Choosing a book for your child

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Today’s Australian edition of The Conversation contained an article that really made me see red, called “Ditch the home readers – real books are better for your child”. Its advice from a literacy academic frankly contradicts the scientific research on how best to teach literacy.

The author’s argument is that readers with simplified spellings are boring, and children should be free to choose and independently tackle whatever books interest them.

He says (and I can’t believe I am not making this up), “Don’t worry about the book being too hard – you can use a strategy to help your child access the text when reading together at home, or you can read it to them.”

Well, I agree wholeheartedly with the second suggestion. Of course adults should read all kinds of interesting books to beginning readers, to show them what a powerful, wonderful thing reading is, and to develop their oral language skills and knowledge about the world.

However, the idea that children should be encouraged to themselves tackle books that are too hard for them is simply outrageous. Would we encourage children to ride bikes that are too big for them? To cook a three-course meal before they can make toast? To play a symphony before they can play a simple tune? I know lots of children who were set up to fail at reading like this, and if it carries on, it makes them think they are stupid, give up and eventually hate school.

The suggested “strategy” contains a link to a YouTube video about “Echo Reading”, where an adult reads a book to a child (good), and then the child is required to parrot what they say (why?).

A child with good oral language skills can parrot what an adult says without even looking at the print from which they are reading. How this can be interpreted as the child reading is really quite beyond me. How this does anything other than make the book slower and more boring, ditto.

What this article promotes is the Whole Language approach to literacy-teaching (nowadays sprinkled with incidental, initial phonics and rebadged “Balanced Literacy”), a methodology for which John Hattie’s meta-research calculated an effect size of 0.06, i.e. it is not very effective. Credible methodologies have effect sizes of 0.4 or more. The effect size Hattie calculated for phonics instruction is 0.54 (see the book “Visible Learning for Teachers“, p266-268).

I got so riled by this article that I posted a comment on it, and then realised that probably hardly anyone reads the comments (I hardly ever read them myself). So here’s mine, I hope it helps encourage others to get involved in conversations like this, because we really can debunk this stuff, and we really must, for the sake of both children and their teachers.

Working as a Speech Pathologist with school-aged children I see firsthand the carnage created when teachers and parents follow this sort of advice.

This author conflates books-to-read-to-your-child, which should be chosen on the basis of interest, and books-for-your-child-to-read, which can and should be carefully selected on the basis of the complexity of their text, because we have a very complicated and opaque spelling system in English, and it is too hard for little children to learn all at once.

The long words and tricky spellings need to be taken out at first, so they can learn the basic spellings to a point at which they are fast and automatic, and then gradually the other dozens of spellings can be learnt, like those used for the “ay” sound in “same” (a…e), “sail” (ai), “say” (ay), “eight” (eigh), “they” (ey) and eventually also rare spellings like the “ei” in “vein”, the “ea” in “great”, the “aigh” in “straight” and the French “e…e” in “fete” and “suede”.

Children also need to learn that lots of our spellings are used for several sounds e.g. The “ea” in “sea”, “dead” and “great”, and also “Sean” and “Seamus” if children with these names are in the class.

To learn a large complex set of information, organise it! But teachers are simply not being equipped at university to do this, which is not fair to them. Along the way teachers should also be equipped to explain where words come from, to help students understand why we have so many spellings e.g. The word “suede” is from the French word for Sweden, from where suede was imported to France.

Reading scientists have established beyond a shadow of a doubt* that teaching beginners in this fine-grained, incremental way very quickly is the best and fastest way to teach children to read well, and spell well too, so they can get on and read, and enjoy reading, whatever they like. Yet education academics continue to promote “just dump children in any old book, don’t worry if it’s too hard, and let them work out the patterns for themselves” teaching methods.

I see the consequences of this approach in my clinic and at school every day, and I implore parents of beginners and strugglers to ignore this bad advice, and seek out books with simple spellings and little words that their children can actually decode, rather than always having to look at the pictures and guess.

And I implore teachers to go back to the faculties of Education where they trained, and ask the academics there why they were not equipped to teach the sounds-and-spellings of our language in a logical, systematic way (many primary teachers have never even been taught that there are 44 sounds in our language, not just 26) and what is happening to ensure that future teachers are given the knowledge and skills to be able to get almost all children reading in the first year of school.

There should be at most 3-5% of children struggling, not our current 20% or more. Saying this might help put people like me out of business, but frankly I don’t care. These are little children, and we must do better.


* The research to which I refer is largely summarised in three recent national inquiries into literacy education:

The 2005 Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy recommended that, “teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.”

The UK’s 2006 Independent Review into the Teaching of Early Literacy (the Rose Review) resulted in synthetic phonics being mandated as the early literacy teaching methodology in state supported schools in the UK, because, “Synthetic Phonics offers the vast majority of young children the best and most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers”.

Also in 2006, the US National Reading Panel report stated that, “Systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read”.


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