Jim Curran: Trained as an educational psychologist, has taught at secondary level for 33 years. Jim is manager of the Special Education Unit, De La Salle High school in Downpatrick, N. Ireland. He is an RRF committee member.
I started teaching just over 34 years ago, March 1974, and I have loved almost every minute of it. I feel truly blessed in my vocation.
Initially, I trained to teach History but almost immediately I discovered that teaching History could be fairly tricky when many of the children especially in the lower streams were weak readers. What I didn’t know way back then was that between 50% - 60% of the children coming to my school were reading below chronological age. I didn’t know what to do about this other than to dumb things down and keep the reading as simple and predictable as possible. There wasn’t anybody who knew what to do and there was just a presumption that these children were a bit slower and hadn’t learned to read. I think that after what Mary Warnock had said in her report in 1978 about 20 % of children having a special need sometime during their school years , that many teachers misunderstood what she was saying and took it to mean that 20 % of children were not going to learn to read. On one occasion, Stella my Learning Support Assistant, was in a primary 2 classroom and the teacher pointed to a group of children and said “They can read “ , she pointed to another group and said “ They will learn to read” and then she pointed to a third group and said” They won’t learn”
Professor Sigfried Engelmann who pioneered the hugely successful “ Direct Instruction” methodology over 40 years ago puts it very simply and forcibly when he said that if we don’t teach these children then they are simply not going to get taught. It’s what Ruth Miskin said in reply to the question, “What is a good school?” A good school is a school that teaches all its children to read.
I started reading around to try to get some information but there was only “Whole language stuff” available at this time. I went to the local teachers’ centre and they gave me a copy of Margaret Meeks “ Learning to Read”. I vaguely remember that after I read it I had a real feel-good factor, a bit like eating candyfloss but unfortunately I had learned absolutely nothing about teaching older, struggling readers.
I tried valiantly to use all the Whole-Language strategies from Pause, Prompt and Praise to language experience and all the guessing strategies in between, in those days they didn’t use the term guessing – they called it predicting. I remember one day using the Whole-Language Strategy of using the context to guess at a word. The pupil concerned was a little guy called Matthew from one of the big estates. One of the advantages of living and teaching in a community is that you already know a good bit of family history, so in this case Whole Language was lending itself to a wider context. The word Matthew couldn’t read was “engaged” so having exhausted all my whole language strategies I finally said to him “What did you sister do before she got married?” and he looked at me as if I was stupid and said “She got pregnant”. That’s just one of the reasons I parted company with whole language, it was just too dangerous a strategy to use. I never knew what my students were liable to say.
By this time I decided to do a part-time degree in psychology with the Open University to see if I could find some answers to this reading puzzle. After five years and a good degree in psychology I was no further forward. So I applied to go back to University and complete an MSC in Developmental and Educational Psychology which at that time was the Professional Training for Educational Psychologists and while I thoroughly enjoyed the course I was no nearer solving the reading puzzle – namely why so many of my pupils were not learning to reading in the Primary School. I had some really good tutors but they themselves had come through a Whole-Language era and a balanced approach, more heavily whole language than balanced was the best they could do.
It was only much later that I was able to understand how steeped in the propaganda of constructivism and whole language most of these people in senior positions were. Dr. Reid Lyon, in his Children Of The Code interview with David Boulton uses the term “The Disconnect” to describe the practice whereby a university professor will do all the right things with his/ her own baby from day one including teaching letters and sounds at the earliest opportunity and then in class telling their students not to do that as those types of practices are “developmentally inappropriate.
