A new batch of 5-year-olds are soon starting school, and on current statistics, about one in six of them will end up functionally illiterate.
I didn’t make that figure up, it’s from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If you want to know more about the Australian literacy data, see this earlier blog post. Similar data apply in other English-speaking countries, although the most recent batch puts Australia at the bottom of the pile.
Children at risk
Children are at risk of not learning to read/spell, and thus not being able to use reading to learn (see this other, earlier blog post) if:
1. Their speech and/or language development has been delayed, or they’re not very aware of sounds in words, for example, they can’t make up or identify words that rhyme, or tell you whether two words start with the same sound, and
2. They’re taught via teaching methods generally known as either “whole language” or “balanced literacy”, which is basically whole language with some phonics on top.
How do I know what literacy teaching methodology our school uses?
If your young child is being taught to memorise high-frequency words and encouraged to attempt to read ordinary children’s books, rather than books with controlled spellings (decodable readers – more on these soon), then the second risk factor applies to her/him.
How do I know if my child has weak phonemic awareness?
It’s hard to be sure that risk factor 1 doesn’t apply to your child, making him or her effectively allergic to whole language/balanced literacy teaching approaches.
Some schools get a Speech Pathologist to screen all their preps’ speech-language skills and awareness of sounds in words, and then provide extra input to those identified as being at risk, but not many.
What can be done
Now the good news: it is possible to give children pretty good “inoculation” against illiteracy. Only a very small number of kids should still have problems, many fewer than at present.
It’s done using a teaching method called synthetic phonics, which has been conclusively shown to work better than other methods at getting all children started at reading and spelling.
The Scottish research
Literacy-teaching methodologies have regularly been the subject of large-scale, long-term, scientific research. For example, in a place called Clackmannanshire in Scotland, children who learnt via synthetic phonics ended up three years ahead of the national average on reading.
Another, very disadvantaged place in Scotland called West Dunbartonshire used synthetic phonics as a key part of an overall teaching approach which stamped out illiteracy entirely in their schools by the start of secondary school.
In reviews of teaching methodology all round the English-speaking world, synthetic phonics have been recommended. Nobody seems to be allergic to synthetic phonics, so if your school’s not using it yet, and you can’t get them to take it up, you can administer a dose of it yourself at home.
Start from sounds and their spellings, not words
While whole language and balanced literacy methodologies start off focussed on written words, synthetic phonics starts off focussed on spoken words, their sounds and their spellings.
Children are taught just a few sounds and letters at a time, and use these to build little words and write them down. They also read little books containing only these spellings, and play games using these sounds and letters.
Then more sounds and spelling are systematically and rapidly added to the mix, until learners can write and read heaps of words. There are lots of programs and activities that work along these lines listed here.
You know it makes sense
Synthetic phonics is a bit like teaching children to cook by first introducing them to very simple recipes and made with just a few easy implements, and then showing them one or two new things at a time.
We don’t introduce beginner cooks to very sharp knives, hot pans and complicated equipment and recipes, and neither should we introduce absolute beginner readers/spellers to multiple complicated spelling patterns.
But surely the experts know best?
It seems bizarre that in this day and age, schools aren’t teaching early literacy in the best way possible. We can send rockets to Mars, and understand David Lynch movies (well, I personally can’t, but…). However, history is littered with instances of the majority taking the wrong advice from experts, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Remember Doctor Benjamin Spock, the famous paediatrician who told parents to put babies to sleep on their stomachs? Thousands of parents followed his advice, thus putting their children at greater risk of SIDS.
Thousands of mothers also opted to give their babies infant formula instead of breast milk, believing it was the right thing to do, until scientific evidence conclusively showed that breast is best.
Experts can be very wrong, so what matters is the evidence. Australia’s 2005 National Inquiry into the teaching of literacy reviewed all the evidence, and came down on the side of synthetic phonics. Its recommendations are yet to be implemented.
Inoculate your kid(s) against illiteracy
If you want to proactively inoculate your child against illiteracy, you’ll find lots of good resources, some of which are free, here. There are also good, free activities on the internet and free iPad apps, plus lots of good affordable ones (sorry, I haven’t got an Android device, but if someone wants to lend me one I’ll happily review their apps).
If you want to encourage your school to implement synthetic phonics, I wish you all the very best, and let me know if I can be of any help.
Likewise I hope you’ll be inspired to nag your local library to get some decodable books, and otherwise get the word out in your local community about how to inoculate all the local kids against illiteracy.