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Phonic spellers come out on top

New Zealand's introduction of a "fonetik" system to help 10-to-13-year-olds with spelling problems (TES, September 22) indicates that its experts are now realising what some of us have long maintained: that the worst spellers are not those who spell phonetically but those who spell non-phonetically.

This should prompt us all to reconsider the possibility that teaching children to read and spell by a systematic phonics approach from the age of five produces better results than "recovering" struggling readers aged six or teaching a "fonetik" approach to struggling spellers aged 10 to 13.

In a pamphlet published by the Campaign for Real Education in 1990, I compared the misspellings of South African 16-year-olds who had been taught systematic phonics at primary school with those of English 16-year-olds, who had been taught by whole-word or whole-language approaches.

In an attempt to spell "equipped", the weakest English students produced "errepet", "quipet", "epitt", "expentic" and "accipt", while the weakest South Africans produced "aquiped", "equipt", "equiped" and "equipte". I argued that the much more phonetic and comprehensible versions of the South Africans reflected their early phonics training.

People too often assume that a phonics approach to spelling results in phonetic but incorrect spelling. But if (and only if) it is combined with an early and systematic phonics approach for reading, phonetic spelling can often be correct. The reason for this is that phonics readers tend, on their first encounter with a word, to give every letter its full sound-value and to sound out irregular words as if they were regular; for example, the "o" in "waggon" would be sounded as clearly as the "a", and "vague" might be sounded out in two syllables as "vagew". When conventional pronunciation is substituted, the initial unconventional pronunciation is remembered (and, indeed, reinforced every time the word is encountered in print) and phonetic spelling based on it is then correct spelling. This benefit is not available to children taught to read by whole-word or whole-language methods, which is probably why New Zealand is now having to devise a belated solution for older children.


The Mount

Malt Hill, Egham, Surrey

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