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Bernard Trafford: "Strom", "quigh" and others - the nonsense of the phonics nonsense words


Bernard Trafford, headmaster, Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School:
I’m not a great fan of systems in education: by inclination I’m a cherry picker, nicking the best bits (in my view) from all the ideas and methods around, to the despair of those who package and market them.
So you won’t be surprised to know that I’m not sold on the prevailing government view that, in teaching reading, synthetic phonics are The Great Way Forward. Actually, as an approach I think it’s fine, if it works for you as a teacher. It’s when the government decides to base national tests on it that I start to worry.
In these tests, five-year-olds have to read a list of words, including made-up ones. There was one word in each of last year’s pilot tests and in this year’s real one that caused schools heartache.
Last year’s was “strom”. Many fast readers misread it as “storm”. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? We subliminally correct misspelling, which is why proofreading remains an art even in the days of spellcheck. I’m always typing memos about the “sixth from” instead of the “sixth form”: spellcheck doesn’t pick it up, and I read what I expect to read, not what’s there, so I miss my mistake. A reader who quickly skims “strom” and sees “storm” is relatively advanced and quick: bad news for the school (not the pupil), though, as its score dips.
How would you pronounce this year’s dodgy word, “quigh”?  I believe that the five-year-old candidates should have read it to rhyme with “high”. By contrast, my first instinct was to say “quig”, “queeg” or similar. I don’t know why. But it’s a fake word, so surely there is no right or wrong?
In the non-nonsense world of government tests, there is no room for such philological debate, notwithstanding the great learning experience it offers. Always an easy reader, a musician by training and a natural auditory learner, I would still have failed, and pulled my school’s score down. It’s either right or it’s wrong – even if it’s unreal and completely arbitrary.
Still, it was never about the child was it? It was just another target for a school to hit – or miss. And woe betide the school that misses.

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