Imaginative Reading

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Learning to ReadUsing Synthetic Phonics is an effective but often desperately dull and tedious way to teach a child to read. And does this tedium ever create in children a strong internalized need to read? Mike Lake suggests that putting fun and real reading into phonics teaching can add the missing, magic ingredient.

Synthetic Phonics is now a recognised method of reading instruction, used by many schools.  What does Synthetic Phonics mean? Definitions vary – and can degenerate into little more than long lists of what it isn’t.  A neat, no-nonsense definition is given by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson (who did, after all, start the whole thing moving): “Synthetic Phonics teaches letter sounds very rapidly and children are explicitly shown how to blend the sounds together to pronounce unfamiliar words.” (Johnston and Watson 2005).

Somewhat enlarged, and with an emphasis upon listening, would be a definition derived from Diane McGuinness, who has analysed all known writing systems for the last five thousand years. She has concluded that all written code systems follow the type of spoken language which gave rise to them.  Modern European languages are coded by phonemes (the smallest unit of sound) and therefore must be coded and de-coded alphabetically.

Listening to the sounds in words comes first. (In all languages, writing is a code for the spoken word which preceded it.) Her basic requirements for reading and spelling contain not only blending, but also segmenting (isolating the sounds in words) and auditory manipulation (holding a word in memory, while pulling sounds in and out – necessary for spelling correction.) (MsGuinness, 1993).

There can no longer be any serious doubt that a synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading works – and not only works, but works better than any of the other approaches which have been used in the last few decades.

The evidence is overwhelming. Anyone with any lingering uncertainty need only to have seen the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme on September 4, 2008, “Hope for the Last Chance Kids”. Schools in deprived areas, which had hitherto suffered inordinately high illiteracy rates, were now virtually cleared of any such problem, after two years of concentrated work on Ruth Miskin’s Synthetic Phonics programme. The enthusiasm of so many of the children, who, two years earlier, had viewed reading as an unattainable aim, was a joy to behold.

A programme for three to six year-olds, called Jolly Phonics, written by Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham, claims in its Parent/Teacher Guide, that after one year boys as well as girls are on average one year ahead of their actual age (i.e. a year ahead of the reading age they would have had, if taught by the methods in vogue when the reading norms were established).

Excitement aroused by the concept of Synthetic Phonics probably goes back to the seminal work of Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston, who reported in 1998 on an accelerated start for about three hundred Scottish children on a Synthetic Phonics course.  Five years later, they stirred up even more excitement, by reporting that, with no further intervention, the seven-month advantage over children taught by other means, after a mere sixteen weeks on Synthetic Phonics, had stretched to a staggering twenty-six-month advantage.  Another noteworthy outcome was that boys, who traditionally lag behind girls, actually outperformed them.

As effective remedial strategies, the programmes which derive directly from Diane McGuinness’s work are probably without parallel. Evidence for the benefts of the American programme, Phono-Graphix, can be seen in a number of publications of the Orton Dyslexia Society, in Baltimore.

After I had received training in a British version of this approach, Sound Reading System, (to which Diane McGuinness has contributed in person) I analysed the data on nearly one hundred children seen individually by Fiona Nevola, the founder of Sound Reading System. The average gain in reading age, reading comprehension age and spelling age made by these initially failing children was two and a half years, after only eighteen hours of (spaced) teacher input.

In the face of all this success, would it be possible to add even more, through something like “imaginative engagement”? Reading and writing are, after all only skills, like riding a bike or driving a car or mending a tap.

They are not, of themselves, activities of high intellectual imagination, like composing an essay or comparing two versions of an incident.  They are only the vehicles needed to engage in such activities, just as laying bricks and plastering walls are only the vehicles by which you can create the house on which you have spent months of creative, intellectual toil designing and redesigning.

So, where does the “imaginative engagement” come in?  Well, as in the acquisition of all skills, reading and writing need practice and repetition. Perhaps imaginative engagement is necessary to encourage students to carry out this practice. One of the key criticisms of much of the Synthetic Phonics work – at least for students beyond the earliest stages – is that there is not enough “good” reading material to provide the necessary practice and repetition at each juncture.

What sort of practice material does exist? Take the following example. I hasten to point out that this is not a real-life example. I made it up, but it is not a million miles from the sort of practice reading exercises which are used “Pete did eat a meal. He did eat meat. ‘That was a very big treat!’ he said. ‘I will go to sleep.’”

