I’ve just watched a great 2016 BBC4 documentary called “B is for book”. It follows a group of London children from their first day at school for a year, and explores how they learn to read.
The kids live on a public housing estate in Hackney, and most speak languages other than English at home.
The film is not currently on the BBC website, but a few people have put it on YouTube. The version I watched is here, and you might like to keep it open in a new tab while you read, so you can quickly find and watch the interesting bits I describe below.
You’ll love all the children, but I was most entranced by a little boy called Stephan. An honest child with a low tolerance for Educrap, he looks and behaves a lot like a little boy I worked with last year, also a twin from public housing inclined to slide under the table.
At 19:42 on the video clock, the two children having the most difficulty learning to read in the film, Maria and Stephan, are asked, “What’s the hardest word you know how to spell?” First, they do this:
Then they do this:
Stephan is clearly a smart child who would rather be seen as the naughty kid than the dumb kid. Too often, children like him end up stuck in the naughty corner, or being the class clown to distract from their reading and spelling difficulties.
Teaching “letter sounds”
The film contains nice examples of children confusing letter names and sounds, and being set up to fail by applying what they’ve been taught, for example at 9:35 on the video clock.
At 24:55 on the video clock, Stephan also demonstrates the idiocy of teaching children about “letter sounds” in short, CVC words like “hen” and “bus”, then asking them to read text containing spelling patterns and word structures they’ve never been taught. He is asked to read the text, “My name is Stephan. I am five years old”.
He points to the letters in the word “name” and says “Nuh, ah, muh, eh…..nam”.
He points to the letters in the word “five” and says “fuh, ih, vuh, eh….fin”.
He points to the letters in the word “years” and says “yuh, eh, ah, kuh, ss…kaz”.
At least some of the adults in Stephan’s life clearly need a lesson in how to say phonemes crisply and correctly (see my blog post here for videos relevant to Australian English), and perhaps also how to teach blending (here’s a free course that includes this).
When he’s finished trying to read each word, the person behind the camera asks him to read the whole thing. Obviously, he can’t do this, since he can’t read the individual words.
Stephan thinks for a moment, holds the paper up, and allows it to drop to the floor.
I am out of my chair, cheering for Stephan.
B is for boring
At 26.13 on the video clock there’s a textbook lesson on how NOT to teach reading.
This utterly cringeworthy type of session sadly still happens in schools all round the English-speaking world, including some of my own local schools, because teachers have not been trained and equipped to do better by universities, bureaucracies and publishers.
Stephan is working 1:1 with a well-meaning literacy intervention teacher who has perhaps been trained in a program like Reading Recovery or Leveled Literacy Intervention. She gives him a predictable book and tells him it’s called “On the table”.
Stephan opens the book and the first page says: “The little car is on the table”.
He looks at it, looks at the person behind the camera, and says, “I really don’t know how to read books”.
Look at his facial expression. The session is a farce, and he knows it.
The teacher says, “Really? What do you think is happening in the picture?” (AAARGH!! Stop telling children to guess words from pictures, and give them books they can actually read).
Stephan looks at the picture, says “A toy car is on a table”, and rolls his eyes. I am seriously in love with this child.
The teacher tells him, untruthfully, “Well, that’s exactly what this says, it says, look, ‘The … little … car … is … on … the table”.
She points to each word as she reads it, seeming unaware that he isn’t watching, because he’s looking at the picture, as he was told to do.
The book continues:
- The little doll is on the table
- The little ball is on the table
- The little plane is on the table
- The little bus is on the table
Stephan’s understandable contempt for this ludicrous activity is palpable. He knows he’s not really reading.
He rolls his eyes, puts his head in his hands, and says in a sarcastic tone, “The doll is on the table, the ball is on the table, and a plane is on the table”, and then whispers “boring”.
The teacher is writing on a clipboard and ignores this honest feedback, so he continues, “A bus is on a table, bo-ring. THIS is a BORING book.”
OMG I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it boring, it’s teaching him to guess, not read.
Stephan is in his first year of schooling. Has he been taught about “ar” as in “car”, “a” as in “ball”, “le” as in “table” and “little”, or “a…e” as in “plane”? I doubt it. Yet he’s being asked to read words containing these spellings.
This is happening all round the country, people, and it needs to stop.
Books like this are both as dull as dishwater and pedagogically awful. They teach the habits of weak readers (guessing from pictures and context) not the habits of strong ones (sounding unfamiliar words out).
The best and highest use I can think of for such books is cutting them up for pictures, to make greeting cards and collages in art, though I’m not sure Mum wants a picture of a little plane on a table on her Mother’s Day card.
Young children should be taught to read using decodable books that contain the sound-spelling correspondences they have been taught (I’ve just discovered new printable sets here and here, or my list of all the decodable books I’m aware of is here). If you’re in Victoria please support the Dyslexia Victoria Support campaign for decodable books for all school beginners.
Anyone who thinks Stephan is reading anything in this part of the video really should not be teaching reading.
The slippery slope from can’t to won’t
At 35.00 on the video clock we see Stephan falling off his bike on a skate ramp, mucking around in class, getting in trouble for not doing his work, and missing out on playtime.
Adults are starting to query his ability to pay attention and his motivation, and comparing him unfavorably with his twin brother. “Hurry up and give him better intervention”, I said between gritted teeth.
Thankfully, Stephan doesn’t go down the slippery can’t-to-won’t slope, and at 42:17 we see him reading high-frequency words successfully, and saying “Daddy believes in me”.
At 42.40, this great little child philosopher highlights the importance of teachers knowing when children learn each speech sound, by pointing out the homophones (in his five-year-old speech) “day” and “they”. Kids often can’t say the sounds represented by “th” (there are two, a voiceless one as in “thigh” and a voiced one as in “thy”) till age eight, three years after we expect them to deal with how these sounds are spelt.
By 50:55 on the video clock, Stephan can read pretty well, and the intervention teacher has (PTL) stopped telling him to guess words. Luckily for Stephan, except in at least some of its 1:1 intervention sessions, the school does seem to use a systematic, explicit, synthetic phonics program, something lacking in most schools in Australia.
The child-under-the-table of whom Stephan reminds me did intensive, systematic phonics in a weekly, 30-minute small group with me last year. I visited the school each week for a bit over six months, and provided the resources for this and three other groups, working with a teacher who continued the program on the other four school days.
At the end of our second-last session, the kids were quietly reading Level 1 Sound Out Chapter Books (try a free one on your iPad here) before doing some written work about them from related workbooks, when Mr No-Longer-Under-The-Table looked up and said, apropos of nothing, “I used to hate reading, but now I LOVE it!” The other kids went “meh” and kept reading, but the teacher and I are still high-fiving.
I hope these days Stephan can also honestly say, “I used to hate reading, but now I LOVE it!”, and has stopped getting into trouble and falling off his bike. I’ll embed the link to this great BBC4 documentary below, so it’s easy for you to watch when you next have a spare 52 minutes. Thanks to Debbie Heppelwhite for reminding me about this film.