December 12, 2002
Literacy Links – and a potential row

John Ray has emailed me with a couple of literacy links. These are this link, and this link.

Comments on my cryptic link question were two-to-one against, if I remember it right, so let me expand a little.

Both these links are attempts to sum up - how accurately I am incapable of judging, but presumably John Ray reckons they're okay - the findings of "expert research" on the subject of how children can best learn to be literate.

What struck me about them was that both abound with trigger phrases which, in my brief experience of the opinions of the "synthetic phonics" crowd, would have them cursing and ranting and biting the wallpaper with rage, that is to say criticising very severely. I have in mind phrases like (in Link One) "mechanically decoding words", "interaction among the reader, the text, and the context" (my italics), and (in Link Two) "authentic situation", "variety of reading strategies", "use of graphic aids". There's the making of a great row here, if I can stir it up.

Incidentally, since starting this edu-blog, I have become acutely aware that, when one pontificates about education and especially when one pontificates about literacy, spelling mistakes count twice. So let it be duly noted that Link One accuses "traditional education" of upholding the idea that a child is a vessel who receives knowledge from "extertnal" sources. Traditional education also upholds the idea of not making crass spelling mistakes like that on web-pages about literacy.

Here's what I think about this potential row.

If you do truly contrive what these two Links say you should, then all will probably be well. However, there is a distinct air of self-fulfilling prophecy about it all. What these "new researchers" are saying is that, in the present context (and they do love a good context), this is what the successful readers and writers of now - and thus the movers and shakers of the future - are now doing. Well, yes. But that doesn't mean that trying to get every child to behave like this is now the best way to teach literacy to everybody. Telling some overloaded state-employed hack-teacher to create a "meaningful social environment" in which every child in sight is vigorously pursuing his own learning strategy is, in the current context (i.e. compulsory state-run school attendance), a recipe for anomic chaos, for twelve-year-old ignoramuses sitting in the corner banging their heads against the wall while their happier contemporaries are out in the streets buying and selling drugs by similarly illiterate means. If you want to make old-school schools work properly, you have to run them like Model T assembly lines. You have to isolate the single most important process involved in learning to read and write (but especially to read), which is surely something extremely like "mechanically decoding words", and get that right. You have to make children receive knowledge from an external source, namely your hardworking, repetitious, din-it-into-them self. The rest (i.e. Nobel Prizes, jobs with the UN or with Microsoft) may or may not follow, but that at least gives it a fighting chance.

Here, in short, is one of those many, many situations where the best could be the deadly enemy of the adequate. And adequate is absolutely what literacy teaching, in the Anglo-Saxon world, now, for a growing minority, is not.

Discuss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: Literacy
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