Those of us who understand the incredible power of synthetic phonics quite often disagree on various aspects of teaching literacy skills. Despite the overall agreement on priorities, it is still difficult to formulate a set of principles which we can all agree on. As a case in point, I take serious exception to the idea that teachers should “Tolerate invented spelling at first”.
Admittedly, the reading-disabled children that we teach have usually been using invented spellings for a long time. These spellings are normally phonetically plausible, or at least they are insofar as the ubiquitous ‘iy’ spelling of the long ‘i’ sound in ‘triy’, ‘driy’ etc. is concerned. In fact, we seldom encounter children over the age of 6 who have any difficulty hearing phonemes in words.
However, I wish I had a pound for every time I have corrected a child who chronically spells ‘thay’ for ‘they’. This has led me to wonder if there is really any point to forcing children to write their own stories ‘independently’ at such an early stage. Poor spellers almost always hate writing for the very obvious reason that they are creating concrete evidence of their incompetence. When Carole Chomsky first proposed that children could learn phonics through invented spellings, she was motivated by the desire to find a heuristic device that would eliminate the need for direct teaching. Clearly, we have found far more efficient ways of teaching phonics, so to justify the practice of making very young children express themselves in writing, we need to find other arguments.
The only ones I can think of are pretty dubious. If we believed in slavish adherence to the National Literacy Strategy, the RRF wouldn’t exist. No doubt many teachers welcome the practice because it keeps children busy and creates visible evidence of their activity, with relatively little effort or planning on the teacher’s part. If encouraging children to express themselves creatively is the objective, surely this can be achieved far more efficiently through oral work.
Learning to express oneself in writing is not easy, as anyone who has to read undergraduate essays will attest. The failure to ensure that skills are developed in a logical sequence is certainly the major reason for this. Children who have to think about how to spell words necessarily have little attention left for either the mechanics of writing – i.e., grammar, punctuation and organisation – or the content of what they are writing. We should be just as rigorous about teaching writing skills in a logical sequence as we are about teaching decoding skills. Making children write before they can spell makes no more sense than giving them books before they can decode.
Needless to say, children who have good visual memories can make the transition from invented spellings to correct spellings without difficulty, much as Carole Chomsky proposed. Children who start writing at a very early age will most likely be in this category, and there is clearly no need to thwart such spontaneous behaviour. However, when I taught at a suburban Norwich high school where pupils were, on average, slightly above average in ability, 40% of our intake of 11- and 12-year-olds were already two or more years behind in spelling. The feeder schools all encouraged invented spellings; many parents reported that their complaints were met with comments such as ‘We don’t worry too much about spelling as long as they can get their thoughts on paper’.
Alas, these children couldn’t even do that. Our Head of 6th Form complained that few of his students could write a coherent paragraph, let alone a decent essay. Since our feeder schools valued spontaneity
above all, it was hardly surprising that even the students who could spell simply rambled on wherever their fancies took them, with no thought given to structure or even meaning. Their essays reflected their lack of mental discipline.
But, of course, the pupils who couldn’t spell seldom made it to 6th form. For them, the legacy of invented spellings was a strong aversion to putting pen to paper, and almost invariably a concomitant desire to avoid any form of education which involved writing. Until recently, subjects such as maths, PE, cookery and crafts were a welcome respite for these children. Now, of course, the practical elements of these subjects have been drastically reduced, with the balance being made up by written work. The same thing is happening in Further Education, where the ludicrous attempt to pretend that vocational courses have the same prestige as academic ones has led to trainee cooks writing essays about food hygiene, rather than learning how to select good ingredients in order to cook wholesome and tasty meals.
As a matter of policy, early years teachers should never make free writing the norm. I know this goes strongly against the grain of contemporary practice in infant schools, and I daresay that even RRF subscribers would find this a bit difficult to take. But think of it this way: with intensive phonics, children learn to read so quickly that they learn to enjoy books far sooner than children from schools where word-guessing is mistakenly encouraged as a short-cut to independent reading. By the same reasoning, children who are taught to spell before they are made to do free writing will be able to express themselves effectively in writing far sooner than those who are encouraged to use invented spellings. Considering the problems of children with weak visual memories, whose entire education can be jeopardised by this pointless practice, I sincerely hope that some RRF teachers will reconsider their writing programmes.
Tom Burkard is the Director of The Promethean Trust, a Norfolk charity which teaches parents how to help their children with intensive phonics. With his wife Hilary he wrote the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which have proved a great success at Barnardiston Hall Preparatory School in Suffolk . In 1999, Mr Burkard wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies which exposed the Government’s pretence that the National Literacy Strategy was a ‘return to phonics’.