Home » Post-16 & Adult Literacy » Traditional or Progressive? A new narrative

Traditional or Progressive? A new narrative

Following is a post I wrote way back in 2007. I’m re-publishing because the right/left polarisation of education keeps cropping up. It’s appalling to think that teachers will reject a useful educational tool because it is perceived as “right wing”. It’s a tool – not a political statement. Let’s create a new narrative of literacy. I’ve edited a little for this 2020 version.

August 2007

Over on the Reading Reform Foundation site, there’s been a discussion, in part, about what constitutes “Explicit, Systematic Phonics Instruction”. I’m always worried that some teachers will read through these discussions and leave thinking, “I’m not that kind of teacher so phonic-based instruction isn’t for me” (but with more colourful language).

So I’ll say it again: No matter what your philosophy of teaching, whether you’re a die-hard “ist” with a defined “ism” or just a teacher who is frustrated daily by students who can’t read very well, your learners (whether 4, 14, or 54) need to learn how to get from sound to print and back again – or print to sound and back again, depending on your preferences.

I happen to be slightly obsessed by discovery in education and here’s how I define the main terms relating to linguistic/synthetic/explicit & systematic/all-through-the-word phonics. (must think of a more concise title)

Explicit Instruction – This means that we are teaching reading, not teaching history or car mechanics and expecting reading to be picked up implicitly, though you can certainly plant a reading lesson into a car mechanics course. It doesn’t mean standing or sitting in front of one or more people and telling them how to read or making them memorize all the ways to write the “ay” sound in English.

Systematic – The grapheme/phoneme correspondences are controlled so learners can discover that the language is both limited and learnable. The purpose of this controlled system is to create a safety net so that educationally vulnerable people can get on with learning to read without worrying about being weighed down by the crushing sense of failure that has followed them through school. 

Discovery – This is the very best process by which a person learns anything to one who was raised, educated and teacher-trained that way. In the case of reading this means discovering how the code works by using it over and over again in the context of whole and meaningful words, sentences and and texts. Success is aided hugely by a safe and friendly learning environment. See The Deal. And discovery works best in the context of a system which is largely invisible to the student but evident to the teacher/facilitator. 

Teach/Facilitate – The prime function of the teacher/tutor is to facilitate discovery. A good reading programme will aid this. I realise this is might be a case of “You can take the kid out of the 70’s but you can’t take the 70’s out of the kid” but this is the very best thing to come out of that era of education. (God bless Neil McAllister and the other “facilitators” in the Bayview Open Area..)

Starting with sounds – If you want to facilitate discovery then it’s best to start with something that your learner can already do. Assuming they have no serious hearing or speech impairment then you can start with the words that they can hear and say and use in meaningful speech. By saying the word aloud, attaching a written symbol to each sound and writing the symbols in order whilst saying the sounds, they are discovering how the English code works. No one has to give a formal explanation of how it works. It is possible to learn to spell and read without ever knowing the words phoneme, grapheme or digraph. (Edit 2020 – it’s till true but these words are now used in primary school so we use them more often.)

Right and Wrong – There is absolutely such a thing as right and wrong in this type of instruction and this is what separates it from the “woolly and useless” instruction that I think some people are picturing when they hear the term “discovery learning”. I’ve heard a kindergarten teacher say “good number!” to a child who has clearly given a wrong answer to a sum; that is anti-education. I’ve also encountered literacy tutors who’ve told me they don’t correct errors because it might damage self esteem; that is patronising.

Correcting Errors – There has to be a good way to get to the right answer without the instructor making the correction. Therefore, instead of correcting an error with an answer, guide the learner towards making their own correction and furthering their process of discovery.

If you’re a teacher who thinks phonics advocates are somehow right wing Brexit voters, come and join us in the world of That Reading Thing where it’s all about discovery. And it’s explicitly about reading. And it’s systematic. And it can start with whole spoken words and develop in the context of meaningful text. And it works, (no matter what the teacher’s philosophy of education).


