Being an independent specialist practitioner affords me a unique view. We’re all working in a coal mine, but I’m the one who looks after the canaries. When something isn’t being done right, it’s the population I deal with that suffers first and hardest.
Over the years, I’ve seen the casualties of low quality instruction in many forms. I can tell what’s going on in a classroom just by looking at the way a child approaches reading and writing.
When publically debating with me, teachers often ask, “Are you a teacher?”, as if to claim some superiority.
Such a rude and loaded question deserves the answer, “Are you aware of the long-term consequences of your ignorance?” Because I sure as hell am.
When students arrive at my doorstep, they’re often quite broken. When I interview prospective staff, I place the trait of kindness above all else. I place huge importance on manner. I need practitioners who understand the sheer humiliation suffered by children who are not taught to read. When you go through years of schooling and make little or no progress in literacy, you start to think something very deep and very serious is wrong with you. Do you have any idea how corrosive a thought like that can be?
Morgan, Farkas and Wu do. In 2012 they published a study called “Do Poor Readers Feel Angry, Sad and Unpopular?”. The resounding conclusion was, yes.
People in the specialist tuition business get to see what happens after reading instruction fails. We are the people who deal with the casualties of low quality instruction. And by ‘low quality’, I mean:
- Systems that promote ‘balanced literacy’
- Ludicrous analytic phonics programs with a scope and sequence dictated by teacher perception
- The illogical, inefficient three cueing system
- Massive, sprawling, complicated code charts that children are supposed to memorise
- Teaching consonant blends as units
- Sending home lists of unrelated whole words for memorisation
- Teachers who blame parents for their children’s lack of progress (“He doesn’t get read to at home” etc.)
- Teachers who blame students (“She’s lazy” etc.)
- Book-levelling schemes based on invalid assessment
- Reading Recovery
- Schools that allow disruption during literacy instruction
- Schools that deal badly with bullying
- Schools that have no well-structured behaviour management systems
- Pointless, burdensome homework
All of the above affect my students and impede their progress, their wellbeing and ultimately their life chances. It’s been 25 years since I graduated and went into literacy tutoring, and I’ve still never met a casualty of systematic synthetic phonics. I’ve still never had a student who needed help with their ‘guessing’ at words. All I’ve ever seen is children who were not taught the code, not taught to blend and segment phonemes in words and attach them to graphemes, not assessed on their phonological awareness and not given reading material that matches the sequence of what they’re being taught.
More chilling still, is that those children who come to see me have parents who can afford the time and money to bring them (we do have a scholarship program for no or low cost too, but it has its limits). There is a massive population out there with no means for private tuition, and it’s those children who end up with dramatic social and economic disadvantages. It’s everyone’s problem.
Unless teachers are trained well at university, this problem isn’t going to go away, and the coalmine will remain full of struggling canaries.