Review by Robbie Burns

Assistant vice principal, Bede Academy (Emmanuel Schools Foundation)

7 Nov 2021, 5:00

Book

An essential manual for ensuring every pupil becomes a fluent reader

The art and science of teaching primary reading by Christopher Such

By Christopher Such

Publisher

SAGE

ISBN 10

1529764165

“Despite decades of research into the subject, […] many teachers are inexcusably ill-informed about reading.” This is a devastating claim for Christopher Such to open his book with.

And yet… even though I received excellent initial teacher training, I had little more than a few hours explicitly learning about how children learn to read. After that, I was left to rely on intuition and observation of more experienced colleagues to work it all out: discerning what the right approach to teaching the sound “ee” to year 1s might be, or helping year 6 infer meaning from a text about character emotions. From conversations with many other colleagues since, I know my experience is far from unusual.

But this is not because we as a profession have sought to avoid the research. One major barrier to developing an evidence-informed approach to the teaching of reading is the complexity of the research itself. So complex is the topic, in fact, that the heated debate it has generated within academia over many years is referred to as “the reading wars”. That’s enough to put anyone off!

But if we do not understand what the best available evidence out there says about what makes great reading instruction, what on earth are we to do? It’s little wonder we are left to fend for ourselves and develop our intuition, as if teaching reading was an art. After all, generations of teachers have done this, so maybe we should just carry on.

I’m not the first to say it, but I don’t think this is acceptable. Teaching children to read is far too important to just leave it to handing on hard-fought teaching experience to the next generation. We need to understand the art and the science of teaching primary reading, ensuring that they complement one another.

Teaching children to read is far too important to just leave it to experience

And that is precisely what Christopher Such has provided us with. With an erudite synergy of complex research and first-hand experience, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading is sure to become an essential manual for ensuring every pupil becomes a fluent reader. It’s the book I didn’t realise I’d been waiting for.

To begin with, Such pulls off an amazing feat of composition. Out of the fog of the reading wars, we are presented with clear concise summaries of the elements of reading and how they can be applied to the classroom. It’s just shy of 180 pages, but this book has everything it needs to pass as a primer to enable primary educators to access and assess for themselves the key contested ideas.

And The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading goes far beyond mapping out the research minefield for us. It also manages to make it all relevant to teachers of reading (which we all are!). Such’s ample appendices and lists will support anyone planning and developing whole-school reading approaches. Vocabulary lists, Greek and Latin root lists, reading-rich classroom tick-lists and reading leader tick-lists make this book something that can be referred to time and again. I have already planned professional development for colleagues inspired by its content.

If that sounds too prescriptive, you needn’t worry. For sure, those looking for that level of support will find it, including how to timetable reading sessions across a week, a helpful breakdown of a suggested timetable and how the sessions might run. But everything in this book is underpinned by a rich wisdom about the art of teaching and the value of experience and expertise.

Based on his own observations as a teacher and leader, Such manages to tread a fine line between the one-size-fits-all approach implied by “science”, and the perennial and onerous re-invention implied by “art”. The result is a balanced text that can be adapted to all contexts.

The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading has the potential to be a catalyst for rich educational discourse about how we ensure absolutely every child becomes a fluent reader.

And that gives me hope. Because one thing’s for sure: warring over it isn’t delivering the goods.



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