Sounding off on a return to sounding out

You have to pity the educationists in the Scottish Executive. Well, no, you don't absolutely have to - if you're a cynic you might consider pity to be a tad beyond your remit and a luxury you can't afford. But, in light of their plan to do more research into learning to read by "phonics", spare them a thought. It's always sad to hear of researchers reinventing the wheel.

This master plan emanates from the success of a recent pilot study in Clackmannanshire. Eight primary schools were involved, with the focus being on the "old- fashioned" sounding-out of letters as the major tool in the strategy of learning to read. If you're over 40 or thereabouts you'll recall how it worked . . . c-a-t . . . and, maybe, you remember how quickly you learned to recognise all the letters of the alphabet.

The 1960s saw the demise of learning to read by phonics. Children were taught and still are by the slower (in some cases so slow that many children are remaining illiterate for life) method of Look and Recognise. Accompanying pictures help jog the memory so, instead of sounding out d-o-g, the child will scan the visual image and attempt to pick the right answer. Not a reliable formula by any stretch of the imagination.

If you're over a certain age, think back. I can see Primary 1 me with my reading book, floundering over a word and feeling sorry for myself. But the good thing about learning to read using phonics is that parents can help in a very practical way, and my father would encourage me to sound out letters. What has remained with me was that sense of achievement when the system worked. The frustration of not recognising words was virtually always overcome when you took a deep breath and chanted your sounds.

Why was the old method ditched? Well, I guess we're down to the familiar catalogue of how monotonous it was and how kids were turned off by it. The teacher-training colleges clobbered it for its repetitiveness (now we have repetitive illiteracy) and it seemed to be associated with the risible failure of Scottish schools to turn out thinking beings rather than parrots who could rote learn but not think. So what's going to happen now that the evidence is mounting for a concerted return to the phonics method?

One objection - probably from the teacher education institutions - will be that pupils will find it all too boring, as if they're entering an ice age where they won't respond emotionally to formulaic learning. Teacher-training lecturers should gain practical experience of children's illiteracy in the shape of a year's secondment in a modern primary school. Children value their own personal learning milestones - they love to achieve. It's up to teachers to make the phonics method of learning to read fun and good teachers can make any part of the curriculum exciting.

Sometimes there will be big turning points in education and that's fine. But we shouldn't pretend that these changes come from original ideas.

Learning to read by phonics is a good idea but it is not new - baby, bath water and throwing out are terms which spring to mind. Consider that far too many of our pupils fail to reach basic literacy by the end of Primary 2 and many are subsequently doomed to an impoverished existence in school with their literacy not gaining at all.

Clackmannanshire Council deserves to be congratulated because it has recognised the benefits of returning to phonics. Most importantly they have adapted the system to make it fun so that children are enjoying learning to read. As for the other Scottish Councils, h-u-r-r-y u-p.

Marj Adams teaches religious education, psychology and philosophy at Forres Academy.

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