Brian Micklethwaite: Synthetic phonics on the march.

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Susan Godsland
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Brian Micklethwaite: Synthetic phonics on the march.

Post by Susan Godsland » Mon Aug 22, 2005 3:26 pm

I missed this when it was first posted on Samizdata.

Synthetic phonics on the march
by Brian Micklethwait
June 04, 2005

For me, this was the biggest news yesterday. Synthetic phonics is now thoroughly established as a serious educational policy option.

"Synthetic phonics" is a somewhat jargonic way of saying the sensible teaching of reading, based on the idea that despite all the deviations (in English especially) from the rules, letters stand for noises, and the way to read is to work out what the noise must be from the letters. To say that this is how to learn reading is to miss the point. The point is: this is reading. Seeing the letters "e l e p h a n t" next to a picture of an elephant (which is precisely what I did see this morning when channel hopping – in a TV show supposedly helping children to read) and guessing that therefore this assemblage of baffling squiggles must mean elephant is not reading. Reading means seeing those letters on their own, and knowing that they mean elephant.

A good way to get to grips with the background to this story is to read the latest newsletter from the Reading Reform Foundation, who have been agitating on behalf of synthetic phonics for many years now.

At the heart of this argument is not the value of phonics as such. Even the most diehard look-and-say people now concede that phonics is part of the story. But, say the RRF people, too many teachers – teachers who have only been following or agreeing with the guidance they have been getting from the government – believe in a mixed approach. In other words, says the RRF, they confuse children by urging them to combine reading with guessing. Should some version of phonics merely be included in the government's literacy strategy (it already is), in among picture books, stuff about "word shape", and so on, or should literacy be based entirely on phonics, properly done? The latter, says the RRF. Personally I find the RRF argument thoroughly convincing.

At lot of what is happening here is not really an argument about what works best (synthetic phonics has been proved to work best), so much as an elaborate exercise in giving a whole generation of fools a soft landing. Too sudden a switch from the wrong methods to the right ones would reveal at once how bad the wrong methods were, and make an awful lot of experts look very inexpert indeed. So, although they must surely now know that they are losing, these people are still digging their heals in and fighting every inch of the way.

Kudos to the government, for, better late than never, taking all this on board, to use an unlovely Blairite phrase. For this is classic Blairism. Once again, New Labour (this kind of thing being the New bit) are cherry picking one of the better things that some Conservatives have been saying, and ramming it down the throats of their own natural (Old Labour) supporters, who will put up with anything rather than have too serious a fight with their own front bench and thus let the Conservatives back in.

My favourite moment in all the media reportage yesterday about all this came when a newsreader (I think BBC but am not sure) was reading the phrase "synthetic phonics" out. Exhausted by the effort of reading "synthetic", she then stumbled over "phonics", and had to stop, and try it again. Eventually she got it right. Maybe it would have helped if she had had a picture to help her.

Well, no, it would not. She should simply have read it better.
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