I watched this tv thing last week all about a primary school that was implementing a mixed-age synthetic phonics programme. It got me thinking again about the learning to read question. (Have a look at Deb’s interesting post on this.)
I know quite a few kids of seven, eight, nine and older who don’t read yet – or who don’t read much. These are home ed kids. I also know several home ed kids who have learned to read, quickly and efficiently, with no tears, at around these ages – or older. Yet, in the school system it is clearly a problem if you’re not reading by seven or so. This is mainly because of the high pupil/teacher ratio in school – which means that a lot of the teaching is delivered in the form of writing. But, I also think that it is because the system has a plan that the children will all read, more or less, by the end of KS1 – at seven. As we all know, in a big structure you generally have to ignore things that haven’t gone according to plan and carry on as if everything is fine! This means that the kids who can’t read just have to manage somehow. I had always known that this was so, but it was still a shock to see these poor kids of Pearlie and Leo’s ages, who spent a large chunk of their week being frustrated and bored. There was all this information presented to them, that they just couldn’t access. What on earth is the point of putting kids in that position?
Though the synthetic phonics system set my teeth on edge a bit (so BORING!) I could see that it was the best option for kids who must learn to read, right now, or be bored in every lesson. It seemed that all it took was for the school to decide that it would stop ignoring the kids who couldn’t read – and carry on teaching them until they could. The sheer relief on the faces of kids who had been ‘failing’ to read for several years, was clear. But, what a shame that they had to be put through that ordeal, of feeling like a failure for several years of their young lives.
It seems to me that the best way to manage a mixed group of readers and non-readers, is to have many more adults around who can make sure that the non-readers can join in – and culture of co-operation. This is what happens at Pearlie and Leo’s kids’ club group. People who can’t read just get read to by someone who can. It isn’t really rocket science, is it?
If everyone could access the experiences on offer, then maybe the system could relax a bit more about exactly when people learned to read. Like walking, talking or being reliable with toilet use – children vary massively in the ages at which they will be able to read. And some people will never learn – and that shouldn’t be the end of the world either, should it? We are amazingly inventive creatures – we can get round most things if we are given the freedom to do so.
In the end, I came away from the programme thinking (again!) how controlling the whole system is. The government wants to be God, I reckon. They set up all these plans and schemes with no humility. They perceive the people involved as pawns, or little machines maybe – put X in and get Y out. And, in the education system, they ruin so much that way – take the fun and joy out – and kill it.
A while ago, I was talking to a lovely little boy of my acquaintance. He was five at the time – and had just finished a day school in a reception class.
“Hey, P, what’d you do at school today?”
“Cemetery!” Glum face, pouty lips.
“Cemetery? Didn’t you like it?” (Allie tries to imagine what they could have been doing about cemeteries…)
“No, it was borin’ – cemetery.”
“Oh, symmetry? Was it symmetry, P?”
“Yeah, cemetery – yuk!”
What on earth could they have been doing at school, with a five year old, to make symmetry so unappealing? My experiences helping out in P’s reception classroom led me to suspect that the problem was just pressure to understand symmetry as a concept. Even very little children learn to cover their confusion with bluster (such is the shame in our culture when we don’t understand) and declare that they “don’t like” things and they are “boring”. I think that most of that is about pressure to ‘get’ things when we’re just not ready. Back off - make butterfly paintings, put up some posters of symmetry in nature, let the children draw, let adults talk around them. One day they’ll just declare something to be symmetrical. Maybe then they’ll want to learn more about the whole business.
I suspect that we make all the same mistakes with teaching reading. We are so stressed about it. Instead of making sure that all the children have had hours and hours of stories, exposing them to adults who use the written word, letting them see that this reading business is a part of life, we dive in with the structure first. Many of them are boggled, exhausted by the effort to understand, and lacking any real motivation to try.
When I saw those kids who didn’t like reading, who slumped and shifted their eyes and hung their heads, I felt angry that we do that to children. I reckon its robbery – we (adults) steal something from them. Yes, we can ‘fix’ it with a structured programme – but I wonder if that’s not just a solution we have to come up with, to a problem we’ve made in the first place?