Phonics sense

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
HEADS AND TAILS SERIES. Heads (24 books) Pounds 29.95. Tails (24 books) Pounds 29.95 Teacher's Resource Book Pounds 19.50. Nelson.

The national curriculum for initial teacher training says that children must be taught the range of spellings that can represent a single vowel sound, the long "a" sound in "play", "place" and "rain", for instance. But more to the point, and much easier, would be for the children to learn the rimes "-ay", "-ace" and "-ain". Learning the phonically reliable spelling patterns of onsets and rimes makes sense of phonics and whole-word learning.

Jessica, not yet five, and learning phonics at school, looks at a Tails book devoted to the "-ap" rime, and reads, "Suh. Nuh. A. Puh." She tends to perceive and process a word as a set of independent letters. She has the normal problems with blending letter sounds. Thus phonics militates against her seeing and hearing "-ap" as a unit.

Nelson is right to extend its New Way phonics scheme by adding Heads and Tails with its emphasis on onsets and rimes seen and heard as units. Though developed to enrich New Way, the booklets and materials could be just as helpfully used independently of the scheme. The resource book is thorough and includes copymasters.

Some of the rime books have "cutback" pages so that each only gives an onset, and the rime on the final page is revealed as common to all the rhyming words. I'd have liked to have seen more emphasis on onset and rime word-building, for example with cards. It is helpful if the child can see and handle "sn" and "ap" as units that can be put together to make a word. Children should be encouraged to explore spellings by perming onsets and rimes - thus, "play", "place" and "rain" generate "plain", "ray" and "race". Heads and Tails provides opportunities for extending word-level work of this kind in the literacy hour.

Nicholas Bielby's next book, 'How to Teach Reading, a balanced approach', will be published by Scholastic in September

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