Monday, November 01, 2004


The strange idea that kids learn to read by some sort of osmosis

Do children learn to read by being read to, or do they need specific instruction to understand the relationship between the letters and words they see in print and the spoken words they hear? In Australia, the dominant view is that children learn to read by being read to, and by being encouraged to focus on the meaning of print rather than the mechanics of reading (what is often somewhat derogatorily referred to as low-level decoding skills). This view forms the basis of current approaches to the teaching of reading in our schools, with the emphasis on shared and guided reading, and an incidental rather than a systematic approach to the teaching of phonics. It is also the driving force behind the Australian Labor Party's policy of improving literacy levels by providing free books to parents to encourage them to read to their children from infancy.

Of course, it is a good thing for parents to read to their children: some 96 per cent do anyway. It is entertaining, stimulating and enjoyable. And it develops children's vocabulary and oral language skills, as well as their conceptual understanding and capacity to recall and connect ideas. It also encourages a positive attitude to books and reading, and may lead to a life long passion. But it does not, in itself, teach children to read. For this, something more is required.

To achieve independent reading, children need to understand the connection between the marks on the page and the sounds they hear. For some this comes very easily, without any apparent teaching, but for others it does not, and so when they get to school and are expected to learn to read independently, they struggle. And if the school does not provide them with the building blocks they need to develop reading skills, they get frustrated, bored and angry. They will get further behind in their reading, and gradually start to lose interest and turn to other seemingly more stimulating and rewarding activities.

The research evidence is strongly opposed to the view that children learn to read naturally by being exposed to reading and print. There is now a consensus among reading researchers that the skills underlying the facility to read are the ability to break up words into sounds (phonemic awareness), and the ability to connect these sounds to letters or clusters of letters by a process of blending and segmentation (phonics). Without specific teaching, many children fail to develop these skills.

There has been a series of reports in the United States documenting the research evidence relating to effective strategies for the teaching of reading. In California, a whole language approach to reading instruction was adopted in the 1980s; however, this approach was dropped when their state reading scores showed a massive decline when compared to other states. They have now introduced a completely new curriculum with a strong emphasis on initial and intensive teaching of phonics.

More here


The Tomlinson Report, published on 18 October 2004, hopes to introduce 'core learning', which should 'comprise: functional mathematics; functional literacy and communication; functional ICT' (2). This reduces the objective of education to teaching the most menial skills that a job could require. There is also the fact that most young people are perfectly capable at ICT already, often far better than their teachers. To sit through an IT lesson on what you already know, then have a teacher 'encourage appreciation of language in use, so that learners can be effective communicators in a range of contexts', doesn't strike me as exciting learning. Teachers may as well be training pupils how to order pizza over the phone.

The report proposes that 'core learning would account for approximately 30 per cent of the minimum required credits at all diploma levels'. Although this figure does include an extended project, the marks awarded for demonstrating 'functional communication' show an increasing willingness to reward pupils for even the most basic achievements. Second guessing criticism from the likes of me, the report says it aims at 'enabling young people to build confidence by gaining credit for small steps of achievement, which is recognised on a transcript'.

As well as their core subjects, 'all 14-19 year olds should be entitled to access wider activities such as work experience, service within the community and involvement in sports, the arts or outdoor activities. Participation and (where appropriate) achievement in these should be recorded on the diploma transcript'. Of course children should be able to be play sports or help within the community, but these activities shouldn't be part of our 'core and main learning', or recognised on a national academic diploma.

Schools should be places for education - developing our knowledge and our ability to analyse problems. Being good at sports is a personal matter for kids and should stay that way. School leavers already note down their extracurricular achievements in their National Record of Achievement. Mine consisted mainly of swimming certificates and recognition for the daffodils I had grown in primary school. I did not send it off with my university application.

A key focus of the Tomlinson Report is 'reducing assessment burden'. Having had at least two sets of exams every year for the past three years, I would see this as a positive move. The point of an exam is surely to differentiate between the ability level of pupils in the fairest way possible, to provide other institutions - whether businesses or universities - with an idea of their relative talent in a subject. There is no need to set a national examination for somebody at a stage in their life when nobody beyond their school and family (and perhaps government target-setters) are interested in the result.

However, the Tomlinson Report suggests reducing the number of written exams, only to increase official teacher assessments. The overall assessment burden will just move sideways from examiners to teachers. It proposes continuous assessment to reduce the reliance upon the supposedly unfair method of 'assessing learners on how well they perform in two hours of exams' (3). But while a student's performance in written exams can fluctuate, it is still the fairest way of comparing a whole age group across the country. Relying upon the 'professional judgement' of teachers and lecturers will create situations in which favouritism and subjective interpretations of criteria could determine pupils' marks.

For pupils who are not pushed far enough by A-levels, the report tries to introduce the concept of 'stretch at the top end', apparently allowing universities to distinguish between top-level candidates through the introduction of A+ and A++ grades (4). But grading papers will then come down to nit picking between candidates at the higher end of the scale, which misses the wider problem of a syllabus that is designed to be easy enough for almost everyone to pass the exam.

The report's promotion of flexibility is another weakness. Attempts to allow pupils to study at their own pace and work at the 'foundation' and 'intermediate' levels simultaneously, shows a lack of ambition to spur pupils on to the highest possible level of achievement . Graduation will not be encouraged at a certain age, but instead when the pupil is ready, degrading the exam as a source of comparison between age groups. It will also serve to patronise those people for whom it is 'beneficial' to remain on a lower level while the rest of their peers move up.

Then there is the attempt to integrate vocational skill into diplomas. Vocational skills are extremely important, which is exactly why we should not be muddling them up with academic subjects. The current system already does that in design technology subjects, which denigrate both their academic and vocational components. In one electronics GCSE paper I sat, I was asked how I would test the durability of a remote control - a question that was supposed to examine my knowledge of industrial practice. I was given full marks for saying that someone should press the remote control's buttons until it broke, and write down the number of presses this took. In a GSCE specimen test paper for food technology, candidates were asked to design a 'salad in a tub', and then state the target audience for their product. The answer booklet tells us that the candidate should have written one of the following targets: 'picnic, barbecue, packed lunches or summer buffet.' (5)

Instead of encouraging such farcical crossovers, it would be better for all pupils to be given the best academic education possible while they are at school. People could then undertake distinct vocational training. The report laments the lack of suitable facilities and 'teacher expertise' in vocational learning, but of course many teachers don't have 'industry experience'. You need to look to industry - not schools - for that. A 'GCSE in construction and the built environment' won't interest people who were going to drop out of education, because it will teach them less than would a job as a builder.

The Tomlinson Report is a product of its times: lacking in academic excellence and excessive in its attempt not to hurt anyone's feelings. School will only motivate and interest young people if it helps them do what they're there for - learning.

From "Spiked"


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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