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Do the latest school phonics tests spell ‘d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r’?

It’s the first Monday of September. The school uniforms are being dusted down and so is the perennial debate about the best way to teach children to read. The controversy about whether the ‘phonics’ or ‘real books’ methods of teaching literacy skills to young children has been raging for decades. This war of and about words is set to continue as teaching unions challenge the government’s latest literacy ‘initiative’ – compulsory ‘synthetic’ phonics screening tests for five to six-year-olds. The BBC reports today (03.09.12) that a poll of 1,500 Year One teachers suggests that 90% of them think the tests are a waste of time. It is no surprise that whenever the government announce their latest panacea to something as complex as how children learn to decode a series of joined-up symbols representing word-sounds and concepts, it is met by scepticism.

Synthetic phonics is based on the principle that children learn the sounds represented by individual letters – e.g. ‘c’ – ‘o’ – ‘n’ or ‘d’ – ‘e’ – ‘m’, say them out loud in the right order and hopefully the joined up sounds will be recognised by them as words and make sense. I remember the US children’s TV programme Sesame Street using a version of this in a fun and colourful way, using muppets. Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Education Secretary Michael Gove are unlikely to have these zany methods in mind when six-year-olds are being asked to decode fake words like ‘spron’, ‘fape’ and ‘thazz’ in the new  test. Unless our only experience of language is Countdown or crosswords, human beings tend to experience the written (and spoken) word in specific discourse contexts such as nursery rhymes, news stories, recipe books, electronically-mediated conversations and so on, whereby we attempt to assign meaning(s) to these symbol combinations as we experience them, often in conjunction with visual images. Rarely do we encounter them as lists of individual words in a vacuum. The invented words in Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky (‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves’) or Ricky Gervais’ Flanimal’s (e.g. ‘Glonk’ – ‘does absolutely nothing and dies’) do have meaning because they are placed in syntactic, semantic and visual environments which allows children to make sense of them and have fun at the same time. Anecdotal evidence from the new tests so far shows that some very able six-year-old readers have been confused by nonsense words like ‘zog’ or ‘vot’ thinking that they are mistakes, trying to read them as real words instead, because they are in a simple list. Others who don’t use this kind of initiative are scoring higher. According to the BBC report one teacher claims “Many children made mistakes trying to turn the pseudo words into real words – ‘strom’ became ‘storm’.” So the tests themselves are unlikely to successfully filter out those children whose literacy is not at the level deemed acceptable by the educational system.

Additionally, notwithstanding the fact that English has some notoriously varied ways of pronouncing the same letter combinations (at least eight different sounds represented by ‘-ough’, including ‘hiccough’), I am always suspicious of any decree that one method only is needed to develop any skill. Learning to play guitar, speak a foreign language or take good photographs, all benefit from theory and practice – in other words you learn the principles alongside applied trial and error. I defy anyone, for instance, to learn how to type rapidly by merely learning through memory the position of keys on a QWERTY keyboard. I am convinced my own early reading skills developed at a decent rate because I was engrossed in books with pictures on subjects that thrilled me – books on stars (the astronomical ones), comics, even school readers. I presume, like most children, that I did not comprehend all the words in one sitting but slowly worked them out over a period of time. I can say for certain that round about the age of five or six I learnt to recognise the whole word ‘Cassiopeia’ and associate it with a ‘W’ shaped star constellation thanks to a book called  A New Way to See the Stars, well before I could pronounce the word. And I’d challenge even Kermit the frog to teach children to pronounce that word by spelling it out letter by letter!

The government disingenuously claims that putting the focus on phonics will aid those children who, for whatever reason, have not had the opportunity to immerse themselves in books to this extent. According to a Department of Education press release (06.04.11) the new phonics tests will “identify children not at the expected reading level and in need of extra support”.

It is unlikely that those children who come from backgrounds where exposure to reading is perhaps as not as rich as desired, would benefit from synthetic phonics only. Surely they should be given the opportunity, like the ‘luckier’ kids, to be allowed to bury themselves in books of their choice, with adult assistance, and enjoy the struggle of muddling through a pleasurable story picking up and recognising whole words on the way.

In a recent open letter to Michael Gove in The Guardian (06.08.12), children’s writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen said: “[T]here is no evidence to suggest that expensive, exclusive, intensive, systematic synthetic phonics teaching produces more or better readers who understand what they’re reading than “mixed methods” (which include basic phonics); there is no evidence to suggest that teaching spelling using lists helps children spell better than if they read plenty of books; there is no evidence to suggest that teaching grammar rules to primary children helps them read or write better.”

Note that Rosen does not rule out phonics teaching methods entirely. He, like Professor Henrietta Dombey, former President of the UK Literacy Association argue for a mixed and balanced approach. In an excellent pamphlet entitled Teaching Reading: What the Evidence Says(2010, p.5), they claim: “A balanced approach means that, as well as working to master the mechanics of reading that allow them to lift the words off the page, children are encouraged and supported to focus on making sense of written text, and to see its uses in ordering, enlarging, enjoying and making sense of their lives. It means ensuring that classrooms are filled with interesting written texts – on screen as well as on paper – and that children are given rich experiences of putting these texts to use.”

With this mind isn’t it time we finally dispel the myth that phonics is only one of many ways to skin the proverbial ‘c’ – ‘a’ – ‘t’?