From chunks to letters

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
WHOLE-TO-PART PHONICs: How Children Learn to Read and Spell.

By Henrietta Dombey and Margaret Moustafa.

Centre for Language in Primary Education. Pounds 8.

I am wholly in sympathy with the theoretical position of this book. Central is the brief chapter by Margaret Moustafa which argues that children should be taught the way they learn most naturally - in familiar contexts, analysing spoken words into onsets and rimes and making analogies between familiar and unfamiliar printed words.

Children organise their phonetic understanding of spellings in terms of phonological word-chunks - onsets and rimes, prefixes and suffixes, for example. The natural way to learn phonics is not upward from letter sounds to words, but downwards from spontaneous phonological chunks towards individual letter sounds.

Half the book is devoted to arguing this position. The second half aims to show what this will mean in classroom practice.

My only doubts about the book concern the intended audience. Has it been written for lecturers, students, or practising teachers? If you are unfamiliar with the ideas, there is perhaps too little here to enlighten you. If you want to teach in the light of the ideas, the somewhat repetitious classroom practices are neither as fully spelled out as they could be, nor so clearly built on the "whole-to-part" theory. Alphabetic knowledge is assumed and appropriate ways of teaching it are not considered.

Nevertheless, the summary of classroom activities makes a provocative checklist, and the book could be valuable for focusing in-service training work. It provides a clear, concise statement of what we understand about how children learn to read, and starts to address the issue of how we might teach reading and spelling in the light of this knowledge.

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