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Teaching Reading

This is my first ever blog. It stems from a tirade on Twitter against an SEN specialist who had the temerity to announce he was going to teach English GCSE without actually having an English degree and then he asked for help. How dare he? Didn’t he know he wasn’t qualified? Well do you know what?- he may be far more qualified than the majority of secondary English teachers at least when they begin.

The reality( in my opinion and only based on my experience) is that secondary English teachers are not trained to teach reading from the level many SEN pupils begin with and indeed there is real confusion about reading in general. Take the tests that are carried out quite routinely by secondary schools to assess reading ages on entry. Even if the school is sensible enough to explain that a reading age of ten is pretty average and nine and a half means pupils are basically functionally literate, how many teachers know what the average six or seven or eight year old can read? Do they realise that the majority of reading tests administered by schools provide a reading comprehension age and some pupils may very well be able to decode fluently without understanding what they have read?

Teachers may have understood the importance of phonics but do they know how to teach it? Have they even heard of a schwa sound? I seriously doubt it.

SEN specialists, on the other hand, are taught how to teach phonics and what the tests mean and what level of text is appropriate for what age. They have to be well versed in these topics, whilst managing the behaviour of and motivating some of the most challenging learners in the school, many of whom have experienced failure throughout their school life on a scale few can really understand.

Do I think an outstanding SEN specialist is qualified to teach an SEN class at GCSE? You’re damned right I am.

I also raised a question which aroused a lot of interest: “Do teachers know what to do if phonics teaching doesn’t work?” To explain what I mean I am going to use an anecdote, but I am also going to be quite careful to clarify first.

By “phonics teaching” I mean teaching the sounds (or phonemes) words are made up of. I find the fact there is a debate over phonics is just weird. I particularly like the “ReadWriteInc” scheme and I can’t believe anyone would argue against excellent phonic schemes like this. Almost everyone can learn to read through effective phonics teaching. (Are there really any primary schools who do not teach phonics?)

However SEN teaching provokes even more questions and I am going to use an anecdote to illustrate my point. I first started teaching a pupil who I shall call John in Year Seven. He had already done “Jolly Phonics” and “Toe by Toe” in primary school, he had already been assessed by an educational psychologist and awarded a statement, and he had already failed to learn to read and spell accurately again, and again, and again, year, after year, after year. He was still quite a pleasant young man with a positive outlook.

I began poorly, using a variation of what he had already tried before, with SATPIN and the standard, “say the sound, read the sound, write the sound,” method. I did manage to teach him his alphabet along the way but when it came to vowel sounds particularly “i” it just wouldn’t stick. At this point you do need to understand how phonic teaching works: you start with the alphabet and the initial sounds and you are not meant to move on until they have mastered these sounds, so I adapted and repeated with songs with posters (even with a rap). Still it wouldn’t stick. What was I meant to do now-teach him the “i” sound for the rest of the year? No. Of course not. Someone commented to me on Twitter that very few people can’t learn to read through good phonics teaching and she was right- but John was one of that few.

So what I did was move on and adapt. I assessed his reading in a different test for a new reading scheme we were lucky enough to pilot. I would find a way to come back to this sound in a different way. In the mean time what I found was that John could read more than I thought. He began at the lowest level of the rapid -reading plus scheme and worked his way up. When it came to bigger words he did better- he seemed to assimilate whole word recognition far more quickly than sounds.

The rapid-plus books work by encouraging discussion of the subject of the book (activating prior knowledge so that learners can use context) highlighting “tricky words” at the start which the teacher reads and then the pupil repeats, then the teacher models by reading the tricky words in an introduction, then the pupil reads the finally leveled text and the teacher helps with the tricky words if necessary. There is an added level, because each student has ebook versions of the text they can practise on. If they get stuck on a word they can click on the word and the computer will help them. They can also get the computer to read the whole text to them. Rapid-plus also keeps a record of all the words that the pupil clicks on and how many times.

The books have a fiction and related non fiction texts and really bad jokes at the end which are unfunny enough to be hilarious, and the tricky words are gradually elaborated on.

If that was all I used I still don’t think John would have progressed but I also used a range of spelling strategies for his target spelling patterns in a carousel. He made his words out of plasticine,  he made mnemonics, he played competitive speed spelling games, he tried to spell them with a blindfold, he tried to spell them backwards,  in shaving foam, in salt, with scrabble tiles. All of these strategies were designed to improve his visual memory and were taken from the practice of an excellent dyslexia specialist.

John still finds the “i” sound difficult, but he is now functionally literate – he can read. All I did was look at what I was doing and judged it not to be significantly different to what had been tried before, so I tried something else.

If only all SEN teaching was this simple. It’s not. Sometimes what you work on is emotional or behavioural, because you could spend all year teaching some pupils reading and spelling in the most engaging ways, but if you don’t deal with these primary needs their scores can  actually decrease.

I’m sorry if I have offended anyone by daring to try something other than a phonics scheme when it clearly wasn’t working for this rare young man, but I think that is what I’m paid to do as a teacher; react to the needs of the learners in front of me.

Finally, let me be clear:

1.Good phonics teaching is essential and the most effective way to teach everyone, bar the exceptions like John, to read.

2.Secondary English teachers are, on the whole, not trained to do most if not all of the above (in my opinion).

3. Just because an experienced and clearly excellent practitioner does not have an English degree does not mean he won’t do a better job than someone with an English degree.