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Phonics: the key to comprehension

I have noted the exuberance with which "new phonics" is being promoted as a panacea for the national literacy problem, and the caution urged by those who practised "old phonics". It is time to ask a simple question: What is the main purpose of reading? Most people would answer, "comprehension of meaning". Teachers of old phonics are naturally wary of a mechanical system which ignored comprehension; proponents of new phonics do not seem to have considered how phonological awareness contributes to semantic processing and comprehension.

All languages (apart from sign languages) have a spoken form, but less than half have a written form. Learning to read, unlike learning to speak, involves procedures which have to be taught explicitly; only the most precocious readers learn to read without instruction. Before children begin to learn to read they speak and understand language. Beginner readers have knowledge of spoken and heard language stored in their brains. The task facing the infant and primary teachers is to show the beginner reader that he or she can unlock the meaning of the printed words by gaining access to their spoken form. This is where phonics plays its part.

The words which children learning to read English will encounter fit into three phonic groups: regular words in which each letter corresponds in a predictable way to a single sound, for example, "dig". Provided that the child knows the most common way of sounding out letters like d i and g, she will be able to pronounce regular words like "dig", and also others like "hop", "set", etc. Phonics training, old or new, is the key to comprehension. The second category of English words contains the "rules" so beloved by old phonics: magic -e, soft and hard g, and so on. These rules, sterile on their own, become a means to an end when used as the key to unlock meaning.

Third, there is a category of irregular words, like "choir","aisle" and "yacht". No amountof phonics will help the child to learn these. For them you require a technique now rather unfashionable: the flashcard. Used creatively, 1990s' style, associated with pictures and other contextual cues, it too can unlock the door to meaning.

New phonics need not lead us back to "barking at print" if our stated goal is reading for meaning.

Estelle Ann Lewin

Director, Literacy assessment and research centre

Institute of Education

University of London

Woburn Square

London WC1H

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