THE ‘GREAT DEBATE’ about teaching phonics to primary school children (Chall, 1967) has been an ongoing battle of Context vs. Code for many centuries. Since the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in the 12th Century BC, letters have been changing from pictographic symbols to more consonantal letters which the Greeks then adopted and injected vowel representations to form the current alphabet that we use everyday.
In the present day, children as young as four are taught to learn letter sounds and names. This can be confusing for children, as they then have to learn that some letters have multiple ‘sounds’. For instance the ‘c’ in ‘cat is not the same as the ‘c’ in ‘circle’ (Lewis & Ellis, 2006: 35). This is a very basic part of teaching phonics and is one of many small dilemmas that phonics advocates do not address when encouraging teachers to continue to use the decoding method of teaching children to read.
As of September 2012, children in Year One of primary school took part in a compulsory ‘Phonics Screening Test’ consisting of ‘a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether individual children have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard’ (www.education.gov.uk). However, in my opinion, the test has many flaws. Watching the training video on the Education website, which is aimed at primary school teachers, we see that there are some words that could be questioned in relation to ‘correct’ pronunciation. For example, one child is given the non-word ‘roopt’. He successfully sounds out each individual phoneme, but then doesn’t ‘blend’ the final two phonemes correctly and fails in this instance. Surely there should be some leeway when it comes to blending consonants, as I myself would have failed this section of the test as I personally find it difficult to blend the consonants /p/ and /t/, as the point of articulation of these two plosives are difficult to move to and from in some cases. Surely the fact the word ‘baff’ was considered a correct alternative for ‘bath’, as it is ‘a common feature of six year old speech’ is worse than a child not being able to ‘successfully blend’ two phonemes. If using /f/ in place of /θ/ is acceptable in the phonics screening test, then surely it would be acceptable the other way round, so the /f/ in ‘phonics’ could in fact be pronounced /θ/ by a six-year-old, as this is a ‘common feature’ of their speech? Shouldn’t we be teaching children to speak correctly, instead of picking them up on a minor pause or stutter when speaking?
Another instance where a child fails part of the test for not ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word is with the non-word ‘vead’. The video shows three children ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word in the two ‘acceptable alternatives’ – ‘vead’ as in ‘feed’ and ‘vead’ as in ‘red’. However when the next child pronounces the non-word ‘vead’ as in ‘great’, the child fails. Who is to say what all of the acceptable alternatives are when it comes to sounding out phonemes?
Many people, including myself, believe that phonics should be part of the national curriculum, but should be taught alongside other enriching literacy activities, without a national screening test in order to balance out the code/context argument. The screening test puts additional pressure on a young child at a time where making friends and fitting in is a crucial part of the child’s development, not to mention the test not being watertight.
KEELY UNSWORTH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK