Friday, 9 March 2012

Phonics - see how 'decoding' becomes 'reading'.

The online row between me and some Synthetic Phonics advocates runs and runs.

An interesting point has been reached where I'm making the distinction between those researchers who are keeping their conclusions about what works to 'decoding' and politicians who have tweaked all this to such an extent they substitute 'decoding' with the word 'reading'.

I can 'decode' Italian because I was taught how to make the correspondence between letters and sounds. I can 'read' it outloud but in any full sense of the word, I can't read Italian beyond menus and a lot of guessing from Latin and French. In other words, I can 'decode' but not read Italian.

My argument is that the political rhetoric around phonics is that you would think it delivers 'reading'. In fact, look closely at what politicians say and you'll see that they use the word reading even when they are talking about children reading out single words on a page (ie not in any meaningful and real use of language) and including words that have no meaning at all - as in the phonics test for 6 year olds at the end of their Year 1 this June. What they will be asked to do is nothing more or less than decoding ie making sounds with their mouths as they interpret what we in anglophone countries do with ink on paper (ie with letters!).

Here's Nick Gibb on the Department of Education's own website:

" The short check involves pupils reading 40 words to their teacher. The type of words in the check are covered by all good quality phonics schemes by the end of Year 1. Mr Gibb said it was vital that pupils are able to read these words by the end of Year 1 to give them the best chance of future success. The most common score achieved by pupils in the pilot was 40 out of 40. "

Note that he says 'reading 40 words' not 'decoding 40 words' and he says 'read these words' and not 'decode these words'.

This is the kind of hyperbolic slippage that is all over Synthetic Phonics. That's to say, rather than be content with the notion that SP delivers decoding, they let it slip into saying that it delivers 'reading'.

If you have about 3 hours on your hands, and infinite patience, the debate is here:

But what is the consequence of all this? Isn't this just people playing around with terms? No, it becomes significant in the context of how people with responsibility - usually headteachers interpret all this. I'm getting reports that some hardpressed headteachers, very anxious to get high scores on the decode test 'Phonic screening' so-called), are making efforts to get rid of real books from Reception and Year 1 classrooms as these are seen to distract from the 'reading' done with Synthetic Phonics.

Of course, this takes away the opportunities for children to read for understanding, or even to position themselves as understanders and interpreters of what is being read to them - faculties that they will need if they are to 'read' as opposed to 'decode'.