Clever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.
But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.
That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.
In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. This, of course, suited the requirements of big business and big government — the bureaucrats and corporations who had pushed this approach — as it created easily managed and manipulated employees and consumers for business, and easily led clients for the swollen state apparatus.
But many parents weren’t happy with it. It had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, in opposition to the stifling hegemony of the progressive pedagogical experts, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.
This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of progressive repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?
The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?