly Phonics, even the first few pages of Toe by Toe.  For those it still doesn’t work with the approach seems to have been multisensory phonics, sounds work, and perhaps a little bit of phonics!  I believe there are a number of children for whom a phonic approach just doesn’t make sense and that a whole word method is more sensible.  I’m pleased to see precision teaching is becoming more commonplace in schools with rapid recognition and fluency of the ‘whole’ word as a focus.  I have to say, that in my teaching, I’ve had some students who needed yet another dose of phonics (bear in mind the latter half of my career I spent in secondary schools) but the vast majority needed something different.  Instead of walking out of my lessons with a few sounds and still not able to read or write the words they wanted to use (at 11 and 12 years old), they walked out with the ‘sight knowledge’ of words relevant to them.

It has its limitations.  If I don’t teach the specific words they need then many of my students didn’t have the skills to always find the ‘little words’ and break things down (and I have a limited time in which to undo the past and correct things) .  If I had only taught one variation of a word they didn’t always understand or recognise it with a new ending (book, booked, books, booking), but they stood far more chance than they had done previously!

And for spelling?  Well, remember what I said about Escherichia coliformes?  I like a clear joined handwriting script in order to be able to remember how to spell the words.  If I’m typing (or teaching children to type) then the whole word has to be completed in one motion…not hammering individual keys down.  The fingers will then automatically go towards the right keys if practised enough, without even thinking about the individual letters involved. 

So, not a solution to reading and spelling problems, but certainly something to consider in establishing whether phonics really works for some pupils and perhaps a new idea is needed.

I spoke to some of my older pupils (they’re in their 20s and 30s now) about the whole-word approach I had used with them.  Some of those children had entered my secondary school all those years ago with the reading age of a 4 year old.  Some, admitedly, still struggle.  One young man (gosh, I feel old) told me he still forgets to read the endings on words, but he can ‘read’ well enough to follow a newspaper article and he holds down a job in a supermarket.  A young lady said she was reading with her children and the phonics made sense to her now that she had words to work with.  She has 3 children and her eldest is struggling with phonics too, so she has begun to pick out key words for him to ‘know’ and learn in each story.  One of my students I taught back in my primary days described sitting his exam papers, “I couldn’t read everything, but I could read bits of the words.  So, I did that.  I got the tenses wrong on the English paper, but it didn’t lose me many marks as I was writing about the right things.  I needed a C in maths, science and English to go to College…I got a C in English, a B in maths and AA in science.  I couldn’t have a reader in the English exam so that was hard.  I did A-level science and maths and I had a reader in all the exams but I had to read things myself to revise or do practise papers.  It was OK.  I highlighted the bits of words I knew and then read it again.  Worse bit was doing homework when they gave us a chapter to read and make notes on.  It was guess work sometimes but I didn’t do any worse than my friends.  At university, I still do the same thing.  I write all my new words on cards and in a notebook.  I use lots of pictures and label them.  You’d be really proud of my handwriting, Miss!  I think I’ll get a 2:1, I got that at the end of the second year, and I’m happy with that.”

I suppose my message, as always, is that one size doesn’t always fit all and sometimes we have to do something different.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”  (Which wasn’t really said by Einstein, but is often quoted as such!)