Friday, 22 January 2010

Autonomous learning and the growth of aliteracy

The idea that children might learn to read of their own accord, by osmosis as it were, was memorably described by David Bell, Chief Inspector of Schools in 2004, as being , "Plain crackers". This is pretty much the standard view among modern educationalists and the whole thrust in the teaching of reading in schools today is intensive work in synthetic phonics from a very early age; the aim being of course, to eradicate illiteracy. This is a laudable enough intention, to be sure, but it is beginning to look to some as though this determination to rid us of illiteracy has left the way open for the rise of a new problem; huge numbers of aliterate adults.

Aliterate people are those who, while capable of reading, choose not to do so. A survey in the USA a little while ago revealed that the modal number of books read by the average person in the previous year was zero! In other words, in answer to the question, "How many books did you read last year?", the commonest answer given was, "None". Where America leads, we follow, and it is quite acceptable and common these days for adults to say, " I don't read books". Even well known individuals like footballers and pop stars will say quite openly that they don't read books.

The teaching of reading in schools may well be efficient, but it is also desperately dull. Reading is treated as another sterile academic skill which the child must be pushed into acquiring in the shortest possible time. Little wonder that for many children reading is about attractive and pleasurable as reciting the multiplication tables! Inevitably, this means that many children would not dream of reading a book outside school, unless is was necessary. This attitude becomes fixed for many well before they leave primary school. In secondary school, the only books many of them will encounter are the novels that they are made to read for GCSE. Of course in many cases, they will not have to read the entire book, only selected chapters. Novels are thus reduced to a means, rather than an end in themselves. Just try suggesting to a fifteen year old boy who is studying for GCSEs that he might enjoy another book by the same author. If he is doing "Pride and Prejudice", ask if he has read "Emma". he will look at you as though you have taken leave of your sense! Why would he possibly wish to read a book upon which he would not be tested?

The relentless drilling in phonics and the perception that novels are only useful in that they will enable one to pass an examination, both rob reading of any attraction as an end in itself. It has been imposed upon the child from without and against his will. As soon as the compulsion ends, he will stop doing it almost as a matter of course. It is possible that when a child is left to her own devices to acquire the skill in her own time, the outcome might be very different. Things that we choose to do for our own satisfaction are generally things that we will do again and again if we find them enjoyable. this is in contrast to those things we are compelled to do. Even if the thing which we have been made to do is fun, the element of compulsion cannot help but remove some of its pleasure. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that while reading books for pleasure seems to be increasingly rare among schoolchildren, anecdotal evidence from the parents of autonomously educated children suggests that once they do take to the thing, they read a great deal for the sake of it.

There is something fundamentally unsound about any educational system which turns the reading of books into a chore. Any method of tuition or lack of tuition which makes it more likely that young people will pick up a book without prompting from an adult is to be commended. It would be interesting to conduct a large survey among schooled and autonomously educated children and see whether or not their attitudes to reading and books really are as different as personal observation suggests.


  1. Gosh, Simon, I actually agree with you! What is the world coming to?

  2. Consider well Erica, before taking such a serious step. It may damage irrevocably your reputation among fellow home educators.

  3. Hi Simon,

    I am a homeschooler from the States who has been following the reading debate in the UK. It seems to me that you are mixing up your timeline and therefore mixing up causation. Adults today would NOT have been taught to read using synthetic phonics, but with a mishmash of methods, dominated by whole word memorization. There are lots of reasons why adults today don't read, but at the top of the list has to be IT'S TOO HARD WHEN YOU DON'T READ WELL.

    Synthetic phonics can be defined as much by what it DOESN'T include in its instruction as by what it does: no whole-word guessing, no part-word assembling, no guessing from pictures or context. These strategies are not reading, they are what children will naturally do when they are confronted with text and they don't have the information or the skills they need to decode it.

    Synthetic phonics is something new from something old. It was the obvious way to teach reading for a long time, then was thrown over for less pedantic forms of instruction. However, research and experience clearly demonstrate its effectiveness in producing competent readers.

    It is a method designed to allow all children to read if they want to because it teaches what they need to know to read our screwy language.

    You will not be able to say that synthetic phonics creates apathy towards reading until this generation (well, and only those who actually received SP, which it seems many still are not) grows up.

    Minnesota, USA

  4. There is evidence that since the introduction of the Literacy Hour fewer children read for pleasure. Sorry, no reference; maybe someone else can help?

  5. Yes Melissa you are right, sythetic phonics is a relatively new scheme in the teaching of reading. I suppose that I am was really talking about attitudes to reading among the children and teenagers I know and have dealings with. Until a few years ago, the "Real Books" method was very popular in this country. This produced a lot of illiteracy, but perhaps did not put children off reading so much! I think waht we need is to find a system in which children bot learn to read and still enjoys books.

  6. Melissa said "Adults today would NOT have been taught to read using synthetic phonics, but with a mishmash of methods, dominated by whole word memorization. There are lots of reasons why adults today don't read, but at the top of the list has to be IT'S TOO HARD WHEN YOU DON'T READ WELL."

