Consider phonics phenomenon

Suzanne Tiburtius says (TES Letters, January 17) that in 20 years of attending in-service education and training courses on teaching literacy she has always heard phonics dismissed. Many would endorse her observation, and there is plenty of documentary evidence to support the case.

I have reservations about her suggestion that the "exclusive emphasis given to phonics by the Office for Standards in Education and Government ministers ... borders at times on the unbalanced".

If she means that an exclusive emphasis on phonics is bad for absolute beginners, I would disagree. If phonics is properly taught at the start, where it belongs, the teaching is virtually all over by the end of Year 1.

We might look at what some of our European neighbours are doing. In Austria beginners learn all grapheme-phoneme correspondences (including digraphs and trigraphs) and are encouraged to use sounding-out as their only means of word-identification.

The sounding-out gives a preform of a word's pronunciation which is then converted into the normal pronunciation. Research in Salzburg has found that Austrian children are better at reading unfamiliar words after a few months at school than English children after four years' schooling.

Austrian educationists apparently do not find that the exclusive emphasis on phonics in the early stages is inconsistent with reading for meaning or reading for pleasure. That takes care of one objection that English educationists would immediately raise. The other objection that they would raise is that grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English are much less regular than they are in German.

I know of no empirical proof, however, that this is an insuperable barrier. On the contrary, there is a good deal of evidence that English schools which use Austrian methods with beginners produce children who, after about two years are much better than their eclectically-taught peers with both regular and irregular words. They are also good at spelling: early practice with regular patterns makes them notice irregularities when they arise.

JENNIFER CHEW The Mount Malt Hill Egham Surrey

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