Wednesday 1 February 2017

"Look-and-guess"? That's not the 'alternative' to universal, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching!

Strong advocates of universal systematic synthetic phonics teaching (what is in place in English schools at the moment) will buttress their case by typifying what others do or have done as inviting the children to 'look and guess', and/or 'look at the picture and guess the word.' This is, in short a lie. It's not what the opposing argument claims.

This use of the word 'guessing' is overcharged. Let's leave to one side the 'words and picture' example for the moment. The word 'context' can mean a variety of things including: the underlying grammar of a sentence - which children will know; it can mean the underlying and implied semantics (meaning) of the sentence as implied by, say, the opening two or three words.

It's very difficult (impossible?) to tell whether a child, at exactly the moment when reading a phonically regular text is using which of these three elements to read-for-meaning: phonics, semantics, syntax. So, take one of the phonics schemes. Ask a child to read it. It may well be that the child will use all three of these methods in different combinations at different times.

It's a great irony. The phonics schemes are trying very hard to make their texts fun and enjoyable. They've employed the great Julia Donaldson, for example. The irony is that the more fun and enjoyable they are, the more a child will want to read for meaning and you can't stop the child doing that. If you want to only teach the alphabetic principle, then forget the enjoyment bit! Just do word lists, blending, nonsense words. That's the abstract way. But of course the phonics schemes writers and devisers know that that's not possible because of young children's motivation. So they mix 'alphabetic principle' with semantics - and by virtue of the sentences being coherent and cohesive - with syntax too.

It's a triumph of mixed methods! Which is where we all started from - in my case 'The Beacon Readers' devised in the 1920s, still going strong in the 1940s/1950s which strongly advocated 'mixed methods'.