Can crabs help?

21st July 2000 at 01:00
If you are unfamiliar with the above phrase, then you are probably not a primary teacher, or at least not involved in teaching phonics.

I am. I have been teaching Early Years for the last decade and have, as literacy co-ordinator, been responsible for overhauling the teaching of phonics throughout the school. The new DfEE link document to the literacy strategy gives advice on phonics teaching and provides photocopiable materials. It is a glossy brochure with "Raising Standards" written on the front. I advise anyone who has jumped through the educational hoops of the past 15 years to get a copy. There are phrases in it which in some perverse way epitomise the life we have been leading. Certainly, some of them should go down in educational annals as a low point.

The first 15 pages of the123-page document have some validity as an outline of phonic development. But after that, tax-payers should gasp. Among other things, the DfEE, no doubt advised by some well-paid panel of worthies, has produced large-scale letters of the alphabet for photocopying. I can't believe that there is a school in this country that has not already used this idea when teaching initial letter sounds to children.

But the real hysteria for me was encountering a game called Silly Questions. I can envisage a team of high-powered educationalists making thi up to help children differentiate sounds. I secretly hope that they realised how low morale is in education and wanted to give us all a laugh.

In the game, each child receives a "yes" card and a "no" card. You, the teacher, then hold up a silly question, and the children read the question and answer it by holding up the appropriate card.

I don't want to spoil it for you, but imagine holding up "Can a crab clap?" or "Has a duck got tin legs?" Life becomes surreal when we get to "Can mice dream?" Can they? Do I hold up the "yes" card or the "no" card? Who knows?

I feel desperate. Is this is what phonics teachers need? True, we are at different stages and teaching phonics has been unfashionable until recently, but good teachers have always taught it and I see the document as an insult to my craft and professionalism.

There will be those, even reading this, who will be thrilled by the document's ideas. I pray they are not many. I know there will be courses that use it as a base document, and people who will nod approvingly as literacy gurus tell us how great it is. Being in education is sometimes like watching the parade of the emperor's new clothes. I just had to tell him this time that he hasn't any clothes on!

Janice Kershaw

The author is a deputy head who has been a teacher for nearly 20 years.

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