Through the sound barrier

14th March 1997 at 00:00
In Watch the Swing of Primary Pendulum (The TES, Opinion, January 24), Sue Palmer says that methods of teaching reading swing from skills-based approaches (phonics, look-and-say) towards a meaning-driven model - what is sometimes called a whole language approach. She concludes that she has a "horrible feeling" that England is just about to swing again towards an over-emphasis on phonics.

The pendulum would not need to keep swinging if the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority encouraged nurseries and schools to use a phonographic approach to link handwriting, reading and spelling.

In the baseline assessment proposals drawn up by SCAA last autumn it is suggested that on entry to compulsory education children should be tested to see if they recognise "More than fifteen letters by saying the appropriate sound". Therefore, SCAA is dictating that during pre-compulsory education children should be taught to identify the letters as the sounds "aa", "beh", "cuh" and so on.

This proposal will force nursery nurses, teachers and teacher trainers to use this version of phonics to teach reading and spelling when this approach is already the cause of children having limited awareness for the 44 sounds of spoken English and the reason why so many children have unnecessary difficulties with reading and spelling.

The 44 sounds of spoken English are known as phonemes, and the ways of writing them, graphemes - a graph if there is one letter, a digraph if there are two, and trigraph if three. The word "kn-igh-t" has three graphemes, a digraph for the consonant phoneme (n), a trigraph for the vowel phoneme (i) and a graph for the consonant phoneme (t). If children say "the appropriate sound" for each letter they are not able to decode the word "knight" or the many thousands of other words written in English that contain digraphs and trigraphs or graphs representing phonemes other than those that have been taught (for instance, the phoneme at the start of "giant" is not the same as the phoneme at the start of "gate").

Furthermore, the SCAA proposals do not state whether the "fifteen letters" are to be lower case or capitals. If, as is stated within the document, children are to be tested on their ability to write their own names, "Using upper and lower case letters appropriately" they will also need to identify and write the capital versions of the lower-case letters.

Therefore, children should be taught that whether the shape of the capital is the same as or different from that of the lower case, it is still considered to be the same letter and referred to by the same name. They will then understand, from the beginning, that both the lower case and capitals form graphemes. Pre-school children frequently hear the names of capital letters as abbreviations for countries, organisations and names, for instance, "UK", "BBC" and "ET" (the extra-terrestrial). They also hear and see abbreviations at home, in the supermarket, playground or in the high street, for instance, "TV", "PG Tips", "BMX" and "MFI". Also, today, more and more pre-school children use computers at home or in nurseries and the QWERTY keyboards are, by convention, labelled with capital letters. By referring to all letters by name, even pre-school children can readily understand why pressing the capital letters on a QWERTY keyboard may result with lower case equivalents on the screen.

Therefore, on entry to compulsory education children should be tested to see if they recognise the letters (both the lower case letters and the capital letters) by name and not by sound. That is, "Recognises letters by shape and name" should have two parts: (i) The child recognises more than 15 lower case letters by saying the appropriate name when the letter shapes are presented randomly in written form. (ii) The child recognises more than 15 capitals by saying the appropriate name when the shapes are presented randomly in written form.

Sue Palmer claims that "Alan Davies is promoting THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills) as a way of teaching reading from the earliest stages".

This is not true. We are promoting it as a way of linking handwriting, reading and spelling from the earliest stages.

For example, many children's names contain trigraphs and digraphs and graphs that represent phonemes other than those taught as "the appropriate sound". For example, the name "Sue" has two phonemes, represented by two graphemes, a graph and a digraph (S-ue). It is both logical and sensible to explain to Sue, and her friends in the nursery or school, that the consonant phoneme "s" at the start of her name is the same as that at the start of sun, represented by the bold graph "Ess" (but not the graph "Cee" at the start of city). That the vowel phoneme (oo) is the same as that in glue, represented by the bold digraph "You" "Ee" (but not the digraph "Oh" "Oh" in moon). The children can then be encouraged, when appropriate, to locate the picture cards of sun, city, glue or moon on the THRASS picture chart, or any of the 120 words, to help them read and spell other words, such as the words "said", "circus", "blue" and "boot" respectively. With regard to capitals, it is explained that we use capital letters at the start of words, or for all the letters in words, to let people know that the words are "Important", as in the name "Sue" and the book title, ON THE FARM.

We urge SCAA to recommend the testing of letter names not letter sounds when it completes its final baseline guidelines later this year. This will make it possible for nursery nurses and teachers to explain, from the outset, how the 26 letters represent the 44 phonemes, without children being misled and confused by letter sounds, silent letters and irregular spellings.

In so doing, the "sound barrier" that is created through teaching letter sounds, which causes so many of our children to have a limited awareness for the phonemes and graphemes of spoken and written English, will be broken. And there will be no need for the pendulum to swing between whole language and phonics.

Alan Davies, senior lecturer and educational psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Denyse Ritchie, a publisher and teacher based in Western Australia, are authors of THRASS. Tel: 0161 247 5191 or 01244 321036

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