Learning about learning to read: Phonics, Real Books, Reading Schemes, The Electric Company

Reading is good. But how should reading be taught?
Photo: Pratham Books 
I'm an author (just). Surely I know something about reading ...

But last week I found out that it took more than a love for writing and reading to teach children how to read.

Joanna de Guia of Victoria Park Books very kindly invited me to attend a debate on the teaching of reading. It was the final event of a conference on 19 October entitled Reading Without Stories: Does It Make Sense?.

I was puzzled by the title. How could one read without stories?

Turns out I haven't been paying enough attention to current events. Apparently there's been a war raging between two camps of reading methods for almost a century - Whole Word teaching and Phonics. In the UK, where the Whole Word method's been ascendant for a while, Phonics is beginning to regain ground.

(Added) Deborah Orr of the Guardian writes here about the UK's literacy crisis:

I became aware of the state system's problems with teaching literacy when my own son, and a number of his friends, were not learning to read and write at primary school, but were instead becoming hostile to reading and writing, in a school setting that saw this as unremarkable and untroubling. Looking into the matter further, I found great cause for concern.
Read All About It: Britain's shameful literacy crisis, The Guardian

I was of the era that learned to read via the Phonics method. As a child, a lot of my learning was done watching endless reruns of the American educational series from the 1970s, The Electric Company.

The debate was advertised as focusing on the 'respective merits of using real books or reading schemes to teach reading'. Note the careful absence of the word Phonics from the brief.

First up, headteacher Greg Wallace talked about refusing to teach the government-imposed literacy strategy at his primary school Woodberry Down ' because phonically it wasn't right for the younger children'. Wallace is credited for turning Woodberry Down from a failing school to one judged 'outstanding' by school inspectors. The school serves one of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom - 25 per cent of its pupils are refugees and 60 per cent are on free school meals.

Wallace argued however that it was impossible to divide the argument into Good - classes reading novels by favourite authors - vs Bad - phonics, comprehension, literacy hour and SATS practice. He said:

'It’s a false division because we have to do all these things and we have to be very clear that purpose ... It’s the absence of purpose that causes schools to fail.'

Wallace described his own literacy strategy of starting children off with synthetic phonics and decipherable texts and a 'huge focus' on developing vocabulary:

'Children cannot comprehend if they do not know what the words mean.' 

He said there was an urgency to get the children reading as quickly as possible so that they could get the best out of 'real' books. The book choices of the school - by authors like Beverley Naidoo, Anne Fine and Benjamin Zephaniah, covering themes of gender, race, family - reflect the school's demographics. 'For lots of our children, they are not issues, they are realities,' Wallace explained.

He illustrated how real by showing some quite moving literacy work by students. In one writing exercise to an imaginary character based on Zephaniah's Refugee Boy, a Year Six girl writes:

'What you did helped me as well with my life because I’m a refugee too.'

'How can we ensure that the government’s drive for effective phonics teaching and its obsesson with testing do not drive out children’s understanding and enjoyment of books?' Wallace asked.

The next speaker was psychologist Christopher Hulme, who presented studies and statistics that compared the effectiveness of various methods in teaching children to read. I wish I could write more about Hulme's presentation because it was very rich and detailed.

My simple-minded take-away was that a combination of both methods, vocabulary teaching and reading aloud to pupils would result in huge gains in reading. It made start thinking about creating bonus materials on my website to help teachers help children read my own books! (Teachers, please don't hesitate to drop me a note on my contact form if you have any suggestions of additional material I could post on my website to help you teach Tall Story. In fact, I'm thinking of doing a video on vocabulary!)

Then, author and former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen - who struck me as not so much anti-Phonics as pro-books - described schools he visited where there were no 'real books' (as opposed to reading schemes). It was hard to take notes because Rosen is quite a captivating speaker and you keep forgetting to write things down and then he's saying something else so fascinating that you don't manage to catch up! Anyway, here are fragments from my notebook of what he said:

'Crucial to the concept of what is a school – are we imparting wisdoms? Are we enabling children to access wisdoms? ...The way these children are going to achieve is in part due to their encounter with books. How come we have invented a system where books are option al and in some places, book free, with an ITC room instead of a library, and scarcely any books in classrooms. Is it possible to have a system where children could learn how to read but the notion that books pass on wisdom is not present?'

Rosen was especially dismayed to visit schools whose shelves were stocked with reading schemes, with no 'real books' in sight. In some schools he visited, he was saddened to see that computers took precedence over libraries. (Added: And how about news that reading tests will be including non-words?)

After the presentations it was the audience's turn to ask questions or comment on the presentations. The response was intense and passionate.

I felt like everyone was wringing their hands and asking, 'But HOW can we do our best for the children? What can we DO?'

As debates go, it was an odd one in the sense that every single person was on the same side. Although some of the discussion was heated, I was curiously reassured. It was obvious that everyone in the room cared deeply about getting children to read and not just read but to love books.

At one point I turned round to look at this audience that cared so much - because I wanted to see the faces in that crowd of teachers, librarians and education policy-influencers. These are people who have probably already changed someone's life.

I like to joke that watching too much TV made me an even bigger reader. But seriously, I hold The Electric Company close to my heart. Even though it was an American creation designed for Americans, it exported reading in a fun and accessible format at a time when learning to read in the Philippines was old fashioned, rigid and painfully structured (yes, Phonics was a drag!). It didn't just teach you to read, it made you love learning how. I am thrilled that I can revisit my favourite bits of the programme on YouTube. I leave you with a selection of my favourite clips from The Electric Company.

Another classic song from The Electric Company. Can you tell that I hold these early reading adventures close to my heart?

