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How do we learn to read?

The “How” question has been a source of Educational Research for centuries.

As Educators, we seek to understand the most effective way to promote learning and progress in our students. The United Kingdom Education System has its trends and like other industries, philosophies come and go. We have tried to establish the learning styles of individuals: are you a Kinaesthetic Learner, a Visual Learner or even an Auditory Learner?

This is an attempt to put learning in a neat box, but the truth is, very few individuals fit into a neat box! Learning to read is no different.

Our children will learn at their own pace and respond to a variety of methods. The key is to find out how the individual responds, but unfortunately the system used in the classroom may be too fixed, and this results in pupils struggling and ultimately falling behind. It is for this reason that teachers should have the freedom to use a variety of methods and be trusted to make professional decisions about the methods they choose to promote a positive learning environment.

As a Secondary School English Teacher for 13 years, I taught many children who had fallen behind in Primary; those children were given support with intervention programmes and various initiatives, brought in by the school to help students of “Low Ability” catch up.

However, I was never given any formal training on how children learnt to read. Therefore, without that knowledge, work was aimed at ability rather than trying to fill in the gaps of understanding. Formal Reading Tests would reveal children whose reading age was below their actual age. However, the response to this data was not always what I now think to be required. These were often the students categorised as “reluctant readers”; as a teenager, it is less embarrassing to misbehave and avoid work, than to admit that you cannot comprehend the task or extract that which the teacher has provided you with.

The materials used across all subjects then become inaccessible; those students enter a cycle of failure and their school experience is negative. They disengage and lose the ability to become a “Lifelong Learner”.

It was only when I moved to the Primary Sector that I received training on teaching children how to read. I was finally able to see the process that children experience before they “land” in Secondary School in Year 7 regardless of whether they are ready to access Key Stage 3 or not. In 2012, I received training in various Phonics Programmes. As a Supply Teacher, I was fortunate to experience multiple programmes. These were “Jolly Phonics”(the programme my small children were learning), “Letters and Sounds” and the “Read, Write, Inc” Programme. I became fascinated and spent hours watching the Ruth Miskin videos and learning from the many outstanding teachers I was working beside. It was amazing to see the children learning to read in action. I felt extremely proud to be able to make a difference by starting these children off on their educational journeys.

I believe that nothing meaningful can be achieved if you have not mastered how to read and write.  

As a child who started school in 1980, I was one of those children who fell behind and struggled to learn to read. I remember being shouted at by the teacher in Year 3 as I was still struggling to access this code that was reading and my self-esteem was low! I was the child who just didn’t get it and the truth is that those teachers did not adjust their methods to help me learn. I was passed off as “unintelligent”.

It is amazing now for me to reflect back and feel truly grateful to my Private Tutor and my Year 4 Teacher. That year, I had an outstanding teacher who took the time to understand how I learnt. Within one school year, I moved from the bottom of the class to the middle. I then went on to thrive and by the time I moved to Secondary School, I was in all of the top sets. I was successful and went onto University and qualified as a Teacher of English in 1998. But it did not occur to me until years later, that my Teacher Training did not include how children learn to read. For decades, the debate between learning to read through “Sight” (remembering words by rote and association) versus the Synthetics Phonics approach has continued. As a child in the 1980s, the method I was taught was based on “Sight Learning” and this method was obviously problematic for me.

However, lots of other children in my class learnt to read that way. I remember feeling so enlightened years later, as I learnt the 44 phonemes that I would teach the Reception children. I now feel as an adult that the “secret code” has finally been revealed to me. I am, therefore, an advocate of learning to read phonetically.

However, in a recent Qualified Tutor discussion, I asked others about their experiences of learning to read and how much training they had received on how to teach reading. The Secondary School Teachers all said that their Teacher Training did not include how to teach reading!

I feel, as this is fundamental to all learning, that this should be included in Teaching Training across the board.

Lucy Alexander Spencer, Founder of Education Boutique, was keen to make the point that “one size does not fit all” and many neurodiverse students do not thrive when the systematic, synthetic phonic method is adopted but respond much more positively using a sight word technique. This leads me back to my original point that learning is individual and we cannot put our teaching into neat little boxes and systems. We must find a way to make learning positive and unrestrictive. We must teach reading well, as it is the single most important skill that can dictate a student’s educational journey.

Tutors have this flexibility and that is why students who have fallen behind often progress so well with a tutor. Our Teachers need this flexibility too and then we can all look forward to an Education System that truly works for everyone!

Victoria Burns
Victoria is an experienced Teacher and Tutor of English Language and Literature. She provides online tuition nationally and internationally through her tuition service: VB Tutoring. Victoria is passionate about offering high-quality tuition to a wide range of students of all ages and backgrounds. After working in both the Primary and Secondary sectors for 22 years she was keen to use her expertise to help young people achieve their goals.This led to the launch of VB Tutoring in 2020. When Victoria is not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband, two children and two cats. She particularly enjoys going for long walks and reading for pleasure.

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