Learning to read

Another blatant rip-off from Crikey – thanks to speech pathologist Alison Clarke.

Something I’d not thought about a lot, since I have two children who are voracious readers. Admittedly it was a bit of a struggle getting the oldest going (with come-backs like “I know everything, I don’t need to learn to read”, at age 5…). Since he really go going though, we have to encourage him to do things OTHER than read…

Anyway, quoted in its entirety, from Crikey:

If Mem Fox’s reaction to Dr Ken Rowe’s draft national literacy inquiry report is anything to go by, I eagerly await its final release on 1 December.

Fox is an “advocate” of reading aloud to children, though nobody opposes this. She claims in her book Reading Magic that, if every parent “read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (2005, Pan McMillan, p11).

She supports this assertion with multiple anecdotes of Chloe, Tiffy, Ben, Eamon and others who trembled with delight when the treasured autographed hardcopy picture books were brought out, eagerly awaited postcards from Daddy on work trips, and magically learnt to read without ever having to do any nasty, boring phonics.

There are three main things wrong with her assertion. Firstly, the plural of anecdote is not data. The scientific literacy research is absolutely unambiguous about which literacy programs work best for all children: those that include systematic, direct phonics instruction. Some children are able, without instruction, to ‘hear’ sounds in words (phonemic awareness) and thus make sense of letter-sound relationships. Many are not, and need to be taught.

Secondly, reading is only fun if you can do it. For every anecdote about a child who magically learnt to read, I can give you one of a child who didn’t, no matter how often their parents read to them, and no matter how hard they tried. The only thing that worked was intensive, focused work on hearing sounds in words, and understanding how sounds are represented by letters.

I’m not talking here about the sort of incidental, initial phonics taught in most primary schools: A is for apple, art, Australia, acorn, autumn, among and (well) anything. Each of these words starts with a completely different sound, but only one sound tends to be taught for each of the 26 letters, and that’s the end of phonics. Many children thus believe, as Fox does, that “English spelling doesn’t make sense” (Reading Magic p147).

Systematic, explicit phonics recognises that there are 44 sounds in our language, and that sounds occur right through words, not just at word beginnings. It shows that the sound ‘ay’ has multiple spellings, as in ‘play’, ‘sale’, ‘sail’, ‘they’ and ‘eight’. It explores the sound ‘k’ as written in mosque, cheque and boutique. It demonstrates that many sounds share a spelling, as in ‘sea’, ‘deaf’ and ‘break’. It reveals the patterns, and helps children organize their thinking about sounds and letters. It is not recognisable in Reading Magic’s chapter 16: Phokissing on Fonix’.

My final objection to Fox’s thesis is that not everybody is like her and her middle-class friends. Some 500,000 Australian kids are growing up in poverty, so a personal autographed treasure trove of children’s books is simply not possible. Many sole parents are hard-pressed even to get to the library. Some parents are off gambling at story time. Some kids attending Australian schools used to live in Somali refugee camps, and while their mothers might speak four languages, they can’t read in any of them.

Read more on the website.

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