One day, we will look back on the use of phonics to teach “normal” children to read in the same way we now view the barbaric injection of mercury in medicine or the use of lead as a sweetener in the days of Tudor Britain.
It seems incredible, that in a society impressed with the factual exposition and support of scientific scrutiny, a majority of people still believe in popular myth over empirical testing or experienced practice.
We have a whole culture that buys into the myth of fluoride helping to preserve teeth, against overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, and belief that the Titanic disaster was caused solely by hitting an iceberg. The only thing that compares with this fanatical passion to hold onto something so strongly, without real measurable certainty, is formally accepted religious ideology.
For those who are not at first convinced, marketing to parents and teachers in the Primary school sector can prove more successful with cutesy titles such as “Jolly Phonics”. This cynical titling could work well in Pest Control by selling “Happy Poison”.
There are very few “rules” that work reliably with the English language – possibly in part because we have adopted so many words from foreign origins. Our language is eclectic and this is what makes it so rich and interesting. However, apart from “i before e except after c” very few adults can recall any rules that were remotely worth remembering! And even rolling out that little platitude to children can be as confusing at first as the instructions for tying a reef knot: Right over left and left over right. Give me a break!
In my personal memory, the use of phonics was mostly, since the early 1980s, advocated by the Dyslexia Association, as a means to helping children whose reading was affected by a medical mental impairment. Unfortunately, the pro-dyslexic campaigners have now effectively labelled all children as disabled by completely misunderstanding how children actually acquire language or in a broader sense, learn anything at all.
It amazes me that any right-thinking person cannot see the complete folly of phonetic teaching. It can be summed up in two words: Enough and Plough.
Sadly, this example, on its own, is not enough to convince an apparently ‘brain-washed’ public. Furthermore, the marketing possibilities for producing phonic work-packs and other paraphernalia to make many people a small fortune cannot be ignored. Phonics has become a cash-cow for private investors selling to a cash-strapped education system. Phonics has become the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ of literacy teaching. The damage being caused to children under the age of 7 is incalculable.
I know of no adults who learn a foreign language by breaking up the words and “sounding out” individual letters to grasp the pronunciation or meaning of the words. And do not think that learning English is so far removed from learning any other language.
The best way to learn any language is to become familiar with its usage in context; hear its verbal delivery by those who already use it all the time; and through repetition of use in different contexts, understand its variations and special exceptions. Stop trying to dissect words. Just accept that “this is the way it is – get used to it!”
For a “normal” child [without any diagnosed impairment] between the ages of around 18 months and 5 years of age, reading out aloud by an adult whilst the child shares the view of both text and pictures and hears the changes in voice intonation and punctuation, is all that is needed to start successful reading development. If you add to this that a story should contain larger than life characters and fantastical or magical elements, you immediately capture both the interest and the imagination of the participating reader.
The implementation of structured reading programmes, whether phonic, synthetic phonic, or otherwise, provides individual attention to children who otherwise would largely be left to their own exploration. It is inevitable that in some cases, reading improvement is going to be recorded. However, if the same children were read to, whilst seeing text and pictures (if necessary, projected on a big screen for groups) you would see much more noticeable improvement and faster. Interestingly, in my experience of a more natural approach to reading, children actually develop the ability to spell, punctuate, and create intelligently constructed sentences.
Using my techniques of “no phonics” teaching, a child I worked with (in year 6 at the time) achieved the only 100% pass in her Primary school when they undertook a national school spelling test. When she started Secondary school, she quickly joined the top set for English.
Letters do not make sounds. People make sounds.
The ‘phonic brigade’ has decided that there are some 45 or so combinations of letter sounds. This is completely ridiculous in a multicultural society of many diverse regional accents. You cannot tell me that a Yorkshire speaking person is going to pronounce any of those letter combinations to make the same “sounds” as a Londoner, Scot, Geordie, or Scouser. The only way this approach could possibly work is if we passed a law that everyone teaching literacy in the UK has to speak in clearly enunciated “BBC English”.
And how are you supposed to teach these words phonically? They sound exactly the same when spoken:
And what about these words? Two are the same when spoken and one has the same ending but, is pronounced completely differently:
Trying to guide a learner through the “rules” of literacy using phonics is like trying to cross a minefield with a map showing trees and perimeter fences. At some point, you are going to find that the anticipated route blows your foot off with an unforeseen exception! You now have two options: dismiss the event as something that won’t happen very often; or mark it on the map with a new rule to cater for its existence. Or perhaps you could just hand out glasses with rose tinted lenses in the hope that potential mines stand out from the field’s monophonic background with more clarity.
Now that I have given you a brief overview of why phonics do not work, let me give you some examples of where phonics might help.
Once you are a reasonably competent reader – perhaps by the age of 7 years – you are likely to come across a few words that you have never seen before. Based on your knowledge and familiarity of words already know to you, “sounding out” some of the letters as you read the word might help you suddenly reach the right pronunciation. However, it is most likely that if you do in fact pronounce the word correctly, it is quite likely that you will also have heard it used somewhere previously. Most people can speak more words than they can spell. Most people can also read more words than they can write down correctly.
Very often, when learning a foreign language, we remember key words or phrases to ask for things. However, what we often forget is that we have to be able to understand the answers to our questions. This demands a completely different ability to that of learning to ask the questions. It is only through constant repetition, in a two-way verbal exchange, that we develop familiarity and understanding.
The other area where phonic usage could be helpful is in Speech Therapy. However, this is not about learning to read, this is more about learning correct verbal delivery and clarity of diction. Put simply, “Sounding out” letters and words in this instance helps to show, and audibly demonstrate, the correct position of tongue and lips to create the desired sound, or sounds, you need to emit in order to be clearly understood by others.
Many times, teachers will try to get children to learn words such as: the; and; to. These words are generally completely meaningless out of context. They are pointless. However, if we did not use them in our sentences, our delivery, both verbal and written, would be quite clipped or stilted. And yet, if you read to a child from a book, they will gradually notice that these “joining” words keep cropping up. They will also hear you when you speak about things, and become unconsciously aware of your use of these words in regular sentences:
“Be a darling and pass me the milk.”
“Pass me the book and the pen please.”
You would not say: “Darling pass milk.” Or “pass me book pen please.”
If you truly want to teach your young child the pleasure of reading, get hold of a bunch of the old “Ladybird Books” such as, “The Billy Goats Gruff” and “Simpleton the Wood Cutter”. Okay – they weren’t exactly politically correct but, by jove they were engaging to children at so many levels. For nights on end, your child will pester you to read again, “The Princess and the Pea” and it will drive you mad – as you look at the pile of books you would rather choose from on this hundredth occasion! But, be assured, the constant repetition and viewing of text and pictures in complete context, will bring joy to the child’s heart and one evening you will hear those heavenly words: “Can we read a different one tonight?”
Bucking against perceived wisdom always causes initial outrage. However, if people would just stop and give a bit of considered thought to what they are being fed, we could progress much more effectively and certainly a lot faster. Sadly, and by analogy, if you mention to a Christian believer that the eternal after life in heaven could actually be a reference to reincarnation – a return to physical reality to develop the soul further – you might as well go away and teach phonics instead!
– Richard Gentle