There is something powerful and overwhelmingly sad about adults weeping but when they weep because they are telling me how awful they feel about their reading, writing and spelling skills and ultimately how awful they feel about themselves, I want to weep too. Yet I’ve lost count of the number of adults who have broken down when trying to explain why they want to work on their reading now in the college of further education where I work.
Mostly they tell me how they never quite ‘got’ it at school, how they spent time out in the corridor because of their behaviour, or how they stopped going to school at all when things got too tough. Almost all of them feel their schooldays were dreadful but none seem to have had teachers who spotted what was going wrong or were able to fix things. My students all seem to have a sense though that they themselves are to blame as they are pretty stupid and slow learners.
It would seem to be an insurmountable task to overcome such deep feelings about reading, about learning and indeed about themselves. The amazing thing is that when they are finally taught how to read and spell properly, using phonics, they learn quickly, grow in confidence and start to feel better about themselves.
What is even more amazing is that I have taught them to read better but am myself no more than an enthusiastic amateur. It is true that I am a trained teacher but I am neither an English teacher nor a primary school teacher, nor have training in additional support needs. I use Step by Step by Mona McNee. (My mother had read about this scheme in the late 80’s and used it with my son who was a late speaker and seemed slow to pick up this business of reading. It worked then very well and he is an avid reader now, studying German at university.)
We still had the book at home and I wanted to offer one of my young students some help to tackle his lack of reading skills. Using Step by Step for about 30 minutes every lunchtime my student made steady progress and he started to enjoy the fact that finally he had a system to use when reading. This was a young man who had been in ‘special school’ where smaller class sizes should have meant more time to work on his basic skills.
With the confidence gained from helping one student I continued, offering individuals time over lunch and again we made steady progress. One young man, Alom, is not a native English speaker, had disrupted schooling and could not recognise letters. He is now reading long sentences, has won a college award and cannot stop smiling because, finally, he can make sense of the written word.
Over the past few years the Scottish Executive has targeted the poor basic skills of many Scots and my college has funding to offer free classes to adults working on their literacy/ numeracy skills. I now run a variety of day, twilight and evening classes and specialise in reading and spelling.
Using Mona McNee’s Step by Step I teach a rule, have my students read many, many sentences using the rule and, when they have confidently mastered that rule, move on to the next one. I make the sentences up, building on the words they know and never introducing words they cannot decode. The main thing I am trying to eliminate is the guessing which for many is their only strategy of reading. Indeed my classrooms resound to me saying, ‘Don’t guess. Look at the letters. Read the letters’
I use the rules to teach spelling too. Many, many students have no idea about doubling letters or about dropping the ‘e’ before adding ‘ing’. So I teach the rules of Step by Step and then my students try to spell words I give them that follow that rule. Students tell me this has made a huge difference to them in their lives – some are students on courses elsewhere in the college and improving spelling helps enormously; some find this useful in work, especially if they have been nervous in the past about being asked to write something down; others tell me they feel better about working with their children on homework.
The feedback from my students, generally, is wonderful. This is also the most rewarding piece of work I have ever done. To see students being able to read or spell properly for the first time makes my heart sing and I am so very proud of what they are achieving.
However I feel that other students could benefit from this system of phonics and have suggested to the trainer of literacy tutors like me that I offer training to others in these methods – methods that work. We had a fairly heated discussion in which she told me that phonics is not the only way that people learn to read. I countered by saying that it does really work. She suggested my readers perhaps had specific learning difficulties – I said they may do but this system works and they are reading. She doubted that we had millions of people in Britain unable to read properly and she certainly was not going to go against the guidelines of the Scottish Executive to offer training in reading using phonics.
So there we have it. Despite the success in Clackmannanshire using phonics, the use of phonics is not universally appreciated and certainly not yet in the world of adult literacy so I will soldier on. My students will also continue to make progress and they will keep coming to me. They tell me they have tried other centres but got copying out to do or given a computer to work on. That is not what they want, they tell me. What is fundamental to them all is that they want to read and they want to be able to spell. Using Step by Step, that’s exactly what I help them to do.