They really need to know their A, B, C

13th June 1997 at 01:00
If Tom Burkard (TES, May 9) depressed Sue Palmer (TES Letters, May 23) by "banging that drum again" about phonics, then she depressed me by promoting the inclusion of "other approaches", such as the "whole language" and "meaning-driven methods of teaching reading" in addition to "code-driven" methods.

Tom Burkard had provoked Sue Palmer by proposing that children should have explicit, systematic phonics instruction by "code-driven" methods of teaching in the early stages before being given books to read.

Yet this is a view which experimental research would overwhelmingly support. Sadly, an examination of how children are actually taught to read in the English primary classroom reveals a large disparity between the teaching methods currently used and the methods which research demonstrates are most effective in developing reading comprehension as well as reading accuracy.

This most recent research has been impressively summarised by Dr Bonnie Macmillan in Why Schoolchildren Can't Read, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs Education and Training Unit, 1997.

According to the research there are two kinds of knowledge required in order for a child to learn how to translate written symbols into speech sounds. This translation process has been called the alphabetic principle. A child must: * Be aware that spoken words are made up of separate sounds and be able to identify them (this is known as phonological awareness); * Learn the specific correspondences of letters or groups of letters to specific speech sounds.

The research also points to the need for direct instruction of these key skills to produce maximum reading success. Furthermore, the type of texts which early readers are first given to read is crucial. If these texts are readable with the phonics children have been taught, they (the children) will be able to develop generative and alphabetic reading strategies. However, if the vocabulary in the texts is ungraded, irregular and not sequenced in a way which facilitates the grasp of spelling-to-sound connections then non-generative and whole-word reading strategies will develop.

The "other methods" which Sue Palmer proposed to add to code-driven methods sound suspiciously like the "mixture of methods" approach to the teaching of reading which Bonnie Macmillan calls an "illusion". Dr Macmillan says that, in spite of publishers' claims to the contrary, currently available reading schemes do not provide a "mixture-of-methods" approach to the teaching of reading at all. Instead, the one universal approach adopted is to encourage the memorisation of whole words and whole stories. To refer to such approaches as "meaning-driven" is misleading; it would be more accurate to describe them as "memory-emphasis" methods.

In short, the early teaching methods described in The Phonics Handbook would meet the research criteria for effective early literacy teaching; whereas the current reliance on the teaching methods advocated by today's reading schemes and by the "mixture-of-methods" approach would not, primarily because they spend little time on what a child really needs to know - the alphabetic principle.

DR MARLYNNE GRANT, Educational psychologist, Bristol

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