Phonics are no substitute

8th April 2005 at 01:00
There has been much publicity of late advocating the success of synthetic phonics as a method of teaching reading. Synthetic phonics is a resurrected failed method of teaching reading that was prevalent in the 19th century - and is just as ineffective now.

The original research was based on a comparison between two slightly different approaches to the teaching of phonics. Analytic phonics (the identification of letter sounds within words) was contrasted with synthetic phonics (the blending of letter sounds to create words).

Synthetic phonics was found to be the more successful approach. Sadly this research has been taken out of context in order to be promoted as a new method of the teaching of reading.

Phonics has a limited application in the teaching of reading and spelling.

It can only be used for word identification where a word has a phonic base and is already in the vocabulary of the reader. Phonics is not and never could be a means of teaching children to read.

The claims made that synthetic phonics is a superior method of teaching reading cannot be substantiated. Much of the original test material was standardised at a time when primary school class sizes were very large, resources were limited and many children were being taught by teachers who had no teaching qualifications. Since then, class sizes are much reduced, schools are better resourced and teachers have undergone a four-year teaching course.

These changes, together with more advanced teaching techniques and the final acceptance of reading as a "thinking process", have resulted in major improvements, which have nothing to do with the teaching of phonics.

The teaching of reading through phonics produces a very restricted vocabulary. In the 19th century "pigs did jigs in wigs." As children mature they have problems with lateralisation, i.e. they reverse letters and sometimes parts of words. Emphasis on phonics at this stage produces unnecessary added stress as words like "net" could be read and sounded as "ten".

If books are withheld until a basic vocabulary is achieved, a child, after struggling through such unrewarding material, can be put off the idea of reading.

Parents who wish to encourage their children to read should go to a good bookshop, reject all the books that promote phonics, ignore the ones that offer to teach the alphabet and look for well-illustrated simple story books. Then read the story to the children. Read the story with the children. Discuss the pictures and the storyline.

The more spoken language and thinking ability can be developed, the easier it will be for children to learn to read.

Anthony Yarham Glenburnie Cottage Mousewald Dumfriesshire

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