Hey Phoebe, leave those phonics teachers alone!

In a piece supoosedly arguing ‘against a phonics versus books stand-off’, yesterday’s Guardian gave space again for Phoebe Doyle, described on their pages as a former primary teacher who now writes on education, parenting and health issues’, to bellyache about how phonics is being used in school. She had previously written ‘Boy-friendly practice is just good teaching’ here, on which I also left a comment.

Although there were things in ‘Hey teacher, leave those books alone!’ with which one could quite happily agree – reading at bedtime is not only great for introducing young children to the pleasures of the text, it is also one of the best times to bond with one’s child – it was also, sadly, a grand gripe about phonics teaching.
In yesterday’s piece, she says, ‘I’m not anti-phonics…It can’t teach though what I want most, for children to have a hunger for books, for books that bequeath knowledge and those which help the mind flourish’.
That’s just where Phoebe couldn’t be more wrong. Does she seriously think that all the teachers working so hard to teach children to read don’t want the children they teach to develop a hunger for books, or to acquire the knowledge and pleasure that books bring? Of course they do. That’s why they’re so passionate about teaching them to read, because they know that if children can’t read, they can’t enjoy books or learn from them!
Lives are blighted by illiteracy, which is why the government is so determined to make sure that all children are taught to read and write at an early age. It’s also why they want to put checks in place to make sure that all schools are making that happen.
When our youngest daughter was three years old, she could recite ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ verbatim and she loved the huge numbers of books and poetry we read to her on a nightly basis. But, she couldn’t read them for herself. So, at age four years, the daily diet included phonics lessons because English is a complex language to learn to read and write in terms of matching the sounds of our language to the way those sounds are spelt in print. For this reason, it takes time and patience to teach and bring a child to fluency.
Now, here’s the thing, Phoebe, good quality phonics teaching – and, you’re right, it’s not all good by any stretch of the imagination – can teach a child to read virtually anything by the time they reach Key Stage 2 at the age of around seven and a half. When a child can read virtually anything and they can do it with fluency, they have direct access to meaning for themselves and it is enjoyable. That’s because they find it easy.
If children find reading difficult, they don’t enjoy it and they don’t practise it. What’s more, they spend so much mental energy trying to read the words on the page that comprehension suffers and unrewarding experiences mount and lead to less involvement in anything to do with reading.
Good teachers provide good quality phonics programmes to teach children to read and, because the activities are not mutually exclusive, they also read good quality literature to children and use it for a wide variety of different purposes.
Thanks yet again to Susan Godsland for drawing my attention to the article.