Clearly, this is an exercise for students to practise reading the variants of the complex ‘ee’ spellings (ee, ea, e-e, -y). Without going into the question of what exactly is meant by “imaginative” writing, this example – on any definition, even apart from the ghastly use of “did” to avoid phonetic changes in the past tense – is unlikely to score very highly!

Contrast this with two examples, taken more or less at random, from two young children’s picture books, which both contain some “ee” words. The frst is from Daydream Dan, by Sarah Garson “Mysterious creatures lurked in the inky depths, and sea folk frolicked in the warm waters.”  The second is from The Bog Baby, by Jeanne Willis: “He was the size of a frog, only round and blue. He had boggly eyes and a spiky tail and I do remember he had ears like a mouse. He came swinging through the flower stalks and jumped into the water.”

Still without exploring the exact function of imagination in writing, it is clear that, on most definitions, these two examples would score fairly highly on “imaginative” content. On the other hand, neither would pass muster as practice pieces for early readers. Is it possible to unite the two styles to some extent and would it be desirable to do so? I hope the answer to the first question is yes. I am certain that yes is the answer to the second, because in this way, it would surely be possible to persuade students to carry out the practice and repetition agreed necessary for the full acquisition of reading skill.

In making that last statement, I have jumped the gun and tacitly accepted a connection between imaginative content and a wish to engage with it. Is this justified? If it is, then I am on the way to showing how practice and repetition can be achieved at each juncture in the process of learning to read the difficult English script.

First, let me explain what kind of material I have devised for students to practise reading reasonable chunks at each stage of their reading development. A colleague and I have trialled these books in a school-setting, alongside teaching methods appropriate to the books, and we feel that they can be used as part of a self-contained programme of reading instruction – Real Phonic Reading, or as adjuncts to most existing Synthetic Phonics schemes.

Closely following Sound Reading System, our range of reading material divides into three stages: the Foundation Stage, consisting only of simple vowels and consonants
(CVCs) and then “vowel plus e” (the silent or magic e); Stage 1, which introduces the most common variants of all the complex vowel spellings (e.g. ee, ae, ie, oe); Stage 2, which covers exactly the same elements as Stage 1, with additional variants and with somewhat longer and more complex sections of reading material.

At Stages 1 and 2, the books typically contain a story – or chapter or activity or poem – which concentrates on each of the complex vowel spellings.  For example, the first story will contain lots of “ee” sounds; the second will contain lots of “ae” sounds, but also a plentiful supply of “ee” words as revision; the third will concentrate on “e” words, particularly on the combination “ea” which could be “e” or “ee” (or “ay”), while also providing a lot of revision of “ee” and “ae” – and so on, so that novelty is always balanced by familiarity and revision is assured.

My first endeavour was to produce stories with puzzles of some sort which the reader would need to try to solve. The student would, in other words, be reading for a purpose beyond the mere act of decoding some words. In order to solve the puzzle, s/he would need to pay close attention to the meaning of what was being decoded and perhaps would need to return and read certain bits again. 

Since the initial purpose was remedial, it seemed to me essential to try to convince the hitherto failing and probably disconsolate reader that reading had a purpose – and one which could be fun.

At both the upper stages of our reading scheme, the “Puzzle Reading” books are the core. We recommend that they are read first. Many of the puzzles are of a visual/spatial nature. This is deliberate, since a preponderance of initially poor readers are better attuned to visual/spatial concepts than to verbal ones.  Solving such types of puzzle – and getting recognition for it, which is rare in our verbal-heavy primary curriculum – can but aid confidence generally and, I reasoned, confidence in reading specifically, since it comes about during a reading course.

Apart from solving puzzles or making “detective”-type decisions about likely causes and outcomes, we also have books of poems, where the accent is on humorous or even daft situations. We have been struck by how popular these are with all the children we have seen, whether they are primarily of a scientific problem-solving bent or more interested in fictional narrative.

A third genre is simply fantasy and escapism, narratives for pure enjoyment.  A fourth is of a “community of enquiry” nature, where more open, “philosophical”-type questions are suggested at the end of each chapter. This can be very useful for groups and also for stimulating discussions at home between student and parents. A fifth is of the out-and-out “cliffhanger” sort, in stories concerning space adventures, where the potential disaster virtually demands further reading.

