Phonics first made an impact on my life when I joined the reception class at Woods Loke Primary School in Suffolk. A very fitting time it would seem – except I was not a bright-eyed eager 4 year old, but the bright-eyed eager probationary teacher!
I had arrived at my first job to be told I was to have the reception class. Having just come from a middle school training course, I had no experience at all of how to teach reading. Our ‘English’ lectures at University had consisted almost entirely of ‘writing books for younger children’ - not very useful with a reception class. When asked how to teach reading by the students, our lecturer’s response had been an airy wave of the hand and an assertion that ‘we didn’t need to know that’ as ‘any 9 year old who couldn’t read was special needs responsibility and not ours’. Any further pressing proved equally useless. So, there I was – the reception class teacher with not a clue as to how to approach the task now facing me.
Adding to my problems was the fact that I had started school at the beginning of the 70s and had been taught by the ‘Look and Say’ method. I therefore had no skills to apply or fall back on. I was fortunate, (though it didn’t always feel like it as I grasped for understanding), to arrive at Woods Loke under the eagle eyes of Joan Dorr, Sue Lloyd and Ann Winslade. Even more fortunate for me was that the school had ready for me virtually the first half-term’s English work, in the form of ‘Sound Start’. This was the prototype of what was eventually to become ‘The Phonics Handbook’.
As I struggled through my first weeks not only of being a teacher, but of trying to understand what I was being told, about sounds in words, blending, listening for sounds etc., I wondered where on earth I had ended up and just what they were all banging on about. However, as the term progressed, I did learn and so, surprisingly, did my class. Gradually, light began to dawn and understanding grew. A complete revelation to me was that the letters in words weren’t just randomly chosen – they went with the sounds! Although I had always been considered a ‘good’ reader, I had always wondered how people read words they didn’t know. In books with names, for example, that I had never heard, I just blanked the word when I came to it, almost inserting a picture of the word to represent it in my head. I now realise that I am blessed with a good memory and that this is what enabled me to read as I did.
Spelling, however, was another matter and a great source of frustration to me, my family and my teachers. My memory was not so good at learning spellings. The weekly spelling test was a great ordeal, (I still find it amazing that my classes now love their spelling test). I never got 10/10 and this was regarded by everyone as a wilful refusal to make the effort and learn them. “You’re a bright girl, look at what you read, of course you should get the spellings right.” Believe me, if I could have done, I would have done. Life would have been very much easier.
I remember rows with my mother: “How do you spell whatever?” I’d ask. “Look it up in the dictionary,” came the reply. How? To do that you need to know (or at least have an idea of) the first three letters. If I could remember those, generally I could remember the rest of it. To know how to spell a word, I needed to look it up in the dictionary, in order to look it up in the dictionary – I needed to know how to spell it. A chicken and egg situation.
My mother thought she was doing the right thing in encouraging me to use a dictionary. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just tell me how to spell it - after all they did at school. Why was she so awkward over it? It became a standing family joke – Sara can’t spell, don’t ask her – unless you wanted a good laugh of course. Any marks for spelling in essays, I wrote off. If I got one mark it was a bonus, and so it remained through school, university, my first jobs and teacher training. But finally, revelation!
At the time I joined Woods Loke they still used I.T.A. The Initial Training Alphabet, developed by Sir James Pitman, is very ‘sound’ based. I had to sound out words to write them. Gradually, I began to make the links and so the transition to ‘ordinary’ letters and spelling patterns, just like the children in my reception class. I always say that I really learnt to read and write with my first class.
Once the initial euphoria and delight had calmed, I began to feel angry. I hadn’t been stupid, I hadn’t been lazy, I just didn’t know how sounds and letters and words worked. All those frustrating hours trying to learn spellings. All those hours my parents and teachers had spent trying to help me – wasted – unnecessarily. They simply didn’t realise I didn’t understand, and I didn’t know I didn’t understand. Subsequently, talking to my friends and peer group I have found I was not alone. Had I not ended up at Woods Loke, I could still be ignorant and/or struggling. I still find it slightly incredible that I can now teach others to read and write, and am delighted that they will never have to go through the frustrations I did.
Teaching in the reception class at that time meant I became involved with the ‘Jolly Phonics’ programme. Sue Lloyd had recently met Chris Jolly, who had an embryonic publishing company, and they had just started the long journey that would lead to ‘The Phonics Handbook’. I trialled some of the materials, suggested things and watched the project develop. I became directly involved initially when I contributed three drawings. I was very enthusiastic, as not only could I see myself and my class learning, but I could appreciate the ‘ease’ and fun involved in the learning. If a complete novice like myself could use it and get results, it had to be good. As time went on I became more and more involved, until now, much to my, and my family’s, surprise, I co-write much of the ‘Jolly Phonics’ material with Sue.
The other thing that I still find amazing, and stops me dead, is that now my family ask me how worlds are spelt, and I can normally answer them! In many ways my involvement with the phonics movement in general, and ‘Jolly Phonics’ in particular, has been a very personal one. All the more important for me now, as I have a son [and subsequently, a daughter – congratulations!] of my own, and I am able to help him [them] in a way I would not have been able to before.
It has been said that look and say, real books, whole language, or even a balance of everything, has served the bulk of our population well, failing only a percentage. I would suggest it has failed all of our children, because even those who have learnt to read and write, and who may have developed a love of books, are highly likely to have had a much greater struggle to learn to read, write and spell than was necessary.
Sara has contributed a touching story about her own experiences as a child brought up with no phonics. How many more teachers out there have had a similar lack of good phonics when they were children and are now arguably receiving flawed phonics training?