Learning to read: the magic bullet

There’s a first time for everything, as they say, and I’d like to think that includes giving a blog post a wildly unrealistic title, cynically designed to draw readers in and drive traffic. Of course there is no magic bullet – and of course you knew that – but with ten years’ personal and professional experience, I’m interested in considering why not, as well as why we think there ought to be.

If you are reading this post, it’s a fair guess that you yourself don’t find reading difficult, and indeed take it for granted; you probably don’t remember that much about your own experience of learning to read, many years ago, and you have doubtless read widely and comfortably since then. It’s a basic skill that we expect all children to acquire in their first years at school, and we’re horrified if we find that they haven’t done so by the time they leave primary school (rightly so: at secondary level, reading isn’t confined to “literacy” as such, but is essential to the whole curriculum, both to follow lessons and to research and complete assignments outside the classroom). What’s more, in an age of email, web, text message, Facebook and Twitter, effortless reading and quick response are more important socially than ever. In one of the many paradoxes of our age, the computer that was meant to replace the fusty world of printed books and inaccessible libraries has, if anything, increased the need for reading.

Consciously or subconsciously, parents know this, and it’s more than unfortunate that reading has become one of the milestones that anxious mothers compare: is she sleeping through the night yet? Is he crawling, walking, talking? Is she potty trained? Josie knows her letters, Johnny read his first word today, we’re so proud, how about yours? It’s worth pointing out that most of the aforementioned are processes that children develop themselves or acquire by observation and imitation: a child surrounded by adults who make an effort to speak to her will start to respond with babbling and then pick up words and phrases at an astonishing rate. A child surrounded by print, on the other hand, will not spontaneously start to make sense of it.

Historically, it’s only quite recently that we’ve expected all children, barring very severe learning difficulties, to read (and read in English, which presents its own very special challenges, of which more below). Until the invention of printing, only a tiny elite of scholars, clerics and gentlemen, and a tinier elite still of gentlewomen, learned to read and write. With printed books and a rising merchant class came grammar schools, for boys only; girls might learn from their mothers and governesses to write letters and keep household accounts and – if they were lucky – read frivolous and frowned-upon novels; Sunday schools gradually broadened their mission from teaching Bible stories to giving their charges the means to read the stories for themselves. Universal education has only been a right for a little over a hundred years, and is itself slightly more established than those other essentials of widespread reading, the public library and the affordable paperback book.

You might think that in those hundred-plus years, we’d have evolved an effective method for teaching our children; after all, we’re regularly reminded that all children in Finland or Sweden or any other annoyingly perfect country start to read when they are seven or eight and are then reading fluently within the year. That’s to ignore the incredibly complex way in which the sounds of English, itself an unruly mix of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Latin-derived mediaeval French, are codified with the Roman alphabet – which was well adapted to the more limited sounds of classical Latin, and continues to be so for purely Latin languages such as Spanish or Italian. Put simply, there are 21-24 letters in the alphabet that are widely used in Italian or Spanish, mapping to 24-25 sounds and consistent spellings. In English, 26 letters serve 44 sounds in 172 common spelling patterns (don’t even ask about the uncommon ones). Only Chinese, Japanese and Korean ask more of their beginner readers.


With all this, surely the last thing children needed was an implacable controversy over teaching methods. Enter the whole-word (or “look and say”) versus phonics conflict, a slow burn since the nineteenth century but especially inflamed since the US publication in 1955 of Why Johnny Can’t Read, a polemic that tore into the failings of the then-prevalent whole word method. Its Austrian-born author Rudolf Flesch was inspired and enraged by the experience of giving his neighbour’s son some help with his reading, without which he would not be allowed to progress to junior high school. Having himself learned to read with a phonics-based system, Flesch found the whole word method incomprehensible: “We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese. One word after another after another after another. If we want to read materials with a vocabulary of 10,000 words, then we have to memorize 10,000 words; if we want to go to the 20,000 word range, we have to learn, one by one, 20,000 words; and so on. We have thrown 3,500 years of civilization out the window and have gone back to the Age of Hammurabi.” Flesch’s book sold over half a million copies, was in the bestseller lists for over thirty weeks and inspired endless debate; but twenty-five years later, depressingly, Flesch had all the material he needed for a sequel, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.


In the UK, I was one of a generation raised on Ladybird’s Key Words series (Peter and Jane), and it’s easy now to see the initial appeal of the whole word approach. Research in the 1950s by William Murray, a special needs teacher, and Professor Joe McNally, an educational psychologist, identified 100 words which account for over half of normal speaking (of which 12 account for a quarter). Teach children to read those words, while gradually introducing others by means of picture cues, and they make astonishing progress to read everyday sentences with ease – or so the theory went. Indeed, for many children it was an effective first step to more adventurous and ultimately fluent and independent reading. We may now look back at the Ladybird world with either nostalgia or horror – Peter with his construction toys, Jane with her dolls – but there’s no denying the slickness of the post-war commercial art. The trouble came for many children when the art was taken away: without the direct visual cues, the words became much harder to decipher, and it was common for children to “plateau”.


