A tale of two swimming classes

I had a horrible experience of learning to swim.

My memory is perhaps unreliable but I was clearly slow to pick-up the skills. My grandfather was paying for the swimming classes; something that he tended to point out. I remember my instructor making a big deal about us jumping in to the pool during one lesson. I was full of excitement to share this new achievement with my parents. Until I realised that they were distinctly unmoved.

To compound matters, my mum’s best friend had a son my age and we’d meet up a lot to play together while our parents socialised. The best friend’s son was an exceptional swimmer and it seemed to me that discussing this fact was one of the most popular topics of conversation.

When it came time for my two little girls to learn to swim we had a decision to make. There was the class on the industrial estate that was run by a former Olympic swimmer and there was the class at the health centre. My sister-in-law sent her kids to the one on the industrial estate and gave the impression it was a bit of a sink-or-swim place. One of her children had cried about going there.

So, conscious of my own childhood experience, we sent the girls to the class at the health centre. 

And they absolutely loved it.

They were excited to go every Friday. They used ‘noodles’ in the class for buoyancy – long tubes of foam. They engaged in behaviour that looked very much like swimming and the instructors were friendly and encouraging. At the end of each lesson, the girls were given a lolly.

There was a catch. After about twelve months the girls really could not swim. They had a great attitude towards swimming; they just couldn’t actually do it.

With deep misgivings, we enrolled them at the school on the industrial estate.

It was a different world. From the moment they entered the water the girls were given explicit instruction. It wasn’t unfriendly; it was businesslike with no time to waste. A supervisor – often the former Olympic athlete – kept an eye on the whole pool and would spot things and intervene. Sometimes, the supervisor would pull an instructor aside and have an animated discussion.

The girls were getting lots of explicit feedback and so were the instructors. After about three lessons, both girls were swimming short distances unaided.

This gave them a sense of achievement. Soon they were moving up a class and were given certificates to mark this; a source of some pride. Now they loved swimming and were gaining a sense of achievement from it. No tears. 

Of course, this little vignette does not prove anything. Perhaps the first class had readied the girls for the second one. But I know what I think.

As a child, I eventually learnt to swim. My mum took me to a different, more intensive class and I picked it up quite quickly. So I was probably a casualty of poor instruction. 

Unfortunately, by then I had decided that I was a bad swimmer; that there was something wrong with me; that it was my fault. So I’ve never been able to enjoy swimming. I don’t swim recreationally as an adult and even the smell of a chlorinated pool makes me feel anxious. Of course, I get over myself for the sake of my girls and I swim with them. It’s just that there’s no love there.

I wonder if this is some peoples’ experience of learning to read.


23 thoughts on “A tale of two swimming classes

  1. Pingback: A tale of two swimming classes |

  2. I was given direct instruction in swimming as a child. It never worked and was boring. I only learnt to swim later in life by joining the local pool and practicing on my own every day until I got better at it.

    Does this mean anything or tell us anything about teaching? No, it’s an anecdote.

    • You are absolutely right, Tim. This post proves nothing, A point that I acknowledge in the post. It is meant more as a personal reflection that some might find interesting.

      The problem you have identified is also present when people argue from personal experience. Stating that a teaching approach ‘works for me’ is essentially relying on anecdotal evidence. Even qualitative research can fall into this trap.

      When it comes to teaching reading then we need to look at large scale studies. Helpfully, three different governments have convened at least four panels to do this for us:


      Click to access report.pdf


      Click to access ED416465.pdf

      They all endorse explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

      • Not sure why you’ve introduced phonics to this discussion, Greg. Phonics have been used in UK primary schools for at least 15 years, I can remember Jolly Phonics being used explicitly & systematically at the infant school I worked at in the 90s. I think you’ll find there are very few primary teachers in the UK who don’t think phonics help support children’s reading (me included). But, are they a magic bullet? No. Are they the only way to teach children to read? No. Is it effective to teach them to children via instruction for more than 20 minutes a day? No (as Hirsch argues).
        What primary teachers know is that there is a great deal more to primary education than just teaching phonics and many of those things are best taught via methods other than instruction.

      • Sorry. The post was meant to suggest a parallel with reading instruction, hence the last line. I think that, with phonics, it’s important to stress that these reports support explicit, systematic phonics rather than other phonics methods. The Snow report, for instance, compares two phonics approaches and concludes that the explicit, systematic one is superior.

  3. Explicit, systematic, is not the same as exclusive. This is where primary teachers get irritated. Their own experience tells them children learn through a variety of methods and don’t want to be told (for professional reasons) that if they find another method works (alongide phonics) they can’t use it because ‘research concludes’ phonics is superior.

  4. Professional practice, developed over time, through experience is different to an anecdote about one personal event. An anecdote is a weak argument to use to convince others, personal experience (developed over time) is a good (if not foolproof) guide to effective practice. It is the bedrock of professional teaching.

      • It’s an argument for effective teaching and professional judgement, which I think we agree on. What I don’t understand is why some advocates of phonics want to tell practicing teachers, who have spent their careers teaching children to read, can not use methods they find through experience to be effective. This makes no sense to me and damages their credibility and influence.

      • This is where we differ. I would not elevate the anecdotal experiences of individual teachers over the large scale evidence reviewed by these panels. The standard of evidence of the latter is clearly higher.

      • Chester Draws says:

        “What I don’t understand is why some advocates of phonics want to tell practicing teachers, who have spent their careers teaching children to read, “

        I’ve been lectured to by an old teacher about how my methods were inappropriate and experience had taught him that his were much better. He was also one of the worst teachers in the school. His methods sucked and the kids actively tried to get out of his classes.

        Yes, it’s another anecdote. But we all know that experience is not always the best guide.

