There is a heated debate currently with regard to the standard of reading and writing in schools and the level of illiteracy of school-leavers. Throughout the years since the inception of compulsory education, a variety of teaching methods and resources have been put to use in order to offer a trouble-free, guaranteed-to-work approach to reading and writing. It is a national concern, especially in higher education, where many more students are beginning their degree courses with no real ability to spell or write coherent sentences.
The latest debate has been about a system called synthetic phonics. Having known other systems in the past, I was intrigued about the introduction of the ‘new’ synthetic phonics, and decided to research it.
What is Synthetic Phonics?
All phonics systems involve teaching letter-sound correspondences. The adjective synthetic refers to the fact that children are taught to synthesise (i.e. put together or build up) pronunciations for unfamiliar written words by translating letters into sounds and blending the sounds together (blending = synthesising). Analytic phonics focuses more on the analysis of words after they have been identified in some other way – for example by being supplied by the teacher, recognised as sight-words or guessed from pictures or context.
Synthetic phonics is particularly appropriate at the very beginning of children’s schooling, when virtually all written words are unfamiliar and the children need a simple and clear introduction to the underlying principle of alphabetic writing: written symbols represent individual speech-sounds. It is in the very first term or so that the differences between synthetic phonics and other approaches are clearest.
Captain Thrass and the Phonemes
I have just watched a film about Captain Thrass. This is the brainchild of Alan Davies. It began in a school in Bradford and was made into a film with space-age characters. The main personality, Captain Thrass, helps children to speak and spell by making use of phonemes. This method introduces speech sounds and letters and its intention is to encourage accurate reading and pronunciation.
The units are the forty-four speech sounds and one-hundred-and-twenty key graphemes of English. The programme is not based on the artificial and restrictive letter sounds of old phonics programmes.
There is a movie, plenty of reading materials, lots of information for parents and teachers as well as children. I watched and listened. It has plenty to offer children, once they can understand the instructions.
My initial reaction when I had heard the sounds and watched one of the movies was one of surprise. It is very similar in its format and expectations to the long defunct Initial Teaching Alphabet or ITA, which was a revolutionary reading programme in the late 1960s and early 70s. This also introduced sounds and additional letters designed to make reading more fluent and easier.
What that system did, and what I am concerned that Captain Thrass will do, is offer an easy way into reading which is not based on accurate spelling and understanding of the importance of relationships between sounds and letters. I heard some of the information given to children during the movie and, again, I can see that the sounds offered to pronounce words worked well with a Bradford accent, but there would be regional variances and this complicates the process.
Children learn to read within their own accents, using the symbols representing speech sounds. The complications arise when they are obliged to conform to the standard alphabet. This proved to be the downfall of ITA. The reading age and apparent ability of children who had performed incredibly well suddenly dipped once they were stuck with the normal alphabet. I will watch with interest.
In 1998, a pilot study was carried out on children over a 16-week period in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. At the end of that time, the children who were taught to read using synthetic phonics, were 7 months ahead of their peers. It also evidenced the fact that the most impoverished school was among those selected and the children performed as well as others in better-off areas, proving that poverty should not become a barrier to learning.
The conclusion that practitioners in Scotland came to, was that if the majority of children were likely to benefit from this method of teaching, the resources for supporting children with identified learning difficulties could be used more effectively and therefore more successfully.
There is No Best System.
I began my teaching career in the early 1970s. I understand the importance of being able to offer a choice in learning opportunities to children which appeals more to their style of learning. There is no one method which will ensure that all children will learn to read at the right age and in the right way. We are all so different and that is a joy.
Synthetic phonics is a valuable tool for some children. The look/say method is also a valuable tool for some children. Whatever method we use, it probably has been used before, but we find a more creative approach. It is much more important to employ professionals who have been trained to understand how children learn, rather than forcing another new magical invention on the unsuspecting youngsters.
If you want to know more, try these websites
THRASS – Teaching Handwriting
Reading And Spelling Skills
RRF – Reading Reform Foundation
RRF – What is Synthetic Phonics
My question is, why have we produced a generation of poor spellers and incoherent readers? They can’t all suffer from being dyslexic. We have failed our children. Whatever we have to do, we owe it to them to rectify the mistakes before it is too late.