    Just wanted to point out was that one of the reasons for the 'mishmash' you describe was because synthetic phonics (and various other systems) had been tried previously and been found wanting. The mishmash was actually an attempt to harness any and every method of support for reading that a child could comfortably utilise.

    My son had no difficulty learning symbol-sound correspondence in a synthetic phonics course but could not, just could not, blend the sounds to make unfamiliar words. He eventually taught himself to read using whole word recognition. The reason for his difficulty? He has abnormal saccadic eye movements, which means that he mixes up the order of the letters in the word. He can however, use first and last letters and word shape as cues. It's quite likely that this is how fluent readers read familiar words anyway, once they have decoded the word when it is new to them.

    Reading is a complex cognitive task involving fast, fine-grained visual and auditory discrimination and one would predict, statistically, that around 15% of the population would have difficulty with such a task. Couple this with the inconsistent spelling of English and you are going to have a residual number of people who struggle to read whatever method you use to teach them. In the UK, it is very difficult to get auditory and visual function assessed accurately and I suspect subtle impairments frequently interfere with reading acquisition.

    With regard to Simon's comments on literature, I once tried to find a list of recommended books in the KS2 curriculum. I couldn't, so I asked at school. I was pointed in the direction of the literacy co-ordinator who said " Well, they have texts... that they study..." The children who were no longer using the reading scheme could read books from the (poor) school library or bring in their own. Class teachers in years 5 & 6 did not read to the children. I did write to Jacqueline Wilson about this when she was children's laureate, but got no reply. Michael Rosen, by contrast, has been outspoken in his criticism of the literacy aspect of the curriculum. Don't know if his words will have any effect.

  7. I don't think you can lay the whole blame on the school system. (although I read with interest the crit of "extract-itus" on TES and it certainly set off bells for me)

    The most convincing argument I've heard is that children are most likely to enjoy reading for pleasure and seek it out if they have parents who read for pleasure themselves.

    Something about a childhood constantly seeing parents curling up with a book for personal enjoyment/entertainment has more impact than having your parents read to you.

    I suppose it was adults responding with a "none" to the question of how much they read. So if the theory is right I expect we will see much the same kind of response from subsequent generations.

    It panicked me rather when I read it, I tend to curl up with a book where nobody can find me (let alone see me) and start demanding socks, food, sports equipment search party etc etc so up till now he has rarely seen me read. Thankfully the Italian Sock Dropper, being a demander rather than a demandee, has kept the side up. Being seen often as a fine example of parental reader (ie lazybum) with a book in hand.

    I now see it as my parental duty to forsake all domestic tasks and read blissfully and publically. In state of total deafness to anything beginning with whingy "mummmmmmyyyyy !!!! I need a...." or "ammorrrrrrrrrreeeeeee!!! You give me da...."

  8. Simon, this post isn't well researched, is it? Synthetic phonics is very new to UK schools (this time around anyway) so can't be blamed for sdults who don't read for pleasure.

    Incidentally, I thought about whether I'd read any novels in the last year. Only one. And I LOVE Literature so much I did a degree in it and used a literary-based home ed currculum with my kids (Sonlight). It was Crime and Punishment by the way, and to be frank I wish I hadn't bothered.

    Most of the reading I do these days is informational. Books about worship/music in church (dh and I are worship leaders), books about theology or church growth etc. In previous years my reading would have been about child development and psychology or further back still about home education. Yes, I just don't have time for novels any more.

    I suspect that my own experience reflects a cultural shift, lack of time for fantasy reading (novels) and a preference for factual reading. I'm looking forward to doing more novel reading again when I'm retired! Life will then have gone full circle, back to my student days when I read a novel every couple of days.

    My personal theory about why the love of reading in school children might be disappearing is the lack of time in the shcool week for 'listening to the teacher read', one of my best memories of school. We'd let our heads drop onto our folded arms on the desk, and listen for a blissful hour or so to a talented reader conjuring up fascinating characters in a world created by an author. {sigh} Don't think that happens much any more.

    Mrs Anon,
    I don't get your title. What has autonomous learning got to do with what you call aliteracy?

  9. Oh I think I see, you're putting forward a theory that if you've not been drilled with phonics then you'll end up loving reading.

    Well, the problem is that you can't actually love to read until you know how to.

    When I used to get the dozens of kids every year who were illiterate into the secondary school where I taught, from the rubbish prmary schools who used whole language/real books/blah blah, we'd use systematic phonics to teach them to, you know, actually read.

    THEN they started to enjoy reading. Before that, they were just terrified of print. And some thought they were dyslexic.

    Mrs Anon

  10. Well of course Mrs. Anon, I made no mention of synthetic phonics in this post. I made passing reference to "relentless drilling in phonics", but that is not a new thing at all. Indeed, before the craze for "Look and Say" took over in the fifties and sixties, it was all too common. It is not a question of "What I call aliteracy". Have you not encvountered this word before? It is not some neologism that I have chucked into the pot on a whim!

    The main thrust of this piece is that reading in schools is treated as just another academic subject and that this truns off many kids.