LITERACY: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT ; UK Literacy Levels Are the Worst in the English-Speaking World - So Why Do We Persist with Outdated Methods of Teaching Children How to Read? Christopher Hadley Investigates the New Options Made Possible by Science
Hadley, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)
Consider how a book works, or a newspaper, or even this magazine. You must hold it the right way up and the right way round and turn the pages to make any progress, knowing what and where the text is - that it moves from left to right - and what to do when you get to the end of a line or the bottom of a column. You need to know where the pictures are and how they relate to the words. And, of course, you have to concentrate and read all the way to the end to find out what it's all about.
It helps if you can make predictions about where the text is leading, if you know that "bear" rhymes with "pear" and "lion" with "iron", and have some notion that a book contains information, can give pleasure and can relate to your own experiences. Infants must grasp how books work before they can tackle tougher stuff - like learning how to read them. We don't even have to teach them this stuff. They will grasp it simply by being around books, by seeing their parents read, by listening to bedtime stories and discussing them. But unfortunately, as any teacher will tell you, thousands of children arrive at school every year without even these basics of literacy.
If we can't get the basics right, it's little wonder that, when it comes to a literacy skill that does have to be taught methodically, like how to read, we can't get that right either and can't even agree on the best methods to use. Should children memorise whole words, or the names of letters, or learn syllables, or the sounds of the language in this way or that way? Should they guess the words from the context, or read "real" books, or watch videos, or all of these things, or some of them, or none of them? Educationalists have been arguing these points for ever and a day, but it's hardly their fault that at the start of the 21st century, some 30 per cent of seven- to 11-year-olds in Britain are functionally illiterate.
It might seem churlish to bellyache about such things when so much energy is being directed at raising the standards of literacy both in schools and in the community. But it's hard to be confident that this energy is being well expended when the terms of the debate on the front line have changed so little over the last century, while in the last 25 years, accurate models of human cognition have been taking shape in laboratories, providing answers for anyone who is prepared to listen.
Surveying the history of the reading debate and many of the recent arguments - which is much the same thing - is akin to choosing between contradictory expert evidence at a complex fraud trial. The analogy doesn't go far enough, because although these experts might be hysterical and evangelical and always factional, they are rarely disingenuous; they all mean well. Which makes it even harder for parents to decide who's right.
At Warwick University's Institute of Education, Dr Hilary Minns likes to show her student teachers a picture from a 1946 reading scheme, it depicts a teacher standing in front of a blackboard prepared for a lesson in phonics. When Dr Minns asks her students what this reminds them of, without fail they reply: "Literacy Hour."
The Literacy Hour is the centrepiece of the Government's National Literacy Strategy, launched nationwide in 1998, which heralds a return to phonics as the primary method of teaching first-time readers. Since the early 19th century, reading strategies have, roughly speaking, swung between two poles: at one end is systematic, rule-based teaching of how the language can be decoded by focusing on its little sounds, of which phonics is the most commonly used programme; at the other is a more child-centred approach, valuing context, language experience, and the learning of whole words over rules.
Traditionalists have always gathered at the first of these poles so it's not surprising that they should applaud much of the National Literacy …
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Publication information: Article title: LITERACY: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT ; UK Literacy Levels Are the Worst in the English-Speaking World - So Why Do We Persist with Outdated Methods of Teaching Children How to Read? Christopher Hadley Investigates the New Options Made Possible by Science. Contributors: Hadley, Christopher - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 28, 2001. Page number: 22,23,25. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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