What keeps me awake at night - Please read up on phonics, Mr Gibb

20th April 2012 at 01:00

I'll tell you what keeps me awake at night - it's not Michael Gove, it's his sidekick, schools minister Nick Gibb: Mr Synthetic Phonics. Synthetic phonics is where you blend two letters together to make one sound. For example, it tells us that putting G and R together makes grrrrrr.

Mr Gibb loves synthetic phonics. He says that this is the only way to raise reading standards in England. Apparently he realises that comprehension is also important, but this doesn't quite make it into his rhetoric. So keen is he on the technique that he's launched a matched-funding scheme for materials. But cash-strapped primaries aren't rushing to take up his offer to buy stuff from the government-approved list.

Could this be because English primary teachers use systematic phonics comprising all methods of teaching and don't rely on just one strategy? After all, they're the experts. Perhaps these professionals would rather buy the reading materials their pupils need than the ones a politician says they should have. But Mr Gibb, phonics fundamentalist, keeps banging the synthetic phonics drum.

The method is important. But the evidence also shows that decoding alone is not enough. The US research cited by Mr Gibb actually warned against overemphasis on phonics. Not that Mr Gibb can have read all the evidence - it's enough to grab some gobbet that praises synthetic phonics and spit it out in a press release. He's very good at ignoring contradictory evidence or, heaven forbid, any evidence that actually praises what's going on in England.

The Eurydice report on teaching reading in Europe is the size of a meteorite, and yet it seems to have whizzed by Mr Gibb's window and splashed into the Thames without so much as a ripple. This vast analysis shows that teachers in England already incorporate systematic phonics into their teaching. The evidence also advises that what is needed is not more phonics, but more work on comprehension.

Mr Gibb even missed guidance in a government report that found effective reading programmes should not just focus on phonics, but should also be accompanied by innovative teaching practices that engage pupils in exciting lessons.

But will Mr Gibb listen? No. He'll continue to rant on like a Dalek, squealing "Synthetic phonics! Synthetic phonics!" He'll turn his ray gun on heretical local authorities where take-up of his preferred teaching technique has been low and scream "Exterminate!", while bewildered six-year-olds wonder why they're being asked to read pseudo words like "vap" and "osk".

But enuff! Thiss iz migh messidge to thu skools minnistuh: leeve teeching ov reedding to thu ekspurts!

The writer is a retired teacher from Peterborough. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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