THIS is a BORING book!

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.

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9 thoughts on “THIS is a BORING book!

  1. Jennie

    This reminds me of the day I was visiting a kindergarten classroom near the start of the school year. The teacher said, “Everyone here can read! You can read by looking at the pictures. You can read by retelling the story you have heard read to you. Or you can read by reading the words.” One little boy raised his hand and said, “No. I can’t read.” The teacher insisted he could. Two years later, I came across this boy again. He still could not accurately read simple CVC words. The student missed out on utterly crucial teaching. The teacher was doing what she had learned either in ed school from misguided professors or by using one of several programs that claim “reading pictures” is “reading.”

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Jennie, I know, it drives me crazy too, if teachers just listened a bit more to kids like these, and less to people who make up theories in universities based on diddly squat evidence, we’d make a lot more progress!

      Reply
  2. Karen

    I love this video, even though I squirmed a lot! It’s hardly the kids fault that there is so much muddiness about how to explain that the sounds in the words they ‘sound out’ can be spelled in SO many different ways. I was so glad to see Stephan looking happier by the end of the video.

    Reply
  3. Clare

    A brilliant documentary, it is sad in places as it truly isn’t down to kids or their families to know what to do. That is why busy parents send their children to school. There is still such a cloudy message surrounding learning to read. Great advice is often drowned in the sea of letter of the week activities and silly advice about look at a picture or go back to the word.

    Reply
  4. Mark

    This is the kind of nonsense I have to deal with here in Ontario Canada. I have to teach the sounds quicker than necessary before the “Remedial” teacher louses it up.
    At least in Australia and Britain they have decodable readers!
    Thanks for sharing the vid.
    Frustrated Canadian Grade One Teacher

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Mark, I WISH that we had decodable readers here! We are arguing and campaigning like mad for them but educational academics are pushing back, sigh. Whole Language with a sprinkling of phonics is what they recommend, and they criticise decodables for being boring, as though “The little plane is on the table, the little bus is on the table” etc is a gripping narrative!

      Reply
      1. Mark

        Hi Alsion. I began teaching when 4 Blocks/balanced literacy was all the rage and ever since it has been ‘balance’ based on ideology rather than science. New Teachers here go to workshops to learn how to develop student literacy via the three-cueing system. It baffles my mind.

        P.M Benchmarks/Readers rules the roost here in Ontario. So boredom is a real issue (especially with those lower level readers). No one ever runs to read those books; no one ever re-reads those books by choice. Funny thing (actually not so funny) is that everyone thinks there ARE teaching phonics but beyond “a-z” “th,” “sh,” and “ch” it simply isn’t true (and even then it is haphazardly taught with absolutely not systematic thought to it).

        Reply
    2. Sara

      Turns out we can order them from Britain. I couldn’t source ones I liked well that were North American, let alone Canadian, so I ordered from phonicbooks.com in England. I just tell my kids (in intervention) … these books come from England. Sometimes they use words a little bit differently there, than we do here. I’ll just teach you those words when we come to them. Like the book might say “bin” where we say “garbage can”.
      Kids are fine with this. And, by the way, so are their parents – they don’t care that the books, which are allowing their child to learn to read, use English English!
      The question is not availability, but whether or not their use is sanctioned. I can buy whatever I like because I operate in private practice. I am 100% sure that as the demand rises for this type of product, the market will respond. I believe that Pearson provides leveled literacy intervention and there is such a focus on leveled books, because that is what the market currently demands. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Faculties of education aren’t all teaching the science of reading and reading instruction. Faculty who act as consultants to ministries aren’t all teaching the science of reading and reading instruction. New teachers aren’t all taught the science of reading and reading instruction. So there is no market. This can change through grass roots efforts to look for (and go out of country as necessary) the products that are needed to teach reading effectively, i.e., decodable texts for those who need them to avoid or minimize the struggle of learning to read.
      Sara, Calgary, Alberta

      Reply

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