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A tale of two readers – why phonics is not for everyone

We’re used to phonics being the standard technique for teaching children to read these days. It’s by and large what schools rely upon, but, as with any system, it’s not for everyone.  I spoke to a mother recently who relayed an interesting contrast with her two daughters – one who thrives on phonics, and one who simply does not.

Claire spoke at length about the frustration and anxiety she experienced as her elder daughter, Sally, struggled to learn with phonics. From the early days in nursery it was noted that Sally was not engaged and often found excuses to go to the toilet or find something in her tray – anything but take part in the phonics session! Teachers all reassured Claire that in time it would start to make sense, but as Sally progressed through Reception and Year 1, her reading was no stronger and phonics was clearly becoming something of an anxiety-inducing mystery to her. “It just seemed to make no sense to her at all,” said Claire. “The lowest point was when she wouldn’t even look at a page in a book with me, such was her fear of failure”.

In the meantime, Sally’s younger sister Tara was thriving on her daily phonics sessions at school, and rapidly becoming a fluent and enthusiastic reader. “I could tell it was tough on Sally to see her little sister get by so effortlessly,” explained Claire.

By Year 2, Claire pushed the school for a dyslexia assessment for Sally and sure enough, she as diagnosed with mild dyslexia. It was a huge relief for Claire to know the source of the problem, but there was more frustration ahead. “Sadly, even though the school acknowledged the dyslexia, they did not have the capacity to help Sally read with any other technique than phonics. She gets extra reading help, but it’s still based on a system that makes no sense to her”.

It was by seeking alternative ways of supporting her daughter that Claire heard about Reading Revival and the matching and memory based learning is proving far more effective for Sally. What’s more, her heightened recognition of words and sounds and increased confidence about reading have supported her learning at school. While phonics will never be a logical or comfortable learning method for Sally, she is coping far better with it than ever before, and – we hope – will soon be as fluent and confident as her younger sister.



Light the fire; don’t put it out – the pitfalls of extra childhood tuition

This week a leading headmistress warned that mothers and fathers risk undermining their children’s natural development with excessive tuition. So how do parents help their child achieve full potential without pushing them too hard?

Although I work in the field of learning and education these days, I wasn’t the brightest child at school. I’m sure many people will join me with a pang of recognition when I disclose that my school days were spent always struggling to keep up with my friends, experiencing the daily heart sinking feeling as the class compared marks of returned homework, knowing I would rarely achieve better marks than them. I escaped from school with a tidal wave of relief and no more than an average set of qualifications.

So what were my parents doing to try and make my school days ‘the best years of my life’? My mother was a retired headmistress, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was subjected to hours of extra-curricular tuition to ensure I didn’t let the side down.

Private tutoring is on the increase; one study has suggested almost half of families now pay for private tutors in a bid to help children get into the best schools and universities. However, Alexia Bracewell of Longacre School in Guildford believes many parents are “setting up their children to fail” by pushing them too hard.

I did have extra tuition, in French and piano lessons, but I am grateful for these in two ways. I needed French tuition because I was in danger of failing the French GCSE that I had chosen, so it was a necessary blast of half a dozen sessions to get me through. The piano lessons were supposed to give me the chance to learn an instrument, and when I admitted that I didn’t enjoy it, the lessons stopped.

After years spent in an educational sector I believe there are two rules when choosing tuition for your child – necessity and enjoyment. Firstly: necessity. It’s good for a parent to pay for tuition if the child needs it for either the foundation in the basics of education, or to get them through an exam they don’t want to fail. If it’s necessary, pay for it but have a clear achievable goal and then halt.

Secondly, tuition may be good to help a child explore where their talents may lie (or in my case with piano, don’t lie). Tuition broadens the horizons and could help a child decide their future career path. If it stops being fun, stop the tuition. People are most skilled at their natural talents; forcing children down the path of your enjoyment is folly and wasted money.

Motivation is crucial and if parents don’t light their children’s fire for learning, extra tuition will surely extinguish the fire. Simply put, if a child is to succeed with tuition, they must be motivated to do so, either with a goal they want to achieve or the pure enjoyment of unveiling their talents. Let them fulfil their potential, not yours.



Educational toys aren’t very educational

In the January issue of Which? Magazine  it was reported that the magazine’s consumer experts believe that six hi-tech toys that market themselves as educational make claims that are overblown.

