AS the society for which we are preparing our children is one that assumes literacy, it is not surprising that parents are worried when they hear of reports which seem to indicate that the standards of reading in ours schools is declining.
Ability to read well — that is. to recognise the symbols used to record in print the sounds of speech and to interpret those symbols so that their meaning is understood — is essential not only for the acquisition of knowledge but also, because of the nature of our society, for the development of mentally healthy and happy children.
The recent report, "The Trend of Reading Standards," (Dr. K. B. Smart and Mr. B. K. Wells, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research, 2 Jennings Buildings, Thames Avenue, Windsor, Berkshire, 70p. plus 5p postage was the result of a nation-wide survey. Because it was interpreted in some quarters as being highly critical of modern teaching methods it was by no means necessarily so — it is as well that parents should know exactly what it did report.
Many teachers will say that one of the most serious factors in a child's reading difficulties is parental neurosis, and so the object of this article is to summarise for them what modern researches indicate. The situation is not nearly as desperate as many fear. In fact, Professor M. V. Vernon has gone so far as to say that 'some large-scale surveys of reading achievement suggest that the number of children who are backward in reading has decreased in recent years to a small proportion of the general school population:"
("Guide Lines for '1 eachers No. 4." published by the College of Special Education, 85 Newman Street, London, W.1-) What Smart and Wells reported was that, based on the tests they used, reading standards are no better than they were in the middle sixties. (Some educationalists criticise the tests employed because of an alleged use of situations lacking relevance to children of the 1970s and therefore query their appropriateness and the absolute validity of finding based on them alone.)
One test showed that there was a high probability, statistically speaking, that reading comprehension standards of junior children had declined somewhat since 1960. But both the tests also showed that the average reading score of both junior and senior children have undergone no significant rise or fall since 1960.
The consistent increase in reading comprehension which surveys from 1948 to 1964 revealed has not been maintained. Was it to be expected? Those were the years when there was so much leeway to make up after the war conditions. There was bound to be some trailing off to a plateaulike pattern of progress after the hill-climbing was over.
This assertion is not to be interpreted as complacency. There is no room for that as there is still a literacy problem. The report brings that out. There are still factors such as large classes, the adequate and realistic training of all teachers, not just 'infant and junior, but secondary as well, as it is in the secondary school that the evil results of illiteracy are most felt — the provision of suitable materials, the attitudes of parents and their ability to help the child to acquire mastery of the language, that is, language not restricted to a narrow code.
To quote Vernon again: "Children in lower socioeconomic classes often have less contact with their mothers than have middle-class children and spend more time in company with children who tend to use a language of their own."
Milner (1951) found that linguistic ability was better developed in children in middle-class homes than in those of poorer homes, not only because the latter were less cultured, but also because the relationship between parents and children was less warm and there was less verbal interaction between them. The solution here lies more outside the school. and in the wider society.
Then, of course, there is the factor of poor intelligence. If that is allied to parental pressure, unsatisfactory en v i ronment, unsympathetic teaching, there is a real problem.
Whlt Of the popular concept of dyslexia, or word-blindness as it is described? The word itself means disturbance of reading and it is quite meaningless to say that reading disability is caused by dyslexia.
Many educationalists. including Dr. Joyce Morris, who has conducted major surveys into reading standards, deny that it exists and attribute severe backwardness to a concatenation of factors, according to Professor Vernon.
Certainly disturbance of reading caused by some defect in the brain is not very frequent among the total school population. Unfortunately, the term is more frequently used as an excuse for general reading failure and some teachers, Pilate-like, wash their hands of a problem and shelter under the word as an excuse for failing to teach systematically, to diagnose efficiently, to devise remedial treatment.
However. there are a few cases of children of normal intelligence, from a good environment, showing no emotional maladjustment in the early stages, but whose defect in visual perception and impaired language ability, may be due to the slow maturation of the function of the brain which affects the association between visual and auditory precepts. Professor T. R. Miles, in his hook. "On Helping the Dyslexic Child" (Methuen Education Paperbacks, 75p.) asserts that the term actually helps parents rather than distresses them. have often met parents who could tell that something was wrong, without knowing what: and if one could make it clear that the child is suffering from a recognised disability about which certain probable predictions can be made, this enables them to come to realistic appraisal of the difficulties they and the child have to face."
The fact is that the more we know of the learning process in reading. the more we know we need to know. One or all of the current inquiries -three official ones are being mounted, one by the Department of Education and Science, one by the N.F.E.R. and one by the I.T.A. Foundation in conjunction with the N.F.E.R.. may indicate new lines of approach but 1 doubt if anything revolutionary will emerge.
In fact, the past decade has seen more innovations in the form of new materials. methods and media than the previous 50 years produced. What is wanted now is a long, cool look at them and some assessment of their relative merits under controlled conditions. Not that any one method or set of materials will ever be the one superior to all for all teachers and all children.
