Drills from the phonetics brigade

18th November 1994 at 00:00
The handwriting, reading and spelling sequence, By Alan Davies. Pounds 25, pp Pounds 5, 1 874654 09 3. Workbook, video and audio cassette. Writetrack, 11a Kilmorey Park, Chester CH2 3QS. Teaching children to read has in recent years become a matter of passionate debate. In media mythology, there are two distinct camps the phonics evangelists and the real books brigade. While this is not always a helpful polarisation, as most take a balanced view, The Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Sequence by Alan Davies falls squarely into the former group.

Designed as a training course for teachers and parents, it will probably sell very well to people who like this sort of thing. Having looked at it I'm not sure that I do.

The whole pack includes a video, audio cassette, instruction manual on how to use the pack and a workbook. What concerned me most about it was that there was apparently only one way of teaching it. As far as I could tell, the idea is that you play the video over and over again until you have learned it off by heart, then you play the cassette until you have mastered the actions as well. Once the instructors have been thoroughly drilled they can drill their charges.

The tape can be used directly with pupils but the handwriting section seems too fast to be of much practical use to beginners. It demonstrates the alphabet being written in upper and lower case letters. It also pronounces them all including many of the variants of sound individual letters can make. Inexplicably they have also included the days of the week, the months of the year, the seasons and the numbers 1-31. Presumably the idea is that all using the pack need to be able to write the date.

The work book has all of the above and includes the consonant and vowel sound boxes that are featured in the video.

This is, however, where the whole system becomes vastly complicated. What the tape demonstrates is the endless variety in pronouncing the same letter, particularly the vowels. Even the examples are confusing "are" appears on screen after "ar" as in arm but is pronounced "air" as in share.

Regional variations are also ignored on the tape, the "a" in bath is given a south eastern reading. They are picked up in the booklet but the section goes on to say "As a matter of interest we all pronounce inconsistently anyway". I am left wondering whether to say, "Says who?" or "So what's the point of the sequence?" To be fair, the pack does suggest making word families and looking at rhyming dictionaries which would be equally valuable and certainly more fun. It does recommend that children should find these words and families in their readers and it does say that children should be read to and talk about books. Likewise, I would never want to diminish the role of phonics in learning to read, though I think it arises more naturally and can be used more effectively when learning to write.

What worries me about the pack is the unremittingly atomistic, decontexualised view of reading which is found particularly in the sense of drill. Pupils are expected to chant the sounds by rote until the teacher is sure they are not simply memorising them. I cannot see how this can do anything other than give children the sense that reading is a long list of rules with a host of inexplicable variations. Where is the pleasure in that?

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