Posted by: aboutalbion | February 1, 2014

Learning to read: synthetic phonics or whole words?

I have no memory of the process by which I learnt to read … none whatsoever.

However, when the time came, I did teach my three children to read, and to read well, before they went to primary school.  I began short, daily lessons (always consensual) when each of them was around the age of three and a half.  And, from first to last, I used what teachers call the ‘whole word’ approach.  It did not occur to me to use any other approach since complete words are visible in every direction as a child grows up.  My motive was simply to give my children the ‘code’ to understanding the linguistic symbols that decorate our cultural landscape.

I now find that my method of parental teaching is out of favour with the government’s Department of Education, who insist that ‘synthetic phonics’ is the best way to teach reading.  By this method, children are first taught to vocalize 42 letters and diagraphs, and then to blend these common sounds into whole words.

But what is this that is coming to my rescue?

A research study at Durham University has found that the interests of good readers are threatened by the insistence of state primary schools on the synthetic phonics method.  The researcher reported that the use of a rigid diet of intensive synthetic phonics may be “an affront to their emerging identities as persons” and may be “almost a form of abuse”.

The research study did not deny that synthetic phonics has a part to play in learning to read.  But it did put a large question mark over the exclusive, ‘one size fits all’ use of the government’s preferred method.

This muddle arises because in the UK state school system, there is no expectation that parents will have taught their pre-school children to read a basic set of whole words before they enter the reception class around the age of five.

My weekend newspaper this morning carries a story that the UK government is planning to introduce some form of ‘baseline’ testing when each child enters the reception class.   Will it include a reading test?

To my mind, education is a shared responsibility between home and school.  So I would like to see an honest discussion off the allocation of responsibility between parents and teachers in this matter of learning to read.  Many parents can evidence that children have the capacity to learn to read well before they enter reception class.

I would have thought that it was possible to create an enjoyable word game based around 52 cards (four suits – nouns and pronouns, adjectives and adverbs, verbs, articles and conjunctions – of thirteen cards – each with a common word of 1/2/3/4 letters) which all parents could use to teach their children a basic fund of common whole words before they arrive in the reception class around the age of five.

In the end, however, I hope we can all agree that the English language does not blindly follow a fixed set of “rules”.


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