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