What is ‘synthetic phonics’ and why has it had such a strong influence on the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee? Is the way reading is taught in the Primary National Strategy wrong? Are picture books bad for young readers? Jeff Hynds explores.
Just recently BfK sent me a little pile of picture books for young people. They were all books suitable for children of around Reception age, though as is the way with high quality books, most of them had features that would appeal to adults as well. At any rate, they appealed to me, and I’m pretty sure they would be popular and much enjoyed in any Reception class. While I was thinking about how much these picture books would teach children about reading and language and life, I remembered something I had read the other day which at the time made my blood run cold.
Before children are introduced to books , they are taught letter sounds. After the first few of these have been taught they are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words… Most of the letter-sound correspondences, including the consonant and vowel digraphs, can be taught in the space of a few months at the start of their first year in school (my italics). (Johnston & Watson 2005)
This is in fact an extract from some research done in Clackmannanshire in Scotland about teaching reading by a particular method called ‘synthetic phonics’. I was interested in this research because of the strong influence it has just had on the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee. Virtually in consequence of it, the Commons Committee has published a report (House of Commons 2005) which expresses strong doubts about the way reading is taught in the Primary National Strategy (formerly the National Literacy Strategy), and calls upon the Government’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to commission a large-scale study to find out whether the Strategy has been giving teachers the right guidance for the last seven years. The strong implication is that teachers have not been teaching ‘synthetic phonics’ properly. Browsing further amongst the advocates of this approach I find that I haven’t either. Most of my own teaching over the years has been quite wrong. I did not realize that I should have avoided any emphasis on meaning – ‘meaning-emphasis’ is apparently irrelevant. I should not have placed any reliance on poetry and rhyme, and I should not have provided any books with pictures . These are ‘detrimental in the context of beginning reading instruction’ (Macmillan 1997). So, crazy as it may seem, it looks as if the National Strategy has misled teachers for about seven years, and encouraged them to subvert children’s learning with dangerous picture books. I have been equally guilty. There is very strong support for this view. One member of the Commons Committee, Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis, is on record as saying:
It is a disgrace that the education establishment, who have known about this research for some time, have not adapted the National Literacy Strategy to put synthetic phonics at its core. Currently it is only a tiny part of the Strategy (Jones 2005).
Out of control grannies…
The Committee is now bringing heavy pressure to bear on the DfES to do something about this. If they succeed the consequences could be dramatic. Teachers all over Britain, or wherever the Primary Strategy still has force (not of course in Scotland), will have to keep young children away from the very picture books that have been written for them. It’s going to be tricky. With a bit of luck, it should be possible to suppress picture books in school, and confiscate (with perhaps a suitable reprimand) any books that misguided children turn up with, but it will be much harder, and perhaps an unwarranted infringement of parental freedom, to ban children from reading such books at home. Grannies, in particular, are notoriously difficult to control, and have been known to buy books for their grandchildren as presents, and bring them on family holidays. Perhaps this was why I could find nothing in the Scottish research, praised for its ‘very high standards methodologically’ (Macmillan 2005), that considered as significant any of the influences that the research children were inevitably encountering out of school, like grannies, or five years (already) of spoken language, or – heaven forbid – picture books. After all, in any year, children only spend a seventh of their time in school, so it would be really difficult to stop them coming into contact with books and other unsuitable printed language, especially as in our society they are surrounded by it.
Play with rhyme, rhythm and verbal trickery
So I strongly suggest that teachers of young children should get going now with some of these new books, before the sword of Damocles falls. And which of these outstanding books should we start with? Well, any of them but, by a nice irony, let’s begin with real (rather than synthetic) Scottish poet Kate Clanchy’s first picture book for children, Our Cat Henry Comes to the Swings . This is illustrated with action pictures by Kate’s friend Jemima Bird. Henry actually is Kate’s cat and he really does ‘come to the swings’ in Oxford with Kate, her son Michael, and Jemima and her daughter Flo. On their outings they see most of the dogs referred to – pekinese, borzois, dachshund – but the book is most notable for the wit, energy and rhythm of the language, plainly the work of an inventive poet. Henry ‘tightrope walks the trellis tops… dashes round the basset-hound and… presides at the slide’, until on the way home they meet the huge Labrador – ‘Big eyes. Big paws. BIG pause.’ Here we have a neat morphophonemic English spelling joke, though doubtless it is dangerously unsynthetic, or even unsympathetic.
Indeed several of these books make great play with rhyme, rhythm and verbal trickery. One such is Will and Squill , illustrated in Emma Chichester Clark’s inimitable style. This book is about the well-known family situation which occurs when children form friendships of which their parents disapprove. Will and Squill first meet when they are very young, and form an instant attachment to one another, but as far as Will’s mother is concerned, Squill is a ‘nasty dirty squirrel’, while Squill’s mother sees Will as a ‘nasty dirty baby’. But the two grow up to be inseparable, in spite of parental displeasure and attempts at subversion. Will and Squill agree to play games together – ‘“Squill will if Will will!” sang Squill’. They eat spaghetti and drink milkshakes. ‘“I love squilletti!” said Squill. “And wilkshake!” said Will.’ Their relationship has its nervous moments, but ‘where there’s a Will there’s a Squill, and where there’s a Squill there’s a Will, and it was better that way’. Good luck with the phonics.
