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Literacy at 14

John Simkin

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James Meikle, education correspondent

Thursday September 14, 2006

The Guardian

Children aged 14 are not reading and writing as well as they should and more than four in 10 boys are failing to achieve the standard for the age group, test results showed yesterday. The findings raise concerns that the government's literacy drive has stalled as the key stage three results show teenagers' command of English is slipping, with boys lagging well behind the girls.

A third of children are not reading as well as they should, according to the tests. The verdict on writing is slightly better with more than three-quarters of pupils achieving at least level five, though here too there is a big gender gap.

The latest key stage three results show just 72% of pupils achieved the standard in English - down 2% on 2005 - suggesting schools will fall well short of the 85% target for pupils next year.

The findings showed among the 72% of pupils reaching level five or above in English, 80% of the girls successful, and 65% of the boys gained the level. In reading, only 66% of 14-year-olds reached the level (74% for girls and 59% for boys), while for writing the figures were 83% and 69%.

The differences persisted in brighter pupils at level six or above where 42% of girls and 27% of boys accounted for an overall 34% achievement rate in English. For reading 32% reached level six (40% for girls and 25% for boys). For writing, 37% of pupils got level six or above (44% of girls and 30% of boys).

The fall in standards follows warnings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that Britain could soon face a serious skills shortage among school-leavers, a development that in turn could throttle higher education expansion and economic growth, as too many 16- and 17-year-olds dropped out of education.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats called the results "unacceptable". The government admitted concern and yesterday promised to redouble its efforts to reverse the slide. It made much of its drive, in the first years in office, to improve basic skills, including its introduction of the literacy hour in primary schools.

This term, however, it has had to shake up reading tuition methods for the youngest pupils, with the introduction of synthetic phonics. A review of the 11-14 curriculum is promised for the new year.

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I'm quite surprised that no one responded to this posting. It perhaps reflects both the apathy towards, and lack of understanding people have for, learning to read. Sadly, Synthetic Phonics is not the solution to improving literacy among our children. There are many reasons why first Phonics, and now, Synthetic Phonics do not work. For one thing, learning to read is not a science, and the deconstruction of language into component parts does nothing to help contextual understanding.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity of being able to teach my daughter to read fluently without any Phonic instruction along the way. Based on work researched by a close friend, Maureen Sheard, I decided to apply a different approach. I taught my daughter the alphabet using an alphabet jigsaw play mat, calling the letters by their proper names, not by their 'Phonic sounds' and I read her story books - many of them old 'Ladybird' books with plenty of text, a good storyline with memorable elements of fantasy, and a picture on each page. As I read aloud, my daughter looked at the pages I was reading. The first thing I found with this approach, is that the child continually requests the same story for several nights in a row before accepting a new story. This process is repeated - even more so with 'favourite' stories. I then found that I was sometimes corrected in my delivery if I accidentally deviated from the exact text that I had always been careful to follow. "They're not feet, they're hooves!" was one retort that I remember clearly. On one occasion, I was being interrupted so frequently that I exclaimed: "Well, you read it then!" The book was promptly taken from me and my daughter 'read' word-perfectly to the end of the book. Okay, she wasn't reading. She had remembered the story and knew when to turn the pages at the right time. However, she was assimilating the experience of reading with enjoyment and understanding. She was constantly picking up clues in context. She was recognising that some words were given more expressive emphasis than others. Some words had a different appearance to other words. Cinderella had a big letter at the start and two lines next to each other. She soon discovered that she knew the word 'Cinderella' by sight, yet she would not necessarily be able to spell the word. In the same way that a small child in the high street knows MacDonalds, just by recognising the distinctive logo.

The way children learn to read, and in fact, learn to do anything at all, is a mystery by the time we get to adulthood. We think we know how we learnt something, but really, can we be so sure? I certainly remember learning ITA as a child in the 1960s and I remember 'sounding out' some words when I was 7 years old. I also had a father who read me a story most nights. But, even this tells us only so much. When you consider how a young child (say up to 5 years old) learns any activity, there is first mimicry, then experimentation - trial and error, and also repetition. Driving all of this is the desire to make something happen. Learning that shouting out 'drink' elicits a desired outcome is a good reason to remember and learn that the two are connected in gaining a desired response from an adult.

As my daughter has grown older, I have noticed other things about the way she learns. For instance, using a computer. I wondered why she was so quick to pick things up that I know for sure would have taken an adult learner 3 or 4 times longer to grasp. After discussing this at length with Maureen, we concluded that one possible explanation was that children do not need to know 'why' they have to do something. The only time that very young children ask 'why?' is when they cannot find a way to achieve a desired result through their normal means of discovery. Adults, on the other hand, always want to know 'why?' Adults are more analytical in their approach to things in life. We have to dissect things - take them apart and examine each component in the belief that we will better understand how something will function... and yet, at the same time, many of us can still drive a car without having to know how the engine works.

In an age of continual assessment - breaking down every element of the learning process to minutia, it is no wonder that we are 'losing the plot'. Every solution to a problem has to go before a committee of 'experts'; every moralistic and politically correct expression has to be taken into careful account; and if someone can extract a monetary profit in the process - so much the better!

With a typically 'normal' child, learning to read is actually very simple and very cheap. It mainly comes down to time and attention: parents reading with their children in the early years from a few weeks up to 5 years. The problem with a Phonic approach is it labels everyone Dyslexic. Dyslexia is a condition that genuinely afflicts a relatively small percentage of people. However, using techniques on 'normal' children, designed to help Dyslexics, is like treating everyone as if they have a disability. The technique of applying any type of Phonic teaching in a blanket way to all young children is highly damaging and shows no understanding of the way children learn to read. I would have to suggest that the current research behind Synthetic Phonics is severely flawed, and the methodology is full of holes - it cannot even be delivered with consistency throughout different areas and regions of the country. The sad truth is, the pro-Dyslexia and Synthetic Phonic movement now has mainstream acceptance up to Government level and because of this no one is now being allowed to offer an alternative viewpoint. The Jury has been dismissed and no more cases can be forwarded for consideration!

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