This week’s TES treats us to yet more phonics fantasy, this time in the ‘Comment’ section of the paper.
In a review of the Radio 4 two-part documentary ‘Reading between the lines’ by Michael Morpurgo, Adi Bloom displays the kind of ignorance about phonics and phonics teaching to which the practitioners have become all too fed up with in recent years.
This was my response:
‘It seems to me that if someone is going to take it upon themselves to ‘comment’ on something, they should at least know what they are talking about.
The problem with this week’s ‘Comment’ in the TES is that Adi Bloom obviously doesn’t have the first understanding of what phonics is about. To assert that phonics ‘no use at all for many words in the English language’ betrays rank ignorance about what phonics is and how it is taught.
She claims, for example, that ‘physiognomy’ can’t be sounded out phonically. Can’t it? How about /f/ /i/ /z/ | /ee/ | /o/ | /n/ /o/ | /m/ /ee/? What is the problem with this word? Phis a common enough spelling for the sound /f/; y is also not an uncommon spelling for the sound /i/ in many words derived from Greek; neither is sa peculiar spelling for the sound /z/ – think about the word ‘is’; the letter irepresents the sound /ee/, exactly as it does in ‘ski’ or ‘taxi’; o for /o/ I don’t need to talk about; while gn representing the sound /n/ is something any gnostic writer of reviews ought to know; m for ‘m’ is hardly worth discussing; finally, y for the sound /ee/ is probably the most common way of spelling the sound ‘e’ at the end of words with more than one syllable.
‘Physiognomy’ is a fairly high register word and not one I could see teachers teaching to young children. It contains some complexities, though there isn’t a single one that isn’t part of regular patterns we see in the English language. Besides, flip the question upside down. If you had to spell ‘physiognomy’, you’d have to split it into its syllables and then spell each sound across each syllable until you come to the end.
The trouble is that Adi, as is the case with so many people who write for the TES, doesn’t understand that writing (i.e. spelling) is a symbolic system (there’s that y for /i/ again!). Spellings represent the sounds of the language. Because of the history of the English language, it’s fairly complex to teach but, if you know how it works, most of it can be taught at Key Stage 1, leaving, let’s ‘face’it, more complex elements to Key Stages 2, 3 and 4.
If spellings weren’t assigned to sounds, we wouldn’t be able to write in English any new words that had never been heard before. Sounds are the basis for the writing system; spellings are the writing system! And, until the TES gives space to people who actually teach phonics and understand perfectly how it works and how it should be done, things won’t ever become any clearer.’