Last term I invigilated a reading examination at a fee-paying prep school where I work as a supply teacher. About five minutes in, a little girl called Maisie raised her hand. She looked downcast. ‘Yes Maisie?’ She pointed, unspeaking, at the first question. ‘Shall I read it to you?’ She nodded. I read it. ‘Does that make sense?’ She shook her head. ‘Well,’ I began, stalling, as I tried to work out which bit was confusing for her, ‘why don’t you have another look at the text? The answers will be there in the story.’ She mumbled something. ‘What’s that?’ She mumbled again, and this time I heard her: ‘I can’t read.’
Maisie is nine. She has been at this school since she was five. Her teachers, I later discovered, all know she can’t read. How has it got to this point?
There are several factors at play. Firstly, her mother’s response when the school asked if she reads with Maisie at home was: ‘No — that’s your job, isn’t it?’ Next is the question of whether Maisie has a learning difficulty. We’re trying to find that out. The school’s dyslexia assessor is on the case but he is new(ish) and has only just been told about Maisie’s problems.
Finally, and most importantly: how has the school failed to teach her to read in four years? I emailed Maisie’s English teacher after the exam and told her that Maisie had revealed she can’t read. She responded: ‘Yes, I know. I’ve been saying this all year. Why has there been no intervention?’ I’m sure lockdown is partly responsible — most of this year’s teaching has been conducted on Google Classroom. But to whom, exactly, has this teacher been talking about Maisie all year? This is a blame game and a child is the loser. Maisie’s inability to read at age nine is so devastating, so shameful for her, but also for her teachers and parents, that no one wants to raise it for fear of taking responsibility.
Although Maisie’s case may be extreme, she’s not the only child at the school (where fees are upwards of £4,000 a term) who does not know the alphabet. Or, rather, not the only one who doesn’t know the names of the letters or their alphabetical order. An eight-year-old recently asked me to spell ‘bury’ and I asked him how he thought it was spelt. He said ‘buh/uh/ruh/yuh’. When I said ‘bee/you/are/why’ he looked baffled.
The National Curriculum states that year 1 pupils should know the names of the letters as well as their sounds and their correct order, but not before year 1. Children are taught their letters in preschool — but, crucially, not their names. I know several year 4 children who still don’t know all the letters of the alphabet. Shockingly, many schools also now consider it too confusing for children to learn capital letters alongside their lower-case forms.
The current thinking, summarised by Shirley Houston of the international online teachers’ resource Phonics Hero, is that if children learn letters’ names and their sounds (phonemes) together, the ‘cognitive load’ is too great and will result in poor spelling. This is widely accepted as the correct method of teaching.
The other day I spoke to a health visitor who had taught in preschools and she casually said: ‘Parents think they’re helping kids when they teach them their ABCs, you know like in Sesame Street, but actually they’re just confusing them.’ I’m sorry, what? English-speaking children have been learning letter names alongside their sounds since at least the publication of The Protestant Tutor school books in the late 17th century, and probably longer. My two-year-old niece has already learned her alphabet this way, and I’ve started introducing how letters are used by getting her to say her brother’s name, for example, with the name and phoneme — ‘D’ for ‘Dylan’. ‘D,’ I say, ‘duh-D is for Dylan’. She manages the cognitive load just fine.
Here is my counter-theory: an over-emphasis on a letter’s phoneme while ignoring its name delays spelling learning. I saw poor Maisie try to write ‘continue’ and it came out ‘cnty’. She was sounding the word out using their phonemes — ‘conn-tinn-yooo’ — and used ‘y’ instead of ‘u’ at the end. It was like a version of text-speak. Phonemes are vital of course — they’re what make up a word when it’s spoken. But what about when it’s written down? Letter names and, eventually, full-word spellings, simply have to be memorised in order to read and write with any skill and speed, and this process of memorisation must start right away.
Skilled readers know tens of thousands of words on sight, and can even identify the word ‘chair’ quicker than if they saw an image of a chair. This skill happens through a process called ‘orthographic mapping’. Emily Hanford summarises the process in an article for APM Reports: ‘[Orthographic mapping] occurs when you pay attention to the details of a written word and link the word’s pronunciation and meaning with its sequence of letters. A child knows the meaning and pronunciation of “pony”. The word gets mapped to his memory when he links the sounds /p/ /o/ /n/ /y/ to the written word “pony”. That requires an awareness of the speech sounds in words and an understanding of how those sounds are represented by letters.’ This final step is what is missing if you do not learn your ABCs. And that attention to detail — looking at every letter in a word as you get to know it — is how we learn to spell well.
I will keep fighting for the ABC song, Big Bird and all. I might encounter some resistance from the Phoneme Police, but for now I am going back to school to see Maisie, with my two-year-old niece’s magnetic alphabet and ABC crocodile in tow.