Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The 'hot potato' of learning to read

Janet and John Books. Yep I am that old, these and the Peter and Jane books were in use at my school when I was Charlotte's age!

As Michael Gove once again wades into the fray surrounding early literacy and 'learning to read', with Michael Rosen and Julia Donaldson also weighing in with (better informed) opinions, it seems that 2012's favourite literary topic - encouraging and developing a child's reading skills from an early age - isn't going away in 2013. 

Rightly so, it's amongst the most important - if not THE most important skill a child begins to learn when they start school, and though most schools adopt the national standards and phonics, and these are fantastically effective tools to aid a child's reading development, I too agree that they should not be the only thing used to encourage a child to read. 

Our experience with Charlotte and also shared experiences we hear from other parents suggest that children often feel completely overwhelmed by the options on offer, to the point where different phonics standards, different methods of teaching non-phonic (tricky) words and of course the gigantic differences in reading 'ages' for children all stack up and do more harm than good. 

The problem seems to be that the government (and to a certain extent most parents) want a 'magic bullet' - a quick-fire method of turning a child who can't read into one that is fully literate, can read confidently on their own and can start to further develop their literacy skills through a standard set of books neatly pigeonholed into a recommended reading / book list in the shortest time possible. 

Our recent experience from Charlotte starting school has taught us that children have such a gigantic amount of information to soak up on a daily basis that when they do have 5 minutes to spare, the very last thing they want to do is sit down with a great story book and read because they can't differentiate between reading for pleasure and reading as a class exercise ('work'). This is something that Michael Rosen has expressed concerns about and it's very easy to see why. I partially agree with his view that parrot-fashion phonics learning can turn kids off wanting to actually read stories for the sheer joy of it, and it could merely be because repetition, recognition and 'breaking down' of words are too disjointed  and completely alien to the 'flow' of the way we read stories. 

Julia Donaldson's recent views on how children can gain more benefit from 'acting out' stories while learning to read are absolutely spot on. There's a level of engagement required there, and a class full of children assuming a role and being encouraged to read it are instantly transformed into a brilliant 'team' who, with the right help and cues, can better memorise the words in a story as well as the overall story itself. 

We have found the Oxford Learning Tree books to be quite engaging and useful, but again quite often we actually see better results in more traditional 'picture' story books when Charlotte is encouraged to read words aloud in the context of those stories. For obvious reasons, most phonics and learning books are kept short, often fairly lightweight in plot and character development, and fit structured patterns of recognition, staged learning and repetition / decoding that perhaps help a teacher track a child's understanding and ability to deal with that stage or level of reading learning but probably don't offer much beyond this. It's like trying to ascertain whether someone's a great driver by getting them to drive 10ft on a variety of surfaces before rubber-stamping them as a qualified driver, and sending them out on a long road trip across the country. 

We obviously don't have a magic bullet any more than anyone else, but we've found that there is little or perhaps even no worth in just relying on the structured and phonics methods of encouraging Charlotte to read. If you do not supplement this type of reading with more traditional methods of reading stories (aloud, together and even letting a child have a go on their own) then they're going to miss probably the most important reason to learn to read in the first place - because it's a massive amount of fun and can open the doors of your imagination in ways nothing else can. 

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