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Here’s a Comment by me on Guardian Books blog re Early reading and synthetic phonics:

MichaelRosen - 1 October 2010 12:22AM

"Don't confuse learning to read with learning to enjoy books." said someone above. In fact it's a brilliant idea to confuse learning to read with learning to enjoy books, because children who enjoy books will want to learn to read, go on reading, will understand books, will love books, will do unbelievably well at school. The government knows this. They have national and international stats to prove it, but they have refused on several occasions to do anything about it. They refused to send out a simple request (not a demand or a directive) to schools to ask them to form what I called 'books policies' ie a policy on how the school would provide and use books.

Much more politically expedient is to talk again and again about synthetic phonics. We should remember several things about SP: 1. SP will never teach every child everything there is to know about reading. That's because when we write, we don't write phonically all the time. This is acknowledged by the SP systems that all schools are now using with their description of many words as 'Camera Words' (as someone pointed out earlier on this thread) or 'Tricky Words'. What is going on here? The SP people are agreeing that some words can only really be learned through another system altogether known as 'look and say' or 'look and read', involving whole word recognition and recall. What the SP people won't acknowledge is that many children will also be learning to read some, or many 'phonic words' through whole word recognition and recall, or indeed through other mechanisms.

2) the other problem with SP is that it separates sound from meaning; separates words from meaning. This runs against the stream of why we talk, listen, read and write. We do these things in order to exchange meanings. For some children this won't matter, particularly those children who come from highly literate homes who have already learnt that 'words' can in some way be separated from the things and ideas and processes they refer to....eg through people saying, look there's a word, or look how that's written, or indeed encouraging their children to play with words orally and in writing...

What we don't know is whether the kinds of children for whom learning to read is really difficult are going to find this link between words and meaning really hard as a result of pure SP teaching.

However, we do know some things from the small piece of research that the governments (both) think is the killer blow in the argument for universal SP teaching in every state school. That is that far from resulting in a dramatic improvement in reading in children five years after SP - it caused a very small increase and by then, that increase could have come from any other number of causes going on in that school in that particular time - especially as things that should have been kept constant, were not (eg intervention of home-school liaison reading officers, and the introduction of philosophy teaching in the school). And there's more. The comprehension scores went down. What?! So the children were reading marginally better than the norm, (for reasons we don't know) but they were less able to understand what they were reading! And this is the system that every school in the country is spending thousands of pounds on.

Now, you won't get politicians saying any of this, either because it's too hard for them to understand the problem or because it isn't politically expedient. Phonics is a political matter. It sounds 'ard. It sounds tough. It sounds as if you're getting the little blighters to knuckle down and get it. When you see it being taught, it looks instructional, and active. Everyone's doing the same thing at the same time. It looks as if everyone is progressing. That's why politicians like it. It fits the agenda of what people want to be saying about the relationship between children and adults in the present time.

In the meantime, it's wonderful to think that for the moment we live in a country that has free books. This was won for us by our forbears. You can get out 12 books on one library ticket and the next day, take them back and get 12 more. If this government gets its way, this will be taken away from us. For parents who have the money and are interested (not necessarily always linked), there will be books in the house. For those who can't afford books, all their children will have is SP and whatever that school happens to provide. If it's a school who is crazed with nervousness about SATs results it will have filled the school with worksheets and testpapers and spent next to nothing on books that the children would normally choose to read - funny, naughty, odd books.

Believe me, we are facing some tough times ahead on this matter.





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