Official advice is unsound

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... In the Office for Standards in Education's report, The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools, a teacher is commended for helping children with their reading "by identifying the number of sounds they could hear in a given spoken word".

I have considerable evidence to show that most actual readers have only vague ideas about the sounds in spoken language. Although they are extremely literate people, the great majority cannot easily ascertain the "number of soundsIin a given spoken word", which OFSTED claims is essential knowledge for readers. My test of phonological awareness reveals this very clearly (see "Sounds Suspicious", TES, June 14). I have conducted this test - which asks subjects to count the number of sounds in each of 20 words - for some time with many readers and so far the average score out of 20 is less than six.

It is not as if the test is difficult. I deliberately made it simple by avoiding anything that might cause particular confusion, like affricates or diphthongs, common as these are in English phonology, for instance in words like joke and chair. I also marked it quite generously. No-one has ever been able to explain to me how it is that the majority of readers no longer know what they once knew when they were learning to read. Neither have I been able to find any answers in the research literature. One or two have suggested this. Recent correspondents have said that good readers have "kicked away" the phonic ladder that got them there. But can this really be true?

My investigations included groups of newly-qualified teachers, A-level students and children still at school. As these groups are still fairly near to their experiences of learning to read, you would think that they would not have had time to forget what they knew only a few years before. But in fact these groups are the weakest of all at identifying the sounds in words (and at phonics generally). There is, if anything, a slight tendency for older people to score more highly on the test.

I can think of no other branch of learning where the learners so swiftly lose sight of the basic concepts that informed their original learning. Imagine a mathematician who forgot how to count or add up, or a musician who forgot which notes were which. In their later proficiency, mathematicians and musicians may not consciously think much about these things, but when asked they still know them, and can make them explicit. Not so readers.

I suggest that readers have not forgotten their knowledge of the sound system of English, because they never had much knowledge of it in the first place. They learnt to read, as everyone has to, by employing a whole range of strategies and sources of information. Like all readers, irrespective of how they were taught, they came to rely only to some extent on sounds in words, phonics, blending, segmentation, onsetrime and other mechanical processes of this kind. It stands to reason that as fluent readers their knowledge of sounds in spoken language, and of phonics and all the rest, cannot be worse than it was when they were learning to read.

OFSTED should at least think again about what they have said, otherwise they could frighten teachers into teaching children unnecessary and complicated knowledge about sounds in words, thereby wasting children's time.

Jeff Hynds is the author of Literacy, Texts and Contexts

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