Phonics myopia is poor prescription

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins's piece on synthetic phonics (TES, March 24) usefully highlighted the Bullock report's contribution to professional guidance on reading 30 years ago. It remains incredibly common-sense advice. She might also have mentioned that in chapter 17 the authors reported they had tried separating the initial sounds of words from their ensuing vowels using a tape recorder, and it had proved impossible. The first syllable of a word is in effect a whole element.

In many years of teaching reading across the age range, I consistently found that children might often manage the initial consonantal sound but were stopped in their paces by the immense variability of English vowels.

We use vowels where other languages use accents. Synthetic phonics focusing on each individual letter has to contend with this factor.

It is good of your pro-synthetic phonics correspondents to concede schools should use a variety of methods. Sadly the Government, failing to exercise the same caution, has imposed by law a single method. It tells teachers for the third time how to teach.

Yet when faced with evident major national educational problems, ministers put their money, time and effort myopically and wastefully into new schemes of organisation such as city academies, trust schools and new examinations when by their own logic the investment should be in teachers. Otherwise legislation will become the norm with every future crisis and teachers will become mere GAs (government assistants).

The Office for Standards in Education has finally moved in the direction that was becoming inevitable, namely self-evaluation, yet once more has done so in government vein with a typically top-down model.

What is needed is a classroom-rooted system based on lesson observation and feedback, an extremely rapid way, in my experience, to induce higher quality teaching. Synthetic phonics is just the aspirin or the "fix", not the cure. It can help the body towards recovery but the real healing has to come from within. Government initiatives can help to arrest worrying trends but ultimately reach a plateau when further advance will depend utterly on professional competence. Teachers can resolve these crises but they need help - professional help - not short-sighted legislation.

Mervyn Benford Consultant, former headteacher and Ofsted RGI Shutford Banbury, Oxfordshire

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