Love it or loathe it, and a lot of the time I’m not entirely sure myself which way I feel about it, synthetic phonics looks set to stay in schools for a good while longer, as the primary way to teach children to read.
There are various phonics based reading schemes you can adopt, if you’re interested, or have to, teach children to read this way. The most popular, presumably because it is heavily endorsed by Education Secretary Michael Gove, is Ruth Miskin’s ‘Read, Write, Inc.’
This article, in The Guardian, which you can access by clicking on the link here, takes a different approach to teaching phonics.
Developed by a hands on teacher, who has now been appointed deputy head of the school she works in, Ruth Moyler’s Fabulous Phonics, claims to take a different, and arguably better approach to the day to day grind of teaching phonics.
So, where are the differences?
For a start, Moyler’s process is slower than Miskin’s. Miskin’s approach is about teaching with speed. Lessons are supposed to be conducted at a fair old clip, The children are initially required to learn a letter a day, and dedicated phonics lessons are supposed to range from twenty minutes to an hour at most. Even within the hour you are required to cover a great deal of ground academically.
The idea is that you lock the information into the children’s brains using repetition as a key learning tool, but that you toggle rapidly between tasks and ideas, in some cases, barely giving them time to think. The premise is that once this core information is locked into the brain, you can then go on to unpack it at a later date.
As a model, this works brilliantly well if all your children are fully engaged, they all learn at the same speed and they are fully attentive throughout. In practice it is less successful when you have mixed ability children, and children with even shorter attention spans than the speed at which Miskin expects you to fly through your sound and letter recognition.
The model allows for this, expecting you to constantly assess the children in your group as quickly as you are teaching them, singling out the stragglers and giving them extra help, or moving them into different groups until all children are banded, coded and learning like a smoothly oiled machine.
Again, in theory this is beautiful. In practice it is less so.
In order to teach phonics in this way your school is required to have a huge number of staff on hand to deal with the children as you group them and single them out and boost them. The idea is that this becomes less and less necessary as the children receive the dedicated help they need and soon all your children will be up to speed, so they can be merged back into bigger groupings.
In reality, with teachers pushed to the max in terms of teaching load so that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do what is already mandated, single LSA’s (teaching assistants) doing the job of three or four others, and less and less support for statemented and problem children, this system falls down, sometimes for sheer lack of manpower on the part of the staff.
Also, the children haven’t always read the manual, and unlike Mr. Gove, are immune to the charms of Ruth Miskin. What they want to do, what they should do, and what they are doing, are often very different things, and in the short space of time allotted for the speedy learning of phonics, it is not always possible to rectify and deal with these issues as you go along.
Moyler’s system is more immersive and less concerned with rapid learning. The children learn sounds in groups of three per week. They are taught the sound initially, but then go on to spend the whole day surrounded by interactive activities and a classroom which constantly reinforces those sounds. Each week, the teacher picks a topic which will allow them to explore the sounds within a bigger, more interesting framework for the children.
This way, the children get to, unconsciously, practice their sounds with the repetition required to lock it into their brains, but also to explore those sounds and what they mean, at a much wider level.
Moyler encourages teachers to build up a box of items which show the sounds in terms of what they represent. Miskin too, uses props like these. Moyler expects you to use this box as an aid throughout the week and allow the children to explore it themselves, which is different from the way I’ve seen the Miskin boxes used in classrooms, where they might only come out for ten minutes once the initial sound is introduced.
One big difference that I see between Moyler and Miskin’s approach is that Moyler is keen to get the parents on board from the outset. She claims that her initial concerns with the way synthetic phonics was taught in schools was on hearing parents in the playground confused and bewildered as to the right way to teach their children to read. Some of them were already at the point of giving up supporting their child, before their child had even finished in Early Years.
Moyler recommends that parents are supported and taught how to understand and learn synthetic phonics as well as the children. She makes the very good point that for the majority of parents, this is not a way they were taught to read themselves, and understanding how it works when faced with complex terms, such as the ones used with great frequency in Miskin’s scheme, can seem a task too far.
In order for any reading scheme to work, it needs to be supported by parents at home. If a parent cannot understand how to do that, a vital part of the child’s education is missing.
Many schools have already bought into Miskin’s scheme, and may not have the money or time to relearn a new approach to phonics as laid out by Moyler, but I do not see why some of her more accessible ideas cannot be ported over and used to support whichever reading scheme a school uses. Every little helps when it comes to getting your children up to speed with their literacy.