For a long time now I’ve been thinking seriously about why it is so difficult for phonics advocates to bring about change in the way in which we teach children in English speaking countries to read and spell.
The answer, of course, is complicated but one reason that seems to present itself more forcefully than most is that so many lay people have an opinion on how it should be done. Moreover, this ‘lay’ section doesn’t simply confine itself to people outside the educational establishment, it pervades the whole panoply of the educational apparatus.
It might surprise you to hear me say this but this is probably one of our greatest impediments to achieving success for all in teaching children to become properly literate. People working within the top echelons of the educational bureaucracy are there usually because they have some expertise in some area of education, be it management or a branch of pedagogy. However, once having attained a ‘position of authority’ – and I include in this umbrella term everyone from deputy heads, through heads and educational psychologists, educational journalists, to civil service mandarins – these people seem to take it upon themselves to pronounce on all aspects of education, whether they are qualified to do so or not. When it comes to the question of how best to teach literacy, mostly, they are not.
More or less every day on radio programmes like Radio 4’s ‘Today’ or ‘Woman’s Hour’ and the like, we hear educational pundits holding forth on this most important of areas of education, yet few if any of them have expertise in this particular area. Even at senior levels of government, the same is true. I remember talking to a person at the highest level of government charged with the responsibility for conducting a review into the teaching of reading who, when it came to it, didn’t really know the difference between one phonic programme and another.
In their respective capacities then, ‘the powers that be’, a phrase enfolding into itself the people I’ve talked about, wield considerable power to shape opinion, whether that is at the level of the staffroom, or more widely within public discourse. The problem is that, when it comes to the question of literacy they are quick to proffer their views when they have no real understanding of what they are talking about. And literacy is a subject everyone who is literate feels qualified to declaim on. You will notice, too, that the pundits, as they imagine themselves to be, become more muted the more technical or esoteric the area of an educational discipline becomes. So, the teaching of maths is almost invariably left to mathematicians or those holding, at the very least, a mathematics degree. The same is true for other subjects, such as physics, or advanced studies English literature.
The fact is that knowing how (and when) to teach children to read and write effectively is a very highly skilled job. In order to be able to do and do it well, the practitioner needs to understand the way the writing system relates to the way we speak, the sounds of the language. Now, never mind the rest of the educational superstructure rising above the level of the school, many heads and deputy heads have no idea whatsoever about how sounds link to spellings though, to listen to them, you’d think they were all experts on the subject of teaching reading. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that many members of senior management in (especially) primary schools find it extremely difficult to concede to their staffs that they lack knowledge in particular areas of pedagogy.
Don’t misunderstand me either. I’m not suggesting that the people I’m talking about are wilfully selfish or that they have ulterior motives. For the most part, they are honourable and have nothing but good intentions. Their honest and abiding interest is in doing their best by the children for whom they are responsible. But good intentions and honest convictions don’t ensure that the vast majority (more than 90%) of young children learn to read and spell.
What does? Well informed training!