Friday 6 April 2012

Headteacher on 'damaging' books

It seems as is on today's BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on a discussion about the Year 1 Phonics Screening check, a headteacher said: "It's actually very damaging to give children texts that they can't read because they can't decode the words."

Let's get into the thinking here:

There are people now who believe that the phrase 'first, fast and only' which has circulated around education in relation to the teaching of 'Synthetic phonics' (SP) through government approved SP schemes means that this is the only kind of reading material that should be put in front of young readers - 4, 5 and even 6 year olds. 

If you're not in education and are wondering what this is all about you can google 'synthetic phonics' and see what this is all about. SP is a system of teaching children how to 'decode' the language according to the correspondences between letters and sounds. So children look at letters and letter combination ('th' or 'ea' and the like) and learn how to say them. It's 'synthetic' because they learn how to combine these sounds into words or invented words. So anyone reading this blog will be able to come up with a 'plausible' pronunciation for 'glurg' or 'slib' and the like. 

SP advocates believe (and have vast bodies of tests and research to prove it) that SP teaching is a highly effective way children how to 'decode'. There is an argument, though, over whether it's a highly effective way to teach children to 'read' - that is, do what you're doing now, reading what I've written and trying to understand it (!). 

Some of us are keen to point out that 'decoding' is not the same as 'reading'. As evidence for that, some people learn to read without doing very much explicit, repeated 'decoding'. That's how I was taught 60 years ago. Similarly, some children are coming through who have learned to 'decode' but are 'barking at print' - that's to say, not finding 'reading for meaning' easy. 

As I've blogged about before, we have in June the Year 1 'Phonics Screening' test. Children will be given 40 words and asked to read them outloud. Some of them will be 'nonsense' words ie words that don't exist in English. The child will have 'failed' if he or she gets less that 32 right. The 'nonsense' words have to be read with 'plausible' pronunciations' so, let's say, the letters 'ee' have to be pronounced as one would pronounce 'ee' in 'meet' and not, say, as 'oo', as in 'root', or something. The parents of children who have failed will be informed. 

I have met the person who is quoted at the top here (from 'Woman's Hour') and I would want to make clear that what goes on in his school as a whole is not at all represented by what he is saying here. As he himself points out in his presentations, the first years at the school are full of reading aloud, children learning nursery rhymes and poems, the later years full of children writing, authors' visits (eg Beverley Naidoo), and a very rich literacy curriculum. However, in his philosophy, none of this is 'teaching the children to read'. Only the SP work is doing this. 

He has expressed this as avoiding putting texts that children can't decode in front of them. Those of us who read with our children every day are puzzled by this because this is precisely what we do every day. We share books that the children 'can't read'. In fact, they understand them (aurally ie through their ears) and they pick up the 'wording' of the written language ie how words hang together to make the sound, rhythm and grammar of our written language. Again, we find our children 'decoding' bits of these, passages of these, in all kinds of exploratory, patchy sorts of ways. They might be sitting on our laps, looking at the book as we're reading it. Or they might pick up books, comics and magazines in their bedrooms or that older siblings leave lying about (!) and 'struggle to read them' - voluntarily. Sometimes they get stuck. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they ask for help. Sometimes they don't. The point is that they are putting 'reading' together as an investigative, discovering, exploratory process. 

Not all children will be doing this at home. To a greater or lesser extent though, many are. What the headteacher is saying is that we shouldn't do this sort of thing in schools. We shouldn't be letting children do (what all my children did) which is sit on cushions at the corner of the nursery or reception class with a pile of books and look at them. 

As an aside, it's worth pausing a moment and thinking how it is, in a print-rich culture, we might feasibly stop children of 4 and 5 looking at written language which they can't 'decode'. I mean things like street signs, parents' newspapers, menus, leaflets, older siblings comics, books and magazines, holiday brochures and so on?

The head who was on Woman's Hour runs a literature-rich school. Some headteachers, as I've reported here, are saying what he is saying but not running a literature-rich school. The 'real books' are banned from Reception and Year 1 classrooms, and the children move on from their to 'passages' and 'excerpts' and highly controlled 'genre' writing, highly controlled methods of constructing sentences, paragraphs and continuous prose. Meanwhile, there is no school policy on 'reading for pleasure' - even though this is recommended on the two Rose Reports, in the PISA and PIRLs reports and now in the latest Ofsted English report 'Moving English Forward'.