With yet another version of the primary school curriculum on its way, the use of synthetic phonics continues to be prescribed as if this is the only way to learn to read. For a long time I have thought it strange that intelligent adults, who mostly claim to have learned to read before they went to school by look-and-say techniques, are so keen on telling others to learn by sounding out words without context or meaning. I’ve also been pleased to note the disquiet about the research on phonics and its effectiveness. The original Clackmannanshire research is now assumed by phonics enthusiasts to have been the right answer achieved in not quite the right way but, then, if you want to prove that people can sound out words because they have been trained to sound out words you will probably find the evidence. What you can’t discover is whether they have learned to read.
Is it fair to ask whether – if the teaching of reading by phonics has been an increasing success since, let’s say 2000, as national testing would imply – more teenage children should be reading in 2014? It seems a fair question but the clear answer is that they aren’t.
There are always a few middle-class anecdotes to suggest something different but they are the exception and, overall, reading by teenagers and young people has plummeted. The standard response is that other distractions have taken over so that children are busy reading online messages and texts and moving towards more visual stimuli. Well, those distractions are there for everyone yet adult reading is expanding exponentially with kindles and e-readers and large format phones. You can evidence that by travelling on a train where everyone over around 30 is likely to be reading while everyone under 25 is fiddling with their ‘phone or listening to music. You can also ask your friends to check this anecdotal evidence out, but be careful as it’s worth noticing that middle-class parents like to overestimate the reading their children do. If you want harder data, look at Amazon’s book revenues!
I can trace this reading divide to the obsession with phonics which really started to have an impact on teaching in the mid-1990s. My contention is that many of the children who learned to read after that time don’t read as adults. The effort of sounding out individual words make them slow readers and that makes reading for pleasure less enjoyable. Reading was taught to them as a chore and it remains one. Of course, that’s a generalisation but I cannot see much evidence to the contrary.
Other factors might have played a part. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, wider reading and reading for pleasure have both been systematically denigrated. When I was teaching English in the 1980s in a typical secondary comprehensive school, we had class libraries, silent reading lessons and a coursework based examination that encouraged children to read both classic and modern literature widely and for pleasure. I’ve always felt that it was the move towards 100% coursework in English which fostered the popularity of what is insultingly referred to as chick-lit, as well as a whole series of writers producing crime, science fiction and military novels aimed at young men. And that’s a lot of reading which, although it has never been given much credence by literary snobs, continues to flourish.
I don’t think we need another research project to prove the point either way but I do think it would be useful to have a national debate about approaches to reading that encourage reading and not decoding. It will be hard to have one. Saying the things I’ve said here will attract a backlash from publishers who say teenage fiction is healthy rather than recognising how books are purchased by parents and relatives and not read. Also, the advocates of phonics have a kind of evangelical zeal about them which does not tolerate any alternative. You can find these advisers in primary schools berating the staff and being totally dismissive of any other practice. Politicians also support phonics because they like easy hooks to hang their coats on and, just possibly, a few of them might see reading by the common people as slightly subversive. And, as for Guardian readers, they keep their heads in the sand and will be happy to tell us how their nieces simply love reading Jane Austen since they gave them a copy for Christmas. Personally, I’m not so sure!