Good teaching is the key to enhancing skills of nursery-age readers

31st October 1997 at 00:00
My reaction to the OFSTED video Literacy Matters was quite different from that of Sue Palmer and her "group of experienced nursery and reception teachers". They seemed to think that the good phonological skills of Rehana were the result of natural ability, whereas I saw them as the result of good teaching.

Nursery-age children do not work out for themselves how to isolate the phonemes in a word like "fish". To do so, they would need the astounding level of insight shown centuries ago by the intelligent adults who went on to invent alphabetic writing. Children can do what Rehana did only if they have been appropriately taught.

Conversely, if normal children cannot do what Rehana did, it is because they have not been taught. The children on the video were almost all from non-English-speaking homes: if they could be taught about letters and sounds, then all children can be taught about letters and sounds. Teachers may feel that there are good reasons for delaying phonics teaching, but the one reason they should not invoke is that the children are not ready for it.

Teaching letters and sounds together from the start eliminates the need to go by the roundabout route which fosters awareness of larger sound units (words, syllables) before awareness of phonemes. One researcher, Charles Perfetti, has said, "Good literacy instruction makes phonemes more visible while it promotes their mapping to printed symbols". It is as easy to teach nursery-age children to say "ssss" when they see the letter S as it is to teach them to say "snake" when they see a picture of a snake. This kind of phonological awareness is the most relevant to early reading and writing, especially when combined with training in the blending of phonemes.

This approach is called synthetic phonics. A recent study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson of St Andrews University (Fife) showed that it gave children a far better start than the analytic phonics approach favoured by Sue Palmer and her colleagues.

Jennifer Chew The Mount,Malt Hill, Egham, Surrey

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