During my first week of teaching, I was exposed to the literacy levels of primary school leavers. The experience left me deeply shocked. My department charged me with setting and marking a simple comprehension test for the newly-arrived Year Sevens so that we could place them in sets (a rare example of traditional practice permitted at my school). The tawdry array of papers I received was horrifying. Each of these pupils had received at least six years of primary education, and by my calculation one in three of them was either illiterate, or had illegible handwriting.
How this state of affairs came to be becomes clearer the more you find out about literacy teaching in primary schools. The much publicised debate over "phonics" versus "whole word" methods sounds arcane, but it is really quite simple. "Phonics" involves teaching pupils to match individual letters to sounds, so that they can combine these sounds to make words. The teaching of phonics requires an orderly, teacher-led classroom, and in its technical approach is often characterised as boring and off-putting for young children.
For that reason, "whole-word" methods have been promoted for the last half-century as a more child-centred alternative. Instead of didactically instilling an understanding of which letters make which sounds, whole-word teaching encourages pupils to "discover" how to read by first matching words with meanings, then slowly building an understanding of letter-sounds. This method promises that pupils, to a large degree, will teach themselves. As one whole-word apostle claimed, it will lead to the "withering away of the teacher".
The most important distinction between the two methods is that one works, and one does not. This has not stopped generations of "progressive educators" from eschewing the teaching of phonics, not because of any perceived ineffectiveness but because its didactic methods are repugnant to their ideology. As a result of these teachers indulging their romantic ideals, 11-year olds arrive at secondary school unable to read and write.
If we have this much trouble in Britain teaching our own language, it is no wonder foreign-language teaching is so woeful. Eva, a young German teacher at my school, hilariously recalled her bemusement during the British teacher training she received. No language learning should be done through drill or rote, she was told. All should be done through communication and interaction. "I was not told how to teach them," she told me, "I was told how to play games."
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