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Read All About It - All Shall Read

"Modern illiteracy is a story of needless misery and waste". Thus wrote Stephen Pinker in the introduction to Diane McGuinness's 'Why Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It' in 1997.

Having been involved in teaching for many years, the developers of the Phonics Ireland Synthetic Phonics programme are well acquainted with the misery and waste caused by illiteracy. In previous centuries the education service was tasked with educating an elite to run the state, the church, the army, the professions. There was no urgency to educate the 'lower orders' of society, the 'hewers of wood and the drawers of water'. When students achieved high honours, schools were happy to take credit for their achievements. When students failed, the fault was generally ascribed to some failing in the students themselves.

In the 21st century, these attributions no longer apply or have credibility. The education service is now tasked with the responsibility for educating each and every student to the fullest extent of that young person's abilities. No longer is it acceptable to use rationalisations of social class, family structure, 'intelligence', ethnicity, to account for children's inability to thrive in the school system. Even labels such as 'dyslexia' are increasingly coming into question as grounds for failure. The waste of human potential that Stephen Pinker referred to must no longer be allowed to haemorrhage away and be lost to society (We are only too well aware of the social costs of having an uneducated, unemployable underclass in our society. The consequences for each individual who fails to achieve adequate qualifications can be a lifetime of frustration, underachievement, concealment, depression, sometimes crime.

The reasons for a student's failure in his/her education are many, but there is one constant that is invariably present - poor literacy. If young children could be the recipients of high quality initiation into all aspects of literacy during their years in primary school, they would be much more likely to benefit from the full spectrum of courses and options available when they move on to secondary school.

How can this 'initiation' be achieved? It can be achieved by being far more thoroughgoing than we are in monitoring the minutiae of younger children's performance. It can be achieved by training an elite 'force' of experts for the education of our primary school children; a teaching of an elite who will leave nothing to chance, but are capable of identifying that small group of children who will need specialized help and who can sedulously administer that help. The education service should be embarrassed at the plethora of 'experts' who exist on its periphery, offering services which should be being catered for in the school system.

For far too long parents of a child struggling with his/her literacy have been told that their child may be a 'slow developer' and not to panic that all will be well, and that children 'pick it up' as they go along. Some do and some don't. It is far too risky to take any comfort from empty promises like these. We need to be able to identify problems and deficiencies with laser clarity and to intervene with confidence and sensibility. All our children in the mainstream should be sufficiently literate to achieve appropriate results in public examinations. The haemorrhaging of resources into the Special Needs 'industry' could be greatly reduced and the illiteracy problems of schools shrunken to a fraction of their present extent to manageable proportions, if a proper literacy strategy were in situ.

But what is a 'proper literacy strategy'? The developers of Phonics Ireland have been involved in teaching since the 1970s, in both Britain and Ireland - long enough to have seen fads and fashions come and go. But what hasn't gone is the fairly consistent statistic of around 20% - 30% of our children leaving schools with poor literacy standards. We have seen all manner of versions of Traditional Phonics, Look and Say, Whole Language approaches ......... and yet significant numbers of children pass through our schools and derive inadequate benefit from their time.

It is our belief that if we approached literacy properly, i.e., professionally, with a consistent approach and much higher expectations than we presently have, we would accelerate the learning, actual and potential, of our students. We must dispel the clouds of confusion that exist in our classrooms in relation to literacy.

Children need to feel they are in safe hands as they make their way up through the age levels. They need to have the same basic principles reiterated and the same understanding about skills and code awareness reinforced from teacher to teacher, from class to class.

We believe that the Phonics Ireland programme has identified the core essentials of literacy in a way that make them accessible to the classroom teacher and to those involved in remediation. What we present is simple but not easy. We make demands of those we train but we promise satisfactions and a deeper level of professional expertise to our trainees.

We have designed the programme which is fit for purpose. It is accessible and comprehensible to those who are trained in it and use it painstakingly. We enunciate guiding principles at the outset of the programme and allow it to unfold logically under the light of those principles. The people whom we have taught have reflected back their appreciation of this essential clarity.

If the last century saw too many people suffer needless misery through illiteracy, we believe that the coming century can be a Golden Age of Literacy. We have the wherewithal to make this happen. Let us get on with the job.

