Steve Sinnott (NUT General Secretary), commenting on Jim Rose’s interim report, is quoted as saying, ‘Phonics has too often been hijacked by politicians as a weapon to beat each other with rather than being seen as a vital but not exclusive method of teaching reading…But we all need to recognise that teaching the meaning of words and a love of reading is also vital.’
Is he really thinking in terms of beginners having to read texts containing many words whose meanings they need to be taught because they do not already know them? Surely most of us, including whole-word and whole-language advocates, are not thinking in these terms. Rather, we are thinking in terms of texts consisting of words whose meanings children already know – they would understand the words perfectly well if the texts were read aloud to them. So the children don’t need to be taught the meanings of these words: they need to be taught how to translate the printed words into spoken words, because the meanings will then be obvious. Later, of course, they may encounter texts containing words with unfamiliar meanings and sentences constructed in complex ways: with these texts, decoding printed words into spoken words may not give instant access to meaning – but this is a later step and not a first step.
As far as ‘a love of reading’ is concerned, children are much more likely to enjoy doing something that they can do quite comfortably than something that is a struggle. They should not be expected to run before they can walk. During the ‘toddling’ stage, which can last as little as a term, children in synthetic-phonics classrooms experience two kinds of enjoyment: the enjoyment of learning how the alphabetic code works, which can be fun and rewarding in itself, and the enjoyment of hearing stories read aloud fluently and expressively by teachers, which is surely much more rewarding for beginners than struggling to read the stories themselves at this early stage. Torgerson et al., in a very recent study commissioned and funded by the Department for Education and Skills, have said that regarding synthetic-phonics advocates as not wanting children to have books is a ‘caricature’.So phonics is not an ‘exclusive method of teaching reading’ in the sense of excluding reading for meaning and reading for pleasure. It certainly emphasises these things, but in ways which are appropriate for the stage which children have reached. It recognises that beginners are a very special case. Jim Rose has done likewise in his interim report and he is surely right to do so.