What really matters is the meaning

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Margaret Robinson Elmswell, Suffolk

As one of the signatories to Wendy Scott's letter (TES, December 1), I would like to comment as follows. My experience of many years has been based entirely in the classroom, teaching children from early years up to sixth form. With the former, I found that the need to use phonics was an integral part of any reading scheme I used.

How much and in what way these were incorporated depended not only on how children recognised words but also their comprehension of them, their meaning to them as individuals.

A delightful extract from Laurie Lee's autobiographical writing in which he was told by his teacher to "wait there for the present" but never got one is a case in point. The debate about the use of phonics teaching should be viewed in this light. To paraphrase the psychologist Jerome Bruner, when it comes to real understanding and communication through language, it is not primarily what words mean but what people mean that really counts.

It is here that "oracy" (to pick up on the fourth R of the primary education commission led by Professor Robin Alexander) and not just literacy has to be the order of the day. This is because it is not simply the sounds of letters that are at the heart of our learning to read but the words themselves - their syntax, frame and form of reference, rhythm and, above all, their purpose in function and meaning - that really matter.

Equally important must be their relevance to our concerns and interests, our stage of development and level of understanding - critical at all stages of education but particularly during puberty, Asbos not excepted. It is from this complex pattern of our learning and personal development that real knowledge evolves and we learn to think, and think in order to learn independently. Thus are we enabled to develop to our full potential. Quite rightly, that is the mantra of the present Government.

I would argue that of course phonics should be taught, but not too early, and as a part of carefully planned approaches to the teaching of reading that take full account of the transmission of knowledge through language in all its complexity.

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