Patrick (Paddy) McEvoy

Breaking the Sound Barrier

(Published in INTO magazine, March 2007)

In the ongoing debate on educational standards, the fact that a sizeable proportion of young people in our schools are underachieving due to poor literacy is often highlighted. The modern "fix-it" mentality would have it, that all would be well if we got this aspect of our education service right.

But would it? The question must be asked, "Why are so many of our children finding it so difficult to flourish in the mainstream?" Could it be that the way we teach language to all children needs to be looked at, rather than to pour ever-increasing resources into the remediation of the minority? In our Phonics Ireland trainings we constantly meet teachers who say "If I really knew what I was doing with the good readers and applied it to the others, then my literacy problem would be solved". When asked what he/she had done to bring the reading of the majority to a satisfactory level, the answers are many and varied. It is the existence of these many and varied answers, in my view, that lies at the epicentre of the problem; and that is why I believe we need to conduct a root and branch examination of how we approach language teaching in our schools.

What is reading? What goes on when a person decodes language from its written (encoded) form? First of all the reader needs to know that sounds are in some mysterious, wonderful way represented by the squiggles/graphemes. The developing reader will begin to realise that some sounds are carried by one letter while other sounds are represented or carried by more than one letter. (It is interesting for children to be told how the Latin alphabet came to be adopted historically; this fascinating story takes us back to the Phoenicians and beyond). The young reader needs to know that in the case of the English language certain spellings carry more than one sound. In other words, the child needs to have basic linguistic principles explained in matter-of-fact, easily understood language. We need to see words as the child sees them and to guide him/her as to their nature and nuances.

When the child sees simple CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words like cat, dog, cup she/he needs to be told that the skills we need to make sense of words involve breaking them up into their elements (segmenting) c-a-t and then linking or blending them together in one breath to make the word. When the child is consciously decoding and properly reading (not merely memorizing), the shocks, traumas and anxieties that can result in dys-lexia, which literally means trouble with words are obviated and the consequent developmental log-jams minimized. The child comes to realise that a spelling can stand for more than one sound as in Amy wanted all the fat tomatoes. Thus will the young reader come to be expert in the skill of sound switching These three essential skills, segmenting, blending and sound switching, if set forth sedulously by the teacher become second nature to the child.

The adept teacher will also take every opportunity to make the pupil aware of the "code". What "code"? In our trainings, when we ask teachers how many sounds there are in the English language, we get conflicting answers (often twenty six). When we talk of about forty four sounds divided into vowels and consonants and ask how many vowels there are, we are often told "five". These answers are a consequence of basing language teaching on the alphabet. It needs to be explained to children that the trouble with the alphabet in the English language is that the number of letter names in the alphabet does not equal the number of sounds (phonemes) in the language. We need to explain conscientiously and repeatedly to children that some sounds are carried by one letter while others are written using more than one letter: c-a-t; s-t-r-ee-t; h-igh; eigh-t.

This is the code: the approximately one hundred and fifty common spellings of the forty-four sounds. Children become expert very quickly in recognising the code. Spelling tests change their character when children, instead of being asked to clutter up their brains with letter names (no more see-ae-tee for c-a-t), are being asked to identify the sounds and represent them in the agreed, conventional form. When the child learns to synchronise the sounding of the phoneme, while writing or encoding the grapheme, there is a marked improvement in handwriting skills.

In our Phonics Ireland trainings we explain in great detail what the class teacher/tutor/parent needs to know in order to de-mystify language for children. No longer should the confusion between the Whole Language approach and a plethora of rules-based phonics programmes be causing confusion in the minds of our children. It is time for an over-arching consistency, from teacher to teacher, from class to class, from school to school. No mainstream child should be leaving first level schooling with deficient literacy skills.

It is time we identified the essential skills and knowledge that are needed for fluent, automatic reading. By initiating all our children into the skills and knowledge needed for fluent reading we will be better able to identify those who present with more intractable learning difficulties and intervene more effectively. We need more enlightened approaches to language work from the earliest stages, in the form of well-designed developmental programmes for the pre-school child. We need not rush into formal work too early but when we do, we should be much better prepared for the task in hand.

There is a vast army of potential helpers, the parents, at hand, who could and should be employed to far more telling effect, particularly when a child needs that extra bit of reassurance and encouragement. Too often I hear from parents that they are not invited into the inner sanctum and given precise guidance on what they might do in detailed specific ways to assist their child, particularly in the often fraught area of error correction and feedback.

