Telling stories in The Conversation


Misty, Brian and Robyn entered the dark wood.

“I’m scared,” said Misty

“Are there monsters here?” asked Brian.

“Yes,” said Robyn. “They are all around us. They are… decodable readers!”

Brian jumped. Misty ducked. Robyn whispered, “Let’s go home!”

Three stalwarts of the whole language / balanced literacy / anything-but-phonics camp, Misty Adoniou, Brian Cambourne and Robyn Ewing, have taken to The Conversation to construct a scary story about decodable readers.

Briefly, decodable readers are books that contain a restricted number of letter-sound relationships. If a child has been taught those letter-sound relationships through a phonics programme then he or she will be able to read the book. This is important because it takes months and years to learn all of the letter-sound relationships in English and so books of this kind allow children to read independently from an early stage.

Adoniou et al. make the case that decodable books are dreadful things that contain no story-line. Both my daughters have read decodable books and so I have seen plenty. They are necessarily a little contrived, but the implication that they contain no story is false. What’s more, the fact that a child can read all of the book for themselves is clearly motivating.

My school has been on a journey and so my daughters have also been exposed to the main alternative to decodable readers: predictable texts. If anything, these are more contrived. They usually consist of several pages of variations on the same theme: Jack is holding a pen, Jack is holding a cup, Jack is holding a book… The idea is that children can use the repetition and pictures to guess the words they do not know. To put it another way, predictable texts promote the use of the kind of strategies that bad readers use.

However, Adoniou et al. don’t mention predictable texts. Instead, they contrast decodable readers with Who Sank the Boat by Pamela Allen. This is odd because early readers would not be able to read such a book. Adoniou et al. seem to tacitly accept this when they suggests that, “Children always ask for this book to be read again and again and they enjoy joining in.”

Is it not possible for children to read decodable books themselves and also have books like Who Sank the Boat read to them? That would seem to be the ideal early literacy programme. For instance, as my daughters were tackling decodable readers, their parents were reading them Magic Beach and The Snail and the Whale.

We are therefore being offered something of a false choice.

Why, then, are Adoniou et al. so opposed to decodable readers? In reality, it is perhaps not the books they object to, but the fact that the books require students to use letter-sound relationships to decode them. In other words, they are against decodable books because decodable books encourage the use of phonics.

For instance, Adoniou et al. claim that, “When children are taught to focus solely on letter-sound matching to read the words of decodable readers, they often continue in later years to over-rely on this strategy, even with other kinds of texts. This causes inaccurate, slow, laborious reading, which leads to frustration and a lack of motivation for reading.”

It frankly does not reflect well on The Conversation that a factual claim of this kind is not supported by any reference and is simply left to hang there.

But then, this is all about telling stories.

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4 thoughts on “Telling stories in The Conversation

  1. After reading this entry I spent a few minutes searching for a library book I read 20+ years ago. I no longer remember specific details but the ideas have influenced me greatly as a language teacher. The Alphabet Effect by Robert K Logan. I am going to purchase it to reread and keep. Unfortunately, the anti-phonics camp is arguing against teaching the very essence of our alphabet and therefore our language. The subtitle explains things though. The full name of the book is The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization. “Western Civilization” is currently considered to be “the patriarchy” and the source of all oppression. Therefore, phonics is guilty by association since the two are integrally linked.

    1. There’s another way of putting it: non-phonetic scripts take a very long time to master, and hence have been the key to restricting knowledge (and hence power) to a small priesthood. Phonetic scripts take a relatively short time to master. Anyone who doesn’t understand that Western civilisation has been a liberating force knows very little about literacy or history.

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