Synthetic phonics is the government approved method of teaching children to read. However, this is a very controversial subject as not everybody is a big phonics fan. One advocate of old-school teaching methods is Andrew Davis. Having previously taught as a primary school teacher, he believes that what works best is a series of different methods which they were informed of ‘by continual appraisal of their students’ (Davis 2014: 8). Davis argues that there are many useful methods for teaching children to read which don’t simply teach them to decode like phonics. Such methods include the whole-word method, which promotes reading for meaning by looking at words as a whole, and the searchlight method, which does involve some phonics teaching alongside looking at context and sentence structure. He admits that phonics has its place as long as it is ‘offered in the context of reading for meaning’ (Davis 2014: 26).
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has revealed that the majority of members admitted in a recent survey that the compulsory phonics screening checks (reading tests for five-year-olds) introduced in 2012 ‘told them nothing they didn’t already know’. Marlynne Grant conducted two studies to discover whether phonics really is helping children to learn to read. Her studies both showed that all children in reception were successful in learning to read and spell, even those considered ‘slow-to-start’ pupils (Grant 2014). So what do we believe? Should phonics be the enforced teaching method, or should teachers be able judge which method they use based on which method they feel will benefit the children more?
I would have to side with Davis in the phonics debate. Synthetic phonics teaches that there is a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence. We know that this is not the case. One obvious issue is accent. We teach that there is one sound to go with one letter, but is this really the case? Take the word ‘bath’ into consideration. If you’re northern, you’re to be taught that /æ/ is the phoneme to use, but if you’re southern then you should pronounce it /a:/. Now, this may be taken into account during the screening check but it still doesn’t explain to the children that there are several pronunciations of many phonemes. Davis describes the screening check as ‘weaponry’ (Davis 2014: 33) and I think this is quite a fitting term. The test itself includes a hoard of neologisms given to children with no surrounding context whatsoever. They are then expected to be able to pronounce these ‘words’. It’s unfair to ambush children like this and then to insist on them being retested should they ‘fail’ this check. Many authors are also concerned that teaching in this way ‘threatens children’s reading motivation’ (Davis 2014: 9).
According to Davis (2014: 5), the Government is ‘no longer telling teachers how to teach’ yet synthetic phonics is still being enforced in schools everywhere. Let teachers think for themselves. Who knows the children better than the teachers? Why should the government get to decide what is best for their education? Many parents have also left public comments on articles such as those on the BBC website expressing their concern. So here’s my question: If the teachers don’t agree with it, and the parents don’t agree with it, then isn’t it time for a change?
LAURA VAUGHAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK