Bethan Marshall: Learning requires common sense, not just phonics

Heaven help the child who seeing a picture of an elephant hazards a guess at the word

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Some people like certainty and Jim Rose, who reported yesterday on the future of the teaching of reading, seems to be one of them. From now on children are to be taught using a method known as synthetic phonics and nothing else until they have mastered the 44 phonemes or units of sound that make up the English language.

Keen advocates of this atomistic strategy do not even allow children to look at books before they can chant all sounds without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Only then can they be given simple words to sound out before progressing on to more complex words and finally the odd sentence and maybe the hint of a picture book. Heaven help the child who seeing an illustration of an elephant hazards a guess that the lengthy word they don't recognise may refer to that animal. For those who lobby for synthetic phonics guessing, however informed it might be, is bad.

So, too, is using knowledge of the shape of words, sentence syntax and how a book works. So a child who confronts the word "Once" at the start of a story and trots off "upon a time" will be frowned upon. All these strategies, along with identifying patterns in the text or using "analytic" phonics, are to be relegated to the waste bin of the Government's literacy strategy.

What is worrying about this move, quite apart from the fact that using phonics alone can never work in a language as phonetically inconsistent as English, is that anyone thinks it can. In this way it betrays an attitude towards the educational process that is disturbing. To begin with, part of the appeal of synthetic phonics seems to be that it appears scientific. Far from being an art, with the teacher-pupil relationship at its heart, it suggests that the teaching of reading is something that can be engineered with precision.

The problem is that children are not buildings or bridges. Learning is a messy business. Educational research findings do not and should not lead to straightforward prescription because the classroom is too complex a phenomenon either to provide or be given quick-fix solutions. The success of the synthetic phonics lobby has demonstrated, however, that politicians like "right" answers and are uncomfortable with anything that hints of the vague. This is not only because it seems more scientific but because, as a system, it appears teacher-proof as well. Learn the rules of delivery by heart and anyone can teach a child to read.

Quite apart from the mistrust of the teaching profession, this exposes the major flaw, which this approach overlooks, that children are different. Any decent teacher will tailor their teaching to the child in front of them and that means they have to exercise professional judgement and skill. They have to work out what will motivate the four-year-old Sanjay or Emma if synthetic phonics has understandably baffled them. A good teacher also recognises that some children need less drilling than others, and that whole class teaching focusing solely on sounds might be very demotivating. Concentrating on one method and one method alone will dramatically reduce the repertoire of the new teacher, constrain the expertise of the experienced one and hamper the ability of either to be responsive to the pupils' needs.

But to acknowledge that teachers need to apply their own judgement and that learning is a messy business would be to loosen the reins of government control. Synthetic phonics seems to appeal, therefore, because it promises certainty to a government that likes to lay down rules. It is hardly surprising, then, that the debate about phonics is about so much more than a method of reading. It betrays how you believe a better society might be created.

For some, this comes about through adherence to and the enforcing of clearly defined laws, which is why back-to-basics campaigns will always sweep up issues ranging from phonics teaching to a clampdown on binge-drinking via personal morality. On the other hand, some believe that unless children understand why learning to read is desirable it will be always be a mindless chore. This is the educational equivalent of pursuing active citizenship on the basis that no amount of law enforcement will ever bring about change.

The latter seems, on the face of it, utopian and harder to achieve. This is why those who suggest that learning to read is complex and there are no right answers have, on the surface, lost out so spectacularly in the so-called reading wars. Fortunately most people who teach children to read have enough common sense to know that one method will never be sufficient to engage all children in the rich process of reading, whatever the very certain Jim Rose may say.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London

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