Slim pickings?

10th January 1997 at 00:00
STEP BY STEP Revised and enlarged edition By Mona McNee Pounds 5. Available from 2 The Crescent, Toftwood, East Dereham, NR19 1NR

SOUND START CORE AND BOOSTER BOOKS By John Jackman and Wendy Wren Stanley Thornes Evaluation Pack Pounds 45 Oxford Reading Tree Teacher's Guide 4

WOODPECKERS By Tim Franks. Pounds 10 OXFORD READING TREE WOODPECKERS PHOTOCOPY MASTERS By Tim Franks Stages 3 - 5 Pounds 20 Stages 5 - 7 Pounds 20 Stages 8 - 9 Pounds 15

Is phonics a vital ingredient for teaching children to read or simply a tasty extra? Nicholas Bielby dips into three packages

Most children will get by, however we teach them to read, because they metabolise what we give them, like food, into what they need. But that's not to say that all diets are equally good or that rickets isn't a possibility. So, is traditional phonics a balanced diet, an essential nutrient or junk food - survivable but not desirable? The answer is yes, it does contain some essential nutrients - but they can be gained in other ways.

Mona McNee's Step by Step provides "a day-by-day programme of intensive, systematic phonics". Her approach and fervour are based on her own experience with exceptional children - Down's and dyslexics - whom other approaches have failed. Yes, traditional phonics can be a life-saver in exceptional circumstances.

McNee offers a programme and a polemic, distractingly mixed up. One moment she is addressing parents about "school-proofing" children, the next advocating whole-class teaching. Generally, more professional editing would have ensured greater clarity and consistency. She is an enthusiast who expresses some truths tellingly: children should learn "to make the letters talk" and "fight the habit of guessing" in order to grow in self-esteem.

In teaching today, she argues, "phonics is the missing ingredient". Yes, but she treats it as the whole diet. Not only does she abhor guessing, but also rime-analogies (c-at, s-at, spl-at) and learning a sight vocabulary. She advocates phonics-first, and cannot recommend children read books before they've done their phonics.

This approach is not, despite her claims, what the national curriculum is recommending. Phonics-first is an obtuse approach, because it ignores what the child brings to the task of learning. Which is a pity, because McNee's programme has much to commend it. Teaching the alphabet and phonics early should be a way of helping children to make sense of the sight vocabulary that they are learning at the same time, so they can use its lessons for developing their own word attack strategies.

The Stanley Thornes Sound Start programme of books and workbooks, while structured on phonics, also introduces an initial sight vocabulary. So are we getting the best of both worlds? What we, in fact, get is somewhat thin. The guide claims its thinness as a virtue, and provides no advice on teaching the alphabet, sound values, and so on. The teacher has a lot to fill in. The workbooks operate in terms of onset and rime almost exclusively, until the last ones which cram in all the difficult digraphs (letter combinations) and other features. The stories themselves suffer from the traditional phonics problems of a shortage of usable words leading to a shortage of sentences and many inane repetitions. But they are more fun than many restricted vocabulary books, even if the key word "help" prompts a lot of falling off cliffs and boating accidents. However, a teacher will learn more about teaching phonics from McNee - if it's all taken with the necessary pinch of salt.

The approach taken by Oxford Reading Tree in its Woodpeckers materials, is phonics by-the-way, rather than phonics first-and-fast. The Tree, when first planted, eschewed phonics - but then, responding to a changing climate, sprouted Woodpeckers. And now the new teacher's guide proposes a systematic and structured approach to teaching phonics, not as an initial method but on top of an initial sight vocabulary, as a help in tackling new words by employing graphophonic strategies. It accepts that while some children will develop such strategies implicitly for themselves, most will benefit from more direct instruction and support.

Despite the existence of the excellent "rhyme and analogy" strand within the Tree and the rhymes in the Woodpecker anthologies, onset and rime play only a small part in this approach to phonics. The emphasis falls on synthesis and substitution (building up words from minimal units and seeing what happens when you change one of them, for example, let -

leg) rather than on seeing larger spelling patterns.

The workbook materials, now available as photocopy masters, are to be seen as reinforcement, not as self-sufficient teaching materials. The guide insists that using them is only the last step in a process that begins with oral-aural teaching. Despite some questionable concepts, such as "phonics readiness" and "word shapes", the overall thrust is very sound, detailed and practical.

The suggested teaching activities kick in at stage 3 (ReceptionYear 1), though the specific Woodpecker anthologies only begin at stage 5. The early steps are to do with reinforcing alphabetic knowledge and exploring the key sight vocabulary in terms of phonics. There is nothing about how to encourage children to apply phonic knowledge in actual reading. This is left to the child to work out. The tests for monitoring progress, however, are designed to assess what word-building skills the child has taken on board.

On its own, the Woodpecker approach could be useful, but would have limitations. But within the total package, it provides some essential nutrients making the Reading Tree overall a well-balanced diet.

Nicholas Bielby is tutor in primary education at the University of Leeds

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