4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth

    I approve of that kind of discovery. It’s what I do too.
    In my training in 1970, discovery meant giving children a few clues and expecting them to work it out for themselves. e.g. Teach the sounds of alphabet letters and use the first letter clue; look at and try to memorise whole words, then use the ‘does it make sense?’ clue to guess whether you remembered correctly; try to memorise the story and guess from that; look at the picture and guess. After doing all of that, quite a lot of children ‘discover’ enough of the alphabet code to get by.

  2. Dick Schutz

    Hi Tricia–
    Good job! What you term “discovery” is standardly termed “learning”–a change in behavior. You’re right. The only learning is individual learning and the individual has to do it. Much is known about how to facilitate the process, and that “knowledge” is embedded in programmes that reliably deliver specified learning.

    The term “Discovery Learning” as commonly used has very different referents than those you’ve assigned to the term. But if the “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” why not?

    My sense is that the operational issues of teachers go deeper than this, but I could well be wrong.

    I do strongly agree that we should try to “reach out” and try to communicate in the most palatable way possible. SP enthusiasts’ zeal tends to come through as very dogmatic to many. I think that this derives from a history of “preaching to the choir” and believing that “rationality” will prevail. For good or for bad, that’s not the way the world works.

    At any rate, your piece is a move in the right direction. Thanks,

  3. Tricia

    Thanks for your responses. I have to say that I would never have them memorize the whole word or guess in any way. This is so important because almost all struggling readers have wild guessing as their main strategy for getting through a text. “The Deal” means that anything they don’t know, the instructor fills in.  Code knowledge accumulates so quickly that, with each lesson, The Deal covers less and less and the learner reads more and more with no help.

  4. Tricia

    Here’s my response to some of the comments on the RRF board.

    PostPosted: Thu Aug 09, 2007 8:34 am Post subject: Reply with quote
    I’m glad we’re talking!

    When I say discover, I’m NOT talking about guessing. (You must know me that well by now!) Guessing is the number one enemy of the struggling readers I meet and the worst strategy ever for getting meaning from a text.The problem with this kind of discussion is that certain words immediately bring different things to different people. I never mentioned “discovery learning”.

    As far as facilitating vs teaching, I do know what you mean to a certain extent but I don’t think we have to choose one over the other. I think the ideal teacher is a facilitator who is relentless in getting learners to find the right answer and always willing to TELL the right answer if the only remaining option is for the learner to guess. Guessing isn’t learning. But equally, regurgitating what a teacher has said isn’t learning either. In my perfect world no one guesses (unless engaging in an hypothesizing activity) and no one lectures. And I’m going to disagree completely with the idea that children with multiple disadvantages need teachers more than facilitators. They do, however need the temporary but expensive advantage of one-to-one help.

    Almost without exception, the young people I meet hate school and feel that teachers do nothing but ridicule people who don’t understand. I so wish that I had documented the stories that they’ve told about getting things wrong and how they’ve been treated by people who seem to think that reading is easy or that familiar words should always be easy to read. These are almost always memories from primary school and the beginning of the reading process. With that kind of history, a teacher is the last thing they need!

    They need someone who will sit with them, engage in conversation and guide them through the process of discovering how the alphabetic code works. They need high expectations for remembering spelling options and clear and helpful error correction so that they can, as far as possible, make their own corrections. They also need permission to make mistakes and not “get in trouble” or feel stupid. They need to discover that they are capable of real learning even if they’re not very good at sitting still in a desk, listening and giving back what they’ve just heard. Far too often, the teacher-led classroom experience has left them feeling that they don’t want to try anything risky and reading is risky.

    I know what I’m picturing when I talk about Discovery and Facilitators. It’s not theory but practice and I’ve seen it work with some of the most educationally disaffected young people in this country. I’ve had teachers tell me that if it hadn’t been for meeting up with a That Reading Thing tutor, Lee would be “on the scrapheap” but now he’s in school. Or that Matty not only reads but can now participate in maths and finds he’s good at it! Nothing changed in these young people’s lives except their perception of themselves as learners, and their understanding of how reading works.

    Wow – that’s too emotional for this time of the morning. I know that we agree far more that we appear to through this discussion. If you saw my practice and I saw yours nobody would be shocked. Again, I simply want teachers with all sorts of classroom practice to know that they can create ways to make sure that their children/teens/adults understand and use sound-based strategies for reading.