Although the manufacturers state on their websites that their products can ‘develop core skills in reading, spelling, maths, logic and creativity’ the experts found some of the claims to be vague and dressed up in pseudo-academic jargon which could potentially mislead parents. In fact, the experts thought that the toys didn’t contain enough high-quality text to have significant impact on a child’s reading.

Emma Plackett, Co-Founder at Reading Revival Ltd. believes that parents who are keen to play an proactive and positive role in their child’s development are being let down because they ultimately don’t see the results from the investment they spend in educational toys.

“These self-styled educational toys that claim to improve reading often do not teach reading in the most effective, efficient way,” she explains. “The toy should help the child to steadily build vocabulary with the most used English words, and add more words at a controlled rate whilst providing plenty of practise of words already learned. If the toy simply draws a child’s attention to random words that they may not often re-encounter, it can only claim to encourage an enjoyment of the reading activity rather than an actual proficiency.”

She also calls for a ‘plain English’ approach to make parent’s choices easier.

“Parents are being seduced by the extravagant promises of toy manufacturers and the language used in the marketing literature may be deliberately opaque,” she says. “Producers of educational aids for children have a responsibility to parents to describe the product and its benefits in such a way that a parent can make the best decision for their child.”



Teachers taking the rap for government literacy failings

As yet more depressing statistics emerge about children who can’t achieve basic standards of literacy, it’s time to give teachers the tools they need in their fight to help children achieve their potential.

I’m not a teacher, but I sympathise with them. How a teacher’s heart must sink as wave after wave of bad press threatens to engulf the job they feel passionately about, consigning the profession they joined with high hopes of making a difference to the collective rubbish bin for supposedly letting our children down.

This week, the government’s school league tables show that three-quarters of children in England who make a slow start in the “Three Rs” at primary school fail to catch up by the time they leave.

Teachers then have to suffer the mortification as well meaning charities and government initiatives ‘ride to the rescue’ to save children by taking matters in to their own hands. This demoralises the teachers and calls their abilities into question.

As the founder of a company that produces a reading toolkit created by a teacher that consistently brings a reluctant reader to a level of reading competency in a matter of a term or so that would normally take at least 18 months at school, you’d think we’d be coining it in with such a demand for our services. Sadly this is not the case, and it’s down to a crucial design element that is both the beauty of the scheme and the target of government literacy discrimination.

What’s this pivotal issue? It does not use the synthetic phonics method insisted on by the government, and you pay a price when you dare to express doubt in this hallowed area.  Last week Julia Donaldson, the Gruffalo author had the audacity to suggest that one reading method does not suit every child and found her books excluded from the government recommended reading list.

This tide of negative literacy statistics is not down to poor teaching. We are being let down by the government’s heavy handedness in freezing out methods that should be available to teachers. If teachers will join the reading book authors and bring about the astounding effects that I’ve seen many times, then perhaps the government will finally give teachers the credit they deserve.



Silencing the songbirds

Last week the government excluded the Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson’s ‘Songbirds’ book series from its list of approved texts for teaching reading, because she dared to say that not every child responds to the phonics learning method. Surely the government should be embracing every method that consistently succeeds to improve literacy skills, not punishing dissenters?

We’ve all been shocked by the statistic that a quarter of children in London leave primary school unable to read properly. We’re one of the most economically successful nations in the world with compulsory education for every child! Reading is an essential basic life skill and yet if a quarter of children are not able to read, something must be very, very wrong.

The government has ruled that schools must use the phonics method of teaching to read and although many children do not respond to this method, they still insist upon it. And a report published in July from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education specifically calls for a multi-method literacy approach in schools.  Emma Plackett, Director at Reading Revival thinks that the government should be campaigning for literacy as a whole, not phonics.

“Our reading toolkit uses a far more simple method than phonics, and many of our customers are parents whose children are dyslexic, have special educational needs or are simply children with no other difficulty other than they are struggling with the complicated process of breaking down words in to phonetic sounds before reassembling them,” she explains.

“We are the last hope for children who can’t learn using the phonics method and we’ve succeeded where nothing else has worked. In fact, if a child has the ability to match basic patterns, we have never failed to teach every one of them to read with our toolkit.”

If Julia Donaldson, the Children’s Laureate and self professed “phonics fanatic” can see the sense in being open to a variety of methods that suit a variety of children’s needs, and if a parliamentary report agrees, then the government should be prepared to relax its rigid approach, as this is the only way that literacy will improve without leaving a large proportion of the population behind.

