The following is a slightly edited version of a message posted on the RRF message-board. It appears here with the authorís permission.
After hearing about the work of the Reading Reform Foundation, I would like to share with you my own experience of struggling with the legacy of learning to read by shape alone.
I need to tell you to begin with that on the surface that you wonít be able to uncover any cracks in my school career. I have left nothing behind me but a trail of the highest marks and the prizes that went along with them Ė across all subjects Ė ending up with a first-class degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University. You have to forgive me saying this up front. Iím almost thirty now and have no need to boast Ė it is just that this is crucial to the point of the story.
I have loved books from an early age. My first favourite authors were Enid Blyton and Catherine Cookson. At twelve I read Great Expectations and, guided by good English teaching at secondary school, I moved on to Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, the BrontŽ sisters and from there to Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Hardy and Joyce. On the surface, I was one of the able kids who had obviously benefited from the education I had received to date, and was a success of the system.
But behind the scenes, there was something I was struggling with. I was sure that there was something that was blocking my learning somehow, but I didnít know what it was. I came to believe that each of us must have learning difficulties, however mild or peculiar to us they may be, because I felt that despite my achievements I clearly had something that made some types of learning hard. I knew in particular that I wasnít progressing with speaking and listening to foreign languages, as I would have liked to. It was something that I found difficult to pick up. I remember reporting this fact to both my German and French teachers, who just dismissed my claims Ė I was still at the top of the top set Ė there was clearly no real problem. A few English reports commented on my poor spelling and I took meticulous care with my essays to cover this up. My mum mentioned to me at this time that compared to my sisters, who had learned to read by breaking down words and associating them with sound, I had simply taken a whole word on board at once and memorised it. I now realise that the result of this was that I never learnt to associate sounds with words. I cannot connect how a word looks on the page to how it sounds.
Despite my wide reading I have a very limited vocabulary. I havenít picked up new words from the books I have read. After reading Crime and Punishment for the hundredth time I didnít recognise the name of the protagonist ĎRaskolnikoví when discussing the book for the first time with a friend. I realised that I had never properly read any of the Russian names at all and had truncated the hero of the story simply to ĎRí in my head as I read. To me, that was how ĎRaskolnikoví sounded, because I didnít naturally turn it into a sound but saw it as a pattern on the page. I canít read words that are unfamiliar. I think I have come to kind of jump them in texts, guessing the meaning as I go.
This has large consequences in reading academically. As a 17-year-old, the two subjects that were looking the most attractive to me were philosophy and physics. I briefly considered taking a dual degree. At that time, there was lots of literature available to me to take me further in science than I was able to go in school. Popular science books and scientific undergraduate textbooks were written in a straight-forward style and were therefore accessible to me. Unlike the more common problem of being afraid of basic equations, I was instead turned off by long words. In philosophy this was a problem. I was unable to approach any significant philosophical work simply because the words were too complex for me.
I chose to study Mathematics. I have never regretted it; I am a scholar and love my studies. But interestingly enough, having understood where my teaching troubles have come from, and that they do not fundamentally prevent me from getting to grips with profound philosophical ideas, I am now returning to university to do a Masterís in Philosophy this September. I read philosophy alongside an internet dictionary which speaks the words to me. Last week I typed in Ďimmanentí and was shocked by the result. I knew the word after all; it just looked unfamiliar written down. It couldnít have been one of the few thousand I put into my head before I was six years old.
I have been living and working in Germany for over a year and learning how to learn a language using sound and connecting it to words. It has been a fascinating experience, although frustrating that I was never given this opportunity as a child, when my ability to remember was much greater.
The way you learn to read stays with you forever and is a handicap that continually crops up. In my job as a consultant, every so often when I am presenting, I get stuck on a word, which I can only see and donít know how to pronounce. And hereís my next hurdle coming up: I would like to continue my philosophy studies with a doctorate if I am able enough and can get some financial support. Some of the best courses are in the USA. I would need to pass the general graduate admissions exam which Ė very annoyingly Ė includes a large section where the examinee is presented with long words and asked to select the correct meaning. It isnít supposed to test vocabulary per se, the examinee is supposed to be able to work out the meaning by breaking the word down into pieces. But that supposes that I can read the words in the first place and do the breaking-down process. Iím not looking forward to trying it out.
I donít mean to say that my life has been severely disrupted. I donít mean to suggest that I have been disadvantaged in a way that compares to the problems faced by someone who never learns to read. I am incredibly lucky to have all of the opportunities given to me and have been able to do the things I have. But I truly believe there must be capable, able kids out there who must have lost out more than me Ė perhaps the struggle with words was the straw that stopped them from going to university, for example. I just want to make the point that synthetic phonics (I had to look up that spelling, Iíve never used that word before) is something that can benefit many people in many different ways and education is about allowing all of our children to fulfil our potential Ė even the brightest ones.So I have to applaud all of you working to promote synthetic phonics Ė this really makes a difference.