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Fun and fury over phonics

CAN we really be surprised that "badly trained teachers" recently got it in the neck as a cause of stalling or falling primary literacy standards?

Secondary school pupils as far back as the 1970s will recall French teachers bemoaning the impossibility of teaching le grammar francais when kids had no clue about the nuts and bolts of their own language.

On starting a primary PGCE course in September 2001, I had no idea about the difference between a homophone, homonym and homograph. The majority were in the same boat.

The packed schedule of PGCE training proportionately devotes lots of time to literacy pedagogy and subject knowledge. But it was an uphill struggle against our ignorance of consonant digraphs and silent graphemes.

More important, there's spelling. Back in the 1960s, we learned the various phonemic spelling patterns - although I'm pretty sure we never called them that. Along with other strategies, phonics seems an invaluable way to learn to read and spell. Yet, in our PGCE, we spent less than three hours on it.

It's perhaps unrealistic to demand that a lot more time is spent on phonics during PGCE courses - until some of the more pointless course elements are removed. But what is essential is that the system does not expect NQTs en masse to be expert grammarians and navigators of the fragmented literacy hour.

Surely there's a case for ongoing training - and a much more prescriptive approach to teaching new teachers. Our college lecturers seemed wary of stifling our creativity. We were encouraged to evaluate strategies before we'd really learned and used them.

But student teachers are crying out to be taught basic strategies. Once they use them they can then decide what works and what doesn't. But - like grammar, spelling and corporate accountancy - you've got to learn the rules before you break 'em.

David Ogle is an NQT at Pooles Park primary in north London

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