Elizabeth is a former primary teacher, now a synthetic phonics trainer, tutor and a member of the RRF committee.
Introduction by Elizabeth Nonweiler
Good morning and welcome to the Reading Reform Foundation Conference of 2008.
A special welcome to those of you who have come from far away places: We have in the audience visitors from Spain, the United States, Israel, Dubai, China and Denmark.
Well, if anyone thought that the government’s acceptance of the recommendations of the Rose Review meant that the Reading Reform Foundation had nothing more to do, I think the past two years have shown that that’s not true. The Rose Review was something to celebrate. The impact has been huge, as all of us involved with primary schools in England know. Undoubtedly, there is far more understanding now of the best way to teach young children to read.
But what about the others? What about the older children? What about all the people who have been through primary school and are still unable to read? How can we help them? The theme of this year's conference is 'waste'. What is the best way to stop this waste of talent? Is time and effort wasted, teaching in ways that are not the most effective? Is our government wasting our money supporting the wrong methods?
The government’s solution to poor reading skills amongst 6 year olds is Reading Recovery – a programme based on the failed methods of the past. Ed Balls, says he supports it “because it works”. Well, if it works, we’ll have to think again, because, above all, we want what works for our children. But just look at the evidence he bases that on:
• A London study into the effects of Reading Recovery tuition for struggling 6 year olds. This study is by Sue Burroughs-Lange, who is also responsible for implementation of Reading Recovery in the UK, Ireland and Europe.
• And how old are the children at the end of the study? Seven years old, with an average word reading age of seven and a half. Let me see how many of you know children who reached a reading age of around seven and a half and stuck there. A reading age of seven and a half does not mean a child has begun to gain the skills needed to tackle the unknown words they will come across later.
• And what about the children in the comparison group? They either received no extra help, or the alternative forms of support were small-scale and we are told almost nothing about their content or implementation. As far as we know, none of them received high quality synthet ic phonics.
The government’s other plan for poor readers is to provide specialist tuition for the ones who ‘have dyslexia’, as though children with this diagnosis need something different from the rest. But do they?
We have tried to inform Ed Balls about the facts, and we shall keep trying.
What about the adults who haven’t learned to read well enough to cope with the modern world? Did you see the Channel 4 programme with Phil Beadle about what the government offers them? Totally inadequate.
And what about the muddly provision for Young Offenders?
Then there are the youngest children: the babies, toddlers, and 3 to 5 year olds. Now we have the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework, which must by law be obeyed by everyone who works with little children. Its ridiculous guidance includes the suggestion, under the heading ‘writing’, that adults ‘note ... the random marks young babies make in food’. Later the Early Learning Goals apply, with the notorious statement that children of 4 and 5 years old ‘should ... begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation.’ The result of this nonsense has been a backlash by people who think the early teaching of phonics is part and parcel of the framework and a form of child abuse. It’s been difficult for those of us who support the protests against the statutory framework, to get across the message that phonics can be fun for small children, as well as giving them the best start in learning the skill of reading words.
And we’re still up against the cliches used to discredit good phonics teaching:
• ‘One size doesn’t fit all’
• ‘Every child is different’
• Synthetic phonics teaches children to ‘bark at print’.
• Children must always ‘read for meaning’.
• ‘Phonics reduces reading ... all children have to do with a book ... is enjoy it’. That’s from Michael Rosen.
He’s wrong. They’ve all got it wrong. You know the Simple View – to read you need to recognise the words and then understand them. Have you ever met someone who struggles to recognise the words and likes reading?
We have to campaign against what is wrong. But the Reading Reform Foundation is not a negative body. Our governing principles are about promoting effective teaching methods. We offer solutions.
Many of you here today, and many more who did not manage to come, have been working hard all year – teaching, training, informing, campaigning, writing, evaluating, researching, improving established effective programmes and developing new ones for particular niches, offering encouragement and advice on message boards, and so on. Not just in England, but all around the English speaking world.
If you came last year, you may remember Gertrude Niles from Carriacou and Petite Martinique in the Caribbean. Now some of the teachers there are ‘phonics leaders’, supporting and training the other teachers in their schools.
And here today we have a range of speakers from across education who are going to talk to you about how to teach reading effectively.
This week in his acceptance speech, USA President Elect Obama talked about ‘democracy’ and ‘opportunity’. Democracy and opportunity depend on having a literate population. He also spoke of ‘unyielding hope’. My wish is that by the end of today, you will have unyielding hope and feel inspired to carry on with your efforts to make sure everyone learns to read.
Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
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