More to reading than phonemes

7th August 1998 at 01:00
DIANE McGuinness (TES, July 10) claims that in the UK "teacher training is completely divorced from nearly 30 years of research on reading instruction''.

This gross slur on teacher education lecturers should not be allowed to go unchallenged. The "avalanche of data'' which she claims supports her phonemic approach to early reading instruction is only part of the story.

Children certainly need to be shown how our spelling system works, but that too is far more complex than she claims. Analogy with known rhyming words provides a much more reliable guide to the pronunciation of even apparently simple words as "she", "far" and "all" than does phoneme by phoneme processing.

And US and British research show that children find the sub-syllable units of onset and rime easier to recognise and manipulate than individual phonemes.

The work of Frith demonstrates convincingly that children's progress in word recognition is not simply cumulative: it goes through dynamically different phases. Children initially process words as wholes, then (with appropriate teaching) learn to analyse these into reliable units, and finally, having internalised the large majority of our spelling patterns, operate orthographically, without resorting to analysing each new word.

Here at the University of Brighton, our initial and in-service teacher education in reading is informed by such research. But it also takes account of close observational work on how children go about their reading, analyses of interactions between teachers, children and texts and consideration of how technology and social changes are transforming what it means to be literate.

Dr McGuinness would do well to learn from what we have to offer in this country. She might recognise that there is more to becoming literate than processing words a phoneme at a time.

Henrietta Dombey, Education Research Centre, University of Brighton.

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