Sounds suspicious

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Most readers are not, in fact, good at phonics, says Jeff Hynds. He's devised a test to see just how aware they are of the sounds in words...

Once again there is concern about phonics. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector has been saying, in various radio and television interviews, that "phonics is at the heart of reading". The recent OFSTED report, The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools, has criticised teachers for not teaching "the sound system of English systematically". Sue Palmer tells us that children must become "aware of the sounds in words" (TES, May 17). Proficient reading will not develop, it would seem, without awareness of the sounds in words, or the phonic understanding it brings.

Where there is so much agreement one hesitates to sound a note of caution. I will not deny, of course, that some kinds of "phonological awareness" have a part to play in reading (as in speech), but I have discovered something rather odd. Most actual readers are not in fact very good at phonics! Virtually all the readers that I know, whether children or adults, including some very proficient readers, are rather hopeless when it comes to identifying "sounds in words". They certainly do not seem to be "aware" of them.

I know this because I have devised the accompanying test to see whether good readers are aware of the sounds in words. The interesting thing is that lots of capable readers can't really cope with this test, and quite often only get about five out of 20, or even less. Few score more than 10.

I wonder how it is that so many people are able to read extremely well without being able to distinguish the sounds in words, or knowing very much about "the sound system of English". Phonics doesn't seem to be at the heart of their reading. Surely, if OFSTED and the reading experts are right, they shouldn't be able to read at all.

Can anyone answer this conundrum?

If you would like to do the test overleaf and send it to me, I will continued on page 10 undertake to analyse the results and report back in due course. I hope the chief inspector, and the inspectors who write the OFSTED report, will do the test. Maybe the Secretary of State would like to have a go. Sue Palmer too. It would be extremely helpful for the investigation if you could encourage a wide variety of readers, young and old, to attempt it. Please obey the test instructions, and no cheating!

Jeff Hynds' Reading and Writing Roadshows have now been attended by more than 20,000 teachers. Send for details to 6 Alexandra Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3NY. Fax: 01959 540162.

A test of "phonological awareness" How many distinct and separate sounds (not letters) are there in the words below. Give an answer from 1 to 7 for each word. You should do the test fairly quickly, in not much more time than it takes to read the words, otherwise the point of the exercise will be lost. Try to limit yourself to five minutes: The words are: fisher, swing, mishap, cough, apple, thick, roar, measure, food, unhurt, common, two, money, seat, axe, sheep, zebra, butter, finished, test.

(with acknowledgements to Dr Joyce Morris, who first thought of the basic idea, though for a rather different purpose) Please include your name, address, age (if under 18), occupation, indication of recent reading (eg books, newspapers - one or two examples will suffice).

Send completed test to Jeff Hynds, address and fax number above.ends eff Hynds.

undertake to analyse the results and report back in due course. I hope the Chief Inspector, and the inspectors who write the OFSTED report, will do the test.

Maybe the Secretary of State would like to have a go. Sue Palmer too.

Encourage a wide variety of readers, young and old, to attempt it.

Please obey the test instruct-ions, and no cheating!

For details of Jeff Hynds' Reading and Writing Roadshows, write to 6 Alexandra Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3NY. Fax: 01959 540162

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