My son has finally started bringing ‘real’ reading books home. I say ‘finally’, because he has been absolutely desperate to read ever since his sister learned. I put ‘real’ in inverted commas, as his book the other day made me start questioning our whole approach to reading in the UK.
So here I go, wading into the ever-raging argument about synthetic phonics. With my educator hat on I’ve been fascinated by the issue for a long time (so shoot me). Since my own children started to read though, I have found myself developing new opinions as a parent, and as a writer who wants to engage kids in books, stories and language.
I have a theory: not that many people, least of all the government ministers who advocate its use so emphatically, actually understand much about synthetic phonics, or indeed how children learn to read full stop. And yet a quick Google search will find it alternately heralded as the bedrock to our children’s educational achievements, and reviled as the root of all literary evil.
Many years ago I did a Masters at the Institute of Education called ‘Literacy learning and literacy difficulties‘. It was all about how young children acquire literacy – what goes on in the brain as they learn to read and write. I was taught by some of the most renowned early years’ literacy experts in the country, if not the world. These were people at the cutting edge of research into literacy development. And yet they would regularly remind us of two things: 1) English is a difficult language in which to read and spell and 2) we don’t know how children do it (or rather, we have a great deal of knowledge about how children do it, but as every child is different, there is no conclusive way of saying ‘this is how children learn to read and write’, and no one way of teaching them).
Enter ‘synthetic phonics’ (the ‘synthetic’ bit by the way, is nothing to do with phonics being manmade or prone to irritation, but because we ‘synthetise’, or ‘blend’, the letter sounds). In the UK this is how schools are required to teach children to read, from about six weeks in to their school career. The UK government is adamant that this is the only way to get children reading, to the extent that they ‘match funding’ for schools who choose teaching programmes that meet a set of criteria for phonics teaching. The motto on phonics is ‘first and fast’, so that children rattle through the letter sounds (not the names – that comes later) and very quickly learn to blend or put the sounds together to form words. Bingo – by Christmas in their first term they are reading. By the end of Year 1 (when children are 5 and 6), there is a statutory ‘phonics check‘ (aka ‘a total waste of time’, in my humble opinion).
Now, I am lucky enough to have two children who love books, love reading, want to read and have done and are doing so quickly and relatively easily. On the face of it, phonics works, as it does appear to have quick results. For children like my children.
But what if you have a child for whom reading does not come so quickly and easily? Or a child who is more like my son, who understands the mechanics of phonics, but sees words much more holistically and therefore knows what certain, unphonetic words say, just because he has seen them many times and knows their shapes (‘the’, for example, or, bizzarely, ‘desert’). Broadly speaking, there are two routes that need to develop for a child to become a fluent reader: one is certainly phonetic, but the other is visual. If one route is more developed than the other, a child will not read fluently until the other route has caught up. If, for example, a five year-old’s visual route is highly developed but their phonetic route doesn’t develop in the same way for another eight months, that child will struggle to read phonetically – which means that they will not learn to read by Christmas.*
Why does all this matter? Surely the most important thing is that kids learn to read, and that teachers have a method by which to teach them. Synthetic phonics is proven to work, so where’s the problem? Well I have a couple of problems. Firstly, the method doesn’t take into account that the Reception year (that is, the first year that children enter school), will contain children who are almost a year apart in age (because of the school year in the UK going from September 1st to August 31st, a just four year-old could start school at the same time as an almost five year-old). Secondly, the method assumes that all children develop the phonetic route to reading first and most easily, and that they all develop it at the same time – and yet, how could this conformity be, given that we’ve already established that some children are a year younger than others? There is a world of developmental difference between that just four year-old and almost five year-old.
But there’s another issue that goes beyond basic development. My son’s recent reading books have only contained phonetically-spelt, two or three letter words. This means he is reading sentences like ‘Nan sat in a pit’ and ‘Sid nips in’. He could decode these words but then got very upset – “I don’t understand. What’s a pit? Why did Nan sit in it? What is nips?” At one point Sid’s sister Sal sits on a pin that Sid has strategically placed on the sofa and boy does she get ‘mad’. Apologies to anyone reading from north America, but we don’t use ‘mad’ in this country when we mean ‘cross’! This insistence on purely phonetic reading is leading kids to read stories that aren’t just dull, but use words that they rarely encounter. It limits rather than widens their vocabulary and exploration of language.
It also, I should say, leads to some shocking spelling (I am a card-carrying pedant about spelling). My daughter’s spelling is improving, probably because she now reads so voraciously, but last year all her spellings were phonetic. This is fine to begin with, but at some point children have got to learn that English rarely sticks to phonetic rules! Sometimes you just have to know how a word looks to spell it right.
I asked a few friends with similar-aged children for their experiences and opinions on phonics, and had a really interesting response. For some, it ‘really worked’ and their child can read. For others, especially those with children who don’t take to reading so quickly and easily, it has become a frustrating and at times miserable process. I was interested in the experience of one friend who now lives in Spain, who says that her son’s school aren’t particularly focussing on teaching them to read, despite Spanish being a purely phonetic language (although perhaps it’s because it’s purely phonetic that they don’t need such a focus?) Another friend who lived in the US last year, says that her daughter was baffled by phonics on returning to the school in the UK and still uses (non-phonetic) songs taught to her in America to help her with spellings.
I would be interested in what you think of the issue, wherever you live. Are we the only country that is so obsessed with a purely phonics approach? Are we setting ourselves up for a generation of adults with ropey spelling and limited language use? Yes, phonics works, for some children, on one level. But where is the joy in reading that Sid sits on a pin in a pit and Sal is mad?
*I should add – when I talk about children who struggle, I’m not talking about those with identifiable special needs, either literacy-related or any other. I mean children who have no particular special need, who nonetheless are not ‘reading by Christmas’.