Friday, November 02, 2007

Reading and control freakery

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?


Gill said...

Fabulous post! I was nodding in agreement throughout. Caught the first episode of the series and a bit of what might have been the third. Yes, it was heartbreaking. I also don't like the fact that reading is made out to be the be all and end all of everything. Did you see that little boy's dad, the docker, who couldn't read very well? He was so ashamed and embarrased about this even thoughhe was clearly a great dad who was also very successfully providing for his family. But because he couldn't read, he felt stupid. Aaargh.

Kirsty said...

I watched the programmes too. It was heartbreaking watching some of the kids.

While I really couldn't fault the school and the headteacher for wanting the kids reading I couldn't help thinking about the poor kids who just aren't ready at 5 and 6 to read. If they keep up with what they did that year in future years these poor kids will have that chart shoved down their throats for 2 years or more when they aren't ready for it. For those that were older and did well from it, maybe it was just that they were at an age where they were ready for it, but till then weren't being given the opportunity. They might never have read at 5/6 even with the same programme.

Having just blogged a little about our reading stress, I think a lot is centred around the fact they expect at 7 for it to have worked when quite obviously it isn't as clear cut as all that. Mostly it did make me feel that I am glad both my 2 weren't in the system, which is just sad in itself.

Kirsty ( cos it never says who I am on blogger comments!)

Wobblymoo said...

What a great post, I'm nodding my head in agreement at everything you said

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed that :-) Hannah apparently has dyslexia, and on the advice of dyslexia institute, we did use a synthetic phonics programme very systematically. I think the great thing about HE was that she didn't need to read to pursue all her interests, we just read things to her as she needed them, and she was read to, usually by her dad, for at least an hour every day, plus had masses of audio books. So she never saw her reading issues as failure, or as something that held her back in other areas. It was just a skill she wanted to master, and it was taking her a while to put the groundwork in. And while the synthetic phonic approach did work well for her, I am SO glad she never got the idea that she was failing, or it was remedial, or any other damaging message. She looked on her "formal" reading lessons with me in exactly the same way she looked on her swim coaching - a bit of "expert" help to enable her to be as good as she wanted to be - so for her, it was a generative process. Now she is a fairly prolific reader, though I did get a lot of criticism at the time from teacher friends, for supporting her synchronous development. They had a very strong view that reading and language skills should not be allowed to get to far ahead from writing and number skills. FFS!!!! Joyce

Elaine said...

That was such an informative post and has helped me a great deal with keeping things clear IYKWIM

grit said...

thanks for this post!