Tuesday, 8 January 2013


"Pupils learn to read 'in many ways', says laureate"

"The Department for Education said the ability to decode words was essential."

I do not disagree with the value of being able to decode words but I do not see phonics as a great way to learn about decoding. We have the great joy and horror of having one of the most inconsistent languages on the planet, it is also one of the most versatile and widely spoken. I have always been very wary of phonics, I found it to be a very confusing approach when I was at school, I have 5 children, 4 of which also found phonics confusing. Fortunately I had some old school teachers who also did not like phonics but did like classical education. I also had teachers who were interested in creative approaches to using language as well as some who 'knew' that phonics was the best way to teach. For me phonics was one of the more confusing aspects of learning the English language although it proved very useful when learning the more consistently pronounced Spanish and French. 

 I could get very stuck when asked to decode a word that was made up; a word that is not a word is not a word so a request to decode it did not make sense. What always did make sense to me was learning about the real roots of language. One point on that journey that stood out as significant was the day an uncle who was a keen photographer gave me a tri-cycle for my 5th Christmas, explained the meaning and compared it to the word bi-cycle and tri-pod. Lights started to go on, on the same day I linked bi and tri to the increasing complexity of sound between our doorbell that sounded a 'bing-bong' and my tricycle bell that went 'tring' and to the family of triplets in the next street; the codes within words started to make sense. As I progressed I noticed that words like these, they, them, had a 'the'ness to them as did this, that, those, and thing. That made far more sense to me than a non meaning related phonics approach. Linking decoding of words to sounds within the word never made sense to me, perhaps that was also linked to the impact of regional dialect. Some of our English teachers tried to teach us to speak correct Queen's English but we were in the Geordie heartlands and many parents were proud of regional language and pronunciation. Being taught to pronounce 'but' in a way that was more akin to 'bat' just sounded plain daft, made little sense and for some would lead to ridicule in the home. 

 We had geography and geology teachers in secondary school who were classically educated, understood the Greek and Latin roots of words and used that knowledge to help us understand terminology of the subjects. That was so much more useful than the attempts by English teachers to improve my spelling and decoding by getting me to stay in over playtime and write out endless phonemes or words that were similar to each other. By 13 it should have been fairly obvious that was not going to work with me. I remember reading the word 'pyrotechnics' in an Alistair McLean novel and subsequently using it in an English Essay. To me it was a beautiful word that had a construction that made sense, that gave it an importance that helped lock the spelling into my brain. The teacher had never heard of it and had to look it up in a dictionary. My spelling of it was perfect yet she still kept me in writing out; cal-en-dar, col-an-der as I had misspelled 'calendar' repeatedly in the same essay, probably because we would speak it as 'calanda' in Geordie. Why she ever thought that writing it out along side a very similar word would help me learn it or differentiate between the two I do not know. Perhaps explaining the link to the Latin 'calends' would have helped me lock down the spelling.  Missing playtime caused mental frustration, embarrassment and meant I often missed out on the letting off steam thing that is so important to growing boys. learning via phonetics is just a memorising of sound shapes and has little to do with being able to decode meaning, there are only so many words that can be learned in school and many many more that will be stumbled upon as life progresses, it is then that the ability to decode from roots of language really comes into its own. If well practiced any child who meets antidisestablishmentarianism will soon work out what it means and will probably not have too much trouble spelling it after hearing it either. 

Learning nonsense verse such as The Jabberwocky was more fun and made far more sense than having to decode non-word phonics combinations as there are hints of meaning and onomatopoeic resonances in many of the words. Galumphing and frabjous evoked a clear picture to me and that enabled me to attach importance and a reason for knowing the spelling. Many other words were explained such as the 'mimsy borogove' that is later described by Humpty-Dumpty. To me there appeared to be purpose in the nonsense in that there was an exploration of the ability of word sounds to provoke emotion, a sense of fun and a clear link to how new words can evolve or be created out of existing ones. 

In science the meaning of words like mon-oxide, di-oxide, xeno-phobic, quadri-ped, tri-lobe-ite, were joyfully clear to me as there were clear cues to help decoding meaning, even where meaning was not immediately clear the roots could be looked up and the sense of the construction elicited. Key to understanding scientific words is not the sounds of the parts, it is the consistent meaning of the parts. Whether trilobite is pronounced tr-i-lobite or tr-eye-lobite is of less importance than whether its meaning is understood. 

One strategy that really worked but is not infinitely replicable was the "You will never be able to spell this one..." approach. That was used by my O-Level geology teacher and lead me to be able to spell Mohorovicic discontinuity and rhipidistian crossopterygians before I had mastered 'calendar'. 

"Some children respond better to phonics, some to looking and seeing words and some learn by osmosis. Any good teacher knows you need a variety of ways of reading."

I agree with this statement as well, variety is critical in providing effective learning to a heterogeneous group of learners, one problem is how to provide variety in a way that does not amplify confusion, another is how to teach something well that does not make sense to the teacher. I have taught children who take to phonics like a duck to water but in my experience most did not, that might link to my own dislike of phonics. Despite being trained in how to teach phonics I find it difficult to teach with conviction as it does not work well for me, the same goes for teaching religion. I enjoyed helping children learn about religion and about humanism but would never want to teach a child to be religious or to cast off one religion in favour of another or of humanism, to me there is no evidence of there being 'One True Way' of understanding existence. I loved teaching language and achieved high standards by teaching it using a variety of strategies - combining them in a way that made sense to me and that I believed allowed many different kinds of children to make sense of language and see it as important. Having to teach phonics as part of my toolkit was a distraction to me, I do not believe it was 'The Way' and hope that combined approaches and exposing pupils to appropriate variety remains a key strategy for all teachers. 

Today the BBC are asking whether a phonetic alphabet could promote world peace. I heard mention of the place name "Ponteland" on the radio recently - like many strangers to Tyneside do it was pronounced" Ponty-land" as in land of the Pontys. The local pronunciation is more akin to "Pon-teel-and" That error is not really a threat to world peace. I really am divided on this issue, it does make sense for easy interpretation of the sound of a word by a non-native traveller who can decode phonemes to construct sounds that a local can understand but this is only of high relevance for the passing visitor or perhaps for languages that are complex hybrids or use a non alphabetical code. There was a sense of the being of a nation when I moved on from initial learning to say Spanish words, by interpreting their basic phonetics. That was necessary when using phrase books or bilingual dictionaries - look a word up in English, find the Spanish equivalent then try to say the word in Spanish. When I started to experience the language in longer conversations, where many new words are encountered, and I had to interpret what others were saying on the hoof as best I could; the common roots of words started to become clearer and more important. Mal, vent, and super were some of the first word fragments common to English and Spanish that I noticed, then hundreds started to cascade their meaning into place. That really helped me start to understand the subtleties of how language is constructed and what words are understood to mean. 

The SaypU system would distance the spelling of the word from its constituent fragments and from interpreting its meaning through summing the parts to make a greater whole..Writing 'egzit' for 'exit' destroys the inbuilt offering of meaning through the combination of ex and it. Besides I don't say egzit I use a softer 'ecsit' as in exit, oh dear why change what works well already. 

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