A review of Coleman & Ainley (2010) Yes we can read.

Gatehouse Books, the publishing house with an excellent record of championing adult literacy, has brought out  “Yes we can read – a one-to-one reading scheme for learners from 8 to 80.”yes-we-can-read

For a book that aims to suit learners from 8 to 80, the first thing I look at is that the material and examples used are neutral as regards age in wording and images, but not then overly bland.  Perhaps sensibly, images are avoided in the main body of the text to avoid this trap, although this means there are missed opportunities for reinforcing the overtly phonic message with some visual input.  Even something highlighting the visual patterns in phonemes and rhymes might have helped dyslexic learners who have visual strengths.

The images in the photographic alphabet are very clear and attractive, with the worthy design of providing a three dimensional “hook” from letter shape to sound.  It is clever to link the letter X to a short kissing sound /ks/ though it would have been useful to mention that this is the common phoneme where x is not an initial sound, unlike the other letter sounds.  The other issue for me is that I have rarely found an adult reader, even those struggling with the first stages of literacy who hasn’t mastered most of the initial alphabet sounds, so this section of the book will mainly just be needed as a reminder.

The book then takes us systematically through the most common sounds and sound combinations that a reader will encounter.  The reader and her coach are meant to go through the book sequentially, but there is also an index listing the sounds and the order they come in the book for navigation purposes and for possible revision and recap.
I really like the layout of the book with plenty of space and with clear instructions for the coach on the left hand page and activities on the right.  This book is premised on a lay person as coach (a friend, a volunteer, a parent) so jargon is very successfully excluded.  Coaches are seen as the prime motivators and so are tasked with being positive and encouraging.  The book uses cheerful motivating phrases to fill in at the end of each activity page, including one or more of the target pages for the word, e.g. “It is true [Sue] can read well now.”  This and a simple ticking system are the only forms of assessment and feedback.  A more formalised tutoring system might itch to assess a learner’s progress in more detail and I can see college managers pressing for an ILP filled in with targets attained!

The actual coaching methodology appears to be almost exclusively based on modelling and repetition, with words taught both singly and in sentences.  It is good that words and their component sounds are set in the context of their meaning in a text.  I would hope that the adult reader and their coach might also have conversations about the text, to check on understanding, even if comprehension is not to be more formally assessed.

There is also an unstated assumption that the reader will pick up blending of component sounds from the coach’s example, when we know this is often the most complex part of the process.  You have been coached on the soft c sound (page 154-5) yet how do you know to remember how to blend it in a word like “recent” and how do you know that the c is going to be soft not hard without knowing a bit about the rules.  No I am not advocating you use a rule-based approach instead! – this wouldn’t help an adult with dyslexia – it is just part of the mystery of how we acquire word recognition skills.  Helpfully, the book suggests the coach prompts a reader who misreads a word with the correct word after 4 seconds.  At the stage of blending sounds into three letter words (page 22) they are even encouraged to prompt the sound blending approach. I have experimented with a more sophisticated form of onset-rime prompting (this would be stressing “r-/ee/-/s/-ent” in the above example of “recent”) but have not used it widely enough to be sure that it helps.  What I do advocate is taking that problem word later and working on its look as well as its sound in a piece of separate vocabulary development, as this definitely seems to help.  Disrupting the fluent reading of text too often with corrections is counter-productive.

I retain a bit of cautious scepticism as to how quickly an adult struggling to read would take to really become fluent at decoding and understanding text with this book’s method alone.  I have a feeling a lot of ancillary learning would be necessary for real success.  Tantalisingly the book mentions a method designated “Look Write Say” for words that have to be learned by sight because they don’t follow regular sound patterns.  The coach is told not to split the word in this case, but concentrate on the whole word sound and shape, but not much more about how this works. I have developed a guidance sheet on using the “Look Say Cover Write Check method”, more commonly used for learning spelling patterns, in an enhanced version for reading.  This involves chunking a word into memorable visual patterns (which may or may not correspond to sound patterns) reinforced by colour highlights.  The method is even better if the word’s meaning is linked to its look and sound through a phrase or mnemonic.  I really think it is too much to expect a struggling reader to assimilate a large bulk of new words without this sort of multi-sensory support.

Finally, there is the more deep-seated doubt that a method based so heavily on phonics will help all adult learners.  There is pressure in the adult learning sector to adapt the miracle cure of synthetic phonics that is now government policy in English schools.  But we know that a one-size fits all method is unlikely to work for adults who bring such a rich pattern of negative hang-ups and positive compensatory strategies to the puzzle of reading.  My research leads me to believe that there is a definite difference between the brain wiring needed for reading acquisition the first time around for a young child and the reading development strategies needed for an adult, where neural pathways are already partly established.  In particular, adults with phonological processing difficulties (associated with some aspects of dyslexia) will necessarily struggle more to develop skills through the phonic route.

There is also the pragmatic reason that adults may not have the time and the inclination for the systematic approach that a good phonics programme requires and colleges strapped for cash may not countenance the intensive one-to-one support that “Yes we can read™” requires.  I would also hate us to go back, exclusively, to the benevolent amateur approach to adult literacy that predominated before the 1980s.  We have worked hard for our professional status.

I do, however, think there is a place for this book.  It is thoughtful and systematic.  It is motivating and soundly based on words having meaning.  It may well work for you and your best friend.  It is much more attractive and stimulating than “Toe by Toe” currently used by mentors in prisons, and so may well have a niche there.  The testimonies at the front of the book bear witness to the success of its trial period, which has included some work with adults.  I would like to see it used in conjunction with some wider one-to-one coaching on reading strategies.  I would encourage anyone  to try out this book.  You can obtain it from http://www.yeswecanread.co.uk/order.html