John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Eleven year-old Jonathan Bryan has gathered almost 850,000 signatures on a petition for children with disabilities to be taught to read and write. I signed as soon as I heard of it. Case studies since Helen Keller have shown that, if a person has the intellectual capacity to understand what they are reading, they can learn. The key is to find a way of overcoming the communication barriers caused by the disability to reach the person’s intellect. In Keller’s case, it was the feeling of water on her hand, followed by Teacher (Anne Sullivan) tracing the word on her palm, with a finger. In Dorothy Butler’s Cushla and Her Books, it was using Dick Bruner’s strong and simple illustrations to enable Cushla to focus her eyes for the first time, and so get in touch with the world. But there are no miracles. Cushla was able to attend a normal school, but the late Dame Marie Clay told me that her intellectual development did not proceed beyond that of a typical seven-year-old.
A parallel petition has been launched by the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), asking for a revision of government guidelines of July this year, which said that systematic synthetic phonics should be the sole approach to the teaching of reading. I will not be signing that one, despite what I wrote last time about the dangers of “whole phonics”.
The first reason is the BDA’s push for more money to be put into assessments and “diagnosis”, based on their assertion that ten to 15 per cent of the population is dyslexic, a claim I first heard from the late broadcaster, Robin Day, in the ’70s, backed by the assertion “figures show”. The problem is that “figures” from brain research show abnormal patterns of brain activity in only one to two per cent of samples drawn from several countries, including the UK, Italy (which has highly regular spelling) and China, which of course does not use an alphabet. Ten to fifteen per cent – or more – certainly experience difficulties in learning to read, but to describe this as dyslexia, and put more money into assessments designed to prove it, simply labels the problem without contributing to a solution. These assessments are regularly gamed, releasing concessions in examinations without reaching a definite conclusion that the person is, in fact, dyslexic.
The error of whole phonics lies in the history of the language, set out by the linguist David Crystal in Spell It Out, and described for parents in this presentation to the Wellington Festival of Education some years ago. The key fact is the Norman Conquest, which flooded English with French in a way that only happens through invasion. The pupil I wrote about last week found it straightforward to read regular words based on the spelling of his name, but started to read table as if it were tablet, breaking down when he did not see the expected t. He was applying phonics accurately, but it did not work because these are French phonics and not English. Explaining that languages have human foibles, and that English is a thousand years old, and so has wrinkles, unlocked the word and around ten others with the same pattern of spelling and sound. He has remembered and applied this new knowledge, and his Deputy Headteacher reports increasing confidence in other subjects. Whole phonics advocates have argued that variations such as table and centre (also French) are so well established that they can be seen as regular. This argument was dismissed two centuries ago, when the brothers Grimm identified some irregular features as strong enough to resist the pull towards regularity, as centre has in British English despite the US shift to center.
The BDA recommends Professor Usha Goswami’s “onset-rime” approach as an alternative teaching method, and that also needs clarification. Professor Goswami won the Spearman medal in 1992 for her investigation of this approach, in which the second part of the word, the rime, the at in cat, is taught and the first added, enabling us to learn by analogy. This is important, as some pupils find it hard to hold one letter in their mind while they decode and blend the remainder. I stumbled across the idea in the seventies, switching to another word with the same pattern when a child couldn’t read a word (from memory, I switched to pound when they couldn’t read mound). It is an essential aid to teaching reading when it is not straightforward, and helps children to adjust their thinking as identified by Stansilas Dehaene in How We Learn. The research evidence on a computerised version of the approach is, however, based on work with children who had not met the threshold of the phonics check at 6, who may well, nevertheless, still have learned some phonics. The technique is, therefore, neither the first shot in the teacher’s locker, nor the last.
That place is reserved for Professor Sue Buckley of Portsmouth University, who developed an approach for pre-school children with Down syndrome, thought at the time to be incapable of learning to read. It worked by having them learn to match, first pictures, and then words by placing identical cards on a baseboard and gradually increasing the number of items. When the words could be matched, the teacher – or more often a parent – would call them out for the child to select, and, once this was done confidently, the child would name the word. This is, again, a technique best kept for reinforcement when necessary, but I have found it effective in the most difficult cases, including some that had been referred for hospital treatment.
Underlying all of this work is an application to the teaching of Occam’s Razor, reducing the issue to its simplest components and developing effective techniques to address them. But, to paraphrase Einstein, things need to be made as simple as possible, but not more so. We need to be able to hold all of the relevant evidence in mind and work in ways that do not contradict any of it. Whole phonics ignores the parts that don’t fit, and opposes intellect with persistent and energetic assertion. The dyslexia lobby gives the same label to almost all reading problems, whether they are caused by a genuine intellectual problem, or by other factors, including poor teaching, visual stress under fluorescent light, or temporary hearing loss in early childhood. Almost all are overcome once we find, like Anne Sullivan, a way to cut through whatever is causing the difficulty, and establish understanding. My late friend, the linguist Michel Thomas, was right – “What you understand, you don’t forget.”