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 OneI 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 st 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.