Back in July I wrote this post on how we might encourage children to read for pleasure to which children’s author Michael Rosen left a long & detailed comment critiquing my ideas. The comment included this statement:

When children are deemed to be ‘not reading’ i.e. being unable to pass the Phonics Screening Check, some teachers are being asked to do more of the same, rather than do anything different, nor to investigate whether there are multiple reasons for a) not passing the phonics screening check or b) finding out whether some children can read pretty well but fail the PSC anyway. Indeed, there is now some evidence to suggest (UKLA) that ironically some ‘middle class’ children how have learned to read at home with their parents using a variety of methods find the PSC confusing. Some have been observed ‘correcting’ the nonsense words, e.g. ‘strom’ to ‘storm’. So they do not pass.

A few weeks ago, another correspondent, Jacqui Moller-Butcher left what I thought was a very interesting and thoughtful response to the point above and has kindly agreed to my request to post her reply as a separate post. Here it is.

Dear Michael,

I work right now with lots of primary children aged 6-11 who’ve learnt to read using mixed methods at home and at school because mixed methods are still being taught alongside phonics, at least in some primaries. When I say mixed methods, the children read (by sight) words they recognise easily and guess those they don’t recognise based on letter clues.

You’re right. They do ‘correct’ strom to storm and other words like this, often. In exactly the way you describe, and for the same reasons, the same children ‘correct’ carry to cry, journey to joy and would to wild. I have a bank of hundreds of very interesting and informative examples. But, of course, for these words, this is not ‘correcting’ at all. The guessed word in each case is a real English word – but it is wrongly read. This is ‘mis-reading’ – just as much a ‘mis-reading’ as storm is of strom.

The children do this ‘lookaliking’ reading (for that’s how it seems to me) when reading words in context and when reading them in lists. It’s fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.

These children are practised guessers. They guess instinctively from shape and, usually, according to my bank of examples so far, from first, last and a random middle letter. This is exactly what they do in the case of strom. In context, the sentence itself rarely informs the guess, I’ve found. The children often guess a lookalike that makes no sense at all but carry on regardless. Many children I work with do this for a word every sentence or so, sometimes more often, sometimes much more.

Parents and teachers can (and do, I’m sure) easily investigate this for themselves, making a simple record of mis-read words and the ‘lookalikes’ from just 5-10 mins of reading aloud. Patterns emerge very quickly which are useful for informing teaching. As many teachers and parents realise, this ‘lookalike’ reading strategy shoots holes in a child’s comprehension.

However, the child can often get the overall gist to do well enough to at least talk about main threads – and answer some questions if a test. They can pull this off so well that they can even appear to be a ‘good’ or above average reader, sometimes, therefore, causing no concern at school. It’s the parents in these cases who’ve noticed the problem and who bring their child to me. I think these are the very children you are talking about in relation to the Y1 test.

But, the words they mis-read, with a quick guess and a lookalike, are often words they know very well and fully comprehend. That’s not right no matter how well they manage, whichever way you look at it. This is not effortless, accurate reading. We can’t let them move on to secondary reading like that, but we do. For these children, our teaching of reading has not equipped them adequately for secondary, where texts will be ever more difficult to read, with fewer pictures on which to rely.

Do we want any of our children to read like this, making incorrect guesses for any words they would otherwise know, after seven years at school? I don’t. This should be uncontroversial.

The students might get by at secondary, understanding enough to cope, and they might eventually self-fix their lookalike reading habit. I think many must, somehow. Perhaps if you do it for 5-6000 hours or so it starts to correct itself in time for GCSEs… or not. But whether they get by or they don’t, whether they are picked up and helped by brilliant teachers, parents or intervention strategies on the way or not (many are, of course), it still can’t be right to teach them to rely on luck and a bit of guesswork to read in the first place. No matter how lovingly and enthusiastically we do it. It’s a very odd strategy to deliberately encourage in our youngest, most impresionable pupils, given the flawed outcomes.

The only teaching solution for those already addicted to lookalike reading is to unpick the guessing habit and to teach children to read seemingly unfamiliar words by their letters, from left to right, accurately. (That’s what I spend my time doing now, teaching children to unlearn the habits that hinder their reading.) This may slow them down at first but speeds them up soon after if taught and practised thoroughly. But it’s not easy!

It would be much easier and more positive for all if, for those still early in the system and those just starting out, we unite, professionals and parents alike, in teaching children to read, with precision, the words they actually see on the page, not the ones they think they see.

Then they’ll be better equipped to read strom as the word it really is – alien, muggle, hobbit, wookiee, lilliputian, oompa-loompa or not.

With all best wishes

Jacqui is a secondary English teacher who worked as a literacy consultant and an Assistant Head in charge of literacy across the curriculum. She is also the mother to four young children all of whom she has encouraged to love reading and taught to read using phonics instruction.