The particular type of phonics teaching described above has come to be known as synthetic phonics. It is based on exhaustive research in linguistics and is producing dramatic results where it is being implemented. After years of to-ing and fro-ing from one system to the other, the Department of Education in London has come down decisively on the side of synthetic phonics following the 2006 report of the Rose Enquiry. It is to be hoped that enlightened counsels prevail in Dublin before too much valuable time elapses.

We owe it to all our children, particularly in this dawning era of melting-pot Ireland that we be equal to the educational challenges that lie ahead. It is the birthright of all children to be nurtured in a love of sounds, musical and vocal, a love of story, poetry and song and in the love of knowledge, the springboard to which is the love of every aspect of language.

Patrick (Paddy) McEvoy

Label Babel

When I first started teaching in London in the 1960's, the school had a stream called the 'Remove'. I had first encountered 'Removes' when reading about Billy Bunter, the Fat Owl of Greyfriars in the 'Knockout' comic. Billy would attract a surfeit of labels if he were around today. The original Billy may be a ghost of times past, but he has many reincarnations peppered across our contemporary schools.

The school I began teaching at was a Girls' Secondary Modern in North London. There were three 'streams' in each year: the 'A Grammar'; the 'B Stream' and the 'Remove'. The 'A Grammar' consisted of the girls who didn't make it to the Grammar School, and the reasons why many didn't make it turned me against selection at 11+ for life. Many of these girls had passed the exam, but in order to keep the sex balance stable in the Grammar schools, boys were admitted who, although they hadn't done as well as the girls, were given places to preserve 'symmetry'.

The 'Grammar' girls were a delight to teach, ambitious, organised, questioning. But I dreaded the Remove. Here things could go badly wrong, very fast. Many of the girls here were labelled ESN - Educationally Sub-Normal. 'Educationally Sub-Normal'........ It has a certain ring to it, even now. Imagine using that term today. "Mr/Mrs ____, we are going to put your child in the Remove as she is Educationally Sub-Normal." Having been thus consigned, what hope is there of ever climbing out of that educational pit? To be in a Secondary Modern was a label too far for many, particularly the girls whose erstwhile friends in Primary School or family siblings had gone on to Grammar School. But to have ESN slammed on you as well had a grim finality about it.

Those in the 'B Stream' were just generally revolting. I don't mean unpleasant - (many were that also); I mean, uncontrollable, indisciplined, sandwiched as they were between the airs and graces of the Grammar Stream and the 'untermensch' of the Remove.

The great 11+ Debate was raging at the time. The Labour Government had issued the famous 'Circular 10/65', and the era of the Grammars began to draw to a close, a process well and truly aided and abetted by Margaret Thatcher, of fond memory, who, when she came to power, closed more Grammar schools than any other Secretary of State for Education.

It wasn't as if labels or put-downs were new to me. I had heard some choice examples during my own school days in Tipperary. 'Thick, stupid, eejit, dolt, dunce, backward, ommadaun, gom, and a plethora of others were strewn like viruses, while some teachers indulged in more colourful put-downs: "You wouldn't see a hole in a ladder", "If you saw shells, you wouldn't guess eggs", "You should get a job on the railways - as a sleeper", "You should get a job in the Air Force because you're no good on earth". "Dim as a Toc H Lamp", "Lift doesn't go all the way up", "Lights on but nobody home", "One sandwich sort of a picnic", "Not the full shilling", among others, were pigeon-holings I was to encounter as I worked in English schools. Some teachers atop their hillock of enlightenment felt emboldened to issue insult after insult. They had the power and they were going to remind you of that fact, time and again. The deliberate phasing out of such crudely gratuitous categorizations is to be welcomed.

During my Social Sciences studies at University, I became more conscious of the power of labelling to divide and rule. There is nothing more effective than having a label slapped on you to keep you in your place.

And then, when my teaching career began in the late Sixties, the limiting realities of state education quite rapidly dawned on me. I suppose in my idealism, I expected things to be further on after over a century of public education. I'm afraid I was to be disillusioned as the workaday grinding realities of schools came home to roost.

