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A few days ago I wrote a post about my response to an article in The Guardian, where a journalist explored the ideas behind a new synthetic phonics scheme called ‘Fabulous Phonics’. I was intrigued by some of the things the journalist said, and explored them in my post.

Today I received a comment from a lady called Debbie Hepplewhite from Phonics International, who said:

Phonics is about far more than learning the letter/s-sound correspondences linked to the first sound of objects. My first concern about Fabulous Phonics was the example of ‘aeroplane’ linked to the letter ‘a’. Perhaps this was the journalist’s mistake but the sound at the beginning of ‘aeroplane’ is different from the sound at the beginning of words like ‘apple’ and ‘alligator’. Whilst there is nothing wrong with easing teenies into phonics by linking sounds in speech with memorable actions and objects, what next?

The English alphabetic code is very complex with a lot to learn – and the skills of blending for reading, segmenting for spelling (and building up spelling word banks) and handwriting are extremely important and take a lot of teaching and learning. Only some children pick up alphabetic code knowledge and emulate these skills with apparent ease – the rest don’t.

Then, you need progression with phonics teaching meaning that engagement activities for four year olds are not really what is needed as the teaching progresses for five year olds, for six year olds, for intervention, for children with English as a new or additional language. There is great deal to teach which does not appear to be considered in the analysis of above.

Ultimately, teachers need to appreciate the phonics is the stuff of adult literacy and life-chance stuff and looking at ‘effectiveness’ for all the children is essential. Naturally as synthetic phonics has become increasingly accepted more and more people are designing their versions and expressing their preferences one way or another. That could be an excellent thing but only if all their results match or better the results achieved by Read Write Inc!

I agree entirely that parents need to be informed and engaged – but cannot understand why you consider that Read Write Inc does not include this aspect in its design and practice. Are you referring to ‘engagement’ or ‘appeal’ perhaps?

Here is my response:

I would point out that I do know a bit about Miskin’s ‘Read, Write, Inc!’ system as I have been trained in it, and am sometimes called on to deliver it in a primary school. I appreciate that it is far more complex than I or the article state. I am however, writing about my thoughts about the article, not my thoughts on the complexities and intricacies of teaching synthetic phonics throughout a school. I have addressed the issue of synthetic phonics in numerous posts on this blog, and will no doubt do so again in the future, but not all in one gigantic blog post.

You make a good point in the ‘a’ is for ‘aeroplane’ section of your comment.

You say perhaps it was the journalist’s mistake. Quite. The article is one short piece that tries to sum up a huge body of knowledge and an entire scheme of teaching. It is, of necessity selective, and written by someone outside of the teaching system, so what we read about Boyler, if we wanted to take issue with it, would need to be explored before more definitive statements as to her scheme are concerned.

It would be unfair to say that Boyler’s scheme is better than Miskin’s. Note, that I do not say that it is. I say that I cannot possibly say for sure, but that some of the ideas are different, and seemed better to me, and I liked them.

I must lay my cards on the table before we go further:

I do not believe that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach children to read. I think it is a very useful tool that can be deployed alongside a tool kit of other methods, and that teaching children to pick and choose what works for them, to encourage adaptability in getting them to read, whatever it takes, is the key to success – not paying homage to one methodology. Doing this suggests that children are uniform and that they learn in the same way as each other. It suggests a certain rigidity of mind that I do not endorse.

To those who are sole devotees of such systems it also suggests to me, that much like the 40 word phonics recognition test that my son has just sat through, that it is more about collecting useful data for the people who make money from the scheme, so that they can tweak and prod the scheme and provide official looking reports, than it is about creating successful readers.

Most parents are not interested in data. They are interested in whether their child can read.  I appreciate that data can ‘prove’ whether a reading scheme is working or not, and that having some idea of how things are going, is much preferable to the old fashioned way of giving it your best shot but not really having a clue as to whether things are working or not.  I would take issue with the idea of ‘proof’ given that statistics can be manipulated, as Mr. Gove has consistently proved in his time as education minister, to say pretty much whatever you want. That, however, is an argument for a different day.

What I particularly take issue with is the consistent testing and hot housing approach taken, particularly with small children, who, in my opinion are simply statistical guinea pigs for government number crunchers.

By the time children get to this particular phonics test, it tells the teachers nothing that they didn’t already know, and will have already been trying to address.  It does however, provide lovely bar charts for the education department.

The most effective way to see if your child can read, is to give them a book and sit with them, and listen to them, and then talk to them about what they’ve read. It is not to give them a test with ‘alien’ sounds in it, so that you can see whether they’re ‘decoding’ correctly. Again, if asked, and I have done, most parents do not care one jot if their child can ‘decode’. They do care if they can’t read.

I appreciate that in synthetic phonics terms, the two things go hand in hand.  In practice, I see that the two things do not always go hand in hand at all, and that there are children who can decode for England who cannot read a book in the true sense of the word.

To get back to the article:

The journalist does not say how the scheme progresses through the school. As the quoted success rates in the school in question are high, I would suggest to you that there is a case that Boyler has thought this through. I don’t know.

