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Breaking the sound barrier

Unpacking the national curriculum. If teachers keep it simple and avoid the more complicated rules and exceptions, phonics will be a useful tool in their reading repertoire.

"Good news and bad news today, children. The bad news is that no one is ever going to tell you what a word is again. You are going to have to find out for yourselves. The good news is that you are going to learn phonics, 166 rules that cannot be relied on for common words..."

With these words in his 1978 book Reading, Frank Smith scared a generation of teachers off the use of phonics. Reading launched a potent and long lasting myth that phonics is a huge, unwieldy and unreliable body of knowledge which is more likely to confuse and bore children than to help them.

As one of the teachers who read his book, I know how convincing his argument was at the time. Before reading Smith, I'd been happily teaching children sound-symbol correspondences, and telling them about the rules that underlie English spelling. After Reading I felt quite guilty at having peddled such pernicious stuff.

There's no problem knowing where to start teaching phonics - the 26 letters of the alphabet cannot really be avoided. But, once you're bogged down worrying about Smith's rules and exceptions, you get into all sorts of bother working out when to stop. Those 26 letters are used in various combinations to represent 44 different sounds. One particular sound may be represented in a number of different ways (such as the sh sound in shop, patient, precious and chauffeur) and one particular letter or letter group may be used to represent a variety of different sounds (such as the ie in friend, field, pie and carried). Every rule you teach seems to have at least half a dozen exceptions. Even the exceptions have exceptions. In the end, it seems safer just to avoid phonics altogether.

There is a very simple answer to the problem - and that is to stop worrying and use a bit of common sense. The rules are still there, of course, but we don't have to teach them all to our pupils. It may be helpful for us as teachers to know a lot about the way the language works so that we're aware of problem areas when navigating young readers through the English language. However, the children themselves don't need to know all Smith's 166 rules and 45 common exceptions. They just need to know enough to learn to read. As long as phonics is only one strategy in their reading repertoire, this need not be an enormous amount.

Most of the common irregular words which occur in simple reading books (was, there, said, etc) crop up often enough to be learned as sight words, so we don't need to teach the phonic rules behind them. And if we're alerting children to the importance of using context in reading, we don't need to bother with many other phonic irregularities (like the way or changes to an er sound after w, eg "word"), because sounding out such a word produces a near-enough version to make sense of it in context.

In fact, as far as phonics for reading goes, we need only teach the correspondences and rules which really help children decode the words they meet in simple reading material. These are patterns of letters which they will then see operating in lots the words they read, and which they can begin to use (by process of analogy) to decode unknown words in harder texts.

I reckon that to help a child to a reading age of about seven and a half, you can get away with teaching just the 26 alphabet letters, 23 other common letter combinations, 15 extra bits and pieces that children should know to look out for, and a little about word-building (see box opposite). Once children have attained a reading age of seven or eight, they can tackle simple texts independently. They then have the motivation to read for themselves and to build up fluency and stamina. Armed with an understanding of the importance of analogy, they will be able to work out many more arcane phonic rules for themselves - probably without even noticing they've done it.

Recent research has provided us with many insights into the best ways to tackle the teaching of this basic phonic knowledge. In the preparatory stages, it is now well established that children benefit from being taught the alphabet (so that they are able to talk about letters by name) and from plenty of exposure to rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. This tunes them in to the sounds of language and prepares them to see sound-symbol correspondences.

Once formal phonics teaching is under way, the best way to tackle individual sounds is through breaking single-syllable words into "onset" and "rime".

The onset is the bit of the word before the vowel, like the c of cat and the sh of sheep, and the rime being the vowel and the rest of the word. Most consonants are therefore best learned as onsets, and vowels as parts of rimes.

Researchers recommend digraphs such as ee should be introduced in a number of rimes (eg: eep, eek, eel) so that children can extrapolate the specific vowel sound.

In general, we should be providing many opportunities for children to see how patterns of sound can be reflected in patterns of letters, so that they begin to make analogies about the way language works. And we should also allow them use the data learned through phonics activities in their own writing - not worrying in the early stages about correct spelling of irregular words, as long as they are making effective use of sound-symbol correspondences.

It's not a lot, and it shouldn't be frightening to teachers or boring to children. Indeed, with multi-sensory teaching techniques, including lots of games, songs, rhymes and fun activities, phonics lessons can be extremely entertaining for all concerned. It needn't be time-consuming - short bursts of teaching are probably most memorable, and phonic activities are ideal for the odd 10 minutes before the bell. It can be linked to the teaching of handwriting (joining sequences of letters to reflect sequences of sound) and of spelling (focusing on letter-strings in onset and rime activities). At its best, phonics teaching can give children early insights into the English language which will enrich their appreciation and grasp of it for the rest of their lives.

So there's good news and bad news, really. The bad news is that teaching children to read without phonics isn't anywhere near as successful as Frank Smith said it would be. The good news is that teaching phonics is easier - and a lot more satisfying - than he led us to believe.

For details of Sue Palmer's presentations on phonics for teachers and student teachers please send SAE to 11 St George 's Road, Truro, Cornwall TRI 3JE.

23 common letter combinations

* sh ch th ayai eeea igh oaow ueew oo ar oraw erirur owou oyoi 15 other things to watch out for * y as a vowel * soft c before e, i, y * soft g before e, i, y * the letters k, w, h, g, u may be silent * ea, ou, ie and au are particularly tricky and may stand for many different sounds * final e is often silent and affects the preceding vowel * read the syllables tion and ture as shun and cher * any vowel "next-door-but-one" can affect the preceding vowel * ph and ch may stand for the sounds f and k Word-building * one-syllable words are built from onset and rime, c-at, l-ook, cr-eam, t-all, sn-ow, spl-ash.

* endings may be added, limp + -s,- ed, -ing, -er, -est, -ly * long words may be broken into syllables, camping, outside, robin, adventure * words may be built up from elements of meaning: prefix - root word - suffix un + comfort + able dis + appear + ed

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