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Letters Extra: Sue Palmer's wrong about synthetic phonics

Why does Sue Palmer take such a jaundiced view of synthetic phonics ('Phonics is not a dirty word', TES , 15 November)? This is an approach for beginners which has excellent support from research - for example the Scottish research carried out by Dr Joyce Watson and Prof. Rhona Johnston.

Synthetic phonics is an approach which works with the grain of alphabetic literacy. Even experienced readers, when they come to an unfamiliar word, synthesise or build up a pronunciation for it from their knowledge of the way that letters represent sounds. When they need to write a word whose spelling they do not know, they break down the word's pronunciation and write down appropriate letters, perhaps adding 'sp?' in brackets. Literate adults are only occasionally in this position, but beginners are in it very frequently and really do need the reciprocal skills of synthesising and analysing word-pronunciations.

Sue Palmer implies that synthetic phonics does not pay "attention to the myriad other elements involved in learning to read and write". Not true: synthetic phonics aims to put basic decoding and encoding skills in place quickly and efficiently right at the very beginning (the first 10-16 weeks of reception) precisely because these skills are 'basic'. Without them, other aspects of reading and writing (such as comprehending and conveying meaning) are extremely difficult.

If Sue Palmer had taken the trouble to find out a bit more about the Scottish research, she would have discovered that after the first 16 weeks, the emphasis switched to comprehension and related skills.

Jennifer Chew

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