In my last post I wrote about sociologist, Frank Furedi’s views on reading and whether we do a good job of fostering a love of reading in young people. In this post I want to explore his view that reading has become ‘medicalised’.

Is reading unnatural?

The other startling point to come out of Frank’s talk at researchED was when he said that although he begun his research into reading as a confirmed advocate of phonics, as the deeper he delved the more sympathetic he became to whole-language teaching. Cue, sharply drawn breaths and restless muttering. When prodded he seemed to suggest that, despite its flaws, whole-language teaching at least did a reasonable job of getting children to enjoy reading.

Instead of dismissing this as heresy I wanted to think through what he might have meant. In his book, The Power of Reading, Furedi discusses the ways in which reading has always been seen as problematic and how, latterly, has become increasingly ‘medicalised’. If reading is an activity for which evolution cannot have intended us then, the logic follows, it must be an unnatural activity. And, if reading is somehow unnatural then the inability to read must therefore be more natural.

Neuroscience, psychology and a variety of other disciplines have contributed to the medicalization of reading to the point that its very acquisition is regarded as a complex and challenging accomplishment. Such expectations turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy when reading difficulty is normalized as a natural condition. (p. 211)

My view is that while we certainly haven’t had time to evolve an innate capacity for reading, it’s no more unnatural than wearing pants, eating cheese or living in houses. The miracle of the human brain is that most people learn this “complex and challenging accomplishment” with relative ease. But, in an age where we want everyone to read, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some don’t. Furedi argues that

…the veritable epidemic of dyslexia and other reading-related symptoms is likely to be related to the lowering of educational and cultural expectations, the tendency to re-interpret the learning problems facing children in medical terms, and the expansion of the definition of medical diagnosis. (p. 211)

With this idea that reading is precarious, difficult and best not left to chance, the question of how to most efficiently and effectively teach children to read has taken on increasing importance. In the 1950s, disputes about how best to teach reading led to the ‘Reading Wars‘. This internecine struggle is as alive and vicious as it ever was and as Furedi notes, “…supporters of the whole-language movement casually demonize their critics; they argue that those who support the teaching of reading are ‘in bed with the Far Right’ and that the promotion of phonics teaching is part of a conspiracy to ‘discredit, control, and privatise American schools.’ In turn, some advocates of phonics condemn their opponents as mean-spirited subversives who are determined to lower the standards of American [and British!] education.” (p. 176) And who could forget Andrew Davis calling the teaching of phonics to children who could already read ‘almost a form of abuse’?

Now, I can be as tribal as anyone, but the point is, everyone wants children to enjoy reading and perhaps we end up talking past each other. In a classic example from the high-profile phonics opponent, Michael Rosen he’s delighted to discover ‘evidence’ that the popular phonics programme Read Write Inc. has apparently switched to ‘mixed methods’ because teacher are being encouraged to let children take ‘real’ books home as well as their phonics readers. Ruth Miskin’s website confirms this:

Ruth and the team have chosen their favourite real books to link to each Read Write Inc. Literacy and Language unit for every year group. Each unit has at least four suggestions for wider reading; a mix of classics, fairy stories, legends and recent publications.

One of the stated reasons for doing this is to “foster a love of stories and story language”.

Rosen says, “Taking a ‘real reading book’ home (as opposed to a phonically regular ReadWriteInc book) will inevitably involve children in reading through using other methods than phonic decoding. This is at heart what is meant by ‘mixed methods’.”

If this is indeed what’s meant by mixed methods, let’s allow Michael his victory. It’s clear that Read Write Inc maintain the need for a phonics only diet up until the end of Year 1 and that the Literacy and Language units in question are intended for children from Year 2 onwards, once they have mastered the basics of phonically decoding. Once children can decode fluently there’s no issue with using ‘mixed methods’ – that’s what every adult reader does.

Much of the antipathy to phonics is a product of the belief that although phonics instruction may be the best way to learn phoneme/grapheme relationships, it’s not the best way to get children to learn to enjoy the act of reading. It’s not too great a stretch  from there to believe that if phonics is all children do, then of course they won’t enjoy the process of reading.

While I have some sympathy with this view, all but the most hardline phonics exponents would, I think, agree that just as children need to practice forming letters before they can write stories, phonics is the most effective way to learn how to recognise letter/sound correspondences and will best enable children to read ‘real’ books. At the same time it’s unlikely anyone will enjoy something they find hard work and although a majority of children may learn to read any old how, a sizeable minority won’t. If we’re interested in children who value the written word then they must be able to read effortlessly.

Too much of our focus though is almost always on how children should be taught to read and not what they should be reading. Once children have learned the mechanics of reading, what then? This brings us back to the question of content we discussing in Part 1: most people don’t really care how children learn to read as long as they do, we’re much more interested in what children read. And if reading is unnatural, stories most certainly aren’t. Daniel Willingham describes stories as ‘psychologically privileged’: they tap into a part of our brain that process the world through narrative. As I argued here, everyone loves stories even if some people hate reading. If we want children to enjoy new and exciting books we might do better to read to them.

As a parent I hated my daughters bringing home books to read. Together we’d struggle haltingly through the adventures of Biff and Chip as they did their best to read aloud. And reading became a chore, a task to be completed but certainly not something I or they enjoyed. One of the best pieces of advice Ruth Miskin offers is that children should take home challenging books that they have already mastered at school so they can experience the pleasure of showing off their accomplishment to their parents.

Maybe we could transfer the thinking that underpins this sort of approach to secondary schools. Instead of giving children either extracts from Dickens to PEE to death or the plodding banalities that pass for most text books, maybe we could get them to master worthwhile texts, revel in content and really learn that reading is a transformative act.