Why the c-at s-at on the m-at

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Two into one definitely goes when it comes to teaching single-syllable words at key stage 1, says Sue Palmer. On the whole, it's a relief that the national curriculum is a relatively jargon-free zone. But sometimes avoiding technical terminology can lead to confusion rather than elucidation. In the key stage 1 English Order, for instance, the contents of that can of worms called "phonic knowledge" could become even wigglier if teachers misinterpret the call to help children identify "the initial and final sounds in words".

This does not mean, as might appear at first reading, that we should concentrate on beginnings and endings of words and ignore the middle bit. It refers to "onset and rime", which is the latest craze among phonic specialists, and relates to research findings that children learn to read best by splitting single-syllable words into two parts, the bit before the vowel (onset) and the rest (rime) - for example, c-at, b-at, spl-at, fl-at.

This is not a new idea. Cats have been sitting on mats for early readers since time immemorial - but now research findings prove it works. And if the authors of the national curriculum had taken the plunge, we'd also have terminology with which to talk about it. Onset and rime is an effective way of helping children look at how words are written down, and showing that patterns of sound are often reflected in patterns of letters.

You've got to be careful though. The principal researcher in the area, Usha Goswami, recommends that teachers draw children's attention to rimes for words which crop up in their shared reading. Unfortunately, the rhyming words for one of her suggestions, "box" include only one common word with the same letter-pattern (fox). Owing to the exigencies of English spelling, it's otherwise all socks, rocks, clocks, and even - horror! - chocs and woks. These are rhymes, not rimes.

It was inconsistencies like these, and the endless rules and exceptions to rules they spawned, that put people off teaching phonics. English being the glorious mish-mash that it is, we have lots of irregularities - but there is also much that is regular. Teachers should take care in choosing words to introduce children to the underlying sound-symbol patterning of much of our language. At the same time they can encourage the processing of common irregular words as wholes. (Chocs and woks may be of interest in spelling lessons at a later stage, concentrating on the origins of words).

Educational publishers have begun to latch on to onset and rime, and resources are beginning to appear. But probably the most useful aid is still the chalkboard, on which you can write a word, then substitute a variety of onsets to create new words: sing, ring, thing, bring, string, etc. I'm proud of a stand I made with folded cardboard. This has a rime written on it, and a selection of onsets to slot in front. It's probably worth going to the bother of making concrete demonstration models like this for rimes which crop up often in the books you enjoy sharing with the children.

Don't forget the redoubtable Dr Seuss, who has taught many generations about onset and rime through his Cat in the Hat books. Unfortunately, today's children often dislike the illustrations - it's time someone did an updated edition.

However, there is now a lovely set of five picture books for the youngest readers by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, one for each vowel, from Pat the Cat to Zug the Bug. These have a single rime on constant view on the inside back cover, and, as the story unfolds, each right-hand page provides a new onset so children see various words built up: zug, bug, rug, snug. The authors had never heard of onset and rime until it was pointed out to them - they hit on the idea intuitively when they were teaching their own children.

Sue Palmer is general editor of the Longman Book Project. Dr Seuss books are published by Harper Collins; Pat the Cat and its companions are published by Dorling Kindersley.

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