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1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Why people shouldn't use tools they don't understand

I'm a teacher.
I teach English which, of course, includes teaching reading and writing. Like all teachers, whatever their subject, I have a toolbox that contains lots of different tools and techniques that I mix and match according to the circumstances. I have a pretty good idea about how to do my job and which techniques work for me and my students.
One such tool is phonics. In ludicrously over-simplified terms phonics is what you are using when you teach your kids that "cat" is "ku... a... tu". It's a single tool in the box and not an uncontroversial one, primarily because every few years the Government does a back flip and demands that teachers who were using it stop or that teachers who weren't start. Personally, and I suspect this is true of most teachers, I like to have all the tools available to me.

Last night though, I witnessed a perfect example of why people shouldn't use tools they don't understand. Phonics is a particular teaching technique but it's a technique that should only be used by people who have more than a rudimentary idea about what it is.

There was a woman at the Metro stop with her seven-year-old son. I know that he was seven because I heard her say, "Come on, you're seven. You should know this already."

That one sentence says all you need to know about her caring, nurturing attitude. If not actually angry, it certainly came over as sounding irritated. From my observation of the situation he did have reading difficulties, with a reading age more like four or five than seven. 
She showed him a word and read it out loud.
At her insistant urging he tried to follow it in the page and sound it out.
"Hhhhh...  oh... ul... ee."
It was, I thought, a fair enough stab at it. His mother disagreed. She instantly told him he was wrong and "corrected" him.
"Hur... oh.. ler... ler.. yuh".

The kid was clearly utterly bewildered. Her attempt to sound it out had sounded out what she thought each letter, in isolation, should sound like and bore no resemblance at all to the way the word should be pronounced. The kid tried again - his way - and she corrected him again. She went on to similar nonsense with the words "baby", "lady" and "fairy".

If that's the way he's being encouraged at home then it's hardly surprising that he's having problems. Poor kid. I think it's terrific that parents get involved in their children's learning but they should try to do it in a way that isn't quite so counter-productive.

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