I was particularly dismayed by the failure of schools to achieve mass literacy. Articles would appear in the Times Educational Supplement and Teachers' magazines drawing attention to sociological and psychological factors accounting for this failure. Basil Bernstein was around that time propounding his 'Language Codes' theory; Elaborated and Restricted Codes, depending on your social class. We were to hear language such as 'Social Exclusion' and of not being a 'Stakeholder' in the Eighties and Nineties.

When teaching in London Borough of Brent in the 70's and 80's the debate was heavily dominated by Gender and Race matters. The lobbies that advanced these particular ideologies were insistent and implacable, and for a white middle-class male (albeit Irish) to breathe a word questioning these rigid orthodoxies would have been to imperil one's very career.

One particular Race Relations guru from the Borough invited himself in to speak to our staff on Race matters. (He had probably got a rumour of dissent in the ranks). He started the session by inviting the staff to name anything/something which was distinctly or uniquely English. We immediately could feel the drift of the meeting. Some brave souls mentioned things like Morris Dancing, cricket, democracy, etc, etc, all to be batted aside by his eminence as being nothing special, certainly not uniquely English. When he said something along the lines of all cultures being equal and that cultural practices were the business of the culture concerned and that outsiders had no right to criticise and was this OK with us, I said I disagreed, that, for instance, female genital mutilation and forced marriage were matters of public concern. (My ascent up the slippery slope probably ended there and then).

In the literacy 'debate', there was a fearsome regiment of pushy people who were all for 'Look and Say', and the 'Whole Books', approach. Phonics was so 1950's, and we were going to usher in a Brave New World using the Hungry Caterpillar, and get rid of 'nasty' Janet and John and Enid Blyton. I'm sorry I wasn't confident enough back then to take these people on. Everything was of a piece with them - gender politics, race and ethnicity matters, the class struggle, Third World exploitation, the oppression of capitalism, imperialism, environmentalism etc, etc. Engaging with these zealots was a charged business, like one of those games where you removed a brick from the tower - withdraw the wrong brick and the whole tottering lot crashes down; except that you never knew which brick was holding the thing up. Such was the linguistic minefield these people lived in. (I sometimes wondered what parents would make of some of the more riotous Union meetings I attended).

The Special Needs industry really came into its own in the 80's / 90's. After the debacle of Cyril Burt and the massaging of I.Q. statistics, measured I.Q. was increasingly questioned. Some 'experts' produced (and are still producing) figures purporting to draw relationships between I.Q. and ethnicity. These statistics make for very uncomfortable reading, as do statistics for educational success, or failure, among various ethnic groups, and social classes. We shall never know the whole truth of these complex matters, but what we should know by now is that all stereotyping and generalising, whether by ethnicity or gender, is dangerous and offensive. The terms Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome, and others began to be heard more commonly in recent decades. Prescriptive statements like 'Global Development Delay', 'Holistic rather than linear learner', 'Atypical learner', 'Visual learner', 'Auditory learner', 'Kinesthetic learner', 'Right Brain learner', 'Left Brain learner' cropped up more and more in educational debates and writings. Howard Gardner really put the cat amongst the pedagogical pigeons with his theory of Multiple Intelligences. The curriculum architects really had something to get their teeth into with that, designing the Ideal Curriculum that catered for the Interpersonal, the Intrapersonal, the Naturalistic, the Verbal/Linguistic, the Musical/Rhythmical, the Visual/ Spatial, the Bodily/Kinesthetic, the Logical/ Mathematical. To tell a child that s/he is a visual, etc. learner is to do him/her no favours, in my view.

During the years of the current Labour Government, the numbers of ancillary/support staff in schools have mushroomed, a threefold increase (c. 60,000 to c. 180,000). The same has happened in educational administration, (c. 73,000 to c. 157,000); billions spent on an exponential rise in people doing many non-essential things and getting huge salaries for such pointless labours. (Spending has rocketed from c. £29bn in 1996 to £64bn last year) The Classroom Assistants saga was a ruse to get teachers on the cheap, but the reality of the situation is, an throng of 'carers' traipsing around after young people many of whom either shouldn't be in the classroom in the first place, or else should be encouraged to develop greater independence. If they (the Assistants) were engaged in getting through a mountain of marking each morning, they would be rendering a real service to hard-pressed teachers.