Perhaps children simply needed more practice? For schools, two things became key: an underlying structure which could deliver measurable progress, and a large number of titles at each level. Hence the current, still-dominant Oxford Reading Tree, with its ten levels and hundreds of titles, which was at one stage used in 90% of UK primary schools and is still found in close to 80%. The original mid-1980s Reading Tree worked along similar principles to Key Words and other schemes of the time, building sight vocabulary through the repetition of simple phrases and the gradual learning of new words from picture cues. What was different was the fresh, cartoon-style illustration by Alex Brychta; and the somewhat stilted “I like the dog” text style had evolved into the more natural “Oh no!”, useful for a series of minor family crises in the Biff, Chip and Kipper clan, many of them related to Floppy the dog.


Meanwhile, a scheme developed by a teacher in East Anglia was quietly gaining converts. Jolly Phonics was the first widely-used scheme in the UK to apply the principles of synthetic phonics – so called not because they are artificial, but because children learn to read letters phonically (“sounding”), and then synthesize them (“blending”) to read whole words. As long as the word is spelled and pronounced regularly, a child should be able to read antiseptic or discontented as easily as cat or dog. In 1998, the hugely influential Clackmannanshire study followed over 300 children in Scotland for seven years after learning to read with a synthetic phonics scheme, and reported not only significant and lasting improvements in reading achievement, but across the social spectrum and for boys even more than girls. The study impressed Sir Jim Rose, author of the Rose Review into the teaching of reading, which gave rise to 2007’s Letters and Sounds programme, issued to all primary schools in England and Wales (the Scottish education system being separate and independent).

By this point, phonics teaching was attracting some of the most enraged opposition yet, and many teachers and teacher training establishments adopted it with considerable reluctance. Critics were quick to point out that the majority of words in English, and especially those words we use most often (such as “I” and “the”), don’t follow regular spelling and pronunciation patterns, and they also jumped on the rigidity of phonics teaching and the limitations imposed by regular spelling. (I know all about these, having written synthetic phonics readers myself, starting with three-letter words formed from the letters s a t p i n m d – the palette is, you may say, excruciatingly limited.) Synthetic phonics zealots didn’t help themselves in the early stages by insisting that children be kept from all non-phonic material until they had mastered phonics, generally within two terms. And if the whole word method really didn’t work, the critics said, how could you explain the millions of children who had nonetheless learned to read?

The truth is that children are not only a great deal brighter than we often imagine, and more adaptable, but that they learn in a variety of ways. It is my experience that synthetic phonics generally is effective, but I see children all the time learning words and spelling patterns well ahead of the linear progression in most synthetic phonics programmes (and no parent or teacher worth their stripes will object to that). What will make the greatest difference is an encouraging atmosphere, one in which books and reading are valued and seen as desirable (and if you think that’s self-evident, you’d be surprised how many educated and involved parents I meet who find bedtime stories a chore to be limited or avoided, or find it peculiar that I suggest they make sure their children see them reading for pleasure). Children do need encouragement and positive support: perhaps more so today than ever, where the contrast between brilliant, inventive picture books – with lively text and illustrations, textured pages and pop-ups, cut-outs and sound panels, read cosily at home by a parent or carer – and often plodding early reading books which must be self-read with great effort; and it can be hard for them to see the endgame of independent reading of long, text-only books as desirable in itself.


So I am sorry to have misled you with that title, and if you are still reading by this stage I salute your dedication. I can’t offer you that magic bullet, but I can say that there is plenty of good help and advice out there. Some years back, my late colleague Fiona Chandler wrote an excellent and accessible guide to the early stages of reading and writing which I highly recommend. Mumsnet has a page of sound common sense, too.


Finally, to make the process more motivating, your beginner reader is sure to enjoy the children’s BAFTA-nominated Teach your Monster to Read game produced by the Usborne Foundation. I have helped to develop this, advising on the phonics content, and my own children were willing guinea pigs in the early stages; now over 250 parents and teachers a day are signing up, on behalf of some 5,000 pupils a week.

Let no-one underestimate the hard work and anxiety of helping a child to become a fluent and motivated reader, especially in an age where electronic alternatives are so compelling. I wish you good luck and an easy ride – and the chance to see your child, in the end, discover reading not as a chore and a struggle but as a lasting pleasure.


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