The Adventures of Letterman - voiced by comedienne Joan Rivers

The Menu Song from The Electric Company - recognize the two Oscar winning actors? Morgan Freeman as a groovy young man and Rita Moreno (of West Side Story fame). And the song is by Tom Lehrer (The Elements Song)

My Nephew Alphonso with Rita Moreno

N apostrophe T - another Tom Lehrer song


  1. woah, this is a loaded entry! bookmarking for future reference! :D totally dig the thoughts and arguments you raise here.. all the more inspired to spread the book love.. keep it burrning <3

  2. thanks @katerina! the debate revealed to me that i hadn't been paying attention to the way my own children have been taught to read. #parentingfail!

    so glad you managed to comment. a couple of people said they couldn't. i thought it might be the overload of videos.

  3. Love this entry, Cainds. Very interesting, especially for me, the stay-at-home-mom who "tutors" her little boy everyday. Indeed, the days of learning to read through phonetics is gone (at least in the international school here in Paris). I often find myself scratching my head, trying to figure out how fast the reading process can go just through "word recognition." It's a new thing for me, but it seems to have worked with my son. One day he could not read... and after the summer, suddenly, Poof! He was reading like crazy. Very very interesting! :) (Just so you know, the vids didn't load on my email -- but got to watch them straight on your site.) Thanks, this was a great read!

  4. Hi,Candy. Let's see if I'm "three times lucky" with this comment. As Candy said, the discussion about books vs. phonics has been rumbling for decades (and probably will continue to do so).

    The "divide" seems less trenchant these days, which is good news. I do think, though, that we are still in danger of losing sight of the real educational prize--fostering a long-time love of books and of reading.

    How we teach children to read may not not be as important a discussion as WHY we teach them to read.

    At secondary level reading is often atomised, broken down into "word, sentence, and text level". Because we (rightly) need to assess English as we do maths and sciences, reading is often reduced to a functional skill and "attainment" in reading is quantified via "level descriptors."

    We move from teaching phonics or words in infants schools, to inference and deduction in the juniors, and finally to language analysis in secondary. These are all important skills, and understanding how language works can be an exciting adventure for students.

    However, where's the joy in that? How does this foster the love of literature? I don't have the answer, but I do know that teachers need to work hard (and generally do!) to create a love of reading despite these strictures.

    The role of librarians in secondary schools is also so, so important. They are the ones who have the time and and expertise to excite students about books, and to foster a positive reading culture in schools. Librarians are the real champions in this arena!

    The role of writers and publishers is also influential. Through visits (and through our books, obviously), writers make the world of writing come alive; by promoting such a wide variety of challenging-yet-accessible books that engage kids, publishers take young people seriously and extend the idea of reading for enjoyment.

    People have referred to this as a "golden age" for children's literature, and, especially considering the work of publishers like Barrington Stoke, who make this age a genuinely inclusive one, that may be true!

    So, I guess it seems that the English curriculum does not always privilege the love of books...but schools themselves, largely due to the knowledge and enthusiasm of dedicated staff, generally do. I hope that makes sense!

  5. Wow! Thanks for that, Jane! I so agree that librarians make a difference - I was a librarian's pet when I was a schoolgirl and it made all the difference to the rest of my life.

    Do they really refer to this as a golden age? From the perspective of my fellow authors who are struggling to get published in the commercial world, it feels like a tough time for good writing. (Mind you the ebook revolution might put an end to the struggle - good? Bad? Another discussion.)

    >the English curriculum does not always privilege the love of books ... but schools themselves generally do

    I so agree!

  6. @cyborgers I think a combination of both methods is a good idea - conference people were not arguing against reading schemes but saying there was too much of it to the detriment of real books.

  7. Very nice post, Candy!

    I don't remember learning to read. I remember reading at a very young age, and I remember being read to by my parents, but I have no memory of the process, I suspect largely because there wasn't one! I think I was just exposed to so many books by my parents and early teachers that I picked it up, and learned through little more than loving to read stories (for which I will be forever grateful!). So for my money, and my background, I don't see any need for phonics.

    Then again, my sister teaches young children (age 5-6), and I'm constantly shocked by the stories she comes home with - kids who've barely laid eyes on a book before, let alone had one read to them or, god forbid, read one themselves. Man, it's crazy! And for those children I can see how phonics would be the best way to learn.

    So maybe something of both? I know that my sister goes about it by trying to make books as fun and interactive as possible (as I'm sure most teachers do!) - they're reading Whatever Next! at the moment, and she's reading it to them sat in a big cardboard box, wearing welly boots, with a colander on her head! Sounds like fun to me - I'm starting to rethink my career!!

  8. I know so many reluctant readers who are reluctant because they didn't get reading down properly when they first started learning. There's nothing like the right (real) book though to get a good reader going!

  9. @Jo, I've read Whatever Next by Jill Murphy to my children literally hundreds of times (my boys are now 17 and 20!) - some of their best babyhood memories are tied up with books.

  10. Well I can't speak for my baby memories Candy! ;o)

    But the majority of my early childhood memories do seem to be tied in to books. Funny Bones, Esio Trot, Very Hungry Caterpillar, Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, The Jolly Postman - all the classics! Man, that's bringing some fond memories back. Everyone should have that shouldn't they? Wouldn't that be perfect?

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  12. Can I plug my book? "An Ant - Learn to Read" teaches 4 to 5-year-olds to read with phonics. I had no idea when I wrote it that there was such adamant opposition to phonics! I thought that the "sight word" proponents were just anxious to start kids out with storybooks, so I invented a way to have sequential phonics instruction in the format of a storybook. I have since learned that the opposition to phonics is so strong that they will not even accept it in the form of a storybook. Such a shame. Kids are being cheated out of the most basic knowledge.