Teaching Children to read or a Fight Against Illiteracy?

It was 7.00pm on Tuesday, Oct 2014. I still remember the date because it changed my life. It was a fine day.I was working on a training outline when my younger daughter came to me with tears in her eyes. She was looking depressed and hesitant to speak up. I left my papers and ask the reason for crying, now she just burst ….Oh, Mama, I don’t know how to learn spellings, I am failed to cope up, my teacher is not happy with me….mama I don’t know why I have poor spellings….I will never be able to learn spellings…….That anxiety in grade one shook me….I was astonished…..She was the daughter of a proud preschool teacher and phonics trainer with 14 years of teaching and training experience…..…..student of a leading school……a brilliant girl with all As…In fact, I was not expecting this She was exposed to phonics for three years in playgroup, nursery and Kindergarten….still she was struggling with spellings.Why? If she was there stuck with spellings then who can spell? It was a big question mark in front of me. Being a teacher or a trainer I was always given a set of targets to be covered for a specific audience or group of children.I was alarmed ..There must have been something wrong going on…

I felt sad, she was a bright student, in a high profile school…..she had 3 years with phonics…and now this …I was not expecting this, I was assuming it could not happen….but it was happening…I was helpless. She was learning to read through word recognition, a practice still incorporated in our schools.

Although the school claimed that it taught phonics, it amounted to learning 26 letters in nursery and then vowels (a,e,i,o,u) and digraphs sh, ch, th….may be a few alternatives in the kindergarten. These three years I can say were devoted for introducing sounds…and whole word reading of readers.I was assuming that eventually she would learn to read and write in grade one, as she was exposed to phonics approach…..Already she had homework – words to learn for dictation. Then in the next day she came with her diary with a note from her teacher……..she is careless …..Her spellings are not up to the mark…She was taught a “mixture of methods” being taught in most schools of Pakistan.

Over the next few days, I surveyed almost all types of schools. I asked my friends, searched curriculums on websites, searched for synthetic phonics in Pakistan. Discussed with all sorts of education consultants looking for an explanation for a problem that I could sense with my ‘mother’s instinct’ but no teacher could explain. I googled to find previous researches or conclusions about synthetic phonics. I found many things…reports, recommendations….but nothing solid going on in any of the setups. I was told that phonics is only for the beginners, and from grade one onwards we need to focus on spellings/learning through letter names.

I decided to teach her myself and try synthetic phonics through Jolly Phonics scheme as I was also doing an online course for teaching through this program. I was using this program for teaching and training sessions since 2007, however now I was going to use it as a whole program with a follow-up of its grammar components. That night I showed her the Jolly Phonics video in which colorful characters learn to read by linking letters and sounds. I started working on her with Jolly Phonics extra.

We revised 42 sounds with cards and words with my word book. She quickly learned how to blend sounds to make words and identify irregular parts in tricky words….

At school, however, she had to recognize whole words in reading books and one day she came home upset saying she had been told off by her teacher for the stilted way she was reading, she was slow in reading so library teacher was not happy with her reading .I had explained to the teacher that she would be de-coding rather than memorizing words, but she continued to explain that this she is not up to the required level and sent messages to me in her diary. I told my daughter to be patient, I told her that it’s a misunderstanding and with the passage of time everything would be settled.A world renowned trainer was coming from Spain for sessions in Pakistan; I sent an invitation to my daughter’s school. The trainer gave us all loads of knowledge.And it worked.The other day my daughter came back from school, she was excited, she told me that her teacher made her sit in the center of the class ,she get her to read some words and then she said to all those children…..she knows blending…..she knows how to read…and this is is reading….

Most parents cherish the memory of their child’s first word or steps but for me the most important milestone was when my daughter told me that she can read!It was not the finishing line, It was the beginning for me….

This made me more determined and confident.I started sharing my thoughts through training sessions in my newly found setup PHONICS CLUB. Subsequently, I realized that we are 25 years back I was getting frustrated day by day…I tried to contact many educationists, publishers’ school officials but in vain…They listened to me patiently, understand my point of view then at the end blame each other. Like teachers blame administrators, parents blame teachers, school administrators or principals told me that they are given tailor made book-lists and curriculum from directors, directors were saying that they have chosen best possible choices according to their budget and publishers should make available low cost books however publishers told me that books have become consumer goods now and schools are dealing with them in accounts office and they are not allowed to discuss curriculum with academic directors or coordinators.It made me depressed.I stopped conducting training sessions .There was no use of training teachers without implementation plans.I tried to convince school administrators/principals in a session to support their teachers in implementing true synthetic phonics approach. I was so hopeless. I was making them all frustrated as I was so upset… There should be logic to literacy and life to teaching.…

Then Jolly Learning came to the rescue. They decided to offer free trials in Pakistan …To demonstrate that a change of methodology can bring a huge difference. Here I would like to thank CPDP director Bushra Saeed khan for accepting our unusual proposal with a claim that we can get students from low-performance schools to read and write, regardless of their previous educational, socioeconomic or family backgrounds. I still appreciate our young researchers Faiza Safdar, Sadia Naz, Fatima Aftab and Bushra Suri for their contribution in our project.

Since then, I have assisted a number of parents who have taken bold steps against their children’s education. In most of these cases, the parents were so confused about phonics; it means that little is publicly known about the difference between synthetic phonics and the whole word approach. Many children have trouble spelling especially in grade one but we don’t know how many or in relation to what standard. we have different point of views, different modes of instructions and syllabus differs a lot in almost every other school, however we all have one thing in common, yes it is phonics we are teaching our children with phonics, in every other preschool of Pakistan whether it is government or private, school with a high-profile or school in a corner of street for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds….in every preschool we find them singing aa baa ca da song….no no not names only sounds….sh! We are doing phonics…Yes and phonics are only for the introductions in early three year. After 3 years of Phonics we jump on spellings ……now we want those tiny brains with confused staring eyes to learn those spellings by heart, leaving that knowledge of phonics or sounds behind……There is a need to understand that phonics approach need to be continued in later stages as well for decoding alphabetical code for reading and writing.

I have worked for Learning Difficulties, consulting and assisting at conferences and Professional Development sessions, building website content, writing responses to inquiries, as well as doing the weekly news posting.

I co-wrote a critique of the Phonics teaching for its blended approach to teaching beginning reading. The letter helped the director understand the issue and she announced publicly their support for explicit instruction in synthetic phonics. However, It was a long journey to start this project to get all things done.

So the work continues…!”