Olivia O’Sullivan’s ‘beef’ with synthetic phonics in the ‘Insight’ column of the TES is, she says, after examining ‘hundreds of writing samples’, observing lessons and interviewing teachers and children, that she found that some – she doesn’t say how many – children who had spelling difficulties ‘did not seem to notice many of the visual patterns of English spelling and continued to use a phonetic approach’. She gives as an example Jonathan in Y5, whom she reports as spelling ‘cloak’ as ‘cloack’ and ‘tights’ as ‘tites’.
To begin with, there is nothing at all wrong with using a phonetic approach to the problem of spelling. In fact, there is everything right about using a phonetic approach to spelling. If the person spelling can access the sounds in single-syllable words and syllables and sounds in polysyllabic words and represent them, they stand a chance of making them legible.
Choosing the accepted orthographical spelling is, however, more difficult. How would anyone know how to spell a complex word unless they had already seen it before? For example, in Y7 at my daughter’s school, the pupils were introduced to various species of worms. One was a platyhelminthe. Most adults would be unlikely to spell this word correctly without having at least seen it beforehand and noticed that, for example, the ‘th’ sound is spelt
. In addition, even if one has seen a word before, recalling how to spell it is more difficult than recognising it when one sees it – the psychological imbalance of reading and spelling.
So, as well as learning to blend, segment and manipulate sounds in words, and learning that a sound can be spelt with one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings, the learner also needs to learn the different (orthographical) possibilities for spelling a sound and they need practice – more practice for some, less for others.
That ‘Jonathan’ made the wrong choices in spelling the words above was not, as claimed by O’Sullivan ‘largely a visual issue’. It was an aural and visual issue with significant pedagogical implications. Of course, what she doesn’t also say is how the child was being taught.
There’s much more wrong with the O’Sullivan piece. To pull out one or two things: She seems to believe that ‘most young children use a phonetic approach as a basic early reading strategy in writing and spelling’. They don’t! – unless they are taught. She says ‘older children with difficulties tend to see each word as a separate unit – using “sounding out” as their main strategy for spelling words they don’t know.’ What else would they do if they can’t spell a word?
The imprecision of the language, the lack of basic linguistic knowledge and understanding, and the wilful distortion of what synthetic phonics is for, undermines the credibility of the piece.