Friday, February 19, 2010

Alphabet soup

Illustration from Sesame Street

Children in Queensland schools are learning to read by catching bugs at a special Summer School - well it's more fun than phonics, innit? The Australian reports with refreshing displeasure on this peculiar initiative, which is something of a relief. It helps to know you are not alone. I quote at length for your amusement.

'The focus of the school is to teach them (the children) how to evaluate and make inferences from what they read and to analyse the way authors have expressed their points of view about a topic. The need for knowledge of letter-sound relationships and sounding out words to read them -- known as decoding -- is downgraded.'

Yes, and I suppose you could spend your time working out how to make an omelette without breaking eggs but why would you bother when eggs break so easily?

'The summer schools literacy emphasis is on discussing the meanings of texts and on making judgments about topic sentences and word choices rather than on coding and decoding,' information provided for teachers says. 'Teachers are encouraged to read texts aloud so that learners can concentrate on the higher-order thinking involved in making reliable inferences.'

And these teachers will presumably be on hand to read aloud to students as they attempt to make sense of officialdom in the future.

'Teachers are also able to annotate their students' work where necessary, so that encoding difficulties do not prevent students from showing what they understand and can do.'
In information provided to parents, the department says the literacy summer school will teach students "how to evaluate texts".'

Well, I have a degree in English and I can't work out what this means. How is this easier than ABCs exactly?

'It is important that students understand that authors (the creators of written text, documentaries, stories, films, advertisements, screenplays, video clips, chat shows etc.) all have a particular purpose and point of view," it says.'

Authors? - the originators of this bollocks are suddenly seized with the need to 'decode' the one unambiguous element in the whole foolish construct? How is it possible to intuit 'purpose' when one can't even understand what is actually written?

'One of the literacy activities outlined for teachers to do with their students is to build an insect catcher, or "pooter", after reading a magazine about invertebrates. The instructions for making the pooter are out of order and students must rearrange them before they can make the insect catcher.'

Let's be clear on this - the solution to confusion is not more confusion. The routine necessity to 'decode' instructions whose only clear duty is to be explicit is one of the more annoying facets of modern life. And this foolishness is costing roughly AUS5m, perhaps not a lot of money in the grand scheme of education but rather a lot to piss away.

A couple of leading experts state the obvious - that this stuff hasn't ever worked. An award-winning teacher of literacy, John Fleming politely skirts the real problem,

'Mr Fleming said the students' main problem was "instructional deficit" and that they had not been given the skills needed to develop as readers in the first years of school. "They've been immersed and gone through a school that said `When the kids are ready, they will pick it up'," he said. "Unfortunately, for these sorts of kids, that's not true."

'Instructional deficit'? That would be 'crap teaching' to you and me.

Government response to criticism is the usual exercise in pretzel logic. The Minister says it's just one of a number of initiatives to improve literacy and numeracy. And, yes the media does always pick on the batty programmes. The point is, why are there batty schemes to begin with? For some children, this will be it - their only shot at catching up with their peers.

Really, this is not that difficult. The English alphabet has twenty-six letters, all with distinctive shapes and sounds which, incidentally, children seem to be enjoy experimenting with. Children want to learn and are looking for shortcuts to understanding which means rules and common denominators. Their brains are wired to soak up sequences. They can't be doing with the pseudo intellectual clap-trap that adults are obsessed with.

Learning to read and write is a big undertaking but we typically get ten or twelve years to acquire the basics. It begins with C-A-T spells cat and proceeds calmly in a logical order to the point where one leaves school with the ability to decipher tax forms and loll about on the beach with Salman Rushdie or Jodi Picoult, according to taste.

Yes, there are a lot of words and some of them are quite tough to spell but, thankfully, we get an average of 80 years to refine our vocabulary and a nice man called Dr Johnson has helped enormously by writing them down in a big book should we forget one or two.

Toshie is dead but with any luck there will be a new Pantpooter in service sometime next week.


Ann ODyne said...

Weekend Australian has shocking story of grammar guide demeaned by QLD education directors who care not that a Possessive Proper Noun needs to be defined separately to/from that other thing ... oh god I need the guide too. The iten identifies professor somebody who is apparently a world grammar authority. what a frustrated man he must be.
Elsewhere in The Austn 'wiled away' slips past where 'whiled away' should have been (snowboard girl feature)
now you can turn comments off.
I have read the Hep C article properly and it cleverly reveals that Nick Cave is undergoing treatment right now, without naming him. The reader has to match an early para with a closing para.
I hope you read this on Tsar Toshie II
mwah mwah

Reading the Signs said...

Pants, your comment door is open again! Good. Sorry to hear about the divorce from School of Fine Arts and Advanced Macrame, but I hope we will be seeing more of your works. Sad also about Toshie and hope you get a replacement soon - surely Barney can sort something out - least he could do.