Letters Extra: Learning the difference

13th December 2002 at 00:00

Your report (TES, December 6) suggests the educational establishment has finally to accept that weak phonic skills are the main reason for unsatisfactory standards of basic literacy.

Phonic skills are what children require every time they are unable to read or spell a word. One minority seems to acquire these core skills almost naturally: such children become independent readers and spellers without much adult supervision.

The majority at KS12 needs intermediate levels of core skill training and a second minority needs explicit and intensive phonics instruction.

Traditional circumspection by educationists towards phonics still haunts the report, which misrepresents the difference between synthetic and analytic phonics.

"Synthetic phonics is the linking of letter sounds to make words": as the report correctly observes; but analytic phonics, despite its name, is certainly not the "breaking down of words into letters."

Analytic phonics is the less artificial approach: it uses the actual sound chunks which compose words. Synthetic phonics, by contrast, operates upon sequences of discrete letter sounds.

Each letter is given a name, such as Bouncing Ben and Dippy Duck; these are taught laboriously one by one, as the Phonetic Alphabet; partly to avoid using the traditional alphabet; notwithstanding that 'A,B,C' routines speed up memorisation and discriminate more clearly amongst confusable sounds such as 'c' and 'k'.

Consider a reader who encounters the word "bad", which she knows aurally but is unable to recognise. The better-honed that reader's phonic skills, the more like "bad" the recognition trial will sound (quite literally a process of reading for meaning).

The synthetic approach would encourage sounding out "buh-ah-duh" as quickly as possible: 'blending' the three letter sounds and trying to recognise the word.

The analytic decoder, by contrast, would focus primarily on the vowel-consonant chunk 'ad' and articulate "buh-add", which sounds more like "bad".

Furthermore, any reader applying synthetic phonics, letter by letter, has no way of knowing beforehand which alternative sound to call for the vowel:"a" as in "bad" or in "bay" or "bar"?

Contrary to the report, there is absolutely no need for further debate, seminars, conferences, etc., about the relative merits of synthetic and analytic phonics.

The extant problem is that synthetic phonics or 'word building' used to be part, less systematically. of mainstream classroom practice even before the National Curriculum was conceived.

Persuading teachers that analytic phonics should not just complement, but should completely replace synthetic phonics, will not prove easy.

Especially if that mission has to be undertaken, in many cases, by miffed progressive educationists who have always felt less than enthusiastic about phonics of any kind.

Martin Bradley
Repington Road South

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