Complete the picture

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Synthetic phonics should not be the only method used to teach reading, writes Rosemary Westwell

Recent newspaper stories reveal much of what is wrong with the way the press reports developments in education today. The temptation to make bald statements that contain only an element of truth, and to parade these as the one-and-only solution to a problem, is all too often too strong.

Most children know how important it is to include a full description if a true picture is to be presented - to describe an elephant in terms of only its trunk is to give a false impression of what the whole of an elephant is really like.

Take the current debate raging over phonics (now renamed "synthetic phonics"). One advocate, the education editor of a leading broadsheet, opined in recent weeks: "The fundamental principles of synthetic phonics (are) that it must be taught first, fast and exclusively, so that children are not confused by guessing and learning words by their shape."

Indeed, exclusive use of this system alone, constantly and at length, is more likely to bring about success than using it in shorter, less concentrated reading sessions.

However, this apparent "success" masks what really takes place. It represents only one aspect of the whole learning event and as such presents an incomplete and, dare I say, erroneous picture.

There are numerous other influences that are important contributors to the successful reading of a child, including parental influence, the child's natural ability, interest in learning, language and cultural background.

Many phonics advocates believe it is "wrong" for a child to learn by guessing words by looking in this way. Learning to recognise words in this way is not wrong. It is merely one of the many different perceptions children have when they first approach the world of letter symbols. Who is to say that when a child is introduced to the different phonics, he or she is not showing an appreciation of the shape of the letters in addition to their sound? Is it wrong for a Chinese child who is used to perceiving sounds in terms of pictures, using this same method for learning English? Who is to say that this child is "wrong" to rely on recognition of the shapes of the letters (as well as their sounds) when they learn to read English - even using the synthetic phonics system?

Other important factors that contribute to reading success or failure include the child's specific language learning difficulties, attitude, cognitive strategies, interest in the language content, control of anxiety, cultural and language interests, motivation, personality, previous learning history and feelings of success.

Will a child who has a poorly developed short-term memory learn as successfully as a child who has a good one if they are taught using the same method? What about the child who has no desire to learn to read at all? Would restricting the child to using the synthetic phonic system alone work with a child who just wants to stay at home and play with his computer games? In the classroom, he still only wants to play and, although present in reading lessons, has no desire to compete with his peers or learn what his teacher wants to teach him. Having the luxury of teaching this child one-to-one, a teacher was able to tempt him towards the "magic" world of reading. When he admitted his preference for computers, he was introduced to very short, simple stories about a boy who shared his name and who had adventures with his computer. Within these short reading excerpts the teacher included simple words that he needed to learn for the first key stage. These words were repeated as often as possible within the text so that he soon felt as if he was successfully reading and this success was achieved with little effort on his part.

Clearly, one system is not enough. Consistency in approach and constant encouragement are just two of a plethora of teaching methods that need to be used if children are to learn to read successfully. More important than this, if the children are to share an interest in the exciting world of imagination and adventure that the world of reading offers, they need to be encouraged to explore all the methods that are appropriate to them if they are to be successful.

Rosemary Westwell is an English teacher and education consultant in Cambridgeshire

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