Catherine Scott: Sounding out arguments over learning to read

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I think I can remember learning to read. It was back in the good old days where we just learnt words, as far as can remember. Cat was ‘C-A-T’ and most of it was helped along with the aid of Janet and John.

For my children, one of who is about to leave primary education, it has been a totally alien world. The world of synthetic phonics which, if you mention the words to a certain group of educationalists, is tantamount to “abuse”.

Janet and John and their quaint adventures have been replaced by Biff, Chip and the ever-present and humourous Floppy the Dog for the last six years in my house. Although both now having progressed onto something called “free readers” the threesome and their adventures have been consigned to the history books.

I have to admit that phonics has caused something of a problem for my children. Synthetic phonics involves children learning the different sounds in words and then “sounding them out” to work out what they actually say.

That’s all well and good, if the English language wasn’t so darned complicated, with children seemingly having to learn more exceptions than rules. So drilled have they been with phonics that if my youngest gets stuck on a word in a more complicated book she still tries to sound it out, which just doesn’t work and she becomes obsessed with the sounds rather than the meaning of the word.

For those already reading when they start primary school, the emphasis on phonics can be even more damaging.

Now doubt has been cast on the entire emphasis of our teaching on synthetic phonics. Andrew Davis, a research fellow at Durham University’s School of Education has branded it “a form of abuse” against bright youngsters.

Forcing able young readers to follow a “rigid diet” of phonics teaching is an “affront to their emerging identities”, says Davis. In a new pamphlet he says children who are already reading for pleasure when they start school can become demotivated if they are forced to follow a system that is based on simply decoding letters. Ministers have been promoting synthetic phonics as the best way to raise reading standards.

A Department for Education spokeswoman says: “Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers.”

However, we still have more children leaving primary school unable to read properly than our European neighbours, so it seems Biff and Chip may well need an overhaul, and soon.