Someone once said that getting a baby dressed was like trying to put an octopus into a string bag. I was reminded of that during another recent discussion with synthetic phonics (SP) advocates. The debate was triggered by this comment; “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”
This sentence looks like an essay question for trainee teachers – if they’re still expected to write essays, that is. It encapsulates what has frustrated me so much about the SP ‘position’; all those implicit assumptions.
First there is no ‘surely’ about any aspect of education. You name it, there’s been heated debate about it. Second, it’s not safe to assume schools should have a ‘most fundamental’ aim. Education is a complex business and generally involves quite a few fundamental aims; focussing on one rather than the others is a risky strategy. Third, the sentence assumes a role for literacy that requires some justification.
reading in the real world
Reading is our primary means of recording spoken language. It provides a way of communicating with others across space and time. It extends working memory. It’s important. But in a largely literate society it’s easy to assume that all members of that society are, should be, or need to be equally literate. They’re not. They never have been. And I’ve yet to find any evidence showing that uniform literacy across the population is either achievable or necessary.
I’m not claiming that it doesn’t matter if someone isn’t a competent reader or if 15% of school leavers are functionally illiterate. What I am claiming is that less than 100% functional literacy doesn’t herald the end of civilisation as we know it.
For thousands of years, functionally illiterate people have grown food, baked, brewed, made clothes, pots, pans, furniture, tools, weapons and machines, built houses, palaces, cities, chariots, sailing ships, dams and bridges, navigated halfway around the world, formed exquisite glassware and stunning jewellery, composed songs, poems and plays, devised judicial systems and developed sophisticated religious beliefs.
All those things require knowledge and skill – but not literacy. The quality of human life has undoubtedly been transformed by literacy, and transformed for the better. But literacy is a vehicle for knowledge, a means to an end not an end in itself. It’s important, not for its own sake but because of what it has enabled us – collectively – to achieve. I’m not disparaging reading for enjoyment; but reading for enjoyment didn’t change the world.
What the real world needs is not for everyone to be functionally literate, but for a critical mass of people to be functionally literate. And for some people to be so literate that they can acquire complex skills and knowledge that can benefit the rest of us. What proportion of people need to be functionally or highly literate will depend on what a particular society wants to achieve.
Human beings are a highly social species. Our ecological success (our ability to occupy varied habitats – what we do to those habitats is something else entirely) is due to our ability to solve problems, to communicate those solutions to each other and to work collectively. What an individual can or can’t do is important, but what we can do together is more important because that’s a more efficient way of using resources for mutual benefit.
This survey found that 20% of professionals and 30% of managers don’t have adequate literacy skills. It’s still possible to hold down a skilled job, draw a good salary, drive a car, get a mortgage, raise a family and retire on an adequate pension even if your literacy skills are flaky. Poor literacy might be embarrassing and require some ingenious workarounds to cover it up, but that’s more of a problem with social acceptability than utility. And plenty of jobs don’t require you to be a great reader.
It looks as though inadequate literacy, although an issue in the world of work, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. So why would anyone claim that teaching children to read is ‘the most fundamental aim of schools’?
reading in schools
There are several reasons. Mass education systems were set up partly to provide manufacturing industry with a literate, numerate workforce. Schools in those fledgling education systems were often run on shoestring budgets. If a school had very limited resources, making reading a priority at least provided children with the opportunity to educate themselves in later life. Literacy takes time to develop, so if you have the luxury of being able to teach additional subjects, it makes sense to access them via reading and writing – thus killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, because for a variety of reasons public examinations are written ones, literacy is a key measure of pupil and school achievement.
In the real world, if you find reading especially difficult you can still learn a lot – by watching and listening or trial and error. But the emphasis schools place on literacy means that if in school you happen to be a child who finds reading especially difficult, you’re stumped. You can’t even compensate by becoming knowledgeable if you’re required to jump the literacy hurdle first. And poor knowledge, however literate you are, is a big problem in the real world.
SP advocates would say that the reason some children find reading difficult is because they haven’t been taught properly. And that if they were taught properly they would be able to read. That’s a possible explanation, but one possible explanation doesn’t rule out all the other possible explanations. And if Jeanne Chall’s descriptions of teachers’ approaches to formal reading instruction programmes are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that all children are going to get taught to read ‘properly’ any time soon. If some children have problems learning to read for whatever reason, we need to make sure that they’re not denied access to knowledge as well. Because in the real world, it’s knowledge that makes things work.
Now for some of the arms of the reading octopus that got tangled up in the string bag that is Twitter.
• I’m not saying reading isn’t important; it is – but that doesn’t make it the ‘fundamental aim of schools’, nor ‘a fundamental skill needed for life’.
• I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to read; they should be, but variation in reading ability doesn’t automatically mean a ‘deficit’ in instruction, home life or in the child.
• I’m not saying some children struggle to read because they are ‘less able’ than others; some kids find reading especially challenging but that has nothing to do with their intelligence.
• Nor am saying we shouldn’t have high aspirations for students; we should, but there’s no reason to have the same aspirations for all of them. Our strength as a species is in our diversity.
Frankly, if forced to choose, I’d rather live in a community populated by competent, practical people with reading skills that left something to be desired, than one populated by people with, say, PPE degrees from Oxford who’ve forgotten which way is up.