If Mem Fox’s reaction to Dr Ken Rowe’s draft national literacy inquiry
report is anything to go by, I eagerly await its final release on 1 December.
Fox is an “advocate” of reading aloud to children, though nobody
opposes this. She claims in her book Reading Magic that, if every
parent “read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in
their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one
generation” (2005, Pan McMillan, p11).
She supports this assertion with multiple anecdotes of Chloe, Tiffy,
Ben, Eamon and others who trembled with delight when the treasured
autographed hardcopy picture books were brought out, eagerly awaited
postcards from Daddy on work trips, and magically learnt to read
without ever having to do any nasty, boring phonics.
There are three main things wrong with her assertion. Firstly, the plural of anecdote is not data. The scientific literacy
research is absolutely unambiguous about which literacy programs work
best for all children: those that include systematic, direct phonics instruction.
Some children are able, without instruction, to ‘hear’ sounds in words
(phonemic awareness) and thus make sense of letter-sound relationships.
Many are not, and need to be taught.
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Secondly, reading is only fun if you can do it. For every anecdote
about a child who magically learnt to read, I can give you one of a
child who didn’t, no matter how often their parents read to them, and
no matter how hard they tried. The only thing that worked was
intensive, focused work on hearing sounds in words, and understanding
how sounds are represented by letters.
I’m not talking here about the sort of incidental, initial phonics
taught in most primary schools: A is for apple, art, Australia, acorn,
autumn, among and (well) anything. Each of these words starts with a completely different
sound, but only one sound tends to be taught for each of the 26
letters, and that’s the end of phonics. Many children thus believe, as
Fox does, that “English spelling doesn’t make sense” (Reading Magic p147).
Systematic, explicit phonics recognises that there are 44 sounds in our language, and that sounds occur right through words,
not just at word beginnings. It shows that the sound ‘ay’ has multiple
spellings, as in ‘play’, ‘sale’, ‘sail’, ‘they’ and ‘eight’. It
explores the sound ‘k’ as written in mosque, cheque and boutique. It
demonstrates that many sounds share a spelling, as in ‘sea’, ‘deaf’ and
‘break’. It reveals the patterns, and helps children organize their
thinking about sounds and letters. It is not recognisable in Reading
Magic’s chapter 16: Phokissing on Fonix’.
My final objection to Fox’s thesis is that not everybody is like her
and her middle-class friends. Some 500,000 Australian kids are growing up in
poverty, so a personal
autographed treasure trove of children’s books is simply not possible.
Many sole parents are hard-pressed even to get to the library. Some
parents are off gambling at story time. Some kids attending Australian
schools used to live in Somali refugee camps, and while their mothers
might speak four languages, they can’t read in any of them.
Read more on the website.