Category Archives: synthetic phonics

Dear Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen doesn’t like synthetic phonics; http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/bulletin/nurseryworldupdate/article/1168285/?DCMP=EMC-CONNurseryWorldUpdate

As it happens, I do. It has structure, it provides the tools. The big issue that I see leaping out of this article seems to be a complete muddle about what goes on in actual schools with actual children. I’m writing this, because I’m a parent. A parent who might be a little alarmed at the nasty sounding ‘synthetic phonics’ sucking all the joy out of reading.

Let’s first clarify one issue. Many vocal opponents of the recommendation that reading should be taught exclusively by synthetic phonics, seem to be labouring under a misapprehension (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that they aren’t being mischievous). They would have you believe that the ‘phonics lesson’ is the only thing going on as far as reading is concerned. They misunderstand or misrepresent the maxim ‘first, fast & only’.

‘Love of books’ is term I hate, but I’m going to go with it. You don’t need to be able to read in order to enjoy books. Books are often appealing objects that generate their own play value. Long before they learn to read, long before they speak, children will engage with books. Alongside this play, many children will also be read to. Children benefit from all of these ‘proto reading’ activities. They form part of the complex set of linguistic activities through which children ‘acquire’ language. Your child will be doing all of these things at school. Phonics-loving teachers still chat about the lovely pictures of chicks; encourage kids to share a book with a friend; read and talk about great stories and poems. Almost certainly including those by Michael Rosen. This forms the background for what was termed ‘reading readiness’ when I trained in the mid 1990’s, but the activities described above are not then supplanted by synthetic phonics in some terrifying ‘first, fast and only’ dystopia.

At this point, I’d like to sidestep and briefly tackle the issue of comprehension. I think comprehension is a red herring in the debate. In language acquisition, every aspect of development directly and indirectly affects every other. This is a key difficulty in reading research; isolating key variables, and seperating cause and effect are huge challenges. This is one reason why I’m fond of E. D. Hirsch’s proposition that we should focus on more upon children’s acquisition of vocabulary. A child’s development of what we term ‘comprehension’ begins long before any kind of schooling, but develops as we become more adept at language. To all intents and purposes vocabulary building is a pretty decent proxy for improved comprehension…

Then comes learning to read. At this point, a debate on synthetic phonics usually goes ‘THWUUUMMP!’ and all of a sudden it becomes a debate about ‘reading’ being ‘much more than just decoding’. At this point, seasoned hacks know that someone will pop up and inform the world that they can ‘decode German, but that is not the same as reading for meaning’. Having thus claimed comprehension for the side of righteousness, what could have been a sensible discussion descends into the sort of unproductive squabble that can make for a great read, but ultimately does no one any favours. (Responsibility for the squabble lies with all; this isn’t intended to be plucky rebel alliance vs. evil galactic empire…)

Personal anecdote time. The thing about the German passage. I was there. It happened to me as well, during my introductory sessions on the teaching of reading, in my first year as a trainee primary teacher. I probably wasn’t the only German speaker in the room, but no-one asked, no-one told. As we nodded along to the assertion that we have to teach meaning as much as word recognition, I wonder if my suppositional fellow German speaker had the same thought that I did? ‘I can speak German at least as well as a four year old.’

The point of this is not that I had enough presence of mind to not show-off, but that I was able to ‘read for meaning’. German kids don’t begin reading their beautiful language with empty heads. Neither do those learning to read English.

Proponents of synthetic phonics are not making false claims for it as a means to understand what is read. Nor should we worry unduly about whether there are other methods by which some children can be shown to learn to read. I could here cite a couple of instances where I have seen evidence that whole word recognition exists, or of children who learned to read without formal phonics instruction. It doesn’t matter that there are other methods. It’s about working with what mounting evidence suggests is the best method for the largest number of children. Rather, we need to be focussed upon ensuring that we properly teach SSP (systematic, synthetic phonics) and resist the temptation to dilute an efficient method with less efficient. That can only dilute the impact of the more efficient method. We have the rest of the school day to work on the activities which enhance understanding. The burden of proof really now lies with the opponents of SSP approaches.

Michael. I love your writing. Your Sad Book is one of the most touching things that I have ever read. I don’t believe you to be anything other than a person with honest concerns about education in this country, which is to be applauded. I don’t think the teaching of language in school should be sterile. I do everything in my power to encourage the children I teach to read and to love reading. I am evangelical. Synthetic phonics is just a small part of what I do.

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