Literacy doesn't always count

9th August 1996 at 01:00
In June, Jeff Hynds set readers a test of phonological awareness. The results turned out to be rather surprising... I am very grateful to the 140 or so TES readers who sent me their efforts, especially to those who persuaded others to do the test, and to those who let me have interesting comments.

The test was marked out of 20. I would suggest that if you scored over 15 you probably have good knowledge of the sound system of English. If you scored between 10 and 15 then you have some knowledge but also significant uncertainty. If you scored under 10 then you are not at all sure of the sounds in words. Please note that low scores have no connection at all with how literate people are. (This of course is the point I am making.) Those with low scores include teachers, university students, lecturers, A-level students, civil servants and a barrister.

There was a noticeable difference between the average scores of TES readers, 10.9, and those in my own more extensive sample, only 5.9. However, the TES result might not be very reliable. Quite a number had specialist knowledge of English phonology; for example, they were regular teachers of phonics or of English as an additional language. Furthermore, those who respond to a newspaper test are not necessarily a typical sample of the reading population. Several said they knew they were good at sounds in words. Finally I had no control over the test conditions of the TES sample.

A few people suggested that there are several ways of classifying sounds in words, such as syllables or onsetrime. This is of course true, but I think OFSTED meant that children should count the phonemes in words. The phoneme has been established as a basic unit of phonological analysis for more than 60 years, and certainly all the phonics teachers who replied assumed that my test was a test of phonemes. It was, and accordingly most of them scored highly. But perhaps OFSTED should state more clearly what particular sounds they were referring to.

Primary teachers as a group did not do all that well. As one of my correspondents put it: "If many adults are not aware of the sounds in words, how can they teach phonics successfully?" How indeed? I suspect that most teachers would find it difficult to carry out OFSTED's instructions, even if it were right to do so.

Finally, one or two people have asked how I myself know about sounds in words. I know mainly because I have taught English overseas where an understanding of phonetics is useful for teaching pronunciation. I did not, however, encounter this specialist knowledge when I learnt to read, but much later. And as a teacher of reading I have, in fact, used it very little. But learning to write in phonetic transcript is very revealing of the sounds that there actually are in spoken words. It was what originally made me realise that most readers would not ever be likely to have this knowledge, unless the whole population were to be given a specialist course in phonetics.

How did you score in the test?;Primary The numbers of sounds in each word are as follows: fisher (4), swing (4), mishap (6), cough (3), apple (3), thick (3), roar (2), measure (4), food (3), unhurt (5), common (4), two (2), money (4), seat (3), axe (3), sheep (3), zebra (4), butter (4), finished (6), test (4).

Because of variations in the ways people speak it is sometimes difficult be be definite in phonetics but these answers would hold good for most speakers. However, some deliberate speakers, and some dialect speakers, might include an extra sound in apple, roar, common and zebra, so I allowed these answers as well.

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