K is one of the two or three most difficult cases I've had in over forty years of teaching people to read and write. We had to begin by orienting him towards print, having him understand that letters gave him information, and that he could use this by combining/blending this information to make words, rather than just guessing. It took almost an hour for K to read the first of Ruth Miskin's Ditties from Read, Write Inc. , that has just four lines with no irregular words.
My diary tells me this lesson took place on 28th March, and K was 8. On 28th November, exactly eight months later, we are working on Burglar Bill, by the Ahlbergs. K has learned to focus on letters and reads a word he has not previously encountered, rubs, by blending the sounds represented by letters. His progress on the Ditties was slow, and interrupted by illness and school trips an holidays, so we have had perhaps 15 half-hour lessons, supported by daily practice with K's mother or father. K has had to work on accurate speech at the same time as learning to read, and his concentration has improved, so that he manages to focus for a little over half an hour rather than having to be refocused by the teacher every few minutes. He is beginning to combine words into recognisable sentences, but still cuts them short, and sometimes omits verbs. He says, for example that he "wants to be ventor scientist".
The word the is the most frequent in English, and also one of the most irregular, the th combination requiring the pupil to move beyond the sound normally represented by t. Knowing the th combination, invented by Norman scribes who did not like the Anglo-Saxon letter "thorn" (þ) requires more than just matching sound to symbol. The child has to know that t can represent more than one sound, depending on the letters surrounding it, and this is a big step for someone who finds it hard to blend the sounds of individual letters to read a word. Once we have passed the initial stages, to which the Ditties provide such an excellent introduction, much of reading in English requires knowledge of this kind, which is stored in the memory. The Learning Brain has identified an area of the brain, which it terms the Word Form Area, which is active in English but not in more regular languages, and whose function is to distinguish what letters are telling us in the context of a particular word. Once we've learned this, we no longer have to work the word out from scratch, making memory a key element in learning to read, alongside phonics and knowledge of letter combinations.
Saturday's lesson with Burglar Bill had K read Breakfast without hesitation, after substantial work on the word the previous week, during which we discussed its origin, and the shortcut taken in pronunciation. English is full of such shortcuts, and the same principle was applied in distinguishing say and says. The influence of one letter on another - eg the e in piper - is a further refinement, as is the influence of e, i and y on c and g. These patterns occur very frequently, in words derived from French, which shares roughly 30% of its vocabulary with English, thanks, if that is the word, to the Norman conquest. Moving from our first concept of letters and sounds matching each other involves acquiring and applying new knowledge, and is an example of how knowledge frees the brain to think. First impressions are not enough.
Success in this very difficult case, which I approached with some trepidation because of the additional problems in speech and focus, illustrates major and serious errors in the two schools of thought that have come to dominate reading teaching.
First, the error of Dr Henrietta Dombey and others who do not see phonics as the main vehicle for teaching reading. The correspondences between letters and sounds, which may operate for just over two-thirds of the time, are the most reliable initial source of information about a word, and K could not have made progress until he learned to use them.
Second, the error of many phonics proponents that suggests that phonics is the key to the the language, and that everything can be taught in terms of "phonemes" (sounds) and "graphemes" (letters or groups of letters). There is more than one way of representing a sound in English, but simply presenting children with a choice of "graphemes" - I never use the term, and Sir Michale Wilshaw was wrong to endorse it in his recent newsletter on primary education - does not explain to them why things are as they are, or why acsadent is not an acceptable spelling of accident. The roots of this error lie in ignorance and impulsiveness. Its proponents do not understand the structures of English, or how these came to be as they are. David Crystal's Spell It Out would tell them if they chose to read it. But you don't need to read anything if you have a system that gives you all of the answers - whatever that system happens to be. Until the structures that are needed in addition to letter-sound correspondence are understood and built into teaching, we will continue to have unnecessary failure in learning to read and write, with all of the consequences that we know so well.