Wrong not to link reading and writing

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Jeff Hynds gives yet further evidence that teachers are unable to identify the correct number of soundsphonemes in even the simplest of words (TES, August 9).

However, he is wrong to criticise the Office for Standards in Education for commending those teachers ("regular teachers of phonics or of English as an additional language") who are able to teach children to identify the correct number of sounds in words.

In neither of his two articles does he consider the related and equally important literacy skill of writing (which teachers will know is an attainment target in the English Orders). As a consequence, he does not give any consideration to an understanding of graphs (one letter representing one sound), digraphs (two letters representing one sound), trigraphs (three letters representing one sound) or graphemes (graphs, digraphs or trigraphs) in the literacy process.

The writing attainment target is crucial to any assessment of the importance of teaching children about sounds in words, especially words created using an alphabetic script.

Jim Rose, OFSTED's director of inspection, made the link between reading and writing obvious in his article "What our schools must teach" (The Times, May 8). He wrote: "It is absolutely clear that children must be taught the letter-sound system of English which is basic to learning how to read and write an alphabetic script. This is what is meant by phonics. In essence, an understanding of phonics means that pupils are able to recognise the 26 letters of the alphabet and are able to combine and recombine them into the sounds which make up the words used in the English language."

Also, in an effort to raise standards of literacy by improving teachers' subject knowledge and their teaching method, the new National Literacy Centres project, overseen by OFSTED, along with the Teacher Training Agency, the Basic Skills Agency and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has advised all the successful LEAs that: "The close connection between reading and writing will be stressed throughout."

Furthermore, last year, David Wray, the then president of the United Kingdom Reading Association, was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live. He, with the same limited "only reading" perspective as Mr Hynds, said: "I'm quite worried at the notion that you teach children to read by initially breaking things down into smaller little bits and then expecting them to build them up together to make some kind of meaning."

However, he was then asked, by myself, whether it was a good idea for children to, along with reading, do any writing. He retorted: "Of course it is. That's the main way that they actually learn about sounds, through writing."

Therefore, Mr Hynds might make a significant contribution to his "considerable evidence" if he were to re-administer his test of "phonologic" awareness with the instruction that teachers should write as many "plausible" spellings as they can for each of his 20 words.

The fact that they will use many different graphs, digraphs and trigraphs to represent the phonemes in the words (such as "fishar", "fishor", "fishure" and even "phechir" for his word "fisher") will provide him with irrefutable evidence that teachers do, in fact, have phonological awareness but that it is an implicit awareness, not an explicit one.

As has been made clear in several recent letters to The TES (eg Dr Beve Hornsby, July 26) teachers should be taught to identify the 44 speech sounds (phonemes) of spoken English and to identify spelling choices (graphemes) by naming letters (which should be reinforced through the physical activity of writing).

They should be taught that reading and spelling are closely related literacy skills. Fundamentally, reading is about changing graphemes to phonemes and spelling is about changing phonemes to graphemes (see, "Phonographic method is best", TES, June 14). The various relationships between phonemes (speech sounds) and graphemes (spelling choices) should be made explicit.

Literacy problems in this country are caused by the very methods which are designed to overcome them, and the sooner this is recognised the better. The millions of children with poor reading and spelling skills are the unnecessary consequence of newly-qualified teachers being brainwashed by teacher-trainers into using the One Letter Makes One Sound Method (OLMOSM) to teach reading and spelling.

OLMOSM is an inappropriate method for an alphabetic script because those who do become literate have only an implicit awareness of the phonographic relationship between letters and sounds (which is why, as evident from my own research, many teachers and adults wrongly assume that the number of letters in a word indicates the number of sounds).

It is, therefore, not a question of readers abandoning "what they once knew" but of readers not having been taught the phonographic relationship between reading and writing in the first place - as Mr Hynds's letter and research so clearly illustrate.

ALAN DAVIES Senior lecturer Crewe School of Education Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester.

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