John Bangs · Miriam Gross. 'So why can't they read' · Woman's Hour.

Gross puts Bangs to rights!

Going back to Miriam Gross’s pamphlet ‘So why can’t children read’, I listened to her debate with John Bangs, Head of Education at the NUT, on Woman’s Hour (‘Illiteracy in primary school children’) last week.
To be honest, she didn’t put her case across particularly well she did make two central points.
First, synthetic phonics wasn’t being taught in virtually any of the schools she visited. Most, she reported, were still using the mixed methods that have dominated the mis-teaching of reading for the past forty or more years. This, as discussed by Bonnie Macmillan in her superb book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read is exactly what was found by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1992 and what has been subsequently found to be the case pretty much ever since.
The second point was to do with general approach and, in the pamphlet, Gross makes the case for a more teacher-centred as opposed to child-centred approach. The ‘pricklies’ versus the ‘gooeys’ as Time magazine called their respective advocates back in 1981. This, again, is old ground we’re covering. For an erudite examination and assessment of the issues, the late Jeanne Chall’s The Academic Achievement Challenge is very good. I’m with Bruner on this. He noted that ‘… culture is not discovered; it is passed on or forgotten’. Gagné went further, saying that ‘[t]o expect a human being to engage in a trial-and-error procedure in discovering a concept appears to be a matter of asking him [sic] to behave like an ape’.
For his part, although Bangs agreed with the teaching of synthetic phonics, he raised the old chestnut about ‘meaning’. Well of course meaning is important. That’s the purpose of reading. But, unless one is able to decode (read!) in the first place, one is not likely to get meaning. I thought it interesting that as Head of Education at the NUT he should have accused Miriam Gross of ‘literally tilting at windmills’. Ahem, ahem.