I would suggest that the immersive quality of what Boyler seems to be suggesting would fit very well in schools where a more holistic approach to learning is adopted, and it would help to avoid a problem I see frequently with the children I work with. i.e. that reading, writing and spelling are totally separate entities, so that even if you, for example, can read the word ‘aeroplane’, there is no correlation with the fact that you must also be able to spell it. Or that if you have done your top two hundred high frequency words, that you should be using those words correctly during ‘big write’ or ‘sparkly writing’ time. Because what teachers are required to teach is often broken up into Govian gobbets of time, and so often these gobbets are never connected, children are not carrying these skills over into the different disciplines. A more immersive method of learning would help to change this.

You say that other schemes would be excellent if only they matched or bettered the results of Miskin’s ‘Read, Write, Inc.’ I would say that Boyler’s results seem comparable, and other schemes may never get the chance to match the results of Read, Write Inc, if nobody is willing to give them a fair trial, and explore them. The monopoly of Miskin’s scheme in the majority of schools rather gives her the advantage, don’t you think? I would also argue that this monopoly does not mean that Miskin’s scheme is necessarily better. Miskin’s scheme was however, one of the first to be adopted, and as all good marketer’s know, ‘first to market is best to market’ whether that is actually true or not.

I do not doubt that synthetic phonics can be a successful way to teach children to read.  It gives you a place to start, and a methodology to work with that allows you to plant marker pegs along the path of a child’s educational journey, and that can only be a good thing.  I am in favour of teachers having resources and places to go to, rather than just having to fumble about in the dark, hoping for the best.  I do not believe that synthetic phonics is the only system that should be available. I believe that perhaps it should be the primary resource, but that it never hurts to have other ideas and ways of going about things, should the primary method not be getting you the results you want.

I also see that were Miskin’s scheme applied as rigidly as it is taught to practitioners, that the success rate would be suberb (butt perhaps that also applies to any well thought out system, of whatever hue). I argue that it is not rolled out this way in reality, something I mention in my blog post. I also argue that the quality of the way that it is taught varies wildly from teacher to teacher, which is something that makes a difference to results -as it would in any system to be fair.

I do doubt that it is rolled out quite as efficiently as people would like, and my experience shows that unless the scheme is followed to the letter, and through an entire school, children fall through the gaps, and those gaps really start to matter in Key Stage Two, when children (and I speak from experience), can neither spell correctly, and consistently resort to phonetic spellings, nor read vast numbers of the words in the English language that are not phonetically correct.

I would also argue that in large numbers of the cases I have seen, even the strong readers often stumble when it comes to comprehension. Fluency is only useful if it is backed by understanding and knowledge, and the two do not always go hand in hand, particularly further up the school, as ideas become more complex and shades of meaning become more varied. I would also argue that there is little to no point in teaching children to read and write, if they do not understand what they are reading, and they cannot write so that anyone else can understand what they have written. Yet these are the issues I face when I work in a supporting role for literacy at schools.  Reading and writing is about communication, and if children are failing to communicate, then we are failing children.

As for ‘Read, Write, Inc!’ not engaging with parents – I stick by my statement. Certainly in the schools in which I have experienced ‘Read, Write, Inc!’ there is very little going on in the way of engaging with parents on how the scheme is taught or what it means. There is, in some cases, one meeting which parents can attend. Otherwise it is parents who must come to the school and ask for help, and I suspect few do, not out of disinterest, but perhaps a certain level of embarrassment that they are in that position.

Synthetic phonics is alien to most people of my generation (I am 41) and certainly, from my experience of talking to people on the playground, it is also alien to those parents much younger than me. How can a parent help a child to learn to read using a scheme they do not understand and have no experience of? If you have learned to read using any other method you will not be at all familiar with the way the children should be enunciating sounds, or ideas like i/e for example.

I take issue with what you say about phonics not ‘appealing’ to parents. For it to appeal to parents, they have to have some kind of basis of understanding first. I think anything that helps their child to be literate ‘appeals’ to parents. Most parents I know (and there are exceptions) want the best for their children, and work hard to support their children’s learning where they can. I am arguing that you can only support synthetic phonics properly if you know what you are doing. If you are relying on your child to tell you how to do it, most of the time you are going to get more confused, not less.

I do not blame the teachers I have experienced teaching phonics here, by the way. I see teachers working round the clock, putting all their efforts into teaching and supporting children. I blame the system that demands perfection from people already stretched to the limits, and then takes away the means by which they can achieve that. As far as I can see, in most schools, teachers are fighting a losing battle.

In an ideal school, there would be enough staff to teach a school wide, supportive system of synthetic phonics from early years to the end of key stage two, on a daily basis. Within this there would be enough extra staff to provide all the extras the scheme needs, like a dedicated phonics leader, support staff for children who fall behind and those who have learning difficulties. There would also be enough staff to either give teachers the time to act as an outreach worker with families to coach them through the scheme so that they can provide adequate support to their children outside of school hours, or find someone else to do it. In practice I have never seen this happen, and at a time when budgets are pinched further and further, the curriculum is about to become even more proscriptive and demanding, and Mr. Gove is trying to get rid of LSA’s, I don’t see this becoming a reality in the majority of schools.

Maybe you see things differently.

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