Phonics is not a dirty word

15th November 2002 at 00:00
IT SEEMS only yesterday that phonics was the word that dared not sound out its name. Yet now - gosh! (that's three phonemes: g-o-sh) - everyone is doing it, and experts squabble about which sort of phonics is best.

At the moment, supporters of something called "synthetic phonics" are screaming the loudest. They have even managed to convince many movers and shakers that their system is the answer to the nation's woes.

It is not the first time phonics teaching has been hailed as a magic bullet. For at least 100 years, various brands of phonics have been periodically touted as the ultimate solution to the teaching of literacy. You can see why - the thought that literacy can be reduced to a simple process of decoding and encoding sounds into symbols is extremely seductive.

Perhaps you were one of the last batch of Magic Bullet victims in the late 1960s, with the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). Presumably you learned to read with this simplified phonetic system, but the odds are you still cannot spell. And I bet you spent much of your early childhood bewildered by the strange inconsistency between words in school and the writing on the wall as you walked home.

Whenever the latest version of magic bullet phonics fails to deliver universal literacy, everyone loses faith and phonics in general goes out of fashion for a generation, as it did after the ITA fiasco. This is terrible, because decoding and encoding are a vital part of literacy learning.

As part of a balanced approach, which the National Literacy Strategy has tried, valiantly, to provide, synthetic phonics is highly appropriate at a particular stage in children's development. Indeed, as far as writing is concerned, it's probably vital.

But on its own, without attention to the myriad other elements involved in learning to read and write, this generation's magic bullet will turn out to be as useless (that's six phonemes: y-oo-s-l-uh-s) as the last.

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