Complexity of reading

9th September 2005 at 01:00
I heartily applaud the comments made by Sue Ellis questioning Jack McConnell's endorsement of synthetic phonics in Scotland ("Edict on phonics under attack", The TES Scotland last week) and welcome a more balanced intervention in this often one-sided debate.

Synthetic phonics has received much press attention and interest from schools, parents and government ministers alike, because it would appear to offer a panacea in the teaching of reading.

The history of teaching reading has taught us, however, that it is most unwise to grasp at one particular approach and, in doing so, lose sight of the complexity of the reading process and the rich range of teaching approaches that we must necessarily adopt if we are to support children's love of reading and their ability to engage critically with texts.

Phonics teaching is important but it is counter-productive, once again, to become fixated on phonics and lose sight of the bigger picture of meaning in reading.

Whilst the teaching of analytic phonics is supported by a large body of peer-reviewed, longitudinal research evidence, synthetic phonics has not yet been subjected to the same rigorous external scrutiny, and to that extent the jury is still out.

The results reported by Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston look persuasive, but it is widely recognised that reading tests are extremely crude instruments and can measure only a fraction of the skills involved in reading, to say nothing of reading behaviours and attitudes.

We should be very wary of claims based on simplistic age scores which focus predominately on word recognition and offer us very little insight into children's powers of reasoning, understanding and reflective thinking in reading.

More sensitive, supportive assessments, in line with the Assessment is for Learning principles, would give us a more accurate picture of children's real abilities in reading, but these would not translate into simple reading age scores. Moreover, such approaches serve the interests of children and not the politicians.

Perhaps that is why Jack McConnell is so keen on synthetic phonics: the promises attached to the programme allow the Scottish Executive to give the public the impression that targets will be met if only we all fall into line with synthetic phonics. If only it were all that simple.

Moya Cove Department of curriculum studies Glasgow University education faculty

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