April 15, 2003
A second literacy guess

In an earlier posting here I made the guess that the reason why English children now seem to be doing quite well at reading is that they are making headway because of their parents, but despite their schooling.

Natalie Solent took exception:

Brian's Education Blog comments in detail on the surprising success of British children in international reading tests, reported in the story a few posts down. He thinks credit is due the parents. This is undoubtedly true, but it's not just them. I think Brian does not realise the extent to which "Look and Say" is very much on the retreat even in schools. At the moment I think that the State orthodox system of how to teach reading is a fairly good system; it has been pretty good for the last five years or so.

Well, I did say I was only guessing.. Neverthelss, it is no fun to have one's speculations, however speculative, so publicly corrected.

I acquired many of my prejudices about literacy matters from reading such things as the output of the Reading Reform Foundation. The people associated with that organisation have a very different view of the efficacy of British state literacy teaching to that expressed by Natalie. What I needed was for them to join in the argument, so that I could try to confront them with one another. Is Natalie right that literacy teaching has got quite a bit better? Or are the RRF corner right to feel frustrated that things are still not being done right?

At which point two commenters on my original posting materialised through the magic of the Internet, Vicki Lynch and Debbie Hepplewhite, Debbie being the editor of the RRF newsletter, no less. I would have been delighted by such commenters at any time. That they should have come forward at the exact time when I was most hoping for exactly such people to do so was, I felt, little short of providential, and cheered my up greatly.

So, another guess to keep the discussion going, which is my attempt to reconcile the two points of view which on the face of it we can only choose between or inflict a crude compromise upon. Here's my revised guess as to what is happening in the teaching of literacy in Britain.

It hinges upon whether literacy teaching is a matter of degree or an absolute right-or-wrong matter. Are there literacy teachers who are hopelessly bad, pretty bad, okay, quite good, very good and excellent? Or is it simply a matter of doing it either rightly, or wrongly, with no half measures?

The RRF give off the vibe that you either do it right, or forget it, you are part of the problem.

I surmise that for the vulnerable minority of children, the ones who, if not taught really well are doomed to permanent confusion, not as bad as it was is not good enough. But for the lucky majority who, maybe with parental help, or maybe just because they are smart, make sense of the now improved clues that swirl around them, and, to use a frequently used metaphor from the world of literacy teaching, they crack it. They put enough of the pieces of the puzzle together to do better than children who are taught in a wholly confusing way. For the majority, I surmise, the government's half-baked and half-hearted embrace of phonetics as "part of the mix" and "one of the many approaches that can work" has been an improvement. Which explains Natalie Solent's attitude.

And this same half-hearted embrace exasperates the RRF people, because, dammit, why not do things completely right, in a way that almost all children can benefit from? In that sense the RRF people are right. Is the literacy teaching glass half full, or simply not nearly full, like a fraudulent pint in a pub? Take your pick.

That's my best second guess. I hope there are further reactions, and thanks to all those who have reacted so far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
Category: Literacy