There Are Still Some Good Guys: Rosen Championing Reading For Meaning in the Great Phonics Debate

The piloting of the government’s current obsession with phonics suggests some interesting, but deeply worrying results. 
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I grew up reading. My parents made sure to take me on regular trips to the local library during summer vacations when I was a child. My mother read to us every evening before bedtime. I was reading a mixture of Shakespeare and Stephen King (because I found a tattered old copy of Skeleton Crew in my older brother’s closet, a hoarded away and hidden treasure to be devoured) for pleasure by the time I was coming to the end of elementary school and reading when I was younger seemed as natural to me as riding a bike. 
But I was lucky. 
I came to school with a certain cultural currency and my parents enabled me to learn that cultural currency with fluency and speed. Many that I teach and have taught over the last ten years or so are not nearly as lucky. Many do not understand how to read simple sentences out loud. Many have never been read to out loud. Many have never become familiar with the joy of fairy tales. Alarmingly, many are developing deep anxieties and even antipathies to reading for pleasure. 
I can think of no better way to expedite such a massive distaste for reading than the government’s current efforts to stalwartly fly the flag for phonics, phonics and little else but phonics in reading education. All children in England from this year are required to take a ‘Phonics Screening Check’ test at the end of the academic year 1, (aged 6) in which they have to decode 30 real words and 10 fake words. The government is even offering an incentive of £3,000 which it claims ‘will be hard to ignore for many cash-strapped schools’ in order to promote the teaching of ‘synthetic phonics’. 
The first examination took place in schools in June and the results were intriguing and unsettling. First of all, results were generally low, which the government may, no doubt say is down to teachers not having taught the ‘synthetic phonics method’ effectively. Could it be something deeper? Results also found that otherwise good readers had moved beyond just using phonics as a reading strategy, that they looked for meanings in the ten ‘psuedo words’, that their brains were making real words out of fake (eg storm out of ‘strom’) and some of the fake words were arduous to get one’s mouth around, deterring children from pronouncing them as they were spelt. 
So, children score lower in the test for trying to make meaning out of what is unfamiliar to them. Trying to construct order out of the unknown, otherwise known as creativity and initiative, is marked down in this new compulsory test, whilst sticking to what you know and rejecting all familiarity will be marked higher. The government is, through mandatory testing and irresistible cash bonuses to schools, disincentivising initiative and independent thinking in young minds. 
One is put in mind of Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times: ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them.’

Say what you will about the American Education System.

Go ahead. Say what you will about it.

No, do. 

What worries me is that my son and many of his friends have already been raised up with a similar affinity for books and reading; what worries me is that when my son faces this test next year with his classmates, we will be sent a short letter home afterwards saying that he has scored low because he tried to make sense out of nonsense words, make meaning out of familiar looking verbal chaos. 

And what worries me greatly is that poorer schools in places like Hackney, where I live, will be unable to resist cash incentives for ‘synthetic phonics’ in the classroom. If the government wanted a docile, unquestioning mass of dunderheaded deltas and epsilons, unable to decipher complex treaties, pacts and agreements; antipathetic to compelling narratives anywhere except presented through moving images; unable to resist being oppressed through paternalistic power structures and figures; desiring nothing but bread, circuses and X Factor; and awed by the use of stutterings statistics and figures, a cynic might conlcude that there are fewer quicker routes that this one.

I owe most of the information in this post to Michael Rosen’s intelligent and well-thought out recent blog posts and his continuing effort to fight the good fight. Please do read up on this crucial issue.

This post is also informed by the following articles:

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4 responses

  1. I'm full of loathing for the American system (I taught high school there for a few years in Oakland, CA and NYC), but this is worse than any of the ridiculous mandates I was handed by my shitty administrators. It's wholly depressing. The problem, as I've been saying over and over for years, is that the people who are in charge of education policy are not, nor have they ever been, in the business of actually educating anyone. But I'm not bitter…ha. George Carlin said it best: http://youtu.be/kJ4SSvVbhLw

  2. Wow. It's been years since I've listened to or watched Carlin. He's a hell of a firebrand, innit? All hail King George.

  3. Since I qualified in Dublin, I haven't had the pleasure of teaching in my homeland, but I imagine many of the worst trends in British education are pale imitations of what's going on in America. I have a friend who's told me some pretty horrifying stuff about his substitute experience in chartered schools in Philly.

  4. Oh, I've got some stories…It was really depressing.

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