The school year has just started and already I’m getting phone calls from educated, articulate parents who want to make sure their young children are taught enough about sounds and spellings to learn to read and spell well.
These parents can see that their child’s school teaches early literacy mainly via memorisation of high-frequency words, initial and incidental phonics and “reading” books containing spellings they’ve never been taught by looking at pictures, first letters and guessing (multi-cueing).
They know this sort of teaching results in about one in five children struggling to learn to read and spell. Decades of research (major summaries are here and here) has clearly shown that children should be given more systematic and explicit phonics teaching than most currently get. They’ve found me on the internet or the grapevine, and ask for advice.
What I really want to tell them is: “Get together a group of parents who share your concerns, and march into the school loudly demanding explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching for all 5-7 year-olds. Occupy the Principal’s office and refuse to shut up and leave till all the early years teachers have the training and resources they need, and better literacy teaching is being implemented in all the early years classrooms”.
But that would be very disruptive and confronting for schools, and upsetting for teachers. Parents want to build warm, cooperative relationships with their children’s teachers. Teachers are mostly exceptionally nice people, and hurting their feelings is a bad idea.
Yet most early years teachers are starving about one in five children of the type of literacy teaching they need.
If teachers withheld children’s lunchboxes and starved them of necessary nutrition, there’d be a riot. Consider the long-term consequences of failing to learn to read and write well, in our complex, print-based, modern society. Worth rioting about.
It’s over ten years since our National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy clearly stated “that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read”, but this has had little impact on classroom practice, or what universities teach, education departments and teacher registration bodies require, and mainstream educational publishers promote.
Yes, a literacy riot would probably hurt teachers’ feelings, but teachers’ feelings are not more important than children’s rights.
Principle 7 of the international Declaration of the Rights of the Child says children have the right to an education which enables them, on the basis of equal opportunity, to become useful members of society. It is very difficult to participate, succeed and contribute in our society if you can’t read and write very well.
There is no International Declaration of the Right of Adults Not to Have our Feelings Hurt. Teachers would be the first to agree that children’s learning has to take priority.
All professions make mistakes. Famous paediatrician Doctor Benjamin Spock advised parents to put babies to sleep on their stomachs, thus putting them at greater risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Some chiropractors have advised against child immunisation, which makes my blood boil because my father had diphtheria as a child, and his brother had polio.
I feel ashamed of my own profession’s failure to directly and immediately discredit Facilitated Communication, which started here in Melbourne and destroyed many lives. Check out this blog post for lots of other things professionals have recommended, and sometimes still recommend, despite little or no scientific evidence, wasting lots of money and precious learning time. If teachers got everything right all the time, they’d be unusual.
Literacy educators currently tend to emphasise meaning and look down their noses at phonics, which teaches about the structure of words – their sounds, spellings and meaningful parts – to ensure children can sound them out/decode them.
Yes, the aim of reading is to comprehend print, but if you can’t decode it, you can’t comprehend it. In the early years of schooling, how well you can decode is by far the most important predictor of your reading comprehension, as this graph* (from this document) shows:
If early years teachers’ main literacy priority is good reading comprehension, the best thing they can do is give their students great phonics instruction so they learn to decode well. This will prevent a lot of literacy difficulties, leave the children who were always going to struggle less far behind, improve everyone’s spelling, give my telephone ear a rest and reduce the risk of parent riots.
And since it will boost their students’ skills and cut their differentiation workloads, it will also be very good for teachers’ feelings. Hopefully that will more than make up for any short-term hurt felt by anyone inclined to take criticisms of our prevailing early literacy-teaching system personally.
*Based on data from the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, Foorman et al 1997.