The route to literacy Editorial
Stabroek News
January 25, 2002

This is by no means the only country in the world attempting to raise its literacy levels. Even a developed society like the UK is engaged in a similar exercise. The advantage that Britain has over somewhere like Guyana, however, is that it boasts both the material and the human resources to conduct extended research into what works and what doesn't. The odds are that where the actual mechanics of reading are concerned, what holds true for them, probably also holds true for us too. In other words, the Ministry of Education does not have to sit here and operate on a trial and error basis in its primary schools; it can learn from relevant research conducted in other places.

A great deal has been written in the past about the best way to teach reading, but it seems that after all one method is really more effective than the others. And that method is not the one which has been adopted as the National Literacy Strategy by England. The first indications that that approach was not the most successful available came from pilot schools in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, three years ago. Using what is called 'synthetic phonics' to teach reading, some dramatic results were reported there.

Now those findings have been confirmed in England in some of the most low-achieving schools in the country. According to a BBC report, in an experiment conducted in selected Essex schools, the number of children requiring extra help in reading was reduced from 20 per cent to 5 per cent after utilising sythetic phonics methods. If that were to be applied across England, the report continued, it would save the Government 200 million pounds sterling per year in special support for struggling pupils. It noted too that higher achievers also made better progress with this system.

The National Literacy Strategy favours a technique known as 'analytic phonics.' In its simplest terms what that means is that the word 'cat,' for example, is taught as 'c' followed by 'at.' Synthetic phonics, on the other hand, would teach it in the form 'c-a-t.' If all that sounds a little abstruse, suffice it to say that analytic phonics requires children to learn 350 bits of information in order to build words for reading children's books, and 550 for reading adult books, while sythetic phonics requires the acquisition of 64 bits of information in toto.

The Essex research, said the BBC, revealed something else too. That was that children learn to read much faster if they learn from real books, rather than what are termed 'reading schemes.' The latter constitute a series of books, often with the same characters, which increase in difficulty. In other words, the wider the context in which children apply their skills, the better they read. Variety is not just the spice of life in this instance, but it is also the route to literacy. It is in this context that researchers made the observation that children with access to books at home, generally did better at reading than those who didn't have that advantage. But that we knew already in Guyana.

Since the Ministry of Education here has committed itself to improving standards of literacy, perhaps it should look closely at the methods used in its primary schools, and the quality of the books employed in teaching children to read. In any event it should certainly explore avenues for making available to pupils a wide variety of reading matter. Perhaps that means school libraries, perhaps it means library centres serving a number of schools, or perhaps it means little classroom collections of donated material. Whatever the case, the experience of other English-speaking territories can be a guide.