We know from our trialling that children enjoy our books; we know that they can be highly successful in helping children to read (for example, three and a half years’ reading gain in twelve hours or less); we know that children and their parents find them fun; and it is obvious that they all contain much more “imaginative” content than the “he did eat a meal” type of writing. But, enjoyment, fun, complex narrative, problem-solving, thoughtful discussion, success: do these add up to “imaginative engagement”, as understood by educational thinkers?  Is it not just circular to say imagination must have been involved, because the stories proved enjoyable and successful?

I need now to see how imagination is viewed as part of the learning process. “Imagination” used to be viewed as separate from and inferior to “rational thought ” ,  the former dealing with the figurative – even the fanciful – and the latter with the literal – with reality, with “truth”.

But that distinction breaks down, if we follow Lakoff and Johnson, who showed that even much of what appears to be literal language is, in fact, metaphorical.  Many of the metaphors concerning abstracts, such as mind, ideas and emotions, are expressed in terms which relate to the physical world, because we have bodies. So, if most of our apparently literal language is metaphorical, then so-called rational arguments are also metaphorically structured. We make sense of these metaphors through the imagination, because that is the faculty which enables us to see one kind of experience in terms of another. In fact, Kieran Egan described imagination as “one of the chief cognitive structures by which we are able to have coherent, ordered experiences that we can reason about and make sense of”. (Egan 1992) Therefore, we should abandon the dichotomy between “imagination” and “rationality”. “Imagination” is intimately involved, at all stages, in all acts of “rationality”.

To accept these arguments is to accept that imagination is not only present in all thinking and learning; it is an integral and necessary part of all thinking and learning.

How do we ensure that material offered to children will engage their imaginations and therefore their thinking and their learning? Will chunks of prose of the “he did eat a meal” variety engage imagination?

An answer to this is possibly to be found in ideas on “narrative”. To Bruner (1986), all thinking boils down to two modes, “narrative” thinking and “logico-scientific” thinking.  But, though distinguishable, the two are not separate in operation.  Just because science and philosophy are concerned with the assessment of truth, through the testing of hypotheses, this does not mean that all philosophical and scientific advances are made via logico-scientific thinking. Far from it. The essential part of the whole process, creating the hypotheses in the first place, is much more likely to depend on narrative thinking. Many rigorous scientific hypotheses begin as stories, as metaphors, Bruner claims.

Egan, too, holds that narrative thinking is more than just a counterpart to logical thinking; rather, narrative thinking underlines all thinking.  We make sense of the world and of our experiences in narrative; we can recall items in narrative structures better than in logically organised lists.

So, according to these views, narrative is part of and a great stimulus to all thinking and learning, especially to creativity (which is intricately bound up with the concept of imagination). Is this all that is needed, then, to engage children’s imagination and ensure their involvement: a narrative?  If so (to fog to death the “he did eat” theme) wouldn’t that do as a narrative?  After all, it has a beginning, a middle of sorts and an end.  No.

According to Bruner a narrative needs more than that. A narrative “deals with the vicissitudes of (human) intentions.” The timeless theme of a story seems to depend on plight, on characters and on consciousness. A story must construct two landscapes simultaneously: the landscape of action and the landscape of consciousness (the protagonists’ knowledge or lack of it, their thinking and feeling). Much more, in other words, than simply “he did this and then he said that”.

Following Wolfgang Iser’s contention that the reader receives a narrative by composing it (by entering into it and making it her/his own) Bruner proceeds to assert that narrative must recruit the reader’s imagination, so that s/he performs it.  How do you trigger the reader’s imagination so as to do this?  One very good way, says Bruner, is to create gaps, so that the reader feels the need to fill them, with her/his own presuppositions.

That is what our stories tend to do: they create gaps, so that the reader needs to think and search round to fill that gap with an answer to a problem. The puzzle stories and detective-type stories do this openly.  Recognising the humour in a situation is, in itself, a form of gap-filling. Seeing the danger in a cliffhanger situation again forces one to make a supposition or two. Just observing how a character reacts – particularly if the reaction is an odd one – jogs the reader into a supposition as to why, i.e. a need to fill the unknown gap.

So it would seem that I am now in a position to answer the questions I have been posing.  Allowing for shortcomings in my ability to compose stories and poems with a controlled vocabulary, what I have been doing fits in with educational thinkers’ views of what constitutes imagination, how one may recruit it through narrative, why children will want to read more, once imagination has been recruited, and how this – if nothing else – aids practice in the skill of reading (which was the main, if mundane, aim in the first place).

Mike Lake

Teaching Thinking & Creativity


Creative Teaching & Learning