There is an on-going battle over the prominence of synthetic phonics in teaching reading
And the new phonics screening test
Professor Dominic Wyse has co-authored The Early Literacy Handbook with primary head teacher Christine Parker. It makes a significant contribution to the on-going debate on phonics.
The Government, and in particular Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister are keen advocates of synthetic phonics. This Handbook claims to put forward a practical alternative to the government’s emphasis on synthetic phonics, underpinned by research evidence.
There are two main types of phonics – analytic and synthetic. In analytic phonics, children are taught whole words and later analyse their constituent parts, such as c-at or str-eet. In synthetic phonics, the key is to teach them sounds of letters and letter combinations first, then combine those to form words: c-a-t or s-t-r-ee-t.
Schools differ in their approaches .There is evidence that teachers use both synthetic and analytic phonics but alongside several other approaches to reading, and the debate is, in a certain sense at least, an academic one.
Synthetic phonics, claim its advocates, is the most efficient way of delivering the “alphabetic principle” to children, that’s to say, the abstract principle by which children learn that letters correspond to sounds and sounds correspond to letters. They learn this abstract principle through the specifics of “getting” (a) the examples where these correspondences are regular (“cat”, “chop”, “sit” and the like) and (b) from learning by heart “tricky words” – often the commonest in English – which are not regular, like “is” and “was”. By the end of year 1, children should have got hold of this “alphabetic principle” and to prove it, they will all sit down and do a “phonics screening test”. Wyse and Parker argue that children learn the mechanics of language best within the context of classroom talk and high quality children’s books. “Contextualised teaching begins with whole texts that engage children’s interest and motivation,” they write. “The most important features of texts, such as the way narrative connects with children’s sense of wonder and with their everyday lives, is emphasised first and foremost. Work on the sentences, words, letters and phonemes then follows naturally because these linguistic building blocks are made naturally meaningful when children experience them in the context of whole texts. Teaching about letters and phonemes is an important component in learning to read, but there are serious risks if it is magnified above all others, especially as the focus of high stakes national testing.” The book sets out to guide teachers in finding creative ways to develop their pupils’ enthusiasm for and engagement with reading and writing. While it describes teaching techniques and strategies which bring together research and practice, the book emphasises that teachers should “avoid the idea of ‘recipes’” and release their own creativity.
Each chapter opens with an account of theory and research that relates to topics such as “multilingualism” or “grammar and punctuation”. This is then exemplified and expanded by guidance and insights into the practice of teaching. The book encourages teachers to use technical terms such as “phonemes” (individual sounds) and shows ways to teach letters and sounds using rhymes and songs. Spelling patterns can be reinforced through games such as a treasure hunt for words ending in “ing”. Writing on the IOE London blog Wyse, professor of early childhood and primary education at the Institute of Education, London, says the Government’s draft programmes of study for English should be completely rewritten: “Pleasure, love and an emphasis on meaning all appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar,” he warns.
Critics of the phonics method, such as children’s author Michael Rosen, are rarely against the use phonics per se . They see, instead, Phonics as one tool, from a set of tools, that can help children to learn to read. Rosen argues that Phonics is only, and always only, part of the system by which we make correspondences between sounds and letters (or combinations of letters). We also do this through recognising whole words (as with what the synthetic phonics materials call ‘tricky words’ and the like. We also do it through such processes as prediction, part recognition by phonic methods (eg initial letter or letters), part by sense and meaning and so on. Many words in English cannot be entirely decoded using synthetic phonic methods. One example: the two meanings and sounds of ‘wound’. Producing both correct sounds will not of itself produce the right word. This can only be arrived at through context and meaning. Rosen also objects to the screening test saying that it is an expensive waste of time, labels very young children failures and goes against the grain of government policy which is to end top down prescription in education, and to give autonomy to schools to make these kind of decisions themselves.
Ministers, though, point to poor progress in young pupils reading over a sustained period, which is unacceptable, with too many pupils not reaching the required standard and who are then ill- prepared for the transition to secondary school . They cite research that shows impressive results from synthetic phonics teaching. ( eg The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment-A Seven Year Longitudinal Study- Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson-2005)
The Early Literacy Handbook by Dominic Wyse and Christine Parker. Published by Practical Preschool Books, a division of MA Education Ltd. ISBN 978-1-907241-26-0.
Joe Nutt tells me ‘Anyone interested in this issue should start with Mariah Evans huge research project, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” published in the “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility” about two years ago to get an idea of just how important the family’s (not the school’s) role in literacy development is.’