Stuck in a pigeon-hole of synthetic phonics

29th June 2007 at 01:00
David Rosenbergis a writer and teaches at Hanover primary school in Islington, north London

Last week, synthetic phonics champion Jim Rose was knighted and materials in the scheme arrived at every primary in England, while Michael Rosen became children's laureate and denounced "the fraud of synthetic phonics".

Quite a week.

So who's right? Our staff were recently held captive for two days by a synthetic phonics trainer and her toy dog, Fred, who talks in phonemes ("Fredtalk"). The trainer led us into a world of literacy where English is reduced from a rich mix of cultures and history to mere units of sound, where children are kept away from confusing letter names they can't "decode".

Children read not through books but by assimilating "speed sounds". They progress to banal ditties ("hot chips from the shop"). We were inducted into the moral universe of synthetic phonics and its mantras: "a child's reading age should be three years ahead of comprehension age"; "the most important words in our language cannot be got from context". Incredibly, the notion of streaming four-year-olds passed almost unnoticed, but a momentary rebellion occurred when our trainer modelled a Fredtalking teacher writing "Can I hav" without the final "e".

"Should we avoid words like 'live', 'give', 'glove' and 'shove'?" I asked.

"Let's pigeon-hole that discussion and come back to it," said our trainer.

It's still tucked away. How I wish I'd asked Fred to spell "pigeon".

I love the cosmopolitanism of English, whose melange (French) or mish-mash (Yiddish) of foreign words reveals unexpected connections. But synthetic phonics doesn't do connections or roots: it despises complications as disfiguring the language.

Following the Rose report, all schools must adopt a phonics scheme. And zealots are seizing the moment. I weep at their violation of our language with their "one size fits all" approach. When school managers calculate the cost of the training and paraphernalia (friezes, magnetic letters, handbooks, software), they might weep too.

My cousin, a professional comedian, tells a cruel joke about Alzheimer's.

The upside, he says, is you meet new people every day. With synthetic phonics, you meet every word for the first time.

All primary teachers use phonics, but as a tool, not a philosophy. We want to nurture critical readers who love literature and can adapt reading skills to the diverse structures they will meet beyond dull scheme texts.

Real children use their experiences, play with language, pick up clues and think about context to read for meaning. Good teaching builds on what children already do and harmonises their efforts. Let's keep it real, not synthetic.

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