Reading Wars still going strong

I recently came across an article by Emily Hanford which gives an account of the American reading wars. Similar disputes about how best to teach reading have been waged in all English-speaking countries for many decades.

After presenting statistics about the persistently poor US literacy standards, Hanford gives us her views on their causes, but tells us first that “virtually all kids can learn to read — if they are taught the right way”. But this is apparently largely not happening, because:

  1. The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read.”
  2. Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs”, because many deans of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it and therefore “The pre-service teachers … at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training.”

She informs us that, “Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers”, and according to her ‘reading science’ has ‘discovered’ that: Children don’t crack the code naturally. They need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds …  the ways that sounds and letters correspond …the relationship between sounds and letters.” And best way to do it is with “explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

She concedes that, “phonics isn’t enough. Children can learn to decode words without knowing what the words mean. To comprehend what they’re reading, kids need a good vocabulary, too. That’s why reading to kids and surrounding them with quality books is a good idea.”

I would like to explain why phonics provides a good start, but in English, it is at best merely a very minor part of becoming a fluent reader. –  Learning to read English is not like learning to read other alphabetically written languages, because English does not have a proper ‘writing code’.

Written English looks like other alphabetically written languages, because it uses letters, but it uses them very unpredictably, which makes it impossible to teach children a code that they can use with confidence for learning to read and write. – Nearly all 44 English sounds are spelt in several ways, often very many, like the /ee/ sound in ‘speech, speak, shriek, these, police…’. They all have to be learned word by word.

Most other languages have some unpredictable spellings too, although not nearly as many as English. But English is totally different from all other alphabetically written languages in using 69 of its spellings for more than one sound (e.g. an – any, apron; on – only, once; eat – great, bread). To become moderately fluent readers, children must learn to recognise around 700 of the most used of such tricky words by sight. It is only when they can read those instantly, without still having to try and decode them, that they become independent or ‘free’ readers – free from the need for regular help.

Phonics is useful for words like ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘get the net set’, but insufficient and too laborious for ‘any able father’, ‘heard near heart’ or ‘though thought through’. Until children have learnt to sight-read such words without hesitation, their reading remains laborious.

The spellings with irregular pronunciations are the main reason why all English-speaking countries have almost identical proportions of children who struggle with learning to read, or never become proficient. It is also why those who do not get regular one-to-one reading help at home, when they first start to learn, make very slow progress and rarely catch up.

It is not poverty in itself, or being in care, that impedes children’s educational progress. They are disadvantaged by not getting enough individual help in the early school years, because their parents don’t have the ability, time or energy to give it. And because reading is the most essential prerequisite for nearly all other learning, their reading difficulties handicap the whole of their schooling, .

After a brief grounding in phonics, the best way to become a fluent reader of English, is regular reading aloud to an adult, who sits and listens and helps out with words that are not entirely decodable, like ‘friend, should shoulder’. Teachers know this and encourage parents to play their part, because it is very difficult to provide daily individual reading support to a class of 30.

If all English spellings could be reliably decoded like ‘keep sleep deep’, teaching children to read would be much easier.  Phonics lessons at school would then be enough to turn children into independent readers, as in other alphabetically written languages.

While English spelling remains as it is, phonics can provide no more than a good beginning. To become a fluent reader takes much time and effort after phonics. That’s why even courses which are sold as ‘phonics’ are never as phonic as in other languages. – They don’t just teach the “the ways that sounds and letters correspond” or “the relationship between sounds and letters”. After a few weeks, they start to introduce words with alternative pronunciations, e.g. ‘only one other‘ after ‘on, often, ox’.

They expose children to pronunciations other than the main one with little groups of words, over and over again, to help them to recognise them on sight, and eventually the majority learn to do so. But it takes many encounters, and without regular reinforcement at home, a very long time, with some pupils continuing to struggle throughout their school days and thereafter. – Teachers try to do the best they can with the erratic spelling system they are lumbered with, but it makes their job extremely challenging.

Reading science is of minimal help, because nobody has yet discovered a method for teaching the tricky words that succeeds reliably with all learners. Progress depends heavily on a child’s abilities as well as getting enough individual help.

The best solution to the problem would be to make English spelling more sensible. When spellings have regular pronunciations, the best way to teach reading is blindingly obvious and nearly all children learn to read easily in a few months, even if they are not especially bright or get much help at home. There are no recurring disputes about how to do it.

The irregularities of English spelling make the teaching of reading exceptionally difficult, defeat many children altogether and cause endless arguments about teaching methods.

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