Then in the Summer of 1998 I had a piece of good fortune that changed my life. I read a book review in the Daily Telegraph – “Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It” by Professor Diane McGuinness. I thought, this looks interesting and I ordered a copy. I spent the summer months reading through this book and the more I read and re-read the more I became convinced that the Alphabetic Code and the teaching of that code was the solution that I was looking for. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to Diane McGuinness for the lifeline that she has provided for myself and so many other confused and mis-trained teachers. I started to read as much as I could about the reading debate or the Reading Wars as they were termed in the States. I was downloading huge amounts of material from the internet and I was printing all this stuff at school, I couldn’t afford to do it at home. As the printer in our school library whirred yet again into action, the librarian was heard to say , “There goes another Amazonian rainforest”
The following year I again had an amazing stroke of good fortune when I came across an American website read by Grade 3. It wasn’t so much the website that provided me with this good fortune but making contact with two people who used the Message Board, Jenny Chew and Mona McNee. I now had two guides who between them had a wealth of experience both in the theory and the practice of teaching reading and who were generous in their sharing of all this wealth of knowledge. At this time there was a very opinionated Board Advisor and she was pushing a strategy called “Lend A Hand”. It was a picture of a hand and each finger represented a strategy for recognising unfamiliar words. All of the strategies were complete whole language guessing. I posted a message about it on the readby grade 3 board and Jenny replied in the clear and uncluttered way that is Jenny’s trademark. This advisor was coming down to the school to give a talk on reading and she had heard about my opposition to “Lend A Hand” she asked to meet with me a few days before her talk. I explained to her how you couldn’t use the context to guess at pronunciation but how you could use context to help construct meaning. She was , as I have said before , very opinionated and didn’t listen to anything I said but in the middle of this one way conversation she asked me had I read that book about children reading by Bonnie Tyler. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing with visions in my head of “Lost in France In The Rain”.At least Bonnie Tyler was only lost in France in the rain this adviser like so many in the Whole Language camp was lost in a thick fog of their own making. I sure had her measure then.
When children come to Secondary School there use to be an expectation that they would have acquired sufficient literacy skills to access the Secondary Curriculum – not anymore. It’s pretty much accepted now that at least ¼, in disadvantaged areas the figure is much higher up to 40%, in my own school where the most capable children are creamed off into the grammar sector, some grammar schools will take up to 40 per cent of Primary School pupils, the number of children reading below C.A never falls below 50%. Subject teachers who have no expertise in teaching reading are at a total loss as to what to do with these children.
In my own teaching career I have been very fortunate in that I have been able to use my knowledge to help both the pupils and the teachers in my school. I have also been very fortunate in that our Principal, Barry Sharvin, has been hugely supportive of the work that I do and has himself become very knowledgeable and a great supporter of Synthetic Phonics for all children.
When he became principal 5 years ago I was able to set up a Reading support programme for my year 8 group. The programme runs every year from September to December. The programme is a partnership between parents – teachers – pupils. We begin with a parent meeting early in September to explain the purpose of the programme and to enlist the support and help of the parents. The children are all tested on entry and retested at the end of the programme. They are taught how the Alphabetic Code works and how to use this knowledge to decode unfamiliar words. I have an excellent Learning Support Assistant, Stella Johnston, who has been a superb help. Children who continue to struggle even after the programme receive continuing support either one to one or in a small group for as long as it takes. This year we have also added a vocabulary component to the programme based on research of how best to teach vocabulary by the late Stephen Stahl.
Most of these children never get an opportunity to improve their vocabulary because of their weak decoding. We have long realised that while decoding is necessary (crucial) it is not sufficient. Gough and Tunmers Simple View of Reading is the one that is now widely accepted in the research community. Good readers need to be good decoders and good comprehenders. To be a good decoder a child needs to know how the code works and how to use this knowledge to decipher unfamiliar words. To be a good comprehender a child needs an extensive vocabulary and good general knowledge skills.
Vocabulary falls in to three categories. There are the high frequency words that all the children know, there are words which I describe as middle frequency words that most of my children don’t know, words like seldom, vacant, reluctant, crimson. I know that most of them don’t know these words because I have tested a large number of these children on these words and then there are the low frequency words like futile and cacophony that you only get from reading. Our now retired Head Of English told me a story which clearly illustrated how damaging this lack of vocabulary can be. A number of years ago a dozen of his students were sitting a GCSE English Literature paper, one of the questions read….. “Dreams are Futile discuss in relation to….. Not one student knew the meaning of the word ‘futile’
Some of the children because of their poor vocabulary are prone to using the odd swear word. I remember a number of years ago an encounter with a Year 8 pupil. This wee guy, a bit on the heavy side, had a history of temper tantrums in the primary sector. I had to tell him off about how untidy his exercise books were and as I turned my back he muttered under his breath “fat bastard”. I didn’t hear him but most of the class did and of course there was a chorus of Mr Curran you know what Paddy just said. When I turned to speak to him about it he was quite distressed and swore that he had not called me “fat”. I’m not even sure that he knew what the other word meant, Paddy’s poor vocabulary skills had let him down again.
Has our reading programme made a difference, we think it has. On average pupils on the programme increase their Reading scores by 30 months over a 12 month period and this year the Key Stage 3 English Results in the bottom stream were almost on a par with the results of the middle-stream. Over this five year period our GCSE Results have gone up from 28% , 5 or more GCSE’s grades A-C to 59% this year.
