Synthetic phonics has become a central plank of the Government's policy for teaching reading. But I fear that an overemphasis on phonics may already be proving a disadvantage for some pupils in spelling.
Synthetic phonics is based on teaching the 44 sounds (or phonemes) of the English alphabetic system. This should, its most fervent supporters argue, be taught before a child has any contact with books or is "taught" whole words.
While agreeing that children should be helped to acquire a good knowledge of letter-sound relationships early on, I believe the synthetic phonics policy may encourage teachers to place too narrow an emphasis on a single aspect of spelling.
I have seen pieces of writing from hundreds of children as co-director of the Power of Reading project at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, which works nationally with more than 60,000 children. From this research, I have noticed a growth in "phonetic" spellings from both young and older primary children, and uncertainty from teachers on whether and how to intervene on spelling in their writing.
At the centre I have also been co-researcher on a spelling study, which tracked the development of more than 30 children over three years. Hundreds of writing samples were analysed, lessons observed, and children and teachers interviewed.
A major focus of the study was the substantial number of competent readers as they progressed towards the top of key stage 2 who had problems with spelling. A feature of these children's work was that they did not seem to notice many of the visual patterns of English spelling and continued to use a phonetic approach. For example, Jonathan in Year 5 wrote, as he described Henry VIII: "He wears a cloack (cloak), tunic, tites (tights), a hat, rope belt and Julry (jewellery)." Although he wrote with confidence, Jonathan had difficulties in choosing the "right" pattern for words - usually choosing the phonetic option, as in "tites" or failing to make the connection with the root word - Julry.
Similarly, in a typical piece, a Year 5 child wrote: "He was of avrage hight wering a wight jumpr and a pear of trainrs." Here, the child is mostly writing words as they sound, rather than recognising, for example, the common "er" ending in "jumper" and "trainer", and making the wrong choices about letter patterns - largely a visual issue. Older children with difficulties tend to see each word as a separate unit - using "sounding out" as their main strategy for spelling words they don't know.
Most very young children use a phonetic approach as a basic early strategy in writing and spelling - drawing on the sounds they can hear in words and matching these to letters and letter patterns they know. Currently, however, I am noticing greater numbers of young children using a "sounding out" approach to spelling words that would normally be known by sight. I recently saw pieces of writing from Year 2 where several children had written "Iyam" for "I am" and "Deya" instead of "Dear" to begin a letter - words that are among the most commonly written by children. It is important that teachers encourage children to draw on words they know by sight and patterns that they have noticed visually in words, as well as the sounds they can hear.
Learning to spell in English is more complex than in some phonetically regular languages such as Spanish or Finnish. In English, there are many variations in the way that letter patterns look and sound. Michael Rosen's poem Hints on Pronunciation makes the essential point:
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don't call it "deed"!
In other words, spelling in English is intimately tied up with word meanings and their use. As in any language, for that matter, words are more than collections of sounds - and individual phonemes and letters only take us a small part of the way in learning about words, and their spellings.
We know from research that, as well as individual sounds and letters, children need to know about patterns within words. "Analytic phonics" is often wrongly characterised as "teaching whole words" and then getting children to break them down. What this perspective ignores is that children start their education already knowing and recognising the sound and look of a wide range of words. Children's familiarity with rhymes and rhyming patterns is useful not only for their reading but also for their spelling.
Synthetic phonics does have a role to play in children's spelling, but so does analytic phonics, so do words that children know, so does what children can remember visually and their growing awareness of common letter strings and patterns, so does a growing knowledge of word meanings, their origins and grammatical features of spelling.
The most successful teachers in our study had a range of ways of helping young children build up a store of words they could spell - word games, compiling a class book of "words we can spell", encouraging even young children to read their own work and, most importantly, drawing children's attention to the look of words and the different ways sounds can be represented.
Teachers also had the confidence to strike a balance between encouraging children to try out words in their writing and providing support and encouragement to work on their misspellings - according, of course, to children's age and experience.
Olivia O'Sullivan is writing in a personal capacity. She is co-author with Anne Thomas of Understanding Spelling (Routledge), available at www.clpe.co.uk.