Black Squiggles on a Page

It is quite easy to teach one child to read. Here’s the recipe:


1. Collect a massive pile of great books.

2. Find a grown up who knows how to teach reading (you could replace this person with a mum or dad or any other loved adult who has lots of time if you prefer).


Look for sounds, patterns and meaning together. Glory in the pictures, talk about what’s going on. Who’s that? What’s she doing? Find those ‘oo’ eyes, and that amazingly useful word ‘the’. Check out that tricky ‘le’ sound together, and laugh at how ‘because’ is such a long word but it only has two separate sounds. Talk together as the whale and the snail take an adventure around the world. Wonder at the snail scrawling his trail to save the whale. Look! Words make funny rhyming noises. What pattern is that? Hug and smile and laugh. Pick up the next book and continue.

* * * * * * *

When you have to teach reading on a large scale, and you don’t have much time, then you have to develop a system. We can’t expect a one-to-one program of reading in schools. Synthetic phonics is a great way of getting the most children to read in the least time: put simply, the adults break the code, then train the children in the sounds that the black squiggles make. But I confess, I am a heretic: I believe it has its limitations.

We must never forget that those black squiggles are on the page for a reason. That meaning is the pulsing heartbeat of every single one. That reading is as much about talking and making your own meaning as it is about deciphering a code on a page. Without a backdrop of language and experience, why would you want to read about anything in a book? You have got to know what books are for and connect to them emotionally, otherwise you just won’t be motivated.

Personally I think some children might prefer to carve out a bit of the meaning for themselves, rather than having an adult train them in exactly how to break the code. One way to do this is by using context and prior knowledge to figure out some of what they read. I don’t see why this is a bogeyman if it’s used as one among a basket of methods. Surely it requires an increased cognitive effort from a child to try and find some of the patterns in language for themselves? I also believe etymology is very important: introducing children to the notion that languages mix and change and cross-pollinate as early as possible.

Some children learn to read before they start school. This article makes for very interesting reading on the subject of how the most able start to read. Here’s a parting thought for you on the subject of synthetic phonics: if you had a child in your Reception class who could already read, would you spend time training them in synthetic phonics? And if you would, what exactly would be the purpose of doing that?

Postscript: People tell me it can’t be true, but I swear that I read whole words and that I always have. To me words are as much a shape on a page as they are a sound in my mind. I love the shape they make on a page. They are my black squiggles.

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