So much more than just a bedtime story

Many parents think that simply reading a bedtime story can help their child with reading fluency. It certainly helps with instilling a love of books, but parents could be using the time to actually teach their child to read.

A recent survey by Booktime says that 71% of parents with children aged four to six consider reading with their child to be the highlight of their day, but why not make the time even more profitable by getting your child to read to you, and learn to read in the process?

The Reading Revival toolkit is a new reading scheme that gives all the tools necessary to teach children – and, indeed, anyone else – to read in a very short time, all in one compact toolkit.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that it is a collection of bedtime stories that can be read to children.

The twelve books have a carefully structured vocabulary that starts with just twelve words and adds a few new words to each successive book so that the pupil can gradually increase the number of words they can read at sight.  By the time Book 12 has been read, then the pupil will have a solid base of most-used words in English and the confidence to go on to complete fluency.

In order to achieve this aim, each book, while telling an interesting story, contains a ‘stilted’ text because the vocabulary is restricted while the child practises vocabulary just learned, with a careful addition of managed new words.  The child has no problem with this as even the youngest child realises that the books are a tool for learning and accepts the difference between ‘normal’ stories and ‘reading book’ stories. These books are very specifically written for a purpose – and is why they are so successful.

This reading toolkit has seen success with reluctant readers and children who can’t read. In fact it has been successful where everything else has failed.

Instead of reading your child a bedtime story, get them to read a story to you. Not only will you share a special part of the day with them, but you’ll be teaching them to read, and what a rewarding experience that will be for both of you.



A lifeline for dyslexic reading help?

A new toolkit of reading books is making a difference to how dyslexic children learn to read, and recently released research into the brain may be showing why it is succeeding to such a great extent.

Dyslexia is a condition that remains shrouded in mystery, and yet neuroscientists are continuing to make small progressive steps to understand these differences in the brain.

Dr Laurie Glezer, at the Georgetown University Medical Centre has been leading a research project into how the brain processes words. When we read, our brains are instantly able to recognise words because we have stored them in a ‘visual dictionary’, and one camp of neuroscientists believes that we also pick up the sound of the word (phonology) at the same time.

However, Dr Glezer’s teams have been monitoring brain activity whilst the reading activity takes place, and their findings clearly suggest that all we use is the visual information of a word and not the sounds. These findings could help in understanding and treating dyslexia.

Emma Plackett and Helena Rogers of Reading Revival Ltd have developed a reading toolkit that they claim has consistently helped dyslexic children learn to read when everything else schools had used had failed. Interestingly, it does not rely on a phonics approach, but encourages children to build a ‘visual dictionary’ of words.

This is achieved with carefully crafted reading books for children, blending plenty of practice with words already learned with a carefully managed sprinkling of new words to increase reading confidence. Not only that, but they have consistently show that a child with reading difficulties can reach a reading age of no ability to that of approximately a seven year old in around one to two terms.

This new research is now shedding light on why it is essential to take an open-minded approach when deciding how to help a child to reading fluency. If this simple toolkit can make such a difference using a whole word methodology, and if it maximises the brain’s natural ability, we should be embracing any way that helps children achieve their learning potential.

Emma Plackett

Time for a truce

The whole word versus phonics debate over the best way to teach a child to read has raged for many years now. However, the one thing we do all agree on is that we want children to learn as confidently and enjoyably as possible, so why don’t we lay down our weapons and collaborate?

I’ll admit this sounds like a naïve dream. On one side we have those who passionately advocate a phonics based approach, breaking down the words into sounds, teaching these and once the child has learned the sounds, constructing words using these phonics building blocks.

In the other corner we have those who insist that a whole word approach is most effective, teaching children to recognise words by sight, because many English words don’t follow phonetic rules. We snipe at each other, citing examples of when our preferred method has triumphed as evidence to why the other method should not be used.

And never the twain shall meet.

But what if we did meet in the middle? Let’s start with what we know. We’ve all got examples of when our method works, so it stands to reason that there must be merit in both the methods. Also, when you look at it, both methods aren’t exactly poles apart because they both require children to memorise chunks of letters, albeit in sound chunks or word chunks.

So why can’t we be allies? If our method works with a child, then great. If the child doesn’t respond in the way we’d hope, rather than do more of the same, why don’t we test-drive another method? We don’t have to fight exclusively for one side.

Let’s pride ourselves on being experts in teaching children to read, and not confine ourselves and our children to one camp or another.

Just think how far we could move literacy forward with all the tools available at our disposal. I’m game if you are?

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