  5. You think teachers should be instructed to ignore their own experience in this matter and only use phonics to teach reading, even if they find other methods might help children (alongide the use of phonics)?

    • It depends what these methods are. Where they clearly conflict with the advice of the panels then these methods should be abandoned. For instance, the Rose review contains an appendix explaining that there is no evidence for the searchlights method and that this approach is potentially harmful. This should therefore be abandoned, whatever teachers’ subjective experience. We cannot even argue for this approach on the basis of tradition and craft knowledge, given that it seems that it was invented relatively recently by Marie Clay.

      • I’ve no problem arguing some methods work better than others – that’s what healthy professional debate is about – but I get annoyed when people say the debate is over and we should only use one prescribed method. That’s not professional, critical, or intelligent.

  6. Nicola says:

    Interesting comments. My son progressed every year with his reading. Every year his teacher was happy with his progress. The classroom experience appeared to support the teaching received. The progress my son made was deemed appropriate and he was thought to respond well to the version of phonics that the school provided. Unfortunately, my son in reality was falling further behind. At almost 10 years of age I took him out of school for 1 hour a week over a total of 15 weeks. A large amount of daily practice was also required to complete an intensive programme of SSP. This resulted in a particularly large improvement in comprehension as well as reading scores.
    How can a classroom teacher, who will have a child for one year and see progress, ever be able to reflect with accuracy? What norms have they used to make their judgement?

    • My brother’s reading story is a funny one. He never read. School couldn’t make him. Wasn’t interested. Then, he was probably 7 or 8 the commuter game Zelda came out and he wanted it. The characters don’t speak, it’s all through speech bubble. That’s when he finally said mum; will you help me so I can read the words? When I started learning German for real (after getting my head down to for a B GCSE and hating it the whole time at school) I asked him what he’s suggest and he pointed me to a few free on line games that were story/text heavy then he could flip to German. Was so great! Teachers can do little in a system that takes students from them at the end of each year and replaces them with a fresh batch to teach for, um, why do we do this? I read quickly and what I needed and would have moved towards if I could have, was people who loved writing. I’d have learnt from them instead of slowly getting sick of silly writing exercises. But teaching reading/writing is my teacher’s job, even though she loved sports. I had no choice but to stay in that class.

  7. I would have more time for the “professional experience” argument for mixed methods if teachers spent more than a single year with the children they are teaching to read. But learning to read fluently in English usually takes several years or even longer. This means that it is rare for a teacher to have genuinely informative feedback about methods that work for the largest number of children, OVER THE LONG TERM.

    The common belief among mixed methods teachers that children who aren’t learning well in their current lessons simply “aren’t ready”, and will catch up later on, (with a different teacher, of course), also militates against teachers learning from feedback.This problem has been compounded by the use of reading schemes with predictable text, allowing children who are guessing/memorising to appear to be improving their reading when in reality they are not. Most such teachers never have to confront the reality that remedial reading instructors at secondary do, of children who are looking desperately for “clues” everywhere on the page except at the specific word they are supposed to be reading.

    Reliance on professional experience is also subject to the problem of confirmation bias, as well as the often-demonstrated tendency of professionals in ALL fields to over-estimate the accuracy of their professional knowledge and judgment. Daniel Kahneman is a good read on this, and also Carol Tavris (Mistakes were made but not by me). The point is that professional experience is useful where feedback is immediate and accurate (for example for methods of managing class behaviour); but it can be dangerously misleading for more complex issues where longer-term feedback simply is not available to the teacher making the judgment.

    • I see that Nicola has made made a similar point to mine while I was writing. An excellent example of the sort of problems I was talking about, and a situation that still appears to be all too common in many schools.

  8. MaggieD says:

    One of the biggest problems I have found, in ‘debating’ this topic over a number of years, is that terms like ‘mixed methods’ and ‘other strategies’ are rarely defined in the course of the debate and you can very often end up talking at cross purposes. I have often found that while I am talking about word identification ‘strategies’ my ‘debatant’ (is that a word?) is talking about comprehension strategies.

    This is, of course, partly a result of decades of conflation of the two; consigning phonics to the back seat (or leaving it out altogether) meant that ‘meaning based’ strategies for word ID were really all that was available; that, and wild guessing.

    The Simple View of Reading, proposed by Gough & Tunmer in the 1970s, separated ‘decoding’ from ‘comprehension’ and appears to be a practical, even commonsensical, contribution to the debate on how to teach reading skills but, as with most of the cognitive science based reading research, it was largely ignored by the education community for many decades, particularly, one feels, as it supports the importance of teaching decoding. Yet it provides a very useful model to inform both teaching reading and thinking about the teaching of reading.

    So, when, for example, Tim is talking of using ‘other strategies’ successfully is he referring to comprehension strategies or is he referring to word identification strategies?

    When I, and other phonics advocates, decry the use of ‘other strategies’ we are thinking solely of ‘other strategies’ for *word identification*; i.e what the word on the page ‘says’, not what it ‘means’ (that comes after it has been identified). We say that trying to teach children to ‘predict’ (guess) words from context, initial letters and picture ‘clues’, and, looking for familiar ‘parts’ (words within words) are unnecessary and can be damaging in some cases. We also say that children’s confidence should be maintained by giving them books for reading practice which contain only words which they will be able to read independently with the knowledge they already have. These objections are eminently defensible.

    I’m sorry to say that I think your examples of the children enjoying their ‘progressive’ swimming lessons are a very poor analogy for the effect of ‘progressive’ reading instruction, Greg. Children who struggle tend to fall behind very early on; most are completely aware that they are not successfully reading and, unlike your (non)swimmers, in my experience they don’t enjoy their ongoing progressive instruction in the slightest!

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