Lurking in the childhood of anyone ambitious there is always the memory of some humiliation that sets them on the path of self-improvement. Show me a billionaire, and I will show you someone who was beaten up for his lunch money. Many is the megalomaniac who first had to overcome a case of acne or puppy fat or being forced by his mother to wear a flowery tie to a friend’s birthday party. You want to know my moment of childhood shame? Shall I tell you when I decided that I was going to have to sharpen up my act to survive?
I must have been about six, and my younger sister must have been about four or five, and we were sitting on a sunny river bank being taught to read by my grandmother. We were reading alternate sentences aloud when my grandmother announced – as my sister Rachel has never ceased to remind me – that the girl was reading better than the boy. Yes, in spite of the 15-month gap between us, she was somehow deciphering the words more easily than I was. I cannot tell you how much it costs me, even now, to report this buried shame. I blushed. I fumed. Beaten! By my kid sister!
As the antelope wakes every morning and knows that he must outrun the lion, so I wake every day and know that I must somehow scamper to keep ahead of Rachel, all-powerful editor of The Lady and authoress of what is currently the number two best-seller in France. I remember the pain and horror at being left behind in the reading stakes, because it is an emotion that is all too common in children in our schools today. Unlike the village schools of Somerset 40 years ago, it seems that our methods of dealing with the problem are painfully inadequate. Over a third of London primary school children reach the age of 11 without being able properly to read and write, and 20 per cent are still having serious difficulties by the time they leave secondary school.
This is a source of huge economic inefficiency, but in every case of illiteracy we are also talking of a grievous personal handicap. If you cannot read properly, you are more likely to suffer from low self-confidence – and if you suffer from low self-confidence, you are far more likely to turn to crime.
That is why I commend an excellent pamphlet by Miriam Gross, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, in which she examines some of the difficulties with improving literacy in London. She takes aim at some familiar targets of conservative wrath: child-centred learning, by which children are invited to “discover” the meaning of the printed page before them, rather than being taught; the hostility to academic selection that has bedevilled the teaching establishment; the lack of discipline in some schools; the time wasted in considering the “emotional well-being” of the child, rather than good old instruction in reading and writing.
Some of these complaints will no doubt infuriate many hard-working teachers, and some educationalists will be outraged at what they will present as a traditionalist and downright reactionary approach. At the heart of Miriam Gross’s argument is the story of one of the greatest kulturkampfs of the last century. It is like the dispute between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders, or the war that raged between those who thought Christ was homoiousios and those who thought he was homoousios in his relation with God the Father – except that this argument matters.
Ask yourself what happens when your powerful Daily Telegraph-reader eye skitters effortlessly through this article. What cognitive processes are going on in your head? With incredible speed you are decoding clutches of letters into sounds, in order to identify the words; and those words are being virtually simultaneously converted into sense; and the reason you can do this so fast is that hard-wired into your reading brain is an understanding of how the alphabet generates the 44 sounds of the English language; and the best way to reach that instinctive understanding of how letters make sounds is a system known as synthetic phonics.
That is the system that rescued me after the appalling verdict of my grandmother. I remember going to primary school and sitting cross-legged as the class learned C-A-T, and how each sound helped to make up a word, and after a while I had cracked it; and I find it unbelievable that so many children are not given the opportunity to learn by this simple and effective means.
It was about 100 years ago that the split began, and some educationalists began to argue that phonics was too dogmatic, too authoritarian. It was demoralising for children who couldn’t spell out every word in their heads, they said. Perhaps they should be encouraged just to recognise the words – and so was born the system of “whole word recognition”, intended partly to bolster those who found phonics a strain.
And yet the result, say the phonics proponents, is that children are not being given the basic all-purpose deciphering tools they need. That is why literacy has declined in the past 50 years, they claim, and that is why we face a skills shortage caused very largely by the inability of one million working Londoners to read and write.
Are they right? It is time to end this culture war, and to try to settle once and for all, in the minds of the teachers, whether synthetic phonics is the complete answer or not. We have in Nick Gibb, the admirable new schools minister, one of the world’s great militants for synthetic phonics. Indeed, you can have a meeting with Nick on almost any subject, and I can guarantee he will have mentioned it within five minutes. I am almost 100 per cent sure he is right.
And yet I have also met London kids on Reading Recovery programmes who are obviously benefiting hugely from a mixture of phonics and word recognition. It is surely time for the Government to organise a competition, a shoot-out between the two methods, to see which is the most effective for children of all abilities.
And don’t tell me children are averse to competition. Look at me and my sister.
Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph – see the column here