Monday, 1 February 2016

A Tin of Words

The tin of words is a symbol of the innate conservatism of the infant teacher.  When I was training as a teacher I studied plenty of different methods of teaching reading, but no one told me that I would need to start collecting two-ounce tobacco tins.   I'm not suggesting that the 'inventor' of the Look and Say method, the late Fred Schonell, specified an old tobacco tin for the transportation of words to and from home, but when I started teaching they were to be found in most infant classrooms.  Children in the real world learnt to read using a reading scheme and a tin of words.

The system worked like this:  using a graded scheme like Sheila McCullough's '1, 2, 3 and Away' featuring Roger Red-hat, Jennifer Yellow-hat et al teachers simply gave the children the new words from the next book to learn as flash cards at home.  Next day, all being well, the child returned to school, read the book to the teacher, and took the new one away with a few more words in the tin.  The Ladybird 'Key Words' reading scheme could also be used like this, and there were many others, including Schonell's own 'Happy Venture' scheme, written with his wife, Eleanor.  I learnt to read with that one.   It was cutting edge back in the fifties, and Schonell's book, 'The Psychology and Teaching of Reading' was a staple of teacher-training courses, but even when natural language schemes like Oxford Reading Tree came along teachers still used the same method.

When I started teaching in the nineteen-seventies the tobacco tins were still going.  They were still in use in the eighties and nineties when my children were at school, despite the advent of Guided Reading and Paired Reading and Apprenticeship Reading and Real Books and even despite the resurrection of Phonics.  I bet they are lurking in the back of long-serving teachers' cupboards even now, hoarded against the day when Phonics goes out of fashion and Look and Say makes its inevitable comeback.  

The funny thing is, the system worked quite well.  It was simple to administer and most children learnt to read.  If they got stuck and couldn't learn the new words then teachers would try something different - another scheme, some phonics input, some extra help.  It's worth remembering that infant teachers used to be expected to hear every child read every day.  It could be done, but it required teachers to resort to the kind of approach I once saw my mother using.  She sat at her desk with a child reading on either side of her while she marked books at the same time and kept an eye on the rest of the class.

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