There was a feeling around the 1970s that many children's reading books were dull and that it would be far better if they were exposed to 'real books', or, in other words, good literature. An extreme form of this view was put forward by Goodman (1967), who describes reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game. The overall thinking behind this kind of view was that it was unnecessary and time-consuming to try to make sense of a text by looking at every letter: children should be encouraged to use contextual information and to enjoy the book's literary style.
The concern that children should not miss out on good literature was a well-intentioned one, and arguably the use of reading books whose aim was to train up phonic awareness may at the time (though this is no longer true, see note 12.1) have led to a rather restricted vocabulary and, as a consequence, to dull reading. However, we may justifiably criticise those policymakers who laid it down that letter-sound correspondences should not be taught at all: while it may be true that fluent readers can pick up the sense of a passage without looking at every detail, this policy proved disastrous for those who were not fluent readers - and for dyslexics in particular.
I always doubted whether any of those who were against the teaching of lettersound correspondences had ever tried to teach a dyslexic child on a one-to-one basis. In the case of children for whom learning to read is a real struggle, books which are a sufficient intellectual challenge to them may contain words which are too difficult for them to decode, whereas easy phonics-based reading books will have a better chance of giving them a taste of success. It is good sense that dyslexic children should be encouraged to make a clear distinction between books aimed at helping them to decode print and books which are up to their intellectual level. I have in my time apologised to intelligent dyslexic children who were struggling with their reading, making it clear that I did not suppose that reading about cats on mats was up to their intellectual level and explaining that the reading and spelling of easy words was necessary before they could advance to harder ones.
My own experience with dyslexics suggested to me that, as far as reading is concerned, some may have achieved limited success without the systematic teaching of letter-sound correspondences. The idea, however, that after reading 'good books' dyslexics will come to learn letter-sound correspondences and hence learn to spell seems to me very wide of the mark. Without careful and systematic teaching it is very unlikely that they would ever acquire sufficient knowledge to enable them to learn to spell accurately. If spelling is neglected in the early stages, this means that it falls to some other teacher to try to make up the deficiency when the child is older. Quite apart from the frustration which children may feel at their inability to spell, failure to teach spelling alongside reading is an uneconomical use of resources. In contrast if letter-sound correspondences are taught in a multisensory way, the child will be learning to read in the course of learning to spell.
I do not think anyone would now dispute that dyslexics throughout the world need to be exposed to good literature. It is sad, however, when their decoding difficulties make it hard for them to read this literature with enjoyment; adequate decoding skills are necessary if dyslexics are to read good books to themselves. In the meantime, while decoding skills are being learned, there is no reason why parents and others should not read good literature aloud to dyslexic children and, indeed, to any children who may wish to listen. There is no age limit at which this has to stop.
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