Phonics, English and David Crystal

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John Bald
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Phonics, English and David Crystal

Post by John Bald » Sun Nov 16, 2014 9:55 am

Recent links from RRF to my comments on Reading Recovery have prompted me to offer this account of my personal journey in reading teaching in the hope that it might interest forum members

Shortly after I started teaching, a colleague introduced phonics to a class as "the science of reading and writing." I was taken by this and began turning the idea over in my mind. I like science, and had already seen too much guesswork. Moving to a school with a reading unit, under the redoubtable Mike Burton - not the rugby player, but in the same mould, only a bit bigger - I found that phonics helped me to make an immediate impact on reading problems, but in an unusual way. A child couldn't read the word "round". I took a pound note out of my pocket - that's how old I am - and the pupil of course knew what it was. I carefully explained the combination of letters ound, changed the first letter a couple of times, went back to the book and he read the word without difficulty. I was mildly surprised, but quite pleased. Mike was a fan of Bevé Hornsby, and I got a copy of Alpha To Omega, developing a great series of sets of blank playing cards that I would use whenever pupils stumbled on a word. This book is organised in terms of letter combinations, and was one of the first to include soft c and g and the idea of a letter as a wall, either to keep two vowels apart so that the first one stayed short (stopping, sloping) or to stop a the softening in plague. Bevé had, in short, catalogued most of the features of English that are not the most common phonic patterns and grouped them together. I found this very helpful, particularly in getting pupils's reading ages up from around 8 to 10 or 11. I used flash cards and games for reinforcement, but always explained everything in as much detail as I was able. I never used look and say, and I mean never, not "hardly ever."

Fast forward 40 years. to the brain research summarised in Blakemore and Frith's The Learning Brain, which remains I think, the clearest introduction to this field for teachers. We find in it a comparison of brain activity in reading aloud in English and Italian, which shows an area of the brain that is active in English, and that the authors call the "word form" area. It is used to interpret the information from letters so that we know, for example, the difference between to and go. Its implication is that, in Italian, the letters tell us what we need to know all the time, but that in English, we need to interpret what they tell us - we need, in short, to know what they are telling us in a particular word.

Somewhere in the middle of this journey, I was teaching a sixteen year old non-reader in Clacton - more accurately, trying to teach him - when my colleague, the late Avril Lofthouse, pointed out that my instruction to pupil to sound out an awkward word couldn't work, because the letters did not correspond exactly to the spoken word. She was quite right, and this again made me think over several days. If the information indicated by letters was not reliable, what could we do? The guessing game people were clearly wrong, as their approach had led to wholesale illiteracy, on a scale worse than we have not - at Beaufoy in the seventies, we would frequently have children starting secondary school unable to read anything at all, and we don't have quite so much of that these days. The answer came to me from my days of swotting my way to a decent degree in French - I am a slow learner, which my piano teacher says has probably helped me to understand people with learning difficulties. If we look at the words fruit and biscuit, they are pronounced in exactly the same way in French, but differently in English. We spell table as we do because it is a French word, and in French the l is pronounced before the e. If children were to read these words - and I mean those who were not confident enough to play around with letters, sounds and context until they found a fit - they had to be explained.

This, though, is what Bevé Hornsby did not do. She listed very nearly every variation in spelling, but did not explain why things are as they are, probably because she did not know. The full picture, in fact, has only become clear following the computerisation of the full Oxford English Dictionary, which allows all of its copious (an understatement) examples to be analysed so that we can track and explain changes. I have found that this explanation, and making it clear to children, is the key to teaching reading in English, and an essential adjunct to synthetic phonics. David Crystal's explanation of how it happened in history almost mirrors the development of this understanding in a child. Anglo Saxon English had around 50,000 words and was very regular - Queen was spelled cwen, and they had their own letter, þ, to indicate th , so that our the was written þe. William the Conqueror and his scribes did not like anything Anglo-Saxon, and so replaced the "thorn" letter with th.

At a recent inset course, an assistant said that it could take her up to a year to teach a child to read the, as they persisted in trying to sound out the word one letter at a time. I showed a video in which I taught a 7 year old with this problem - he had been assessed as dyslexic and had already had two years of individual private teaching - how to read this and similar words in around 8 minutes. I do things like this all the time, and have been doing so since the mid-nineties. Google my name and Sue Palmer's for one parent's view, and see my site for the latest feedback from parents, which sounds too good to be true, except that it is true. Explanation of the language as it is, and how it has come to be as it is, unlocks reading block - one parent, an army colonel with three daughters who are now all graduates, described it as "turning a key" - and enables children to approach blending and word building as something that will help them most of the time, but not always. Once they understand why this is so - I explain it with simple analogies between language and other human foibles - they can learn to read remarkably quickly. As long ago as the early nineties, when I'd just finished my battle against Essex Education Department's ignorant guessing game approach to reading, the local paper recorded a two year gain in reading age, independently tested, after seven lessons. The most recent feedback on my site is even better.

Reading Reform was necessary when this organisation was founded, and remains so. It is, though, not to be achieved by a presentation of language as purely phonic, loading teaching with unnecessary adult terminology, and printing some words in different colours in an attempt to get children to suspend the rules that the teacher has just carefully taught. Synthetic phonics is the basis of learning to read. No one presents it any more as the whole story - the "science of reading and writing" - but what is needed is not a combination of phonics and guesswork. We need to give children the full picture, clearly explained in terms they understand, and turn the fuzzy logic of English spelling into an object of curiosity and pleasure, rather than an obstacle.

Having reached the age of 64, immortalised in song, I'm happy to show anyone how this works free, gratis and for nothing, either here or via skype. So, if you have pupils for whom everything is working as well as you'd like, ignore this. If there are any who are stuck, sit in and see what you think.

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Re: Phonics, English and David Crystal

Post by JIM CURRAN » Sun Nov 16, 2014 12:43 pm

Thanks John, what an interesting and thought provoking piece.

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Re: Phonics, English and David Crystal

Post by geraldinecarter » Wed Nov 19, 2014 9:48 am

Yes, thank you, too, and also thank you for your many Guardian 'Comment is Free' posts. As someone who found a year long Alpha to Omega part-time training to contain much that is useful, colleagues and myself found that its complexity did not translate easily to effective, quick intervention. I think that once systematic synthetic phonics is in place during the first three years of school, then children's understanding and development is enriched by knowledge of how our language developed. It is the clarity of synthetic phonics, though, that has enabled so many more young people to become proficient readers.
I'll pass your kind offer to a high performing school for dyslexic children. I understand that they look at reading instruction in the round that also includes a synthetic phonics element.

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Re: Phonics, English and David Crystal

Post by volunteer » Wed Nov 19, 2014 10:25 am

That is fascinating and so is your website. Thank you John. There is a child I know whose parents are desperate for his reading to improve before he moves to secondary school. School seems to have given up on it. He may also have ADHD and be just on the autism spectrum, I don't know. Also, I don't know if they can Skype from home or not. Is it something that he may be allowed to do from school if not? They can't afford tutoring. Would you be available during the school day? How many sessions are you able to offer to such a child?

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