I don’t do phonics for children – part one

I don’t do phonics for children – part one

At a funeral last week I was reminded that a former teaching colleague had regarded children as serious people. Geoff and I had enjoyed teaching together and had remained friends. Before we left the church I had time to consider the way in which I taught.

Last week, encouraged by a former chairman, I joined the UK Literacy Association. Its first bulletin tells of teachers, particularly primary teachers, who are hounded by our government as they teach children to read. We are reminded of the phonics screening test to which six-year-olds are subjected, at the hands of their teachers.

Listening and speaking, reading and writing are practical activities which may be done well or otherwise. They are practical activities which we judge, initially, by their practical effect. Talk of phonemes and phrasal verbs is only of use when we want to form some sort of theory to explain how language functions as a phenomena, not when we are listening to the station announcer trying to tell us at which stations the next train will call, or when we are furiously reading racing tips before we call the betting shop.

When children are ready for the answers to questions they will ask them. They do not ask questions that require knowledge of linguistic theory; they want to know how to say this word, how to spell another. In its haste to show how much better they understand the business of education politicians push teachers and children into a display of linguistic terminology in order to claim that they are driving up standards. They are not. Jargon provides a specialist vocabulary for specialists, notions such as the elasticity of supply in economics or the angle of repose in materials engineering, but for most us it has no impact. Linguistic jargon, imposed on teachers and children, is a diversion from real teaching.

When children ask about practical activities such as reading and writing it is usually sufficient to show them how the process of language works. At six, children need to acquire a growing vocabulary and learn to use it effectively, in speech and in writing

We have been here before. A nephew, now fifty, suffered the initial teaching alphabet which delayed his learning to read and write. Additional symbols were added to the twenty-six letters that we already have in order to regularise English spelling and its sounds. It simply confused him and others like him for, apart from anything else, it did not match the rest of the written material that these poor children encountered. They simply needed help and encouragement to recognise the difference, for example, between plough, thorough, though, thought and trough.

To be continued…

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