"Success is more relative to the teacher and the child than to the methods and materials employed," write Donald and Louise M. Moyle in the preface to their most instructive book. "Modern Innovations in the Teaching of Reading", a United Kingdom Reading Association M on og r a ph published in Unibooks, University of London Press. 1971, 75p. "The enthusiasm and expertise of the teacher will. of course, be more apparent when he or she is happy with the approach being used."
In all the complexity and sometimes confusion of advice given in the teaching of reading, one thing is being in
creasingly stated unambiguously. It is the need for a structured. systematic approach.
"What distinguished the two groups of schools were not the warmth of atmosphere, nor the degree of concern for the children which was manifest in most classrooms, but rather the extent to which the teacher exerted direct control over the children's learning." ("The Roots of Reading," Brian Cane and Jane Smithers. edited by Gabriel Chanan, N.F.F.R.. £1.25.)
However, this observation should not be interpreted as an attack upon informal and child-centred methods as such. Rather is it an attack upon feckless teaching, inefficient supervision and lack of understanding of the learning process.
"These schools (the most successful school of all and another successful one) combined a child-centred approach and atmosphere with a high degree of teacher-direction in certain specific things, notably the teaching of phonics."
Later in Cie same report the need for an organised teaching programme is again stressed with more emphasis, especially for boys, on auditory discrimination — that is upon the development of the ability to notice the separate sounds in spoken words. "This is not to say that phonics alone leads to improved reading standards but neglect of it can he disastrous . . . Teachers taught look-and-say as well as the sounds of the alphabet."
Whereas Dr. Joyce Morris found little difference in achievement between children taught by phonic and by other methods, J. Chall did. ("Learning to Read," McGraw Hill. 1967.) The current researches may clarify the argument but certainly will not deny the need for an organised, systematic scheme for each child so that progress is on predetermined lines and not haphazard. This is possible — and essential in an informal approach.
Colleges of education have come under fire for not properly preparing students to teach this most basic of subjects. criticism being especially applied to courses for junior and secondary teachers. Professor Vernon quotes Dr. Morris's 1966 research that 52 per cent. of the teachers in junior schools receiving children still in the early stages of learning to read, did not know how to teach those early Stages.
"Many of these had received little or no instruction in the teaching of reading at their
training colleges or subsequently. 1 he position of secondary teachers would have been even more depressing."
In the light of this defect in the teacher-training system, it is interesting to note the development of reading centres in two, at least, of our Catholic colleges of education, Notre Dame. Liverpool, and Digby Stuart. London.
Special rooms are available with reading kits, programmes, graded texts, technical aids such as tape recorders, videotapes of television programmes, the talking page and the language master, teachers' reference books, diagnostic tests, examples of books for formal reading teaching. for reading for pleasure and for information, colourful charts and diagrams, for consultation by teachers finding themselves with a reading problem to tackle or wishing to bring their knowledge up-to-date, as well as by the students.
These centres are following the lines pioneered by the Reading University Reading Centre (try getting a child in difficulties to read that correctly first time) and are likely to become focal points for the schools they serve. They are encouraging, too, a two-way communication and sharing of experience and thus fostering the ideal of college-school cooperation in ahe teacher education.
In-service courses for practising teachers — a feature of the James proposals which Mrs. Thatcher is now considering — will be provided and will help to remedy the defect Dr. Morris has pointed. Incidentally, she is the consultant of the Digby Stuart Centre.
At Notre Dame a special course will he run later in the academic year for teachers of children of 9 to 13 years where
several researches have reported considerable need. Mrs. Leighton Pearce, who is in charge of the Digby Stuart Centre, is reported in the Times Educational Supplement of July 7 last as being willing to produce a regular news letter
if schools agree to pay a small subscription.
In many colleges now where professional studies which includo reading as a compulsory subject for all students, are being organised with the same status as the study of educational theory and of an academic subject and given an equal time allocation, much of the criticism, albeit frequently invalid, of the remoteness of the teacher-training course from the actual work in the classroom, is being removed.
To conclude. Parents are right to be concerned about reading standards but need not be alarmed. The schools are not turning out hordes of illiterates. If parents provide their children with wide experiences. have plenty of books and other forms of written language available in their homes, have positive attitudes towards intellectual activities such as reading; if they read regularly to their children and hold quite elaborate conversations with them, their children are likely to become good readers and to have a head-start in the education process which still judges its successes or failures more through language ability than any other trite ria in its early stages.
They will be playing their part if they consult the teachers, find out the system employed, ensure that they fit in with it in their own help and encouragement, and let the school know that they expect it to be efficient, teacher-controlled and yet child-centred. "Children need richness of ex perience. esp ec i al I y in language, and that costs parental time as well as money.
"The investment of time in talking with children and in sharing the content of books with them, is probably the most certain method of getting them ready for learning to read. This applies both at school and at home."
"Reading Readiness", John Downing and D. V. Thackray, a t J. K .R . A. Teaching of Reading Monograph, published in Unibooks, University of London Press, 1971, 75p.).