A temporarily mislaid parent forms the theme of Piglet and Mama . One morning in the farmyard, Piglet loses her mama. None of the other animals from whom Piglet seeks help are willing to assist in finding her, being too preoccupied with their own playful activities, which are depicted in lively fashion. Piglet refuses to participate in these distractions, and eventually finds her missing parent, though the reason for the temporary separation is never explained. Had it been so, I think it would have given this book, written by formidable Australian author Margaret Wild, even more point than it has already.
Joseph and his family suffer from serious overcrowding in The Little, Little House , a Jewish folk-tale retold by Jessica Souhami. So Joseph goes to family wise woman Aunty Bella who ‘listened to everyone’s problems and always gave good advice’. Aunty duly provides Joseph with a psychological counselling course, which sorts out Joseph’s mind (rather than the overcrowding). If you are used to folk tales, you will probably be able to predict the ending, but the tale is engagingly told, and enhanced by Jessica’s typically vibrant, puppet-like illustrations. She was a successful puppeteer before she became a picture book maker about 12 years ago, and she has told, or re-told, countless folk-tales from around the world. She believes they survive as fresh as ever because, like The Little, Little House , they have universal truths to tell, and we, and our children, can learn valuable lessons from them.
The two most sophisticated books in this little collection, Three Bears and Hound Dog , are both about enduring friendships. Similar in theme, they are quite different in the way they operate. Brown Bear, injured in the storm, begins to wonder what his two friends, Black Bear and White Bear, are up to while he is left at home in bed; he grows suspicious and suffers a fit of self-imposed jealous rage, but his friends turn out better than he could have hoped. Cliff Wright studied bears in Canada, and the bears in his book are very convincingly painted in this touching story. Like Cliff, David Bedford, author of Hound Dog , has previously also written about bears, but this time his characters are all dogs, apart from one unfortunate cat. Attractively illustrated in cartoon-like style by Melanie Williamson, this is the story of Hound Dog who has to leave his friend Jojo and move from the big city to the country, though in this book it is not conventional British countryside, but Arizona and the Wild West. The two promise to write ‘every day’, and the rest of the story is told in a long series of letters and photographs that they exchange (a wonderful lesson in the purposes of literacy). Needless to say, Hound Dog falls in with the Mean Dog Gang, who are a bad lot out West, and Jojo meets Zoot, a new local dog who has moved into Hound Dog’s old house. You’d expect the worst, but in spite of all, the relationship survives; friendship is quickly reaffirmed, though we are left, rather quietly, somewhat doubtful about the future. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
When you consider that these, admittedly carefully selected, books are but a small proportion of the many high quality books for this age group published this year, then it seems to me that it would be a very great shame if young children missed out on them because of some misguided notion that the words and pictures would be detrimental to their reading. I find myself thinking exactly the opposite. These books, along with their enthusiastic advocates , are the real teachers of reading and of much else about the human condition. This is the main reason why I’ve always preferred the real to the synthetic.
House of Commons (2005) Education and Skills Committee Teaching Children to Read , HMSO, London, April 2005, para.52 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmeduski.htm)
Johnston, Rhona S and Watson, Joyce E (2005) A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment , Edinburgh, Scottish Executive Education Department, February 2005, para.1.7 (The Clackmannanshire Research) (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/ins4-00.asp)
Jones, Sam (2005) ‘Phonics lessons give children three-year reading lead’ in the Guardian , Saturday, 12 February 2005 (p.6)
Macmillan, Bonnie (1997) Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read , Institute of Economic Affairs, London, February 1997, pp 42-43, 49
Macmillan, Bonnie (2005) Synthetic Phonics: The Scientific Research Evidence , Jolly Learning, 2005, p.1 (http://www.jollylearning.co.uk/research2.htm)
Children’s books discussed
Hound Dog , David Bedford, ill. Melanie Williamson, Oxford, 0 19 272567 X, £4.99 pbk
The Little, Little House , Jessica Souhami, Frances Lincoln, 1 84507 108 5, £10.99 hbk
Our Cat Henry Comes to the Swings , Kate Clanchy, ill. Jemima Bird, Oxford, 0 19 272557 2, £4.99 pbk
Piglet and Mama , Margaret Wild, ill. Stephen Michael King, Southwood Books, 1 904700 09 8, £9.99 hbk
Three Bears , Cliff Wright, Templar, 1 84011 545 9, £9.99 hbk
Will and Squill , Emma Chichester Clark, Andersen, 1 84270 382 X, £10.99 hbk
Jeff Hynds is an educational consultant on literacy matters.