Why are education journalists such dupes?
Once again, this time in the pages of the Independent and on the BBC website, education journalists have swallowed the nonsense propagated by ‘literacy experts’ who are calling on the government to abandon the planned tests of reading for six-year-olds.
The opposition to the tests is in truth an attack on the government’s determination to tackle the scandalous problem of illiteracy in this country by making sure that children are taught phonics by the age of five. However, the focus of the attack is on the ‘pseudo words’ or the words that are not really words in the English language (yet anyway!) which comprise one part of the reading test.
The ‘experts’ siren song so far has been to try attract the gullible with claims that because the words aren’t real words, they will confuse children. They see this as the Achilles heel of the government proposal. The Sounds-Write programme has used nonsense words for the past eight years, and, out of eight thousand teaching practitioners trained, not once have we had a single complaint about children becoming confused. If presented as a sort of game and children are told that the words they are going to read are not real words but are made-up or nonsense words, they have no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, they regard it as fun. Not only that, they are amazed and excited by the fact that they can read and spell words they have never seen before.
Non-words aside, what are we trying to achieve by teaching children phonics? We are teaching children how the sounds of their language relate to the spelling system and, in so doing, equipping them to be able to read anything, regardless of whether they recognise the meaning of the word immediately or not.
Much new vocabulary is learnt in context. When an unfamiliar word is decoded (read), the reader uses their contextual knowledge to discern meaning, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Regardless, they need to be able to decode it before meaning can be established.
The arguments put forward by people who obviously have never taught phonics to young children and quite obviously don’t know what they are talking about are specious. Frankly, journalists ought to be making more of an effort to present the other side of the argument by going in to schools and finding out for themselves the merits or demerits of the case in question. If any are listening, I can provide plenty of evidence to demonstrate.