What’s really stopping children from learning to read?
It’s not money, materials or our children’s ability. It’s stubbornness.
The statistic that one in five children leave school functionally illiterate is commonly quoted, and the finger of blame has been pointed in different directions. It’s a lack of funding for individual child support. It’s the huge time investment that teachers need to help each struggling child to read. It’s inferior reading materials that don’t inspire the child. It’s even been suggested that it’s the fault of the child who simply isn’t capable of reading fluently. However, in my thirty years of experience of teaching children to read I have noticed that none of those reasons are the ultimate barrier.
I have successfully taught every child in my care to learn to read, from three to 15 years of age, even those with considerable learning needs. I have done it in a fraction of the normal time taken, at a fraction of the cost, and the children are left enthused by the reading experience. So what’s the catch? Why aren’t all schools using this method?
Here’s the rub, and I believe it is the root of the literacy problems that dog Britain’s disappointing record. Brace yourself, because when I visit schools and speak to teachers or SENCOs and get to this point in my narrative, I see arms folding, lips pursing and sometimes even a flicker of fear on the faces in the room – and that’s no exaggeration. The fact is (deep breath) that I’m not using a government approved phonics method. This is enough to get me ejected from rooms, and why? There are two reasons that I find stop me from having access to children who needlessly get left behind by our failing system.
Firstly, the government directs schools to use the phonics method when teaching children to read, even if it doesn’t appear to suit 20% of children. I have brought this up with senior figures at the Department for Education and have been told that schools are free to make their own choices, and yet I have been told by several schools that they will be severely criticised if they use anything else, and there are clear written directives to use phonics. Recently one teacher told me that they didn’t want to risk providing me with testimonials. They would only talk off the record about their success at transforming children’s reading ability in a single term if I immediately promised not to identify them in any way. Why is the government more interested in the method of teaching rather than the results? This stubbornness creates a climate of fear rather than empowering teachers to do whatever is best for the child. At least if a school’s literacy statistics are poor the teacher can blame the government rather than themselves, but this does not put our children’s best interests at heart. Teachers should be celebrated for trying new things, not castigated.
Secondly, although I’ve met many truly admirable teachers, I have met teachers and SENCOs so stubborn it takes my breath away. They insist doing ‘more of the same’; forcing a phonics approach rather than something new with a child unable to read as they get further and further behind. I was once invited by the Head of Children’s Services of a London Council to contact a school that had only 40% of its children reaching the required literacy standards. I contacted the head teacher by telephone and email, offering my services for free with their most difficult students. He refused to speak to me and my emails were all ignored. I hadn’t even reached the hurdle of mentioning that my method wasn’t based on phonics! I’ve noticed that even when some people are doing things that do not work they’re unwilling to either ask for help or be open to try something new. I know I find it tough to admit when I’m doing something that isn’t working – that’s human nature. I also know that phonics works for thousands of children. But it’s heartbreaking that the children in that London school will leave school without learning to read due to the simple stubbornness of those in charge to accept some free assistance.
For years the debate has raged about the efficacy of different reading methods, and I have been caught up in that too because it’s a very emotive subject. But it’s time we all stopped stubbornly holding to one particular view and embrace whatever works for the child. We must all pull in the same direction of the end result, which is to get every one of our children to read before they leave school. In my experience that is an entirely achievable goal.