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RRF Newsletter 53 back to contents
New books by Diane McGuinness Jennifer Chew

RRF members will be interested in two new books by Prof. Diane McGuinness, both published in 2004: Early Reading Instruction (MIT Press, Cambridge , Mass. ) and Growing a Reader from Birth (W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London ).  

Growing a Reader from Birth is aimed largely at parents and is written in a simple non-technical style. Much of the book is taken up with a fascinating (and at times humorous) account of children’s oral language development. Experiments are described which show that babies can discriminate sounds even while they are in the womb. Practical tips are given on the best ways of interacting orally with babies and toddlers to foster optimal language development. Most of the last quarter of the book consists of a chapter entitled ‘All about reading’, where parents are shown how they can get their children off to an excellent start in reading and writing as preschoolers if they are at all worried that the schools will not do the job properly. Finally, there are brief sections recommending ‘classroom programs’ and ‘remedial programs for clinic and home use’. Parents will find this book extremely useful.  

Beginning Reading Instruction covers some of the same ground as McGuinness’s 1998 book Why Children Can’t Read, but is more technical than this earlier book and very much more technical than Growing a reader from birth. It includes chapters on different writing-systems, on lessons from the past and from modern research on how best to teach reading, and on phoneme-awareness training. On this last topic, it is reassuring to find McGuinness’s views meshing in well with RRF views as expressed in Newsletter 52: she writes that unless better evidence emerges than that which is currently available, ‘the conclusion must be that separate phoneme awareness training programmes...do not come close to “improving reading” compared to a good linguistic-phonics program’ (p. 188).  

McGuinness deals particularly well with the special problems inherent in English spelling. Early in the book, she points out that ‘Decoding, or reading, involves recognition memory, memory with a prompt. The letters remain visible while they are being decoded. Encoding, or spelling, involves recall memory, memory without prompts or clues, which is considerably more difficult’ (p. 37). Later, there is a whole chapter called ‘How does anyone learn to spell?’, where she stresses that a good programme can ‘jump-start’ the learning process by making the logic of the code clear, ‘but it will never succeed in teaching every word’ (p. 248). The chapter ends with some very useful evidence and advice on the value of teaching letter-sound correspondences rather than letter-names: ‘Jeffrey and Samuels (1967) and Samuels (1972) showed long ago that learning letter-sound relationships cut the learning time to decode words spelled with those letters by approximately 50 percent as compared with learning letter-names....The message is clear: Discourage and eliminate the use of letter-names and encourage the use of phoneme-grapheme correspondences’ (p. 278, italics original).  

Of special interest to UK readers will be the way that McGuinness deals in some detail with Jolly Phonics and the Johnston and Watson Fast Phonics First programme and makes some very complimentary comments about them. The book ends with a chapter called ‘New Directions for the Twenty-First Century’, in which McGuinness gives a tantalising glimpse of her own forthcoming programme for beginners.  

A slight drawback for UK readers is the fact that although the book is generally both UK- and USA-friendly, there are points at which McGuinness says things which do not quite work for the UK . For example, she regards the word ‘hot’ as containing the vowel sound /ah/ represented by the letter ‘o’ (true in American English, but not in British English), and her comments on what she calls ‘vowel + r’ phonemes do not all apply to British English – ‘ar’ and ‘or’ apparently represent diphthongs in American English (/ah/-/er/ and /oe/-/er/), but they represent monophthongs in British English.  

This book may not be an easy read for most people, but anyone who makes the effort to read it will probably be glad to have done so.  

Jennifer Chew  

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A new role recently taken on by Diane McGuinness is that of Patron of the ‘Our Right to Read’ foundation set up in Oxford by one of our RRF committee members, Fiona Nevola. Our Right to Read now has charitable status. The Trustees include the principal of an Oxford college, a city banker, a city solicitor and a publisher. Through a grants system, the organisation will provide individual tuition, based on Diane McGuinness’s work, to struggling readers regardless of ability to pay. It is currently using the services of five teachers in Oxford and is conducting training for others. An article about this by Fiona will appear in the next Newsletter. She can be contacted at 01865-728760 or at fiona.nevola@virgin.net.

 

 

 

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