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Fighting shy of phoneme fatigue

Jeremy Long was not one of the pundits invited to speak at the government phonics summit this week. Here's his alternative view.

An unfamiliar supermarket abroad. I'm looking for eggs. It's a couple of minutes to closing. They've got to be around here somewhere. Hey, there's someone, ask him. Thankfully, language isn't a problem. "Can you tell me where the eggs are?". "Eggs?" "Yeah, eggs." "Eggs?!" "Yeah, (in desperation), chicken eggs!" "Oahwh, iggs!".

Regional dialect had always struck me as a considerable inconvenience to the absolutist doctrine of phonics, but the cavalier substitution of short vowel sounds I experienced in New Zealand raised even more questions.

That brief exchange in a supermarket impressed on me once and for all the unreliability of vowels. Faced with the unfamiliar transposition of short vowel sounds, I had felt for a moment the panic and frustration struggling readers feel when not able to break the code.

Naturally, so it would seem, we teach short vowels first. They assume an undue significance. We impress on would-be readers their dependability. We construct effortlessly "mad bad rat sat on sad dad's lap" sentences which reinforce this belief. Implicit is the hidden message, "You can learn to read by rules" - almost.

Yet, paradoxically, when children learn to read, they must learn to recognise vowels as indicators of uncertainty. Isolated between consonants they can either be short, long or change out of all recognition as in "car", "saw", "fork", "work", "new".

Out together walking, the first one does the talking. "Great!" All very "easy", if it weren't for "bread", or "beard", or "bear", or "heard".

Children by "turn" "learn" of "funny money", "queer pier", "cough off" discordances, and deduce what? That sound correspondence guarantees spelling similarity?

Progress to literacy depends on developing the ability rapidly to process permutations. The New Zealand experience hammered this home. Their written code instead of five distinct symbols, could have contained one generic symbol denoting, "short vowel sound - pick any one of five".

Synthetic phonics has limitations. It is the inconsistency of our language which invalidates the one-track argument. The rules are so complex that most children find learning to read and spell by applying rigid decoding and encoding strategies frustrating and stressful.

This approach may suit some children, but by no means all. Research has repeatedly shown that, for many, the mechanical method places too great a strain on working memory. It is better by far to break words into onset and rime (c-at; d-og) rather than every constituent sound.

Think of those moments when you have listened to children reading and wrestling with a word, when you sat by them and saw them pause and struggle, almost felt the whirring inside their head as they sifted silently through random possibilities. They were accessing what? Semantic memory? Visual memory? Sounds heard? Words known? Experience which indicated likelihood, logic, sense? Think how instinctively you reacted when a child arrived at the correct word.

Your reaction was not one of gentle appreciation for rules correctly applied. Wasn't it more one of excitement in an intuitive leap, a rapid processing of possibilities, a selection of what seemed right? Praise was easy, the achievement extraordinary.

By contrast, compare your experience of painfully applying synthetic phonics and having a child look blank-faced at you, having laboriously been led to sound out a word "correctly", because they haven't got beyond sound to meaning.

A little bit of phonics never did anyone any harm? Maybe. But, neither did a lot of talking, singing, listening and playing with sounds. Instead of children facing phoneme fatigue, why don't we first foster in them the love of language?

With an adequate word memory, a store of sounds, it is possible to pick 'n'

mix. There are options to be considered or discarded. Without this, a little bit of phonics isn't even possible.

And, yet, phonics is proclaimed a panacea. Well, it isn't. It is a useful strategy, but only a part of the process.

Of course the skills of reading and writing have to be learned and taught.

But, to ignore the importance of an atmosphere of praise and encouragement; of emotional support which encourages risk without fear of failure; of enjoyment and excitement in reading; of wanting to write; and of fun, is foolishness. It's never simply a matter of regulation nuts and bolts.

So, please, let's stop hankering after a one-strand solution. As they would say at the other end of the world, "Eet simply doesn't make sinse. Yiss?"

Jeremy Long is a former teacher in a speech and language unit.

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