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April 03, 2003
Learning how to teach reading

There are some things that you can only learn how to do by doing them, and for me, teaching people to read is one of them. Try as I will, I just can't get the exact detail of what exactly is involved merely by reading things. The last time I witnessed reading and writing being well taught was when I learned to read and write myself. (For I was taught very well. My mother had picked up on this look-and-say nonsense almost as soon as it began, and she carefully chose good teachers for me and my siblings.)

I did a posting on Samizdata yesterday, based on the nonsense words in Ruth Miskin's Nonsense Word Test which is to be found in the latest issue, Number 50, of the Reading Reform Foundation's newsletter.

I played it for laughs, listing all the nonsense words themselves. My idea was to bring "synthetic phonics" to the attention of readers who otherwise might not bother with such stuff. And it happened. Many of the comments were about silly words in science fiction, rather than just comments about phonics, so that was definitely mission accomplished. I mean, that's why I put the posting on Samizdata rather than putting it here, where only education enthusiasts assemble.

Nevertheless, in the course of all the joking around, I attempted a description of what "synthetic phonics" actually is. This was me:

This means warning: I may get this somewhat wrong first learning what sounds are made by which letters and letter combinations, and then spelling out the entire word by spelling out each letter or letter combination. Something like that.

According to commenter Kevin Marks I did get it wrong. Answering another commenter who, like me, doesn't find it easy to learn from the RRF website itself what exactly "synthetic phonics" is, and who is wisely dubious of my sketch of the matter, Kevin said this:

There's a clear summary of the idea on the Phono-Graphix website.

Brian has it wrong. Words consist of sounds, and letters (or letter groups) are pictures of these sounds.

The first thing to learn is to break the words you speak into sounds, and then learn what symbols represent these sounds. English is hard because not only do we have multiple symbols for the same sound, but we also have overlap, where the same symbol can represent several different sounds.

Careful ordering of the teaching of these symbols can help children cope with the ambiguity, but you have to understand that the sounds are primary and the symbols secondary, not vice versa.

Yeah, okay, I did say "first", but all I meant was that you spell out words letter by letter before you do what I now do, which is recognise most of them straight away without having to spell them out. First of those two things. I was assuming you'd already done your phonic analysis of the spoken language. My understanding of the very first, first thing you do is simply get the kids in groups and make them chant the noises "eeeee!" "aye!" "oh!" "duh!", "chuh!", and so on. And no doubt that is somewhat wrong also, and if it is, then with luck someone (maybe Kevin again) will correct me, and Brian's Education will be pushed along some more.

But as I say, I want to learn how you actually do all this, and I don't think it will be something you can learn in forty five brisk minutes listening to a Powerpoint Presentation, although here is one matter where I suspect that a Powerpoint Presentation might be of some real help, what with the order in which you do things being so important.

At the very least I'd like to watch it being done by someone who I believe is doing it properly. Because of course the only reason this is such a fraught topic is that all over the world, "teachers" who regard themselves as experts at the teaching of reading and writing, ain't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Literacy

We taught ours to read using a home-made variant of this system. Mrs. B wrote out a book in which she collected together all the variant spellings for the various phonemes. So, for example, page 1 had "ay", "ai", "a_e" together with a few simple words using each combination. Then she devised sentences which used those words (plus the basic repertoire of tricky words such as "the" etc). It was all spiced up with stuff that caught their attention (letter combinations as fairy families , enouraging them to draw pictures on the page etc).

It seems to have worked well and certainly makes a lot more sense than the incoherent nonsense which comprises most U.K. reading schemes.


Comment by: julius on April 4, 2003 02:07 PM

There are children who learn to read without lessons. Surrounded by a world with words everywhere, where people get around by reading signs and know what to buy by reading the labels on packages and where the information from the words on the video games helps to play the game and where people enjoy reading books and newspapers and magazines, learning to read as one is interested in learning it happens. Having someone to read things to them, when they can't read it for their self (books, games etc), to ask if this letter makes what sound, to think up and play games about letters/words with when the interest is there- helping a child learn in ways that are interesting to them- I think that is the way to 'teach' reading. Though, I don't think of it as 'teaching'- that seems like a concept laden with authority that can get in the way of learning. I think of it as helping to learn.

I wonder if we'll ever know how many children could learn like this, because in this society we don't help children to learn what they are interested in. The vast majority of children are forced to learn when and what someone else thinks they should learn. I don't think that the children I've seen learn without coercion are unusual, other than the opportunities that they have for learning.

Comment by: lars on April 8, 2003 04:42 PM

SOME children/people do indeed manage to pick up how to read apparently without much teaching or explanation.

And many millions don't.

Where on earth do people get the idea that: 1)being specifically taught to read means that it is not 'interesting' (all the children I have taught find it fascinating and they are thrilled to be able to read for themselves) 2)that if someone is interested and wants to learn to read that they will 'pick it up' from labels and other environmental print (tell that to all those illiterate and semi-literate people who are mortified that they cannot read)

I find it very upsetting that people who CAN read make romantic statements about how they believe reading 'should be' acquired when there are so many people out there who haven't quite made it...

...and when the research on reading very clearly concludes the most effective way for virtually everyone is through synthetic phonics teaching...not through 'interest' and environmental print at all!

Brian Micklethwaite - you are doing a great job with your explanations. We may well get the concept of writing from spoken words as the Phono-Graphix people say, but nevertheless, the process of reading works from print to sound, not the other way round.

With or without an explanation as to how we get writing, children learn to read from seeing the letter/s, making the associated sound and blending the sounds together (known as synthesising). So Brian, you weren't wrong in your explanation at all, its just that some people get rather passionate by the idea that writing comes from sound so we start with sound first.

In actual fact, when you want to read print, it is the print first and then we give it the associated sounds!

As you quite rightly say, this is rather irrelevant and not worth getting passionate about.

Brian - keep up the good work

Best wishes,


Comment by: Debbie Hepplewhite on May 28, 2003 12:20 AM
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