Is the teaching of reading about de-coding text or instilling a love of literature? Surely the answer’s clear. Phoebe Doyle talks to former children’s laureate Michael Rosen about the real meaning of reading.
The government have recently announced that, from June 2012, children in Year One will sit a 5 minute test, assessing their phonics skills. The test will involve the children reading 40 words to a teacher – some will be real words, others made up – and the child will either pass or fail based on the number they get correct. Whilst the teaching of phonics as a separate and distinct area to other aspects of literacy is fairly well-established now, and is largely considered a success, experts are concerned that this test appears to place an over-emphasis on a very small part of what it means to be a reader.
The Pitfalls of Phonics
The fundamental downfall of teaching phonics as a ‘be all and end all’ to reading is the notorious complexity of the English language. “Look closely at the phonics materials given to teachers and pupils and you'll see straightaway that the materials themselves accept that it's impossible to teach children to read using phonics alone”, says former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. Of course, as practitioners we discuss ‘tricky words’, or the ‘word wizard’ to explain why extremely common words like 'was', 'said', 'come', 'are', and countless others, pose problems as they don’t fall into a neat phonetic pattern.
“It's clear that for children to read such words, they will need some other strategies”, Michael says, adding; “the most famous one is of course 'look and say' - where some kind of mix of processes in the reader's brain enables him or her to see the whole word and 'get it'.” So regardless of our phonics emphasis an important part of learning to read English is actually visual recognition, as Michael describes; “in other words, the reader recognises the pattern of squiggles which go to make up the word as a whole. In fact, a child using phonics will also have to learn that 'was' is an exception because the 'as' in 'was' isn't pronounced in that way in any other common word.”
Why Test Phonics?
Reading requires the involvement of a number of strategies; picture clues and recognition to name but two, yet the government’s new ‘reading’ test is focussing solely on a very specific part of a child’s ability – the phonic part. Michael, for one is sceptical; “they think they have come up with a foolproof way of doing this: by inventing words that don't exist but which, if you know your phonics, you'll be able to read” They have made up nonsense words such as ‘splot’ and ‘crat’. Michael explains a pitfall; “the main problem with the test as a tool in helping spot the child who is having difficulties learning to read is that it will only spot one kind of difficulty. In fact, a child not learning to read might well be struggling with several kinds of difficulty and this won't show up on the test, it won't help the teacher spot the other difficulties and it certainly won't help the child learn how to read.” And if it isn’t helping the child, what is the point?! Michael is clear in his view; “In other words, for many children, parents and teachers, this is going to turn out to be a misleading test. It should be abolished and you can be pretty sure, after several years of it failing to do what it sets out to do, it will be!”
What Does Teaching A Child To Read Really Mean?
For those of us who love to read as adults, it’s interesting to ask “why?” The answer is sure to lie more in an enjoyment of literature; of stories and character than in our ability to simply decode. Michael believes that one of the prominent roles of practitioners working with young children is to inspire young readers. “They have to 'sell' reading as a process and as a habit. The best known way of doing this is to show and read books together in a fun way. This means making reading-time comfortable and enjoyable. It means constantly thinking about how to draw in the child to the book you're reading - whether that's through voices, encouraging joining in, a lot of repetition, using books as the starting points for many other different activities - making things that are in the book, dressing up, singing, putting 'thinks' bubbles over the tops of characters heads in picture books, inventing games inspired by the books, gently showing the children over and over again key words that you're saying.”
Michael is passionate about children, whatever their background, being given opportunities aplenty to experience quality literature. He’s insistent on any schemes that are used being supplemented with ‘real’ books and also encouraging the use of borrowing books and subsequently supporting our libraries which are, as we know, under severe fire right now.
“We know that the more a child is exposed to books, the better they get at reading, the keener readers they become. Keen readers are those who succeed at school. It's not magic. It's that most school learning is in fact closely related to the kinds of knowledge and the kinds of ways of expressing that knowledge which are to be found in books” Michael says.
As practitioners we need to constantly be thinking up new ways of making the written word fun; as a staff you can start by brain-storming how to make your setting full of inspiration for reading. “The walls of the setting should be covered in poems, funny quotes and thoughts, so that the children can see for themselves that that written stuff is worth getting hold of.” Children need motivation to want to read, they need to feel desperate to find out what things say and mean.
Alongside this there should be plenty of opportunities for children to talk about what they read. Michael explains the importance of this aspect; “there is no greater motive for doing anything, than the 'social' one, in other words, the one that is validated by other people around you. In short, you have to make the written word (books in particular), 'cool'!”
Many singular words can be taught through phonics teaching and this, without doubt, has value. That said it’s far from the whole story, it’s not what reading is. De-coding words phonetically is a specific skill. Learning to love books, to adore literature, to experience the magic of getting lost in a story, whether you’re 5 or 55, is pretty much priceless, and surely is a more worthy aim. Of course, this is of little interest to those concerned with passes or fails, or levels and targets; it’s not easy to quantify. As early years practitioners staying true to our child-centred beliefs about teaching reading is crucial in developing a life-long love of the written word for our little ones.
Just a few ways of getting kids crazy over books:
Have fancy dress days where they dress as their favourite story book character
Research theatre groups that come to settings; watch the children’s jaws drop as they see a tale brought to life
Display pictures with speech bubbles with simple sentences in; speech bubbles are fun and a pretty simple concept for little ones to grasp
Encourage them to read with a range of strategies; using pictures to ‘guess’ words is sensible and intelligent, never cheating
Children are budding book critics! Discuss stories in terms of characters, plot and what we liked and didn’t
Follow their interests; action hero comics aren’t your cup of tea? If that’s what they want – go with it!
Non-fiction is just as valid and can get even the most reluctant of boys engaged; stock up and turn them into mini-researchers!
Lead by example; want a truly booktastic culture? Why not think of setting up a staff book group and discuss the novels you read. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace!
Two new fab books hot off the press
More, More, More! By Dawn Casey, illustrated by Nick Price Published by Bloomsbury, £5.99 This is an amazing underwater adventure about eating, appetites and what happens when you get bored with the same old food. This will appeal to everyone from toddlers and beyond; it’s funny and warm.
Mini Racer Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo Published by Bloomsbury, £5.99 A boy-friendly feast of vehicles all racing to be number one! Follow each driver’s (all animals) setbacks and triumphs on the course and see Giraffe get stuck outside a tunnel and Seal enjoying a bath during the pit stop. Up and down, around the bends, who will take first prize?