Sunday Times: The woman who can teach any child to read

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Susan Godsland
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Sunday Times: The woman who can teach any child to read

Post by Susan Godsland » Sun Aug 28, 2005 11:47 am

In today's Sunday Times in the Review section

Education: The woman who can teach any child to read
by Hilary Wilce

Ruth Miskin says teaching children to read is as easy as abc. She can, she says, teach virtually any child to read. So why aren’t ministers beating a path to her door given that the latest national test results show one in five children who leave primary school can’t read adequately?

The answer is that for a long time Miskin’s methods were out of fashion. She believes you teach reading by teaching the sounds of letters and helping children combine them to make words. It sounds so obvious it’s hard to believe it’s controversial. But the reading wars that have raged in schools for years are highly politicised: the orthodoxy is that children need a variety of approaches to learning to read, including decoding words in picture books from the illustrations.

The fact that Miskin was once the girlfriend of Chris Woodhead, the combative ex-chief inspector of schools, may also have coloured perceptions: the unpopularity of her ideas may have been more than just a disagreement about strategy.

But slowly the reading world is swinging her way. The government has ordered a review of the reading techniques used in schools, which is due to report in the new year. Miskin’s own claims about being able to teach any child to read were recently put to the test by Newsnight, which followed children at a failing primary school in east London. In just 16 weeks children using her methods came on in leaps and bounds.

When the cameras arrived eight and nine-year-olds hadn’t a clue about simple words such as “said” and “thank”. The school gambled £8,000 on Miskin’s reading package and “the results were amazing”, says Linda-May Bingham, head of Britannia Village primary, in Newham.

At Kobi Nazrul primary school, in Tower Hamlets, where she was formerly head teacher, Miskin threw out the national literacy strategy in favour of her own programme. Pupils performed brilliantly, even though many were Bengali and arrived in school knowing no English. “In seven years not one child failed to learn to read if they had gone through our programme,” she says.

So what is her secret? Her methods are based on so-called synthetic phonics, which is a way of building up words from basic sounds: c-a-t spells cat. But it is not quite that simple. Under her system, children learn 44 pure letter sounds via pictures which turn themselves into letters — a caterpillar will morph into a c, a mountain into an m. As soon as they acquire a few sounds fluently they start to read books with words they can work out by putting those sounds together.

“The books are fun so the children will want to read them again and again,” says Miskin. As they learn more sounds they read more books, tailored to the right level.

Now she runs her own company, Read Write Inc, marketing her methods and training schools to apply them. About 200 schools have switched to her programme, including prep schools. Val Arbon, head of Ad Astra first school, in Poole, says the children love it. “My teachers said they had never been trained like that. Never.”

“And I’ve been inundated with requests from parents saying, ‘My child’s been at school for six years and still isn’t reading!’ ” says Miskin. “Parents can do this programme at home . . . Anyone can.”

So ministers shouldn’t wait to reform the way reading is taught in schools, says Miskin. Being able to read affects everything, including confidence and behaviour. “It changes the way children look at learning. It sounds corny to say it, but some children really do change overnight once they learn to read.”

Looks like the reading wars have entered a new chapter., ... 99,00.html

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