Graeme Paton in yesterday’s Telegraph has headlined Nick Gibb’s latest attempts to raise standards in reading by reporting him as saying that ‘all children should read Harry Potter by 11’.
At first blush, it sounds nauseatingly off-putting. Another prescriptive injunction delivered in a tweetable sound-bite by a government minister! Actually, as you read on, you find that Harry Potter is only one among many suggested, worthy contenders for the literary attentions of children, Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson being among the others mentioned.
According to Nick Gibb, as many as a half of teenagers are not reading such books because they haven’t learnt to read properly. He cites evidence from a study done by the OECD, which shows England as dropping from seventh to fifteenth position in an international league table. How helpful the comparison with other countries is has been challenged because the variables are so numerous. One immediately obvious variable would be the fact that the English writing system is considerably less transparent than, say, the Finnish or the Spanish or Italian writing systems, making English harder to master.
More worryingly, the study reports that almost forty percent of people in their teens do not read for pleasure. In the past, many reasons for this have been put forward, but the most plausible for me has always been that if a child finds reading difficult, it’s unlikely that they will spend their leisure time doing it. Studies in the United States have suggested that unless a child’s reading age is two years above their chronological age, they won’t read for pleasure. If you think about it, it makes sense. Does a child that isn’t good at sport throw themselves into opportunities to take part in sporting activities? Unlikely!
If we want children to read and read widely, we need to make sure they can decode by the end of Key Stage 1. The fact that the writing system is more difficult to learn than many others doesn’t mean it can’t be taught. It simply takes longer and it requires that teachers are properly trained to teach it.
Where Nick Gibb hits the mark is in his insistence that all primary schools teach children how to read (and spell, I would argue) through the medium of phonics. He is also right to say that once children can read they need to be practising all the time on the books already commended.
This is why he is introducing the new phonics reading check – to pinpoint children who, by the end of Y1, are already falling behind. With only a third of children passing the pilot test last summer, it isn’t so much a question of children falling behind as a question of the professional expertise of the teachers teaching them. This isn’t a diatribe against teachers but it is a warning to Nick Gibb. It isn’t enough to exhort teachers and parents to encourage children to become voracious readers. You need first to ensure that they are taught to read – which is why the match funding being offered by government should have been earmarked exclusively for the training of teachers.
In education it is very hard indeed to decide what the priorities are and to remain single minded in one’s pursuit of them.
Apart from the match-funding issue, Nick Gibb has made a good start. He mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the priority lies in the training of the teachers!