I think our current emphasis on social mobility and the efficacy of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) for disadvantaged children is right, but let’s not forget the situation I remember in the late 80s and early 90s when I was seeing middle class, articulate children from professional homes with lots of books and discussion who had not learned to read.
Because I worked as a Local Authority Educational Psychologist for S.G. I could work privately outside that LA including B. This was the peak ‘dyslexia’ period. In B. the policy for teaching reading was whole language (schools threw out all their ‘structured’ reading schemes and spent a fortune on gorgeous, beautifully illustrated real books and phonics was banned). Also the policy was for child-centred education with High Scope in Reception, where children themselves chose what to do. Schools may have wanted children to choose in a balanced way, but I know that my son’s choice every session of every day (virtually) in Reception seemed to be ‘sand and water’.
In my private practice I saw children from the maintained sector whose parents could consult privately and I was the EP in a number of independent Prep schools and upper schools. There were a significant number of bright children from professional homes with at least average spoken language who struggled with literacy. I remember the huge distress this caused in families. Of course, all these children were diagnosed as ‘dyslexic’ and the only remediation available to them was in dyslexia centres, who at least acknowledged the problem, and used some structure in their approach. This made some impact but the phonics was generally analytic and the methods were mixed and the children made slow progress because the ‘damage’ had already been done.
This was pre-systematic synthetic phonics days but I knew intuitively and based on some experience that we needed to be teaching phonics from the beginning and to be employing direct instruction but schools were totally resistant to this. They continued with the ‘apprenticeship model’ where they read alongside a child and just gave them the words they did not know and encouraged guessing from the illustrations. They also taught high frequency words as whole words memorised by sight. Schools certainly did not teach a ‘tripod pencil grip’ but encouraged independent mark making and writing of ‘news’ which was often just a string of random letters and ‘magic lines’.
I think that the description of systematic synthetic phonics as ‘safe’ for all children and ‘essential’ for these vulnerable children is useful. In the past, how did parents or schools know that these vulnerable children existed among all the others? They did not appear to present any differently. This was where psychologists came in and did bundles of tests to find ‘dyslexic profiles’. That was clearly the explanation – these children were dyslexic and ipso facto could not learn to read – the question of more effective early instruction was never considered seriously. But some educationalists did become concerned over time and attempts started to be made to do something more structured – e.g. with the Bradley and Bryant work and analytic phonics. Then Sue Lloyd and Jolly Phonics came on the scene and I cannot tell you what hope that held out. It made complete sense to me and a very few close colleagues. But we had a struggle on our hands – as many others did too!