'The boy walked for and with, under the come to a all ving in the dishes front. He don't cow, but the was when the worst watch keep all the sale Christmas'

May 29, 1998

Britain at risk of botching its ABC

The above is an extract from a story read by Susie, a child taught by the "real books" method. Real-books teachers are taught that children can "discover" how our writing system works by doing lots of writing. The children's "invented spelling" is supposed to correct itself "naturally".

Teachers are not allowed to interfere with this creative process. They are told it is perfectly OK for children's stories to look like this: "Gm wz alg wa fm hom. Gm iz ltl ppe. He hs not got nny fod. Plz hp Gm fd the ya hm." (Jim was a long way from home. Jim is a little puppy. He has not got any food. Please help Jim find the way home.) Many teachers secretly wondered: "If we aren't allowed to correct spelling, then how long is spelling supposed to look like this? When should we start to become concerned?" No one had any answers for these kinds of questions.

Notice that Susie, who wrote this piece about Jim in Year 2 (when she was seven), was using letter names to "invent'' her writing system, because that was all she was ever taught. So "Jim" starts with "j" like the letter "gee" and "any" starts with the letter "en" and "way" starts with the "y", the first sound in its name ("why").

Susie used this letter-name code to spell, but she read completely differently. She tried to guess whole words using "context clues" and pictures, just like real books advocates suggest. She memorised common initial letter-sound pairs, then guessed the rest of the word based on word length and shape. Susie read this story: The boy wandered far and wide until he came to an old village in the deepest forest. He didn't know it, but that was where the wicked witch kept all the stolen children. Here is how it came out: "The boy walked for and with, under the come to a all ving in the dishes front. He don't cow, but the was when the worst watch keep all the sale christmas."

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