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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 00:42 GMT
Real books beat reading schemes
school library
Access to a range of books is important
Psychologists say children learn to read much faster if they are taught from "real" books rather than reading schemes.

Researchers working with some of the most low-achieving schools in the UK - in Essex - say they have managed to cut the proportion of children needing extra help from 20% to 5%.

Applied across England that could save the government 200m a year in special support for struggling pupils, says research leader Jonathan Solity, of the University of Warwick.


We are saying the national literacy strategy is flawed

Researcher Jonathan Solity
But higher achievers also make progress faster, he has found.

Dr Solity's "early reading research" scheme is at odds with the approach in the national literacy strategy.

Teachers 'failing to deliver'

"We are saying the national literacy strategy is flawed," he said.

Ofsted inspections were suggesting that teachers were failing to deliver the strategy properly.

"We are saying it may be more fundamental than that: It may not be taught properly because it's not very good and it's difficult to teach."

The basis of the difference is in the way children are taught phonics - the sounds of letters.

Essential knowledge

In the literacy strategy, "cat" is taught as "c" followed by "at".

Dr Solity and his team instead teach it as "c - a - t".

"Ship" is not "sh - ip" but "sh - i - p".

Having analysed books written for children and adults the researchers established that there were many simple words that could be taught using "phonic clues".

To teach them using the literacy strategy method involved children learning about 350 bits of information for children's books and 550 for adult books.

Using the alternative approach, just 64 bits of information were needed.

"That would enable children to read exactly the same number of words," Dr Solity said.

'Real' books

The latest development is the apparent discovery that teaching children to read ordinary books works better than using reading schemes - series of books typically with the same characters, which increase in difficulty.

boy reading at home
Children benefit from having books at home
He stressed that this was not a throw back to the "real books" approach of the 60s and 70s, in which children were given books and expected to discover reading for themselves.

Instead they were shown how to apply their skills in a wide range of contexts - whereas reading schemes had a narrow focus.

"So what happens when they pick up a comic or a football programme?"

If children had a wide range of books at home, as well as a school reading scheme, they learned that there was a wider context to reading.

Motivation

In other words, well-supported children might read well in spite of the reading scheme not because of it.


You watch them and it's like the penny has dropped

Head teacher Linda Gildea
If children lacked that home support they were less likely to be able to generalise from what they did learn from a school reading scheme.

The research has been done mainly in some of the most difficult areas of Essex, in the education action zones in East Basildon, and Clacton and Harwich.

"The impact on the lowest achievers is dramatic," said Dr Solity. "They are just much more motivated."

Educators back it

Essex's head of special educational needs and psychology, Sue Kerfoot, said: "It is certainly one of the things that I have been involved in that has had the most amazing impact in terms of children's performance.

"Schools have been knocking on our door saying, 'Our colleagues have told us how successful it is and please can we have some?' "

One of the schools taking part is Spring Meadow Primary in Harwich, part of the area's action zone.

"It's so successful. We have seen so much progress," said the head teacher, Linda Gildea.

Parents are given folders to help their children learn the first 100 words which, the research has shown, account for about half of anything children will read.

Parental involvement

"Parents are very, very positive. They seem to see very clearly what their role is."

Most have been in to see how the lessons are organised - typically with one 15-minute session in the morning and two, five-minute reinforcing sessions later in the day.

The focus is on children in the reception and first year classes.

But there is also a dramatic impact on older children who have struggled with reading, Ms Gildea said.

"You watch them and it's like the penny has dropped.

"They say, 'Oh that's how you do it, that's how you read ...'

"When you see that with children that have struggled for a while, it's very pleasing."

See also:

29 Oct 01 | Education
Phonics teaching 'not sound enough'
14 Dec 99 | Education
Poor writing worries inspectors
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