Sociologists and psychologists keep producing papers on educational sub-cultures, contra-cultures, on educational and linguistic poverty, on social deprivation, cultural deprivation, on relative and absolute poverty, the sociology of the family, unemployment, and social exclusion etc., etc. What chance do teachers have against such a tidal wave of conflicted findings? Trainee teachers are blitzed with these theories and pontifications. They are told more about how to justify underperformance and demotivation (both theirs', and their students') than on how to be peerless teachers. In literacy, they are lectured that eclecticism is the way forward; a bit of this and a bit of that, the 'Fools and Horses' approach, rather than to adopt a thorough-going, carefully-enunciated, principles-led approach to literacy success, as they would receive in a good synthetic phonics training.

Generations of teachers have been bamboozled by the Sociology and Psychology industries. With the fateful words 'Research has shown......', the conversation ends; the unfortunate teacher is silenced. It ends, that is, until some other genius conducts research that provides data which challenges earlier findings, using a different 'methodology', then the spat spins off into its own orbit, leaving the teacher back where s/he started, still faced each new day with a sea of eager faces, questing minds, hungry souls. People should have much less respect for so-called research. It is like today's newspaper - out-of-date before it is published. Most social scientific research is practically worthless, because it is not scientific. The word methodology is, sadly, codology. If most of these faculties were shut down, (along with Economics and Theology faculties), would their loss be noticed, except by the beneficiaries? They produce smokescreens and create a fog-bound context in which, the fact that a quarter of our young people are barely literate, can be expediently explained away. (I came across the label Strephosymbolia recently - imagine being told your child was suffering from Strephosymbolia? Turns out it apparently means mixing up 'b's and 'd's, etc., but why say that when you can put the fear of god into parents by using a term like Strephosymbolia?).

Terms like Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, etc, are not merely used casually, they are used in a quasi-medical way. Children are described as 'suffering' from Dyslexia, of being 'diagnosed' as 'having' Dyspraxia, etc. These labels are affixed as if the child had Measles, Tuberculosis, Asthma. People have forked out large sums to be told their child was 'suffering' from Dyslexia (or more likely, that the child was 'somewhere' on the Dyslexia spectrum). Such use of language can be very unhelpful, but it hasn't caused the high priests of the diagnosis industry to question the morality of what they are doing. ("We must earn a crust somehow", was what one psychologist said when questioned on the overlap one finds in children's psychological reports.) Ironically and sadly, some parents nowadays are pushing to have their children labelled, in order to get more exam time, or to get a reader to read the paper to them. (One student even asked to have a reader to do the reading component of an English exam; nothing wrong with his logic!) I also come across children who use the labels as a defence mechanism, as a shield. 'I have dyslexia, so there'. In other words, 'I've a cast-iron case for playing the system and getting out of doing the work essential to my literacy and educational success'.

It must also be asked, that of the hundreds of thousands of children who pass through our schools, why so few are identified as needing labelling in the first place? As the conveyor belt chugs steadily forward, the occasional 'misfit' is identified and the label factory cranks up. Poor literacy and bad behaviour are the two major obstacles to educational success. If these cannot be addressed in-house, in tandem with heavy and sustained family involvement, then school and child fail. As long as education remains a political football, those who feed off it will remain in situ and things will go on as they are, with governments expecting us to swallow the lie that literacy and education generally, are improving year on year.

In researching this paper, I came across nearly forty labels in past, or current usage, to explain away educational failure, in post-war Britain and Ireland. 'Educationally sub-normal' and the 'Remove' may have an Anglo-Saxon crudeness about them, but the Babel of labels churned out by the tagging-factory in recent decades has merely served to describe in more esoteric language, the same realities of educational and social failure.

The purpose of this article is not to deny that there may be some value or point to the study of factors that cause children to be de-motivated or to underachieve. No, the raw material certainly exists for academics to do never-ending research and to advance their own careers. The value to the serving teacher of this continuing stream of publications is questionable when that teacher realises that after four years of teacher training studies, s/he cannot successfully teach a struggling child how to read, or to teach basic Mathematics. A more confident, self-assured profession would be less susceptible to the speculations and fads of the 'experts', and would be more accomplished in delivering generations of children skilled in literacy, numeracy and a host of other developed gifts, both to higher education and to the labour market.

Perhaps then, teaching as a profession might regain the respect it once enjoyed.

Patrick McEvoy, co-developer with Harry Blackstock of the Phonics Ireland Synthetic Phonics Literacy Programme