Grab your cudgel and pick a side as the reading wars rage on
A certain morbid curiosity has me asking questions where I shouldn’t. I’m intrigued by offal. Yoga. The French. And also systematic synthetic phonics (SP), the government-approved method for teaching children to read. I’m 95% certain you’ll know this, but SP breaks words into their component phonemes (sounds), and teaches the corresponding graphemes (letter combinations that represent them). Wot cood bee eezyer?
If you want to see a pencil case of primary practitioners get punchy at a party, here’s a tip. Be sure to try it before 10pm, because they’ll need to leave early to do some lesson preparation.
Just lob in a few choice remarks about how you learned to read pretty well with Janet and John (‘look and learn’ – recognising whole words), and if they would only knuckle down a bit more, we might do as well as the Finnish in the performance tables. If Michael Rosen turns up and you quote Gove and The Daily Mail as evidence, you’ve got a well-mannered riot on your hands. With added digestives and ‘Strictly Come Teaching’ mugs.
To summarise the situation in one post would be akin to Max Hastings trying to tweet the causes of WWII. But SP has a lot of fans… and I’m one of them. And that’s from a man who’s short-but-non-phonetic surname causes people to stumble and stutter, resulting in attempts that have included ‘Mr Laugh’ and ‘Mr Whore’.
Where the Wild Things Are
The debate is neatly encapsulated in the comments under this article, “Why synthetic phonics doesn’t work“, in which academics, zealots and crackpots quote and misquote research and half-baked anecdotes to make their case. But in that and other reading, what emerged for me was firstly the advantage of synthetic phonics (teaching children sounds before they hit the library), over its predecessor, analytic phonics. The latter is the way that many of today’s parents learned to read, using ‘look and say’ reading practice in combination with sequences of sounds taught over two to three years.
But the second advantage – and arguably as powerful, if not more so – is the ‘systematic’ bit. ‘First and fast’ is the macho Department for Education name for it, but in practice it means that children are taught all 44 phonemes in ast little as 16 weeks. I’ve barely learned my new password for my work email in that time. To achieve that requires some hardcore planning and effort from teachers, and naturally educational publishers have rushed in to ‘help’ (just one cause for concern amongst the naysayers).
The ways to do this badly are legion. Teachers who lack conviction, resent the change it entails, and subvert the methods by introducing other techniques at the same time. School management that has allowed that to happen, providing insufficient support to staff, and failed to get the parents on-side, too. At heart this is a system – but anyone who’s spent time in a school will know that teaching is a very messy, imperfect business. Children, adults and Ofsted visits conspire to disrupt the best-laid plans; cast-iron resolve, like-minded colleagues and the right resources are all required to see a whole-school initiative like this survive and thrive.
But when there’s enough ‘oomph’ behind it, this system can work really well (I’ve seen it). Small, fluid groups of children making incremental, rapid progress. Consistent teaching across the school, and well-practised interventions to cope with the wrinkles and vagaries of children and their learning.
Now you might argue that any technique introduced with such commitment (and money) is liable to be an improvement. But SP lends itself well to such structure; the research backs up its proponents; and the alternatives haven’t worked for many, many children.
And so, 600 words in, you’ll be relieved to know we’re nearing the point of this post. Because when theory meets reality – as it has in recent months as my 5-year-old learns to read – the flaws in implementation are quickly laid bare. Patchy parents guidance. Dreary library books from 1970s reading schemes that return, night after night. Parents that whinge, but still can’t find time for the small amount of homework allocated (that’s us).
Go to the bottom of the class
Our daughter is August-born, and languishes in the bottom groups for reading and writing. (Somebody’s got to be bottom, as one parent reassured us recently.) She’s making progress, but there’s no denying it’s slow going. And at a recent parent consultation, her teachers made a prediction that she’d be unlikely to pass the Phonics Screening Check, held in June this year across the UK for all Year 1 children.
This test is all about data. Depending on your viewpoint it’s how the Department for Education ensures that SP is working as intended, it’s how poor-performing schools can be quickly identified, it’s a stick used to beat teachers as they stagger towards year-end, and it’s stress tantamount to water-boarding for children.
In reality it’s 40 words chosen to assess children’s reading prowess. Read in isolation (so children can’t guess the meaning from context), the passmark is 32, and – and here’s the bit that irks many – around half of them are nonsense. A child who reads ‘brid’ as ‘bird’ will be marked down, because they’re reading the word they think they’ve seen and know from other contexts. And so the argument goes that moderate-to-strong readers are at a disadvantage, as they deploy other knowledge.
And that was my strong, negative reaction when I saw the sheet above, brought home to indicate the words that she failed to read. Waiber? Fowd? Sair? I struggle to sound them out, even now. They’re so wrong, it seems implausible that they could constitute a test that measures reading accurately.
And in the sheet you see at the top of this post, they wouldn’t. Stronger readers would try to make sense of them, moulding them into words they already know. But that’s not how the test works: seen left is what the test paper [PDF] looks like.
They’re alien words. They’re introduced as alien words. The children accept them as alien words, without question. No need to think further, to bring other knowledge into play. (One commenter in the article linked above noted that if the test were to be the best measure of a child’s ability to decode, all the words would be alien – but the outcry from the press and parents would be too much to bear.)
My daughter – who is of course as reliable a witness as you could hope to find – tells me that she used the sheet at the top of the post. But also the one seen left. Probably, she can’t quite remember. She definitely used one of them, no doubt about it.
So that’s sorted: stand down, Dadhacks. The system is ‘working’.
But what of her impending failure? It turns out that by the time the test falls due, in her bottom group she’ll barely have learned the entire 44 sequence of phonemes. She’ll be going into it highly unprepared, and will most likely flunk it by some margin. But she’s five, bright, and surrounded by books and readers. She’ll get there. At this stage, the school has rather more to lose as she blots their copybook. And arguably it’s a small poke in the eye for Michael Gove – and anyone who performs The Wham Rap as our esteemed Secretary of State did recently, deserves one of those.
What’s your view? How well does your child’s school toe the line when it comes to synthetic phonics, and do you play along or try something different? Let us know in the comments