Leading article: Getting the reading habit

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The Independent Online

Today we report on a new reading system that has crossed the Atlantic and is being piloted in a number of schools in London. It is not about teaching children to read. That is best done by a method such as synthetic phonics, recommended by Jim Rose, the former Ofsted inspector. The American scheme is concerned with persuading children to read more, and to read more fluently, once they have learnt the business of decoding the words and letters on a page.

Reading is a habit, a way of life, that can be learnt by encouragement and by following good examples. Children who read well do better in school. They also have an imaginative life that will stay with them all their lives, giving them endless pleasure through university and adult life, into old age. That is why the American tool is worth studying closely. The fact that it has been greeted with such enthusiasm by schools in the States is another bonus.

The system relies on computers to keep tabs on pupils' silent reading. They read a book at their reading level and then take a test to ensure that they have understood what they have read. This test is in multiple-choice form, and is done on the computer. The beauty of it is that it tells the children how well they have done and indicates the level of book they can read next.

In other words, the computer monitors their progress, something that a busy teacher cannot do with all the children in a big class. It may sound mechanical and quintessentially American to rely on multiple-choice tests and computers, but it is important to remember that reading is a skill. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, is right that poor reading skills have held back successive generations of children. At a time when improvement in literacy at the age of 11 appears to have stalled, schools would be well advised to take a look at an initiative that encourages children to read to themselves.

The reading scheme has not yet been proven to work in the London schools in which it is being tried out. But if it is found to be effective by the National Foundation for Educational Research when it publishes its evaluation next year, head teachers and local education authorities are bound to want to adopt it.