Michael Rosen has written a response on his blog to the article cited on yesterday’s (28th January 2014) BBC News website about research by Professor Andrew Davis regarding teaching children synthetic phonics.
Rosen has long been a critic of the government’s over reliance on using synthetic phonics as a one stop shop for teaching children to read. He has been following the debate since its inception, and using his blog and Twitter feed as a mouthpiece to voice his opinions.
Broadly, Rosen is in agreement with Davis’ findings.
You can read his response here.
What I find really interesting about both Davis’ and Rosen’s arguments are that they are not saying that using synthetic phonics is a bad thing per se. What they are saying is that using synthetic phonics as the only way to teach literacy IS a bad thing.
Reading the arguments from those who disagree with them, I tend to find that nay sayers go for the broad sweep approach of accusing people like Rosen of simply hating phonics and of not being able to acknowledge that phonics can be a valuable tool in teaching literacy. They accuse Rosen and Davis of wanting to throw phonics out of schools completely and go back to the whole word approach to reading (see a word, find a way to memorise it, move on).
My understanding is that this is not the case with either Rosen or Davis. My belief is that they are saying that we need to adopt a flexible approach to teaching reading in schools, ones which allow for individual children’s creativity and ability, one which finds that if a child is flourishing, for example, using the whole word approach to reading, that we encourage this, and do not tell them it is wrong and that they need to learn to read ‘this way’. I am not saying, by the way, that if you have thirty children in your class that you have to find thirty different ways to teach reading. What I, and I believe Rosen and Davis are saying is that if you find that a child is flourishing using an alternative method to the prescribed one, then go with it. If you find a child is struggling with phonics and really not ‘getting it’, then perhaps try something else that might suit the way they learn better.
Long term readers of this blog will be aware of other posts I have written which questions the wholesale application of phonics as a cure all for every problem that every child has with literacy. I have also had comments from readers who disagree, who seem to have a blind spot where it comes to the fact that I am accepting of the fact that phonics can be very useful and a valuable tool in teaching children to read. I maintain, along with Rosen and Davis that it should, however, be taught alongside other methods of teaching a child to read.
It is my opinion that it doesn’t really matter what system a child adopts to help them read, or what system you teach them, as long as the outcome is the same – to get a child to become an independent reader who understands what they read and who can read with expression, fluency, comprehension and enjoyment.
Rosen, in his blog post, argues for this too. He has always argued that the key to getting children to read well and voraciously is to teach them how to read for pleasure.
You won’t hear any disagreement from me.
Rosen is worried because he has fears that comprehension and pleasure don’t really feature high up on government tick lists of what needs to be achieved in terms of children’s literacy in schools.
Teaching children by rote, which is effectively what phonics is, is all very well, if it is backed up by creative exploration of the material you are teaching. If it is backed up by the use of fantastic and diverse vocabulary, by stories, songs and poems, by creative writing and question and answer sessions which stretch children’s imaginations to the limit, which show them that literacy is not limited to sounds on a page that they have to decode but which will give them the world with the turn of a page.
Rosen is worried that this is what is missing in schools, not because teachers don’t want to teach this way, but because the new curriculum ties their hands to such an extent that this type of teaching is becoming increasingly side lined in favour of rote learning and ticking boxes.
So am I.