Richard Garner · Terry Jones · The Independent · Trouble on the Heath

And now for something completely… er, the same!

As Richard Garner reported in yesterday’s Independent, apparently, Terry Jones has just written Trouble on the Heath, a book for struggling readers. It’s part of the Quick Read series of books published for World Book Day, and, well intentioned though this is, it’s yet another example of someone who is very, very good at doing something in one particular field but then thinks that they have the expertise to do something else in another, the something else in this case being the ability to write a book for struggling readers. See ‘Rocket science? It is almost!
Here’s a sample from the download offered by the BBC, which I have coded to show the relationship between sounds and spellings:
Ch a p t er  One
I t  w a s  N i g el ’s  f a v ou r i te  t r ee. H e  l i k ed  t o  p ee  o n  i t.  M a l c o lm  w oul d  h a ve  t o  w ai t        u n t i l  N i g el  h a d  f i n i sh ed, b u t  h e  d i d n’ t         m i n d  b e c au se  wh e n  y ou  s t oo d  b y  th i s  
t r ee  y ou  g o t   a  g r ea t  v  i ew  o f   H a mp s t ea d H ea th.

As can be seen, I’ve put a space in between each sound-spelling correspondence. Amongst other things, what this shows is that there are numerous examples of the complexities a struggling reader is likely to encounter:
  • sounds being represented by more than one letter. As an example, there are three different ways of spelling the sound ‘ee’ (he, tree, and Heath);
  • the spelling ea stands for ‘ee’ in ‘Heath’ or ‘ae’ in ‘great’;
  • the number of schwas or weak vowel sounds, and a fair sprinkling of two- and three-syllable words in the book;
  • in addition, in the word ‘was’, the ‘o’ sound is represented by the single-letter spelling as represents the sound ‘z’. and the single-letter spelling.
There is ‘here’ enough level of difficulty to cause a beginning or struggling reader real problems.
We come back again and again to the same problem. There are very few decodable readers for older, struggling readers and people think that if they limit sentences to fewer than, say, twenty words and the number of syllables in words to two or three, that this alone will make texts accessible. 
A quick read rapidly turns into a very long read: the reader is expected to try and read texts like this by guessing what the words are (and probably guessing incorrectly), or making mistakes and being told what the word is by a teacher/mentor. This strategy quickly collapses back into whole language/sight word memorisation exercise, an approach that has almost certainly failed the struggling reader in the first place – precisely what Terry didn’t want.
My friend is teaching a seventy-year-old man at the moment. He was totally illiterate when he started. When he finally began his journey of starting to learn to read, did he mind reading from decodable texts even though they were very simple and written mostly for quite young children? Not a bit of it! As he’d waited for most of his life, he was willing to exercise a little more patience and to regard the simple readers on which he practised his fluency as the (temporary) stepping stones to reading the daily newspaper. It sometimes feels as if trying to get this message across is like trying to beat life into a dead parrot.
Thanks to Susan Godsland for bringing the Indie article to my attention.

6 thoughts on “And now for something completely… er, the same!

  1. Perhaps your 70 year old would now enjoy a Quick Read as there are plenty of titles to choose from. They do not claim to be books for complete beginners. They are books that poorer adult readers can progress to once they become more fluent in much the same way as children, once they have completed a reading scheme, might progress to, say Roald Dahl (or Enid Blyton as we did in my day).

  2. Hi Christine,
    I'm sure that he will enjoy reading these books.
    And, you're right in what you say: once you've cracked the code to a reasonable degree, there are lots of books on which to practise, be the reader child or adult.
    What needs to happen is for publishing houses to begin making available decodable readers. To write them, especially at the beginning when there are so few sound-spelling correspondences to work with, and also make them as interesting as they can be made is a challenging task. For young children, we at Sounds-Write, the authors of Dandelion Readers and Marlene Greenwood (Jelly and Bean) are doing what we can to make a contribution to filling the gap.
    Someone ought to do the same for adult learners. Perhaps the answer lies in informational texts.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Best wishes,

  3. "…and a fair sprinkling of two- and three-syllable words in the book;"

    I'm not sure that I would see that as a criticism, John. The interesting thing about multisyllable words is that they are quite often more straightforward to decode than one syllable words. It's just that the sight of them produces a fear reaction in struggling readers. But it is really important that everyone learns to cope with them and they won't do that if writers leave them out in the interests of making the text 'easy to read'. It is too easy to confuse 'decodable' with 'simple, short words'.

    I'd like to see a 'Try/practise these first' section with the multisyllable words broken into 'chunks' ( I won't say syllables because that takes you into the arcane and confusing world of syllabification 🙁 ) which makes them much less frightening and so easier to decode.

    I work with secondary age children; they have to be able to read MS words to access the curriculum. It does the pupils no favours to keep exposure to them to a minimum.

  4. I don't disagree with you at all, Maizie, and thanks for your helpful comment. What you say about decoding polysyllabic/multisyllabic words is almost always the case. In fact, I saw recently in a large comprehensive school, a list of polysyllabic words on which staff were supposed to drill (as whole words) children. Invariably, they were words that contained no more than one less familiar sound-spelling correspondence and, in some instances, could be decoded without any significant difficulty (Eg Atlantic).
    When I wrote my reply to Christine, I was actually thinking more about the fear factor for someone who had struggled for many years and for whom the sight of a 'long' word might induce terror.
    Again, I can only agree with you about the importance of teaching children how to manage, in terms of reading and spelling, words with more than one syllable. In fact, as you know, the Oxford Reading Tree series of books contains many polysyllabic words, which even young children are expected to read.
    Best wishes,

  5. In fact, as you know, the Oxford Reading Tree series of books contains many polysyllabic words, which even young children are expected to read.

    I don't think I'd go about teaching children to read multisyllable words in quite the same way as ORT!

  6. maizie said…"I don't think I'd go about teaching children to read multisyllable words in quite the same way as ORT!"
    Me neither, Maizie, although I do use ORT books, where appropriate, once I've taught enough of the code for readers to be able to cope with them and to improve fluency.

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