James Delingpole: My kids can read, in spite of school

Educationists have long known there is an idiot-proof method of helping our children to become literate. So why are pupils being denied the key to all learning?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may be that in the next few years I shall discover the cure for cancer, write the great English novel, work out how to transmute base metal into gold, or invent an ingenious in-shoe device that stops the wearer treading in dog poo, even when it's concealed in autumn leaves. But even if I do, the proudest achievement of my life will remain the same: that I taught my children to read.

To teach a child to read is to give him or her the key to almost everything that matters: self-worth; social competence; education; intellectual freedom; a halfway decent job; empathy; understanding; an ability to get lost for hours on end in another universe; an excuse to chat up the very attractive person in the caf you've just spotted reading War and Peace, because, hey, like, you think it's a great book too...

We all know this. Some of you may think it's so blindingly obvious that you're scratching your heads over why I even bothered writing that last paragraph. But if it's really so obvious, let me ask this: how come in the past few decades we've allowed our children to get so rubbish at reading? And if there's something that can be done about it, why aren't we out rioting in the streets to demand that it is done?

Last week offered yet more depressing evidence that the land of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton has turned into a nation of Jade Goodys. First came the episode of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, in which barely any of the cast proved capable of spelling "handkerchief", "height", "privilege", "broccoli", "pretentious" or, indeed, "illiterate". Then came a report showing that English schoolchildren had plummeted in the international literacy league tables, from third in 2001 to 19th last year. (Prompting the question: just how crap must the rest of the world have been in 2001?)

As usual, this disaster turned out not to be the fault of either the Government or our education system. Instead, as we learned from Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, and echoed by none other than the PM's wife, Sarah Brown, in The Sun yesterday, it's most likely the result of our children's increasing addiction to video games, combined with the failure of many parents to read their kids bedtime stories. (West Ham's goalkeeper Robert Green also had a go at our couch-potato culture LAST week: but if computers and games are really so harmful, how come the kids in techno-mad Hong Kong and Singapore are near the top of the international literacy league tables?) And let's not forget all those immigrant children with their intractable foreign tongues. And poverty. And TV. And global warming I'll bet that plays an important part too, if only we look into it hard enough.

What I love about the myriad excuses trotted out to explain our falling educational standards is their hilariously brazen, almost O J Simpson-like disregard for objective reality. The true reason why a shocking one in five children now leaves primary school functionally illiterate has been known for some time and has nothing to do with class, race, income or the massive popularity of the Nintendo Wii. It has to do with the way reading is taught in schools.

Or rather, the way reading is not taught. The rot set in in the 1960s when trendy new theories began to circulate about how children should be educated. Out went the old-fashioned notion of the teacher as an authority figure whose job it is to pass on a body of useful knowledge from historical dates to times tables. In came the idea of a new child-centred style of education, placing lots more emphasis on discovery, imagination and self-esteem, and considerably less on discipline, rote-learning, competitiveness and, er, acquiring knowledge.

An inevitable casualty of this was the starchily traditional teaching method known as "synthetic phonics". This is the system I used to teach my own kids to read, following Ruth Miskin's Superphonics textbooks. First, I taught them the sound each letter in the alphabet makes; then, with the help of characters called Phoneme Fred, Mig the Pig and Jen the Hen, I showed them how to join those sounds together to form words. It's a gruelling process and you do have to stick to it very strictly. Within a year, though, both kids could competently decode a simple sentence. And by the age of seven, they could comfortably read a Harry Potter.

I don't tell you this to boast how brilliant my progeny are. Rather, I'm trying to show you that "synthetic phonics" is a method that works even when you're someone with no teaching skills, you find close work with children incredibly boring, and you command next to no respect from restive pupils. In fact, it's idiot- proof. It's the magic bullet which, for considerably less than the 500m New Labour squandered on its literacy strategy a complete waste according to a report this week by Cambridge University would transform British educational standards at a stroke.

And it's not just me who thinks so. So, too, do the teachers in the deprived Clackmannanshire area of Scotland who used synthetic phonics to thrust their pupils an average 3.5 years beyond their expected reading age; and Lynna Thompson, the inspirational headteacher who in Channel 4's Last Chance Kids was shown restoring hope to hitherto illiterate children in her failing primary school; and Jim Rose, the former deputy chief inspector of schools, whose report last year confirmed that of all the methods currently used to teach reading, synthetic phonics is by far the most effective.

So if synthetic phonics is so wonderful, why are so many teachers still determined not to use it? I cannot easily answer this because I haven't spent a year having my brain warped at teacher training college. But I believe it has something to do with a "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" debate, raging soley within the educational establishment, about whether the ability to read is primarily a mechanical skill.

Opponents of synthetic phonics among them, bizarrely enough, Children's Laureate Michael Rosen (left) argue that being able to decode the words in a sentence does not equip you to understand them. They claim furthermore that it stifles children's creativity and that it's so arid that it could put them off reading for good.

If any of these claims were supported by evidence, I'd have some sympathy. But they're not they're just an article of faith, passed on from generation to generation at teacher training colleges (where even today synthetic phonics are widely mocked) for no better reason that they gel nicely with all those other ideologically correct received ideas that have done so much to make our state education system unfit for purpose.

As well as "synthetic phonics is boring and old-fashioned", see also: elitism is wrong; competition damages a child's fragile sense of self-worth; rows of desks are too hierarchical; uniforms are fuddy-duddy; all shall have prizes; exams are too stressful; times tables and dates and spelling tests are a dangerous throwback to the old order's patriarchal hegemony; knowledge is less important than comprehension.

Forty or so years ago, when these ideas first started circulating, I can well understand why they might have seemed attractive and right and definitely worth experimenting with. Now every one of them has been so roundly discredited and you might imagine they would have been pragmatically jettisoned. Not a bit of it. Like stranded octogenarian Japanese soldiers on forgotten Pacific islands, far too many of our teachers want to go on fighting ideological battles the rest of the world gave up on years ago.

Surely our children's literacy is far too important to fall victim to political dogma. Though I'm heartily encouraged by the Tory opposition's tough noises on education they plan to insist, for example, that all primary children are tested in their second year on their word-decoding ability this really ought to be an issue on which all parties agree. (Yes, I know that New Labour claims to be fully behind it too, but the party hasn't been able to enforce it and it's still only taught in schools on a piecemeal basis, in tandem with a slew of inferior methods.)

Maybe synthetic phonics does sound as if it belongs in the realm of the authoritarian right, but is that really a good reason for the liberal-left to write it off? Many of my Marxist friends feel just as impassioned about this issue as I do. Reading, they argue, is a child's best hope of self-liberation from the oppressive hegemony. It therefore follows that the best way to teach reading is the one that gets a child there quickest. At the moment, that method is synthetic phonics. Until somebody can come up with a better option, that's the one we should use.

James Delingpole is author of 'How to be Right' (Headline)

Further reading: Read Write Inc. Phonics 10- and 12-book sets by Ruth Miskin, illustrated by Tim Archbold (Oxford University Press)