Intervention is important because sometimes it’s all that you have but there is no substitute for prevention. And prevention is what has begun to happen thanks to the Rose Report.
There needs to be an increased awareness among teachers and parents that as Dr Reid Lyon (NICHD) has said “Learning to read will be the most difficult thing that some children will ever have to do at school”. I remember once in correspondence with Dr. Eldo Bergman of Texas Reading Institute saying that some children found learning to read difficult, he replied that all children found learning to read difficult. Few of us forget the pain of learning to drive but I think that’s because we were older when we learned. I think that for most of us the pain of learning to read tends to be forgotten because it happened so long ago.
I remember my own difficulties in learning to read under a whole word regime. I got really muddled up over words like “house” and “horse”. My teacher Brother David said that I might have to stay behind in P3.
I’ve always thought that I was a bit dyslexic could never tell my right from my left and difficulty with word retrieval. I remember on one occasion not so long ago standing in my local Greengrocers, I was at the sandwich counter. I wanted sweetcorn on my roll but couldn’t think of the word and just had to point. I apologised to the girl and explained my P3 problems to her and about the threat of getting kept back. The owner John Hanlon who has a very rye sense of humour overheard the conversation and said to me “It’s just as well they didn’t keep you back, you’d probably still be there”.
On a much more serious note.
There’s a huge emotional damage when children fail to learn to read and I don’t think we have paid anywhere near enough attention to this damage and the devastation to self that it causes. I have long been a fan of David Boulton’s excellent “Children of the Code” series.
When a child doesn’t learn to read and his failure is clearly visible to the other children in the class that child suffers extreme and prolonged emotional damage. As Dr. Reid Lyon pointed out in one of the “Children of the Code” video clips, ability to read is viewed by other children as a proxy for how clever you are and unfortunately many teachers have similar beliefs – so the child who doesn’t learn to read is viewed sometimes by the teacher and almost always by his class mates as a stupid child. As adults if we’ve had a bad day then we usually put it down to experience and hope that tomorrow will be better and if you have that attitude it usually works out o.k. but a child in the classroom is trapped with his failure on a daily basis. There is no escape.
“The business of being unable to decipher what’s on the printed page has huge consequences for a child’s self-esteem. That is the child’s general concept of who he or she is and has huge consequences for how we see ourselves relative to our peers and forces us to defend against this bad feeling in a number of ways that I call the compass of shame.”
( Donald Nathanson – Clinical Professor Of Psychiatry at the Jefferson Medical Centre )
“I always tell people that from the moment a kid gets up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night, the central mission of the day is to avoid humiliation at all costs”.
(Dr. Mel Levine – Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina).
I still think that there is a huge resistance to phonics teaching within the teaching community but more especially in the Teacher Training Colleges and the University Departments of Education. For far too long in Education learning has been viewed as a natural, fluent and effortless process or as Frank Smith said “Learning is continuous, spontaneous and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation or specific reinforcement” (1992 Learning to Read ) as the excellent Martin Kozloff has pointed out “This statement is true if you are talking about sucking a lollipop” (Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina).
Vicki Snider in her book “Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What really happens in the classroom labels this phenomenon “The Myth of Fun & Interesting” as she points out this myth completely ignores the fact that the initial learning of a skills or concept is rarely fun. It’s the fluent performance and application in a new context that is enjoyable. You have only to think about your own experience of Learning to drive to understand how true this is.
Because I am doing something which is relatively new in the secondary sector a number of interested teachers or students on teaching practice would ask to sit in. Last year a student who was training for primary education asked if she could sit in. She was a 3rd year BEd student – when I asked her how many lectures she had on teaching reading she told me she didn’t have any. Two years ago I got the opportunity to meet with some Teacher Trainers and was able to express my concerns but of course they said that students were trained to teach phonics. Of course that’s what all the schools used to say “We do phonics”. This however was never the reality.
Every child is going to have to be taught to read before the end of year 3 and teachers are going to need the training and support to make this happen. This is going to have to happen if disadvantaged children are to be given any chance to benefit from our education system. In 2007 approximately 30,000 students achieved 3 ‘A’ grades at A level – Qualifications needed to gain entrance to our top universities – of these 30,000 students 176 were on free school meals – considering that 14% of the school population are on free school meals this figure of 176 is a national scandal.
Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
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