The finger wagged

Why Children Can't Read
October 16, 1998

Almost every year a book or reading scheme appears criticising previous attempts at getting children to read but vowing this time to get it right. Despite so many promises, British literacy levels remain low. The structure of English does not help; its complex syllable pattern and illogical spelling are always going to make learning to read harder than is the case with many other languages. For some, this has led to a type of fatalism, summed up by the notion that in the long run reading ability is caught rather than taught. For others, suspicion remains that the teaching of reading is often a haphazard affair administered by poorly trained teachers.

The government favours this latter view, and has promised greater emphasis upon reading in schools and extra money for summer reading schemes. But according to Diane McGuinness, these hopes will be blighted unless the current teaching of reading is revolutionised. How this should be done is outlined in her combative book Why Children Can't Read, the latest messianic contribution to the reading debate. For McGuinness any child can be taught to read even in just one week, given an intensive one-to-one teaching relationship that follows her particular approach. This advocates initial training in recognising phonemes (the 43 different speech sounds in the English language), followed by the auditory analysis of individual words. Children must then learn how to manipulate phonemes by removing, inserting or reversing particular sounds (as in "cap, map, Pam"), and how to segment words into isolated phonemes (c/a/p). Finally, these single phonemes must be blended back into complete words, by which time a child has laid a firm foundation for future progress in reading and spelling.

For further detail it is necessary to refer to this book, which is also a reading primer in its own right. Elsewhere the author lays about her with a will, scornfully condemning "phonic", "whole word" and "real book" approaches. Other sensitive toes are also comprehensively stamped on: dyslexia is denied, and ADD (attention deficit disorder) is simply put down to learning failure. Colleges of education, local education authorities, educational psychologists and, above all, teachers are roundly attacked for incompetence. If, after reading this book, parents become convinced that their child is being taught incorrectly (a fairly likely eventuality) the advice is terse and potentially disastrous: "If your child says something like, 'Mrs Bowers doesn't do it this way', you reply, 'Never mind what Mrs Bowers is doing, we are going to learn to read the proper way."

Such breezy dogmatism is often just what hard-pressed parents of children who are failing at reading most want to hear. Others who read this book may worry that corners are being cut in this general argument for mass conversion. It is insulting to claim, for example, that "only people who can pay for it" receive a good education in Britain today. There is no real explanation how so many children have learnt to read despite being taught in ways that McGuinness finds positively harmful. Listing the learning of nursery rhymes under the heading "Harmless activities" does not do justice to the positive stimulation offered by good literature when it comes to learning to read. So strongly motivated herself, McGuinness often seems to forget that some children have to be coaxed towards print in any form, and may balk at the amount of variant spellings for some of the phonemes they are required to learn early on in the reading process.

In fact, there is little anywhere about reader motivation in this book, which incidentally is not always easy to read in itself. The lengthy digression on the development of the Sumerian alphabet is not the only section better omitted if the intention really was to get across to as many parents as possible in the most approachable way.

But it would be a pity if this arrogant approach were to put off too many interested readers. Why Children Can't Read deserves an audience. It does not describe the only way into reading, but the particular path it suggests could be effective for some children, though whether as successful as the author claims can only be determined by more research on far greater numbers of children.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Sussex.

Why Children Can't Read: And What We Can Do about It

Author - Diane McGuinness
ISBN - 0 140 26697 6
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 420

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