The Reading/Phonics debate

I wonder what people thought of the recent Channel 4 programmes featuring synthetic phonics as The Solution to reading difficulties?

There is certainly a great deal of evidence to indicate that it can be a most effective method of teaching the mechanics of reading.

 I am, however, perturbed by the implication that there is only one model of literacy acquisition. Most early years and SfL teachers take a pragmatic and eclectic view: ‘If they can’t learn the way we teach then we must teach the way children learn’.  Of course we need to give whatever system the school embraces a good attempt but at some point – and this will be different for every individual – we should explore alternative methods. The most important thing is to engage the learners, to motivate them, to work to their strengths and to ensure they see a reason for reading.

And this is the second area of concern for me about the promotion of synthetic phonics.There is a danger that the mechanics of decoding supercede the real purpose of reading: ‘if we can read, we can live as many lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish’.

 I was distressed to watch the ‘failures’ spend so much of their working day concentrating (or not) on the very areas that they find most difficult. Yes, Benjamin Zephaniah did a wonderful job of turning some of them on to poetry. But placing a disproportionate emphasis on phonic skills could detract from other (perhaps more successful) learning across the whole curriculum.

 There is remote possibility, for example, that I could grasp the concepts of nuclear fission or the off-side rule (or even African drumming thanks to the wonderful Barry Smith! Though that looks increasingly unlikely in this lifetime). But even if I had the inclination, aren’t there more useful and exciting and relevant and motivating things I could work on? At some point we have to make a decision about the most appropriate use of the limited time we have in school. There may be a case to be made to shift the balance of learning to more fruitful areas and enable our inexperienced readers to access knowledge and demonstrate understanding without the barrier of print.

I should be curious to hear what others think.